"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

We All Die Alone–Ivan Ilyich, The Singularity Of Death And The Irrelevance Of The Past

Ivan Ilyich’s life had been a selfish, ignorant one; and in the hours before his death the realization that his life might not have been a good one was tormenting.

This justification of his life clutched at him, would not let him move forward and tormented him most of all…What was done to him was like what happens on a train, when you think you are moving forward, but are moving backward, and suddenly find out the real direction.

Image result for images the death of ivan ilyich

Letting go – realizing that whether or not he had led a good life or not, it made no difference now. About to die and to face a future more frightening and inescapable than he ever imagined; an unknown that could be an eternal, horrible, nothingness, the past and all that it contained meant nothing.  Despite the solicitude of his family, they were of no relevance now.   They already belonged to an irrelevant, insignificant past.  In fact they had always been supernumerary irritants to be kept in their place, at best social fixtures and at worst clumsy interferers.  He could only feel sorry for them – not sorry for his negligence and their unhappiness, but for their having to put up with his painful, noisy, and agonizing death.

For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. he felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.

Yet, this existential struggle was what death in Tolstoy’s mind was supposed to be.  A fainthearted reliance on the past, a compassionate embrace of his family, a reconstruction of happy memories, were irrelevant.  The issue for Ivan Ilyich was not whether or not he had done right or led a good life, but letting go of it regardless and clearing the way for what was far more important – what came next.  In his final hours, he was released.  The doubts, conflicts, and irresolution of just a few hours before had disappeared.

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Richard ____had at age 70 began ‘clearing the decks for running’.  He, unlike Ivan Ilyich, realized at a relatively early age that friends and acquaintances for all their legitimacy meant less and less as he contemplated his death.  How could anyone offer advice let alone instruction? Anything they might say in consolation or concern would necessarily be based on their own vision of life, death, and whatever followed.  Parentage, genes, social configuration, and birth-to-death trajectory would determine their particular personal insights and ipso facto would be irrelevant for anyone else.

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If not advisory, then, wasn’t friendship a hedge against the loneliness of dying? Images of a tearful, consoling, grieving family and friends around a deathbed were melodramatic creations of Hollywood and romantic fiction.  Would he or anyone be paying attention to them and their grief in the face of extinction?  What would be the meaning of love compared to ‘the black hole’ that awaited?

Facing death alone was not a matter of pride.  He was no existential cowboy and talked little about his increasing, deliberate desire to remove social clutter.  What was the point of discussion which could only be academic and impersonal? He had long settled issues of geopolitics and social justice?   There were no longer any surprises in people’s behavior.  Nations and individuals repeated the past with regularity and predictability.  Human nature guaranteed survival instincts, aggressiveness, and territorialism. Nothing was new except the particular and peculiar ways one repeated the past.  Not only were issues of finality looming, but issues of temporality were increasingly boring as well as irrelevant.

What about humor, congeniality, camaraderie?  Weren’t these important, at least to lighten the load? Wasn’t there time for both reflection and silly jokes? Of course, but the idea of wasting even minutes in the little time remaining to him, was unacceptable. There was no point to reminiscence.  Stories of summers with Granny in Ocean City, trips down the Rhine, camping out, and extended families simply cluttered the room; and when they were finished there was nothing left but bits and pieces to be vacuumed later.

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Richard’s wife became increasingly concerned about what she saw as her husband’s misanthropy.  He was not simply and quietly withdrawing from their former social life.  He was dismissive, rude, and inconsiderate.  It was one thing to refuse dinner invitations from old friends he found tiring and boring; another to criticize them for their dullness.   Most people their age, remarked his wife, were anxious for friends.  Now that children had grown, moved far away, and were occupied with their own family and careers, friends should become more important, not less.  Such inwardness was not healthy.

Surprisingly Richard’s sister felt the same way as he did.  Surprising because she had always been the social sibling, the one who was always surrounded by friends, any excuse for ‘people over for dinner’, little more than Saturday as an excuse for a party.  She was the last person he expected to pull in her horns; and yet that was exactly what she did.  Typically she did so loudly, announcing her intentions.  No to lawn parties, cocktails, birthday dinners, excursions, and incidental lunches.  She was finished, done with it all, and glad of it.

Image result for images 50s dinner party

When they both realized how hermitic they had become, they wondered how they – very different from each other despite being only a few years apart and growing up with the same parents in the same home – had arrived at the same place.  Richard was understandable.  He had always been the serious, intellectual one; but she? Even as a child she was the center of the social circle, arbiter of fashion, boys, and looks; a debutante, a sorority sister, and a Georgetown matron.   In fact because of the institutionalization of her sociability – clubs, garden events, historical tours – her withdrawal was all the more remarkable.

Genes, they concluded, from their mother’s side.  A suspicious and untrusting woman who always assumed the worst.  Friends were necessary accoutrements for her husband’s career.  He, contrary to his wife’s natural misanthropy, was a hale-fellow-well-met and his business in their small town required sociability and good cheer.  Why Richard and his sister had inherited the nasty genes was a matter of little consequence; but thanks to these maternal genes they felt better equipped to deal with old age and death than those friends who had held on to their lives of easy acquaintance and, in the siblings’ opinion, ignorance.

In any case, The Death of Ivan Ilyich was only a story – Tolstoy’s imagined misanthropist and his final encounter with death; and most people, Richard and his sister no doubt included, would hang on to life as long as they could, managing a smile on their deathbed, thankful for friends and family, in no way shameful, but very human.

On the other hand and in any case, Richard felt very, very prepared.

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