ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After 36 years as a counsellor and psychotherapist (existential-humanistic orientation), the first few in a maximum-security mental hospital, the last 27 at Brandon University, Bruce recently retired to Winnipeg, Canada and to playwriting. He is currently working on three plays, "Freud's Navel" about the last days of Freud's life; an adaptation of Sartre's "The Wall" in which prisoners deal with imminent death by firing squad; and a play in which the son and daughter of a comatose father argue over medical ethics and personal antipathies. Bruce welcomes discussion and can be reached at
The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate to powers beyond itself. It has to trash around in its finitude, it has to "die," in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it. (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 89)
Kierkegaard (1849/1980) called them “immediate men.” In this era, existential thinkers, among them James Bugental (1965) and Ernest Becker (1973) have called “inauthentic” those people whose lives are, at root, artificial and false.
Some of the existential philosophers, prime among them Heidegger (1962), posit that inauthenticity begins in avoidance and denial of death. When people dissociate themselves from their own mortality so that death becomes an abstract and foreign concept, inauthenticity spreads. Defined a number of ways, inauthenticity reliably refers to lives lived in accordance with social conditioning. People are inauthentic who, following others’ dictates, relinquish responsibility for their lives. People are inauthentic who naively invest in the games that society promotes. People are inauthentic who don’t think for themselves but instead feel compelled to imitate others. People are inauthentic who only know themselves through external signs and judgments.
In inauthenticity, wrote Kierkegaard (1849/1980), we do one or both of two things. We either immerse ourselves in ephemeral things and momentary worldly pleasures, or we hold to faith-based, often artificial, beliefs in our immortality in the afterlife. No matter the paths by which we attempt to deny death, in our development as individuals and in our relationships with others, Becker (1973) concluded that none of them enable us to find healthy authenticity. All of them lead to neurotic anxiety, for the more we try to deny death, the more that anxiety and neuroses result.
Healthy authenticity is not just the recognition of our mortality. Nor is it just understanding that our lives are bounded by death. It is our readiness to live our lives in the light of (ever-imminent) death. Said Kierkegaard (1849/1980), to be authentic we must accept responsibility for life structured and informed by the fact of our finitude. If we manage to do that, if we meet death head-on death and are continuously attentive to it, we will be freed from the need to conform to social standards and from anxiety over trivial matters (Heidegger, 1956).
Most of us, however, flee into inauthenticity, in the manner of Iván Ilych. No other work of fictional literature has more savagely and more decisively disparaged the inauthentic life than The Death of Iván Ilych (Jarrell, 1965, pp. 239-40). But Tolstoy’s existential novella does that and more. As we encounter the inauthentic, terribly sad life of Iván Il_ch and are open to it, we are likely to become disturbed to see the extent to which inauthenticity pervades our own lives.
“Iván Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” (1958, p.10) Terrible for Ilych. Of course, that’s what he means. But because we have so much in common with Il_ch, it can be agonizing for us as well. We know that inauthenticity is something from which we also have been hiding, something that we have not been able to face. Like Ilych, we have tried to look away and have attempted to deny that we, too, have been leading inauthentic lives. We have wanted to quash the recognition of our falseness and to retreat to things more pleasant.
We dispute the story’s application to our own lives, pointing to whatever exaggerations we are able to find in Tolstoy’s account of Ilych’s life, locating those ways in which our life is different than Ilych’s, trusting that our path toward death will be different than his. Still, nothing helps. Tolstoy’s The Death of Iván Ilych will not let us retreat easily, said Randall Jarrell (1965):
. . . reading The Death of Iván Ilych, for anyone who has been badly ill, badly in pain, is like being deported to a country one has lived in for a long time and hoped to forget the existence of. The story is a snake left in our path, our only path, and it has the snake's quivering tongue, the snake's gleaming and mechanical coils. The story itself is like Iván Il_ch’s ‘old, familiar, dull, gnawing pain, stubborn and serious’; like the death Ivan cannot look away from . . .. (p. 257)
The Death of Iván Ilych begins at its end. In the opening chapter, the author focuses on the various, but always shallow, responses to news of Ilych’s death. When they learn of it, Ilych’s associates and friends give little or no thought to his life and its meaning. Their first thoughts, entirely selfish ones, are about who will fill the distinguished position left open by his death: Judge within the Court of Justice. What they really want to know is how his death will affect their own lives or those of their acquaintances within the same department.
Even his closest friend, Peter Ivánovich, is incapable of responding with any depth to Ilych’s life. In talking to Praskóvya Fëdorovna, Ilych’s widow, he merely gestures for show, sighs and repeats the insipid words: “Believe me . . .” Of course, he means to indicate that he identifies with her pain, that he sympathizes with her, but we know that he has no genuine sympathy or understanding. Ivánovich is little more than idly curious about Ilych, and even then, only in relation to the disturbing details of the last agonizing weeks of the poor man’s life.
