October 9th, 2004


Ivan Ilych, RIP

Which is to say, I finished reading Tolstoy's story, The Death of Ivan Ilych.

kraorh mentioned he had co-taught a class on Existentialism that had made use of this story.  Makes sense to me, since I could see this story prefiguring a lot of those Existentialist themes.  Not so much the theme of irrationalism, which shows up in Dostoyevsky's Notes From The Underground.  But the theme of everyday life as meaningless, and the theme of inexplicable death as a major focus, a major Thing to Face - that nexus of concerns is here in spades.

The story is presented matter-of-factly, with penetrating psychological insight, but without conclusive authorial commentary spelling out "What's it all about, Alfie?"

"For Heidegger, facing death gives us a sense of groundlessness, which frees us from staid conventions, enabling us to live spontaneously."  Quote's from a guy named David Johnson (click here and scroll down).  Well, that would be one way to read Tolstory's story, and so would tie in nicely with Existentialism.

Objectivists also like to talk about facing death, but only when it's worded "facing an alternative of existence or non-existence."  Unlike Heidegger, Rand didn't encourage the contemplation of one's own death.  But the  "facing a fundamental alternative" stuff makes Objectivism looks sort of Existentialist to some people.  There's an old book by Hazel Barnes, An Existentialist Ethics, that goes into some detail on this; but she ends by rejecting the idea that Objectivism has much to do with the heart of Existentialism.

Rhyme of the Day:

Given the alternative,