Monday, November 17, 2008

Count Lev Nikolayevich "Deathwatcher" Tolstoy

I finished The Death of Ivan Ilych yesterday.
(I was in front of a fire...in front of a forest).
It's still ringing in my ears...tempting my thought inward and upward.

This is such a bare bones, eerily matter-of-fact, and somber (though never morbid) read. I love the dramatic irony, the telling of death before the telling of a life, which reminds me of our own inevitability of death. I think we often watch our lives like one would watch a movie or read a book - watching things (sometimes mindlessly) unfold right before our eyes, and despite knowing that we will die (and what to do with this knowledge?!), how we go along hoping for a different end somehow. How can we see life with meaning when we know it will end? Honestly, the only answer I have come to lately is art. I think art is the answer. I think leaving behind something that will mark the world with your thumbprint - the original soul work that only you have produced, your words, your paintings, your music, your thoughts, the work of your hands, and even your children. Without these things, I can honestly say that my life would have no meaning.

Ivan Ilych's main struggle is not his eventual demise to death, but the preposterous spiritual and philosophical nagging that tortures him on his deathbed. His internal quandaries eventually lead him to ask the inevitable question, "Have I wasted my life?" Throughout his struggle, he cannot stomach this question, much less the answer, "I have done everything society expects of me. I have worked hard, provided for my family, remained virtuous..." and because of these answers, the question of waste continues to nag him. He is entirely sure that he could not have lived his life any differently.

Until the very end. He finally ultimately sees that his life was wasted, unexamined, unfruitful.

In the edition I read, Ronald Blythe writes an especially enlightening introduction that examines this existential dilemma. Where Ivan Illych is surprised and offended at his physical death and spiritual nagging, Blythe tells the reader of this contradiction with the writer himself. He calls Tolstoy a "deathwatcher." Tolstoy never wanted to be surprised by death and even worse, never wanted to be nagged by spiritual questions at the end. He wanted to live his life - every moment - to the fullest.

In this foil of Ivan Ilych to Leo Tolstoy I find immense challenge.
Taken from Wikipedia

Tolstoy obviously thought little of men who lived with no intentionality towards a spiritual life, yet the opposite of this is Tolstoy's obsessive observations of death and decay. I see flaw in too much of either ideology, but I certainly can identify to Tolstoy's death watching.

Sometimes, it all seems so absurd.
This life.
We all struggle and fight and love and die.
I know I will find magic in all of those nooks...
But today,
it all seems like a big funny joke.
There is plenty of hope in the afterlife.
But hope for this life is a struggle for me.
Some call it enlightened.
Some call it cynical.
But my faith never has been and never will be simple.

All I know about faith and hope is that we all
die
trying.

And damn it,
I will suck every fucking ounce of meaning out of this life.
Even if it kills me.
Which it will.

morosely yours,
madame bookling

2 comments:

Iscah Mara said...

then, meaning is touching the eternal through art before death, but in the contented mindfulness sans morbid obsession over its coming.

i am moved, naturally, by the question of the work of my hands. the meaning i have held tightly thus far abides in these touches: the people i have loved, the words i have spoken/written/prayed/sung/whispered, the bosom i have shared, the academia i have challenged, the people i have taught/inspired/protected/admonished, and the gift of a generosity of heart to all (ok, most) i meet.

thank you for your stirring, mon coeur.

catholicbeer said...

fucking beautiful. Turns out you are still teaching.. passion is your art my love, morose or otherwise... Meaning flows from you to the pages on which you pour yourself..