Perhaps Ilych’s wife reacts more emotionally than his associates and friends, but, even so, the emotions are false and affected. She is no less self-centred. As she contends with the practical matters of funeral and estate, she is more concerned about maintenance of propriety and property than she is with what poor Ilych suffered. In fact, she is much more concerned with the effects of his anguished death on her nerves than on what it did to him. One would think hearing her that the torment he endured was insignificant compared to hers: “Oh, what I have suffered! . . . how hard it is! How terribly, terribly hard!” (1958, p.9) All told, the people affected by Ilych’s death are a pathetic lot, for the most part devoid of sincere compassion and genuine empathy, but rather, full of self-interest and pompous demonstration.
Death is something that happens to others, in this case Ilych, but not to Peter Ivánovich and the others: “‘it is he who is dead, not I.’ . . . each one thought or felt, ‘Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!’” (1958, p. 4) It is fundamentally irrelevant to them. Not only does it fail to elicit any compassion for a deceased colleague or for the Ilych family, it lends no impetus to change in their lives. Having paid his obligatory respects and expressed his vacant condolences to Praskóvya Fëdorovna, Peter Ivánovich, figuring he hasn’t missed too much of it, makes his way to a bridge game.
Having shown us the empty responses to Ilych’s death, Tolstoy offers us a marvellously succinct overview of the man’s life, at least the facts we typically attend to in obituaries and that would have us believe that we have grasped the life’s essence. We learn that Ilych’s childhood was not particularly unusual. Perhaps because he was a middle child, he strove more than his older and younger brothers. Probably meant as a compliment, people called him the “le phénix de la famille,” (1958, p. 11) a prediction that he would reach lofty heights and that, at the same time, served to distinguish him from his less upwardly mobile siblings. If we judge by the position Ilych occupied and by the well-adorned home in which he lived, it would appear to have been a reasonably successful life. Certainly, most of Ilych’s peers would have thought it so.
But, outward appearances tell an entirely inadequate tale. Ilych’s life had been hollow and inauthentic. Despite some small degree of stature that suggested professional successes, despite his pride in the way he had decorated his home, there was little to prize or respect in Ilych’s life. His professional successes were gained through personal connections and luck, not through competence or achievement. Some of his work colleagues may have liked him, but not enough to visit him during his extended illness. Nor did they care enough for him to visit his family after he had died. Ilych’s relationships with his wife and his son, his daughter and her fiancé, were, as well, terribly impoverished. He meant little to them beyond the money and position he provided them.
A marvellous encounter in the first chapter of the story excellently illustrates the shallowness of the life led in accord with the principle of “comme il faut,” (1958, p. 13), one of the French sayings fashionable in Russia at the time. Praskóvya Fëdorovna, Ilych’s widow, draws Peter Ivánovich, fresh from his gestures, sighs and “believe me’s,” aside to talk, presumably to garner from him some sympathy as well as some advice on how to get more pension monies from the government. Once in the room, he chooses to sit on a “low pouffe” chair which happens to have particularly robust springs. Under his weight, the springs go down well enough, but the moment he rises, they pop up to give him a push on his bottom. This happens several times as he attempts to help Ilych’s widow disentangle her shawl; it keeps getting caught on, then, freed from, the carved edge of a table. He can’t quite get to her in time to help and then, when he is seated again, her shawl gets hooked once more. Finally, completely freed, she sits down and weeps. Peter, his ardour for the widow cooled by the events, sits with a sullen look on his face. The story provides some comic relief; but, that is unlikely to have been Tolstoy’s only intention. The story gently mocks the pretensions to formal courtesies and decorum by which the two are guided in circumstances that call for a lack of affectation and unselfish sincerity. Peter Ivánovich’s visit of condolence is, as Randall Jarrell puts it, an “overture in the key of falsehood.” (1965, p. 263)
The latter half of the novella concerns Ilych’s deep suffering leading up to his death. Ilych attributes his condition to a fall from a ladder in which he knocked his side against a knob. At first, he thinks the only consequence to have been a bruise. But, soon the pain worsens; he suspects that something more happened to him in the fall, and so, consults a physician. The doctor is elusive and indifferent and not at all helpful. Ilych leaves the office without having gained answers as to the seriousness of his condition. Fearing the worst, he feels depressed, and the world looks particularly dismal. The ache becomes more and more pronounced over time, eventually interfering severely with his ability to participate in life. So, he seeks advice from several more doctors, including a homoeopathist. He briefly considers, and then rejects, the idea of seeing a faith healer.
