The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

The Lost Art of Dying

Thomas Pfau

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

You want, if possible—and no “if possible” is crazier—to abolish suffering. And we? It looks as though we would prefer it to be heightened and made even worse than it has ever been. Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal; it looks to us like an end, a condition that immediately renders people ridiculous and despicable—that makes their decline into something desirable! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—don’t you know that this discipline has been the sole cause of every enhancement?
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil1

Is there a better portrayal of the modern individual’s horrified perplexity in the face of death than Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich? Unfolding with the economy of detail and stringent mastery of narrative so characteristic of Tolstoy’s art, the story captures the frightful isolation of modernity’s “buffered” individual. Ivan’s doctors reduce his terminal condition to a mere “weighing of probabilities—a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis.” An unbridgeable emotional chasm separates the dying Ivan from and friends and family members: “‘You see, he’s dead, and I am not,’ each of them thought or felt.”2

Above all, the process of dying exposes Ivan’s own metaphysical perplexity. As soon as he has grasped the terminal nature of his condition, he finds himself ensnared “in continual despair.… It cannot be that I should die. It would be too terrible.” What leaves Ivan reeling is less his physical deterioration than his utter inability to sum up his life as having served any purpose beyond the usual quotidian successes that identify him as the quintessential petit bourgeois. Having judged others throughout his career as a magistrate, Ivan is stunned by what the last judgment reveals about himself: “More terrible than his physical sufferings were his moral sufferings…these were his chief torment.”3

Inexorably, metaphysical questions intrude upon Ivan, questions that he, with a complacency characteristic of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, had long assumed to have been “solved” or “overcome” by decades of scientific progress. Learning otherwise, Ivan weeps “over…his terrible loneliness, over the cruelty of people, over the cruelty of God, over the absence of God.” Dying belatedly exposes the essential hollowness of the life that has preceded it, “easy, pleasant, merry, and always decent and approved by society.” Now, at the threshold of death, “it occurred to [Ivan] that what had formerly appeared completely impossible to him, that he had not lived his life as he should have, might be true.” Death for Ivan is the very distillation of meaninglessness, an enigmatic termination of the pointless agony that precedes it: “Three days of suffering, and then death.”4 All Ivan can summon is “a three-day ceaseless howling” of rage and despair, a continual scream of incomprehension that will resonate throughout modern fiction, strikingly, for example, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

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  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 225.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Vintage, 2009), 40.
  3. Ibid., 88.
  4. Ibid., 45.

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and a professor of German at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty. His many books include Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840 and, most recently, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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