ad astra per alia porci

the death of ivan ilyich
September 8, 2008, 11:25 am
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,


While it might be exceedingly hard currently to physically travel McCandless’s route through America, I am at least able to trace his literary trail. He read and admired the works of Leo Tolstoy and one book that accompanied him during his wandering was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I fortuitously stumbled upon this book at my local library while browsing and borrowed it after realising its connection with the movie and book I liked.

It is a snappy yet profound read that stirs up much interesting thought about the purpose of life. I am penning some of my thoughts about what I feel the book has to say here.

The past history of Ivan Ilyich’s life was the most simple and ordinary and the most dreadful.

“But how could I have not lived right when I did everything properly?” he said to himself

It occured to him that what had previously presented itself to him as an utter impossibility, the idea that he had lived his life not as he should have done, that this might be the truth. It occured to him that those scarcely noticeable, feeble hints of his of a struggle against what was considered by people in the highest positions to be good, th ehints, scarcely noticeable, which he had immediately driven away from himself – that it was they that might have been genuine, while all the rest might not have been right. His work, his arrangements for life, his family and those interests of society and work – all this might not have been right.

It is human nature to not fully appreciate or think about something until it is on the verge of slipping out of our lives. Ivan Ilyich ponders on his death bed the life that will soon be extinguished, and questions the fruitfulness of his corporal existence.

The parallels that can be drawn between Ivan Ilyich’s life and my life is shocking. Ivan was a lawyer, went to top schools and walked a path of academic excellence and social normality. In other words, he did everything “right”. I daresay that similarities can be found between Ilyich’s life and that of most salaried, “gainfully employed” and law-abiding Singaporeans. More so for supposed “elites” of the education system who took the time-honoured path of least resistance through top schools, prestigious university professional degrees, cushy armchair jobs and happy graves.

What’s similar? Ivan lived a life of unthinking social conformity. As Tolstoy puts it, it was so “ordinary” that it was “dreadful”. He did what society deems to be correct and proper, what is considered high class, with all the trappings of social snobbery. Don’t most of us rats running in the education rat race do the same? We study so hard in order to avoid the stigma of being labelled failures at school. Parents want their children to be in prestigious schools so that they can be paraded like trophies. We strive to earn more and more to gain more and more social status.

What was right to Ivan was what society agrees with. What was tragic was that what society thought was right was actually wrong, worthless and immoral at times. Marriage was considered a rite of passage that everyone should go through. Law school was the de facto route to social recognition and a meaningful life. All this Ivan did, and indeed excelled in, but for what? The trajectory of Ivan’s life is downwards; Ivan muses: “the further from childhood, the nearer to the present, the more worthless and dubious were the joys.” Life got progressively less meaningful as he achieved more and more of what society thinks is good. His marriage was partly to fulfill social expectations. His work as a lawyer was just that, work, and nothing else. The life that Ivan led was an empty kernel, one of form, not substance, and the hollowness of it all troubled Ivan at his deathbed.

Nadine Gordimer opined in the foreword to the book that Ivan was fatally sickened by his times, by the zeitgeist of his age. I disagree. This seems to absolve Ivan of culpability for his pointless life, and fails to recognise the role of free will and Ivan’s tacit approval of societal values. To accept that Ivan has no role is to accept what Sartre terms as “bad faith”: the rejection of one’s absolute free will.

The fact of the matter is that Ivan had a choice. To follow the well-taken but pointless path without circumspection, or to examine his actions at every step with a keen attention. Ivan took the former, and paid the price for it.

Ivan’s life is a warning to those that sleepwalk through life, and lead a life of unexamined monotony. I am guilty of that at times. Now I try to align my actions with a path towards meaning and truth, and to consciously examine the arrangements of my life.


1 Comment so far
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omg i just read the same book. a good read indeed.

Comment by roger

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