None of the doctors he consults offer him much in the way of help or compassion. Some are condescending: “Yes, you sick people are always like that. . . .” (1958, p. 42) Some are deceptive. But, all of them, on the basis of crude conjecture, are perfectly willing to offer up conceited pronouncements with respect to the illness. None of the diagnoses and their accompanying prescriptions makes any difference whatsoever. Ilych’s efforts to have the pain treated are all to no avail. In efforts to alleviate his great discomfort, he is compelled to lie endlessly in his bed, then later, on his sofa, facing the back of it. The only thing that seems to help is to have his legs up, way up. After a time, even that makes no difference. And, as his death grows nearer, even the painkilling drugs have minimal effect.
Ilych’s efforts to find solace or comfort from his family are just as futile as his search for a medical remedy. None of his family, with the possible exception of his very young son, has patience with him in his suffering. They view his condition as an inconvenience to their own lives. They even go so far as to blame him for its inception. The only person from whom he receives some care and help is a peasant boy, Gerásim, who has been engaged to attend to his needs. Gerásim not only ensures that Ilych’s basic physical needs are met; he also goes out of his way to make Ilych more comfortable. He holds Ilych’s feet up on his shoulders for extended periods of time. And, he willingly listens to Ilych who, struggling with the meaning of his condition and his life more generally has no one else with whom he can talk. Gerásim feels for Ilych and tries to understand what he is going through.
Gerásim symbolizes the simple truth of peasant life. While he feels pity for his weakened and dying boss, he refrains from lying to him about his condition. On one occasion, as Ilych was sending him away, he quietly said: “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” (1958, p. 39) Having accepted the fact of death, his own as well as others, he does not think of his work as onerous. Perhaps he hopes that he might be treated with the same kind of care and compassion when he is in a comparable state. Gerásim is especially important to Il_ch because, alone among the people in his life, Gerásim is not prone to engage in empty acts and to hold inauthentic attitudes. And, the flip side is also true: only with Gerásim can Ilych act the way he really wants to act. He longs to weep and to be comforted as he does so; but, when others visit, he is compelled to assume his usual demeanour, full of the falsity and the inauthenticity that has shaped and ruled his life.
The story’s real significance lies in Ilych’s crisis of existential angst, for he suffers not only the physical pain of the affliction, but also the devastating psychological distress over what he had made of his life by living in falsity and inauthenticity. While his angst, no doubt, is brought on by the dreadful physical pains, and most likely, would not have occurred without them, it is much more than mere side effect. As he faces his life and the lack of meaning in it, his angst is more and more, the most critical issue, eventually becoming his chief torture. Il_ch is compelled to come to terms with it even as he contends with the extraordinary physical pain that seizes his attention.
Ilych has, Tolstoy both tells and shows us, lived “comme il faut.” What that means, in essence, is that he conducted his life the way people were expected to; he has lived the way he and others thought he “ought” to live. In the main, he has measured himself against contrived social norms and expectations. He was particularly good at it. In social circles, he was known to be amusing and witty, correct in his manners and good-natured. People were impressed that he behaved with dignity, both in relation to his superiors and to those who were inferior in status to him. He was recognized as one who had rigorously practised his lawyer’s profession, who was well-regarded, who had risen up the ranks to a position of great responsibility within the Court of Justice. People knew that he did his job with fastidious attention to detail and with an honesty of which he could be particularly proud.
Ilych had married well enough. At least, his associates thought it the right thing to do, although he, himself, estimated that he could have done better. Ilych certainly did not marry for love, and any happiness that the relationship brought him diminished soon after he and his wife had settled down following the excitement of their wedding. He found that his wife disturbed the pleasure of his life in so many ways and so greatly that it became necessary for him to secure some independence and distance, the more the better, from married life to restore it. In fact, he was always happiest when he and his wife were apart, aggravated and depressed when they were together. His children meant little or nothing to him; one who died was not missed; the other two hardly meant any more to him. He immersed himself in the satisfactions of his official work, in planning the decorations and in purchasing furniture and accessories for a new house, in the amusements of various social activities, chats, dinners and bridge, in reading popular books and documents from his work. He did anything that managed to keep him from having to face and come to terms with the misery in his unsatisfactory marriage, and with the fact that his identity had been determined by the principle of “comme il faut,” to be guided by and measured against social standards. For all of his adult years, he hid from the insignificance and the lack of meaning in his existence.
The repercussions from his living “comme il faut” were widespread and filled with some urgency. With each increase in pain, and with the growing realization that he was moving inexorably toward death, toward the possibility of an ending bereft of significance, he had to deal with the onset of more and more despair and dread within himself. This often caused him to see the world and his particular circumstances in it as absurd and unfair. But, it also prompted him to begin to process his life in a more authentic way. He began to see that he could no longer hide behind the inauthentic patterns that sprang from “comme il faut.”
