By Bob Aul"Why can't we be intelligent about death?" I asked.
"Ivan Ilych screamed for three days. That's about as intelligent as we get. Tolstoy himself struggled to understand. He feared it terribly."
—Don DeLillo,White Noise
Tolstoy himself struggled to understand.
Tolstoy, who wrote "The Death of Ivan Ilych," a novella about death and the fear of death whose wisdom is as simple yet as difficult to put into practice as Jesus telling us to love one another.
Do you know the book? It's about a Russian bourgeois who thinks life should be "easy, pleasant and agreeable." He goes to the right law school, gets the right kind of job, marries the right girl. He reads the books everybody else reads, goes to the same plays, socializes with the right sort of friends, does exactly what is required of him when he becomes a judge. When things aren't easy, pleasant and agreeable—fight with the wife, trouble with the children —he runs off to play cards with his buddies, who know enough not to talk about unpleasantries.
One day, while putting up curtains in his new dream house, he bumps his side. When the pain doesn't go away, he goes to doctors, who don't know what's wrong and can't help him. The pain gets worse. Specialists mull over treatments without success. Ivan can no longer work, play cards or otherwise enjoy the agreeable life he's partitioned off for himself. Nothing helps. He loses weight and sees what looks like a corpse in the mirror. Forty-five years into his life, Ivan Ilych, seemingly for the first time, realizes that he is mortal.
"Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair" —in despair because he's unprepared, of course. He's never had an independent thought, never stepped off the path of complacent success long enough to realize that all the goodies along that road still lead to the same place every other path leads to: death.
This despair goes on for more than half the length of the novella, and Tolstoy's eye is steady, grueling and relentless. Ivan Ilych begins to realize he's lived a lie his whole life: that not thinking about and acting on the things that matter—like love, compassion, the spontaneous impulses of childhood —makes the prospect of death unspeakably horrific. And that, conversely, avoiding thoughts about mortality your whole life makes it impossible to live life with full consciousness and feeling. So he screams for three days, lamenting the 45 years he's wasted, and it's only when his torture has burned out every trace of his self-regard and dignity that he's able to look at his young son (who's suffering because he's losing his father) and realize that his son's pain matters more than his own. At the last moment—as he's dying —Ivan Ilych learns compassion, sees the light of God, and stretches out and dies in peace.
The theme, of course, is respice finem—regard the end—which is the motto engraved on a locket that Ivan Ilych wears around his neck his whole life but which he can never get through his thick, stupid skull. The problem is that when it comes to death, most of us have thick, stupid skulls. ("Ivan Ilych" is the Russian equivalent of "John Doe.")
Tolstoy, too. Tolstoy —a World Historical Figure by any accounting, the spiritual conscience of his country—spent the last few weeks of his life running away from his wife, a woman he'd lived with for half a century. They were in their 80s and bickering inanely till the end. He got on a train to escape her, got sick, and lay down in a railcar while representatives of the world's media relayed his humiliation to a fascinated public. All that cogitation about mortality seemed not to help him in his final hours. Even Tolstoy was not intelligent, finally, about his own death.
But who is? Henry James, who no doubt prepared his last words in advance, said on his deathbed, in what amounts to a parody of Henry James, "So it has come, at last, the distinguished thing." Socrates blathered about a rooster in his final moments. Jesus swerved wildly, from "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" to "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," to his last, numb naming of the fact: "It is finished."
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Who has been intelligent about death? Not me. I've been obsessed with it since I was 15, when my mother died inexplicably 8,000 miles away in Brazil. My family and I heard about it four months later in a letter from a total stranger. Existentialists would call this the eruption of the absurd. For months, everything felt unreal, stripped of familiarity, ashes in the mouth, and I never felt lonelier or more worthless in my life. Still, there were times when I momentarily got past my isolation and confusion, and then suddenly, the world looked not unreal but utterly new and worthy of being loved. Death was in it, and the people around me—my brothers, my friends, my father—seemed to give off an aura of mortality, as if a fleeting border of light flickered around their bodies, making them look vulnerable and precious and tender, and though I wasn't then able to name it, what I felt was an enormous gratitude, a sense of privilege, for being alive with these fellow mortals on this little blue planet.
Though most of the time I'm as stupid and fearful of death as the next guy, I've had moments like those ever since. And then I know that the fact of death makes life beautiful. This is what Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote in a poem called "Sunday Morning" that "Death is the mother of beauty." The problem is that the epiphanic light that can flare so radiantly when you feel death's presence always goes away pretty quickly. It goes because it can't stay.
I don't think we're wired to "regard the end" with any kind of permanent gaze. I suspect death is a much bigger monster, psychologically, than the single-syllabled word we casually throw around suggests it is. Like other animals, we have a physiological aversion to it, so we systematically avoid it in consciousness except for those times when we have no choice. But if Stevens is right, death is why we have poetry; it's why we have art. The fear of death is the thing that activates our desire, the thing that makes it vital that we really see and appreciate a beautiful face before it ages or taste a ripe fruit before it rots. By this reckoning, art is death redeemed.
I don't know myself. Most of the time, I can't hold on to the concepts. Most of the time, I will myself to forget that death matters. And then something will happen: I'll catch my wife staring out a window, looking troubled and wistful and alone, or I'll look at my two vibrant sons, aged 4 and 2, and suddenly see them not as the immortals they see themselves as, but as all-too-mortal, and then that light will glow around them, and I'll know as deeply as I've ever known anything and will know until the light fades, which it always does, that, as Galway Kinnell puts it, "the wages of dying is love."