Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Death of Ivan Illyich

Leo Tolstoi, 1886
Ivan Illyich is a 45 year old magistrate; an ordinary person enjoying his family and social life. He is struck by an unknown disease, and confronted with the agonizing reality of impending demise. The latter half of the novella minutely describes his mental state in the four months when he is hurtled from oblivious normalcy to unceasing suffering. As Tolstoi says, his troubles build up like "a stone accelerating as it falls towards the earth", or in "inverse square to his distance from death". Tolstoi was in his fifties, undergoing a spiritual crisis, but hail and hearty, and the book cannot be based on his own experience. The most intriguing aspect of the story is the sheer ordinariness of Ivan. There is a radical transformation as he confronts the mystery and fear associated with death. Death is a leveler not only subsequently but also in the antecedent experience. To quote a contemporary philosopher;
"Learning, genius, power, wealth, reputation, science, technology --- all become nothing when one is confronted by death. Faced with his end, man finds himself hopelessly overpowered, and there is nothing able to salve his conscience."


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