But first, Ilych had to arrive at, and then, grapple with, an incontrovertible conclusion that he would die, that he was dying, for challenges to his inauthenticity would not happen without his having reconciled himself to that fact. He came to it by considering what he had learned from this syllogism found in one of his school texts, Kiezewetter’s book of formal logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” (1958, p. 34) Basically, Ilych said something like this to himself:
“Alright, the syllogism is talking about men in the abstract sense. It may work well for Caius and for men generally, but it doesn’t make sense for me. It doesn’t make sense for the little Vanya, the “bon enfant” that I was and, in some ways, still am. It doesn’t make sense for this Iván Il_ch with all of my special and personal memories and thoughts and emotions. I, Iván Il_ch, cannot die. And, besides, if I was going to die, wouldn’t something inside me have told me before that I was like Caius and other men, subject to the same principles, the same syllogisms? Wouldn’t I have been making better preparations for death?”
Although he attempted to hide from the inescapable determination, to screen himself from the inevitable conclusion that he, too, would die, he could not. All of his desperate efforts to hide from the fact of his finitude failed. “It” (the conclusion that he would die) would no longer stay veiled. “It” met him at every turn; “It” would not let him off the hook until he acknowledged and acceded to “It.”
One night, when the pain was particularly intense, and nothing worked to alleviate it, Ilych did a detailed inventory of his life. He started by asking himself the question: “What is it you want?” and heard this answer from a calmer place within himself, “Why, to live as I used to --- well and pleasantly.” (1958, p. 47) But, as he evaluated the answer, he realized that “well and pleasantly” did not suffice. In fact, he discovered that what things he had thought to be pleasant and, therefore, had wanted -- a wife, official life and money -- were, after a point, all burdens and sources of aggravation instead of pleasure. In light of this realization, he thought: “It is as if I had been going downhill while I had imagined I was going up. . . . I was going up in public opinion but to the same extent that life was ebbing away from me.” (1958, p. 48) If that was true, he reasoned, his life had been senseless and absurd. Had he not done what he was supposed to do? Had he not lived according to what he and others in his circle thought were both appropriate and necessary standards for behaviour? He had done just that only to have everything end in anguish. Something was terribly wrong and no matter how he came at it, he heard no satisfactory answer. Instead he heard, from a voice within, another question which until that point had been quite inadmissible to his conscious thought: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” (1958, p. 51) Yes, he bravely reasoned, it was entirely possible that his professional activities, his family life, his social interests might all have been false. But, if he was too near death to change his life, what then? Again, there was no answer. But, that same day, when he found that his wife’s presence was especially galling to him, he had this compelling revelation: “This (way of living) is wrong, it is not as it should be. All you have lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you.” (1958, p. 52)
For the three days that followed, he screamed ceaselessly. He knew that death was imminent; and he grasped that he was a lost soul. There was no doubt of it in his mind: there was no recovery, no answer, no possible significance to his life. And yet, though he knew that it was completely futile to do so, he was still struggling to recover significance from his past, to find some remnant of good in the way he had lived, to uncover some semblance of meaning. In the moment that he saw that, he knew that he had to give up the struggle, to quit trying in all ways, to find significance in his life to that point. He knew that, instead, he had to face the deep and complete blackness of his entire adult life; he had to accept the idea that there was no possible justification for the way in which he had lived; he had to give up all striving to find and pull out such justification. What had kept him from doing this was what remained, by virtue of a longstanding and enduring pride, of his conviction that his life had been a good one. Once he gave up the notion that he had led a good life, he could address the obvious implication: he needed to change. This understanding was a revelation; it totally altered everything. His attitude, his demeanour were quickly and dramatically transformed.
He stopped screaming. And then, the thought: “Yes, it (his life path) was not the right thing . . . but that’s no matter.” (1958, p. 53) When his son and, then, wife came to visit him in the agony of his last few hours, when he saw that both were crying in sympathy for him, he suddenly “caught sight of the light,” (1958, p. 53) and he grasped that though his life had not been what it should have been, things could still be remedied. He asked himself this question, “What is the right thing?” (1958, p. 54) then listened to the inner voice that had gained his increasing confidence. The answer was there: compassionate forgiveness. He felt for others for the first time; specifically, he felt deeply sorry for both his son and wife whose lives had been made miserable by his distress, perhaps by the way in which he had lived in relation to them. Then, he seems to have realized that actions may speak louder than words. He had to do something to show he regretted things and knew that what he had to do was release them from their misery. Despite his much weakened condition, he indicated, by waving to Praskóvya Fëdorovna, that she should send the poor child away so that he would not have to suffer so much. He said to her: “Take him away . . . sorry for him. . . . sorry for you too. . . .” (1958, p. 54) And, for the first time in ages, he did not dismiss his wife, he didn’t respond to her in bitterness and anger. Quite the contrary, he attempted to say the words “forgive me” to her, though they came out in the interesting mutation, “forego.” (1958, p. 54) Acting in this compassionate manner seems to have freed him from the horrible sufferings he had been experiencing. The pain immediately subsided. Although it was still there in a diminished form, he was able to put it in perspective, “. . . what of it. Let the pain be.” (1958, p. 54) And, death? Well, death, having been faced, no longer had any hold over Ilych. He felt no fear of it, for death was, as he put it, “finished.” And, on that note, he died.
