Death Is Very Sad

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple but heart-breaking story of a dying man. In this passage, Ivan finds it very hard to translate his far outside view about his death to a near inside view:

Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Such was his feeling.

“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”

He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him. (more)

We could each gain great insight into ourselves if only we could consistently take the features we believe apply to many folks around us, and honestly ask ourselves if they apply to us as well. Folks around us are often boring, failures, irritating, misguided, vain, and, yes, dying. Are we?

In Tolstoy’s story the people around Ivan overwhelming cared about how Ivan’s death would affect them. They were eager to appear like the proper sort of caring person, but in fact didn’t care much. To comfort themselves, they preferred to blame Ivan for his problems, and refused to directly acknowledge that he was in fact dying.

Reading reviews of the story, I find that some (e.g.) also prefer to blame Ivan for his sad death. Tolstoy presents Ivan as a flawed person living a flawed life, and reviewers seem to think that Tolstoy was saying this is why his death was sad. Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Alexis

    A very happy Saturday morning to you too, Mr. Hanson. -_-

  • Brian Mason

    “Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.”
    Not sure this is the best conclusion to draw. We know we’re going to die. It’s in our power to choose how to react to that information. If we choose sadness, it’s because somehow we expect things to be otherwise; the reality is somehow not sufficient or correct. But like I said we know we’re going to die, so any expectation that things will be otherwise is a delusion.

    Someone who recognizes that and accepts that can approach death without being sad, because they aren’t focused so intently on the fiction that they are, or should be, immortal.

  • Faze

    Robin’s right. Tolstoy isn’t making Ivan’s death a punishment for the shallowness of his life. Ivan’s an everyman. Tolstoy makes him self-centered and status conscious because an “everyman” would be both of those things. Not to mention the fact that pretty much everything seems petty and empty in the face of impending annihilation.

    If I were teaching “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” I’d pair it with the short story “I Want to Live!” by Thom Jones — a comparably unflinching stare into the abyss of approaching death, this time through the eyes of an American everywoman (warning: it’ll shiver your timbers).

  • Michael Handy

    But Brian, such an approach essentially divorces emotional response from experienced events. A person who can approach his death, however painful and unwanted, with stoicism or even happiness can approach any other unwanted event with exactly the same emotion, including the pain and suffering of those they care about.

    What are we supposed to feel emotions about, if not the actual consequences of reality. If bad things are happening, we should feel bad about them.

    • VV

       In principle a fully rational agent doesn’t need emotions. All it needs are preferences on achievable future world states. Feeling “bad” about things it can’t change would be pointless.

      Humans, of course, don’t have unbounded rationality. Emotions work both as heuristics for fast decision making and as reinforcement signals for operant conditioning: You spent all the time before the exam playing videogames instead of studying, then you fail the exam and feel sad. In the future you will spend more time studying.

      Humans can also detect emotions in other humans and use them to learn vicariously: John was a smoker. Now he has lung cancer and is dying at the age of 50 and he is very sad. You don’t want to be sad like John so you won’t smoke.

      Emotions aren’t necessarily bad, you don’t have to turn yourself into a “Straw Vulcan” in order to be rational, but you should always keep in mind what emotions are for and try not to be overwhelmed by them.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      What are we supposed to feel emotions about, if not the actual consequences of reality. If bad things are happening, we should feel bad about them.

      Most people are confused regarding how their impending death is bad (for them). Impending death is cause for sadness, just as is aging: both involve a loss of futurity.

      But people are terrified of death because they imagine death is a loss of life. On this point, Epicurus provides the correct perspective; dwelling on it is worthwhile:

      Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

       

      As simple as it is, most people–like Ivan–don’t grasp it. (For the resulting human cowardice, I blame religion–including its latter-day transhumanist version.) 

  • Locaha

    >>>no matter how your life went your death will be sad

    And this is where the stash of drugs that you carefully maintained for exactly this situation comes quite handy.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.

    Both you and these reviewers have it wrong. The extreme sadness of Ivan’s death was neither someone’s fault nor simply inevitable. Tolstoy is indicting the social conventions that prevent people from preparing for death, helping others when they’re dying, and living life genuinely. His main target is the social lie (which you tend to excuse rather than indict because you think they’re inevitable). 

    Two point of direct relevance to this blog:

    1. Ivan couldn’t face death because of terror rather than sadness; everyone around him “lied” by denying that he was dying when in his presence. This trivialized his death, just as cryonics will trivialize yours.

    2. Medical treatment in no way connoted caring. 

  • dmytryl

    This quote somehow reminded me of the quantum and big world immortality rationalizations… nobody seem to even observe a need for chain of logic that leads to immortality but not to the e.g. immunity to concussions.  Perhaps, like Ivan Ilyich they expect to feel mortal, but don’t, and like an anosognosia sufferer, confabulate explanations.