On Ivan Ilyich

by Mark Chmiel

ahamkara [aham, “I”; kara, “maker”] Self-will, the ego mask, the principle in people which makes them feel separate from others.
— Diana Morrison, A Glossary of Sanskrit from The Spiritual Tradition of India

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is simply about the way not to live. And which way is that? That way is the hell that is self-absorption, captured succinctly in that late Beatles’ song, I Me Mine. Or, in today’s idiom, “It’s all about me, all the time.” The way that every religion has taught, to our own discomfort (we know they’re right and wish they weren’t), because we want things ourway. Ivan Ilyich became the successful lawyer/judge who played by the rules, followed conventional wisdom and taste, and accumulated the prizes and the goodies of the upwardly mobile of Russian society. But really, he was just a self-absorbed “I-maker,” like everybody else in his crowd.

Recently, I was musing in the spring writing class: Why do we read? Why do we write? Tolstoy wrote that story with an agenda—that way of life followed so punctiliously by Ivan leads to spiritual death (in his case, actual death as well), and the way of life of—lo and behold!—the lowly Gerasim is the one that leads to true life, and life in abundance because the servant is kind, lucid, and honest. All those rich, accomplished Russian society people didn’t have a clue about what Gerasim knew from the get-go; society people thought they were immortal.

As I read with a pen in hand, I enumerated the moments where, it seemed to me, Ivan was marked by self-absorption, thus fanning the flames of his own ego and thinking about everything in terms of how it affected him. In a 52-page story, I came up with 60 such instances. Here are 59 and 60 at almost the end of the tale:

[Wife Praskovya is attending to afflicted Ivan at the very end of his life]: Her clothes, her figure, the expression of her face, the sound of her voice—all told him one thing: “Not right. All that you’ve lived and live by is a lie, a deception, concealing life and death from you.” And as soon as he thought it, his hatred arose and together with hatred his tormenting physical sufferings and with his sufferings the consciousness of near, inevitable destruction. Something new set in: twisting, and shooting, and choking his breath.

The expression of his face when he said “Yes” was terrible. Having uttered this “yes,” he looked her straight in the face, turned over with a quickness unusual in his weak state, and shouted: “Go away, go away, leave me alone!”

Not only does Ivan suffer physically from his baffling disease, he torments himself further by how he interprets his suffering and the people around him. You might say, on Ivan’s behalf, “Hell, he’s got one foot in the grave, do you expect him to be Mahatma Gandhi, saying Rama, Rama, Rama?” But see, that’s just it—Tolstoy gave lots of previous examples of Ivan’s cherishing self-regard when he was living the dream. As he was in life, so he similarly was when near death.

For example, back before Ivan injured himself, which led to his quickly deteriorating physical condition, Tolstoy shares a “certain unpleasant circumstance”: “Ivan Ilyich was expecting the post of presiding judge in a university town, but Hoppe somehow beat him out and got the post. Ivan Ilyich became irritated, reproached him, and quarreled with him and his immediate superior; he was treated with coldness and at the next promotions he was again passed over.” Ivan felt it was owed to him, because he was so obviously (to himself) talented, skilled, personable —how could anyone not agree with him?

Sartre gave one of his characters the memorable line, “Hell is other people.” But Tolstoy shows how we generate hell by thoughtlessly pursuing the selfish way of life, which everyone around us affirms and envies: Upward mobility may be good for the bank accounts but can be crushing to one’s soul. Ivan’s physical torment helps him see that doctors do not treat him as a unique human person in agony, just as he was a judge who didn’t think twice about how his decisions would affect and afflict the persons under his power. Ivan didn’t see them as persons, and didn’t realize it until he experienced that same blithely indifferent treatment from the doctors.

Which brings me to Gerasim, one of the helpers around Ivan’s apartment. Ivan discovered his pain decreased from having his legs in a certain position and he asked Gerasim to help in holding his legs: “Gerasim did it easily, willingly, simply, and with a kindness that moved [him]. Health, strength, vigor of life in all other people offended Ivan Ilyich; only Gerasim’s strength and vigor of life did not distress but soothed him.” Gerasim’s ego was under control in a way that everyone else’s—family and colleagues—wasn’t. In his pursuit of a successful life, evidently, Ivan didn’t meet people whose essence was mindfulness, lovingkindness, and candor. (In the opening scene in which Ivan’s legal associates learn of his death, they can’t help but wonder “what this death might mean in terms of transfers or promotions of the member themselves or of their acquaintances.” Such news of the death of a colleague “called up in all those who heard of it, as always, a feeling of joy that it was he who was dead and not I.”)

Shortly before he dies, Ivan “wakes up” after he has had another encounter with the guileless and unassuming Gerasim: “It occurred to him that what had formerly appeared completely impossible to him, that he had not lived his life as he should have, might be true. It occurred to him that those barely noticeable impulses he had felt to fight against what highly placed people considered good, barely noticeable impulses which he had immediately driven away—that they might have been the real thing, and all the rest might have been not right. His work, and his living conditions, and his family, and these social and professional interests—all might have been not right. He tried to defend it all to himself. And he suddenly felt all the weakness of what he was defending. And there was nothing to defend.”

The encounters with the humble Gerasim were instrumental in helping Ivan to realize the truth of his life and to see that, while he still breathed, something could still be rectified. How? By paying attention to what was right around him, by seeing what needed to be done in the present moment to lighten the load of those near him: “He was sorry for them, he had to act so that it was not painful for them. To deliver them and deliver himself from these sufferings.”

Why read Tolstoy’s story?  To give us a mirror to recognize our similarities to Ivan. Whether we are young or old, healthy or in decline, we can look around us to see whose pain we can lessen in any number of ordinary ways, thereby  diminishing our ahamkara.