His story of Iván Ilych had much more than passing significance to Tolstoy, for it undoubtedly was a story of his own life, a fictional way of expressing what he himself had been through. It both followed and preceded personal and philosophical essays, “My Confession” and “Life,” both of which give us helpful insight into the issues with which he was dealing, and which he quite likely expressed in the story of Iván Il_ch’s life and death.
In “Life,” (1899a) published the year after The Death of Iván Ilych, Tolstoy outlined his contention that the human being simultaneously exists in two interconnected spheres, each of which inhabits a portion of the whole self. One portion is the physical sphere associated with the human being-as-body. This portion seeks to enhance its status through worldly and material accomplishments. The other portion is the immaterial/spiritual which pays attention to the needs of the individual human soul. Tolstoy believed that these two portions of the individual self are engaged in a competition for influence over the person’s life. The result is that much of the human being’s time and energy may be spent in a struggle for dominion between the two spheres. The fictional story of Iván Ilych, arguably, highlights that struggle in almost exactly the way that Tolstoy outlined it in the more philosophical format. We can see both portions of the self in their battle for Ilych’s soul. Having lived almost entirely within the material/physical sphere, Ilych’s life was out of balance, fundamentally inauthentic for having been formed in accordance with the “comme il faut.” He had lived his life as though in a mirror; all the usually used measures said he was doing well, and so, he concluded that he must be. How he had lived seemed to be good and proper and worthwhile. In having to face the fact of his death, in the crisis precipitated by his great suffering, his conclusions about his life were ripe for the doubts and challenges coming from the spiritual portion of his self. Those doubts and challenges addressed Iván’s inauthenticity, bred by his having ignored the call of his soul, the call to live a life of his choosing. The voice of the spiritual portion persisted in its efforts, pressing its doubts, its questions and its challenges on a dominant portion accustomed to blocking and stifling them. It pressed him further and further into the blackness of his ways until, in his waning hours, Il_ch broke through and saw the “light,” fully recognizing the error of his life’s ways. As soon as he did so, the spiritual portion rose to the fore and enabled Ilych to act in ways that had previously been foreign to him. Despite his greatly diminished strength, acting out of the spiritual portion of his self, with sincere, compassionate concern for his wife and son, he apologized and asked for their forgiveness.
The idea of the self divided into two competing parts is expressed in both the philosophical and fictional venues. How he came to this idea is, perhaps, best expressed in “My Confession,” (1899b) first published seven years prior to The Death of Iván Ilych. Here, Tolstoy expressed grave doubts about what he had steadfastly believed up to that point. As with Ilych, he called into question the foundation of much of his existence. He reviewed, in a powerfully critical way, the wealth of precepts and notions that had formed the basis of his essential beliefs and moreover, informed and guided his life; no notion, no practice was immune to his scrutiny. Also, as with his Il_ch, he had to experience his own version of a black sack before he could emerge to see the light; he had to face a full assault on what he had taken for granted to be a securely positive life to that point:
. . . these questions presented themselves to my mind with ever increasing frequency, demanding an answer with still greater and greater persistence, and like dots grouped themselves into one black spot. (1899b, p. 12)
It didn’t happen all at once. To begin, he could discount symptoms of suffering as insignificant indisposition; that is, he could simply ignore them. But, as in Ilych’s case, things persisted, the symptoms growing in frequency and severity, until they could no longer be ignored. And then, beyond that, they continued until they reached the threshold necessary for them to coalesce in “uninterrupted suffering.” (1899b, p. 12) At this point, besieged by his anguish, Tolstoy realized that what he had taken to be simple indisposition was, in fact “. . . more important to him than anything else on earth, that is death!” (1899b, p. 13) As Luther might have put it, he had “tasted” death as though it were present, or as Ernest Becker phrased it, “with the lips of [his] living body.” (1973, p.88)
To question and review the course of his life, to recognize the fact of his finitude, was a task from which Tolstoy had previously hidden. But, now, in the midst of his anguished sufferings, he tells us, he could no longer continue to do so.
