“What Am I Living My Life for?” Ivan Ilyich and Ikigai- A Summer 2018 Reading/Writing Class

by Mark Chmiel

“I see that all of my work amounts to nothing, that my ten volumes aren’t worth anything!”
—Guy de Maupassant, after reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich

David Barsamian: You had something in mind in a lecture when you mentioned Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich .… What was that?

Historian Howard Zinn: I think what I had in mind was that young people, especially when thinking about their whole future lying ahead of them, should try to imagine what Ivan Ilyich went through when at the end of his life, Tolstoy is giving young people an opportunity to see forty or fifty years ahead and ask, How will I think back upon my life forty or fifty years from now. For them to see that Ivan Ilyich, this successful man, this man who did everything right, looks back on his life and says, This is not the kind life I wanted to lead, is something very instructive for young people, who are being captivated, being pressured on all sides, to get money, to get success, to do the right things, all of them superficial, evanescent, the kinds of things that at the end of one’s life will evaporate immediately. I very often talk about The Death of Ivan Ilyich because I want young people to think about the question of, What am I living my life for? What can I be proud of when I go? What will my grandchildren be proud of when they think of my life?

For the last weeks of summer, I invite you to join a reading and writing class to discuss this jarring work by Tolstoy. But I think this will be relevant not only for undergraduates but people of any age.

Each class session will have activities of discussing a few chapters of Tolstoy, writing and sharing with each other. We will write on themes from Tolstoy’s novella about our own lives, particularly in light of the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or one’s “reason for being.” A class blog will allow further sharing and reflection.

An online class version of the class will be available for people who wish to engage with Tolstoy and other readers and writers.

We will meet six times at Cafe Ventana on Wednesdays beginning at 6:30 p.m., beginning August 22 and continuing each week till September 26. We’ll end each class before 8:00 p.m. On-line agendas for the week will be emailed on Thursdays, beginning August 23. Approximate time needed for each on-line session is 75 to 90 minutes. Of course, you can write more as you are able.

You’ll need a copy of the novella; I recommend the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky available in a Vintage Classics paperback (64 pages).

Tuition for class at Cafe Ventana is $125; for on-line $75. You can pay through Paypal or a check to me.

If you are interested in joining us, email or text me: markjchmiel@gmail.com; 314-807-8769.