By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Leo Tolstoy
Narrated by: Simon Prebble
In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, Tolstoy reflects on life’s meaning. Though Tolstoy dies in 1910, his 1886 story is a coda for life in the 19th century. Much of the circumstances of life changes in the 20th century and continues to evolve in the 21st.
Tolstoy lived in an agricultural age where human relationship is defined by who you have helped, and been helped by, in life. Though 19th century Russia is a highly stratified society of the rich and poor, people personally depend on each other; more than in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Government bureaucracy existed then as now, but actions of government were based more on relationships of people than direction of action. Familial and neighbor’ relationship became less important than bureaucratic relationship. Tolstoy’s story deals with pre-industrial bureaucracy that broadens human relations but perversely pulls society apart. With the rise of industrialization, bureaucracies become more about political action than relationship.
Ivan Ilyich is a respected pre-industrial bureaucrat that has become ill. He is dying. Some of the first thoughts of his colleagues is what it means to them when he dies. Will I be promoted to his position? Will I get a salary increase? Will I be more highly respected? To a family or friend, the death of a relative is personal; to a bureaucracy, death is an opportunity.
In his illness, Ilyich is racked by pain. One of his colleagues chooses to comfort him in his last weeks of life. In those few weeks, Ilyich realizes human relationship is what makes life worth living, and that acceptance of death is simply a step toward eternity; i.e. a belief in a fundamental verity. His fundamental verity is God and the kingdom of heaven.
What “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” reminds a listener of is how human relationship is being drastically altered by industrialization and technology. Industrialization diminishes family closeness by moving society from the family farm to the town, to the city, and to the megalopolis.
Technology moves society to web-based association that is even further removed from human relationship. In the 21st century, society is more interconnected, but ironically more disconnected than ever before.
Does life have more, or less meaning today? To Ilyich there is the help of his bureaucratic colleague, acceptance of death, and belief in God and heaven. To today’s “me-generation” there is what?
There is an implied warning in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. The implication is that we are failing to care about others or an eternal verity. In that failure, there is a threat to humankind.