I became aware that this was not a chance indisposition, but something very serious, and that if all these questions continued to recur, I should have to find an answer to them. The questions seemed so foolish, so simple, so childish; but no sooner had I taken hold of them and attempted to decide them than I was convinced . . . that they were neither childish nor silly, but were concerned with the deepest problems of life. (1899b, p. 13)
His doubts were similar in form and content to those that Ilych experienced; they challenged his very being and his every way of being. Even his religious beliefs. Tolstoy was prepared to look with a critical eye at the writings of the church in which he had spent his adult years.
I ceased from this time to doubt, and became firmly convinced that not all was truth in the faith I had joined. . . . I was thus, whether I would or not, brought to the study and analysis of these writings and traditions, a study which up to that time I had feared, and I turned to the study of theology, which I had once thrown aside with such contempt as useless.” (1899b, p. 71)
As with Ilych, the consequences of doubting were devastating. Tolstoy felt that the terrain on which he stood was collapsing, that there was nothing, no ground, on which he could stand, that his goals in life were all for naught. He felt, in sum, that he had no reason for living.
The truth was, that life was meaningless. Every day of life, every step in it, brought me, as it were, nearer the precipice, and I saw clearly that before me there was nothing but ruin. And to stop was impossible; to go back was impossible; and it was impossible to shut my eyes so as not to see that there was nothing before me but suffering and actual death, absolute annihilation. (1899b, p. 14)
All he saw no matter how he looked at it, and he could not help but look and see, was blackness, devoid of hope, without possibilities. His life was going nowhere good; he could see nothing before him other than suffering and death -- an utterly final and complete end devoid of any happiness or satisfaction. This, despite the fact that his life had previously seemed to him, and continued to appear to others, to be anything but unhappy and unsatisfying. He had a good and loving wife, good children, and a large estate that was continuing to increase in size. He had the respect of friends and acquaintances, the praise of strangers; great renown attached to his name. He had both mental and physical strength, which he guessed to be unusual among people in circumstances similar to his own. These, then, were hardly conditions in which he should have come to feel that he had nothing to look forward to other than his total annihilation. In fact, one would imagine such conditions to have had just the opposite effect; we would have guessed from such information that he would be in love with his life, a thoroughly contented person, that he would be looking forward with some eagerness to new experiences and to life generally. And yet, to the contrary, matters had advanced to such a state that he felt himself to be moved by the dark force of dread death.
. . . I, a healthy and a happy man, was brought to feel that I could live no longer, --- some irresistible force was dragging me onward to escape from life. . . .
The force that drew me away from life was stronger, fuller, and more universal than any wish; it was a force like that of my previous attachment to life, only in a contrary direction. (1899b, p. 14)
It made no sense that this was happening to him, but that’s the way it was; it couldn’t be denied or stopped.
Tolstoy, again like Ilych, had to make some sense of his condition. His first impulse, reasonable considering the contrast between what should have been and what actually were his feelings, was to wonder if his life was a foolish and wicked deception, an absurd joke perpetrated by some malicious god. He had, it seemed to him, been deceived. What had previously appeared to be a sweetness of life was, in fact, just illusion. There was no meaning in his life to that point: “my position was stupid and desperate. . . . I knew that life was meaningless and terrible.” (1899b, p. 18) He expected that, in the end, nothing but the bitter suffering of his death awaited him.
Ilych, we saw, finding himself in similar straits, continued to work at things even though nothing seemed to help; in fact, only ever-deeper despair resulted. So too, was it with Tolstoy. In spite of his better judgment, he kept trying to find a way back to a solid ground, to a certainty of meaning. It didn’t work, and even seemed to make things worse.
But I was like a man lost in a forest, and who, terrified by the thought that he is lost, rushes about trying to find a way out, and, though he knows each step leads him still farther astray, cannot help rushing about.
It was this that was terrible! . . . (1899b, p. 19)
And, he considered suicide. But, before attempting the deed, he reviewed his state, what he had arrived at, searching for any errors that might have influenced his considerations. “‘But is it possible that I have overlooked something, that I have failed to understand,’ I asked myself; ‘may it not be that this state of despair is common among men?’” (1899b, p. 19) Perhaps, he reasoned, others had struggled with the same questions concerning the nature and meaning of life and had come to an answer. Yes, others had struggled similarly, asking fundamental questions: “What is life? . . . Why should I live? why should I wish for anything? why should I do anything?” (1899b, p. 20), but none had arrived at answers that were in any way satisfactory to Tolstoy: “. . . however I examine and twist the speculative replies of philosophy, I never receive an answer to my question.” (1899, p. 25)
All of his straining to find answers to fundamental questions concerning life’s meaning and purpose were to little avail; death continued to be preferable to life: “All is vanity. A misfortune to be born. Death is better than life; life’s burden must be got rid of.” (1899b, p. 33). Tolstoy realized that another approach to these matters would be required. He looked among his peers and found that they managed the terrible state in which they found themselves with four, and only four, distinct kinds of escapes. Some managed the state with ignorance, that is, by failing to perceive and understand that life is evil and absurd. Of course, that did not work: Tolstoy could not unlearn what he already knew, he could not shut his eyes to the truth of things, and so, this path was of no value to him. A great many people within his class and culture managed things with an Epicurean lifestyle, that is, by accentuating activities that generated their personal happiness; Tolstoy thought such people to be governed by dullness of imagination. Besides, he could not pretend the way they did that there was only happiness when he knew the indisputable facts of old age, suffering and death; and so, he also rejected this path. The third escape route, a way of strength and energy, was the one to which Tolstoy was attracted: it essentially consisted in destroying life when it was perceived to be an evil and an absurdity; this was the path of suicide. In accepting that life was both evil and absurd, it ended it. A fourth class of people basically approached these matters with weakness or by allowing evil and absurdity of life to continue unchallenged despite their awareness of it. That was the class of people to which Tolstoy had belonged. He wanted things to be otherwise when he knew there to be better options than the path of weakness; yet, he remained in the state. He carried on; he continued to live as he had. And, he continued to seek for the error in his thinking.
This is the black-and-white, either/or position to which he came: by virtue of the fact that all his reasoning efforts had failed to establish meaning and to rid him of the awareness that life was evil and absurd, he would have to revoke further efforts to find meaning through reason. Instead, he would invest himself in a faith that denied the evidence of his senses but which made more sense of things. He attempted to summarize what he understood:
(1) . . . that life is an evil, and yet we live. This is clearly foolish, because if life is foolish, and I care so much for reason, life should be put an end to, and then there would be no one to deny it.
(2) . . . However much and however well we reason, we get no answer to our question; . . . consequently our method is probably wrong.
(3) . . . that in the answers given by faith was to be found the deepest source of human wisdom, that I had no reasonable right to reject them on the ground of reason, and that these principle answers alone solved the problem of life. (1899b, p. 47)
Armed in this way, Tolstoy began his search for religious principles in which he could invest his faith. After numerous forays into the precepts of various religions, he found his answer in the Christian beliefs of the poor, the simple, and the ignorant, the pilgrims, the monks and the peasants. What appealed to him most was the integrity of their faith. The way in which they managed their lives was a confirmation of the meaning given them by their deep faith; it was not, as it tended to be for the people of his own social class, a superfluous addendum to their lives. Their faith gave them meaning and the possibility of living, not in spite of, but rather, in light of the hardships they suffered, in an acceptance of the undeniable facts of suffering and death, evil and absurdity with which they knew life to be imbued. Tolstoy had found the Gerásim of his own life. He began to grow attached to the people, to learn about them, their lives, their faith, and the more he learned, the more he liked what he experienced, “the easier I felt it so to live.” (1899b, p. 51)
In The Death of Iván Ilych Ilych realized that it was not enough to think differently in accordance with principles; he had to put the principles to work in his life. So too, was it with Tolstoy. He knew that he had to live the principles: “I understood that, if I wished to understand life and its meaning, I must live, not the life of a parasite, but a real life.” (1899b, p. 54) And what was that? As he sought the God of his faithful resolve, he came to the conclusion that he was not likely to experience God in an abstract, theoretical way, but only in the living. So, he reasoned, he must live in search of God and then, life will not be without God. And, just as Il_ch had found, in the moments preceding his death, a peace of mind in the “light,” so Tolstoy found in actually living a principled and faith-based life, “the vital force renewed” (1899b, p. 59) in himself.
Tolstoy’s own life perfectly parallels The Death of Iván Ilych, the story of how Ilych, whose life had been lived in “comme il faut” inauthenticity, is pushed, by his great suffering, into the black sack of death-ridden angst and, then, toward revelatory truth. After seeing him through such terrible tortures and his fierce struggle in the midst of them, some readers are quite prepared to buy the story’s miraculous finale, even the idea that death was “finished.” Those readers who can, with Tolstoy, imagine the light on the other side of the black sack, the life that arises out of an authentic response to death, may believe that it is possible for human life to emerge, from conditions of falseness with respect to life and death, into a truly healthy, authentic way of being.
In The Denial of Death (1973) particularly in his chapter on Kierkegaard, Ernest Becker described the process through which (as I see it) both Tolstoy and Ilych passed. He argued that a person who has not seen through fictitious health to the sickness inherent in living inauthentically, who has not confronted his way of being a “normal cultural man,” cannot achieve any measure of real mental health. So it was with both Ilych and Tolstoy, both “normal cultural” men who believed themselves healthy, but who, in fact, had lived falsely and inauthentically within a chimerical framework.
“Real” mental health is not, Becker explained, the normative condition that we experience in most other people and that we typically, often incorrectly, view as a state of well-being. “Real” mental health is, rather, a state that is achieved as the person somehow moves beyond the frames in which he or she has been encapsulated. It is a state that exists at a new and higher level than the one in which the individual had lived, where the self that the individual had been is eclipsed: “The ‘healthy’ person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the ‘real’ man, is the one who has transcended himself.” (Becker, 1973, p. 86)
Becker’s description of the process that leads to such a state parallels what we have witnessed in Tolstoy’s own life as well as in that of Iván Ilych. The process starts, he said, with the destruction of what he called the “emotional character armour.” Such armour is all the ways of thinking and being that make something heroic out of a life based on inauthenticity and falseness, that protect it from serious challenges and thus, that keep the person a prisoner of his own limitations. The destruction of armour often begins with the individual’s awareness of mortality, not an abstract or philosophical awareness of it, but rather, a full and deep “tasting” of the indisputable fact of personal finitude. The individual comes face-to-face with his own death. The armour crumbles with the devastating realization that what is inside it, what is holding it up and being protected by it, is finite, impermanent, ephemeral, and so, in the end, nothing. The self that the armour has been protecting, now unprotected, is “destroyed, brought down to nothing.” (1973, p. 89)
What Becker has described, what Tolstoy and Ilych experienced, is a burgeoning awareness of death that culminates in the overthrow of self in the throes of inauthenticity. It’s as if the “normal cultural” self, somehow recognizing its shallowness and inauthenticity, tears aside the armoured veils of false heroism in which it has been enveloped and, then, puts itself to death. As we witnessed, in the case of both Tolstoy and Ilych, this does not happen readily or smoothly. The self that had operated so long, reinforced by many elements of the culture, fiercely fights back; it will not die an easy death.
And, many of us go to our ends without the kinds of transcendent transformations experienced by both Tolstoy and Ilych. We find an instructive parallel in attempts to define the evolution of scientific knowledge, at least the way that process is viewed by Thomas Kuhn (1962). Old theories, old paradigms do not immediately fade in the face of new and perhaps better, views. And, old practitioners tend to hang on, often irrationally, even in the face of large flaws in the paradigm out of which they have operated, even in the face of recognized benefits in the new paradigm.
An instructive parallel of a similar sort is found in the personal construct psychology of George Kelly (1955). Kelly thinks of human beings as scientists, ever having to develop and to test theories of the world and self that they have come to through the course of their lives. Sometimes certain parts of the theories, when tested, are found to be false or inadequate; reason knows that they should be discarded or replaced, but something in us – Bugental (1987) called it the resistance of the individual’s self-and-world construct system – may want to hang on to a long-held conception of the self, even one that leads nowhere but to inauthenticity and falseness of life.
But, as we saw with both Tolstoy and Ilych, transformation toward authenticity is possible. If the person, in having been stripped of the armour of his “normal cultural” self, in having had decimated the lies he tells himself about the grandness of his character, is prepared to consider himself in the light of his finitude, he may find his way to that new “paradigm,” that new conception of his self that lives and dies authentically. When all the armour has been shed and destroyed, there is a possibility of the person’s transcendence. When grounds for a continuation in inauthenticity have been shattered, negated, made nothing, there is at least a possibility that, like Tolstoy and Ilych, the individual will find his way to a new and deeper level of significance and authentic existence.
Becker, Ernest (1973). The denial of death. Toronto: The Free Press.
Bugental, J. F. T. (1965). The search for authenticity: An existential-analytic approach to psychotherapy. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Bugental, J. F. T. (1987) Art of the psychotherapist. New York: W. W. Norton.
Heidegger, Martin (1962). Being and time (John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row.
Kelly, George (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. 2 vols. New York: Norton.
Kuhn, Thomas (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jarrell, Randall (1965). “Six Russian short novels.” In The third book of criticism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Kierkegaard, S. (1849/1980). The sickness unto death (V. Hong and E. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Tolstoy, Leo (1899a). “My Confession.” In The complete works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. New York: E. R. Dumont.
Tolstoy, Leo (1886/1935). The death of Iván Ilych (Aylmer Maud, Trans.). Oxford University Press. In Hamalian, L. and Volpe, E. L., Eds. (1958). Ten Modern Short Novels. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Tolstoy, Leo (1899b). “Life.” In The complete works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. New York: E. R. Dumont.
Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism .... He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness ... to the very ground of creation. Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance. ...This invisible mystery at the heart of [the] creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 91)