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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Moving Backward to Go Forward

There is similar irony in the two poles of social interaction: altruism will forever be latently accompanied with self-fulfillment, as hedonism with ennui. And it is in the later where Ivan Ilyich finds himself in so much agony; on his deathbed, he realizes “his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests”, his entire raison d’ĂȘtre was “false”, meaningless in the way he defined and pursued them. But, following in this paradoxical pattern, it is his brokenness in this understanding that enables him to find true contentment. Through divine revelation and Christ symbolism, Tolstoy is able to portray Ivan Ilyich’s deathbed conversion as directly attributable to his admission of powerlessness and acceptance of God’s divine will.

On the surface level, Tolstoy’s palpable use of Ivan Ilyich as a Christ figure highlights what Ivan is converting to, and also what Tolstoy advocates for as the story’s practical application. However, when heeding that these references are all pertaining to death and the Jesus’ physical and emotional struggle with it, it is apparent that Tolstoy is adding a wrinkle to the standard symbolism. With these specific references, the focus is not merely on the suffering, but how the subject views the suffering, namely whether they try to fight it or submit to it.  The first instance occurs with Ivan yelling out "why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly”, a clear paraphrase of Matthew 27:46- “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Similarly, there is a parallel between Ivan’s post-communion exclamation "To live! I want to live!" and Jesus’ post-last supper fervent prayer that “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:35-36). It is in this anguish we see the humanity in Christ and Ivan, and thus we are able to empathize with him, and the aversion to blind servitude that is faith.

But without this suffering for Christ, are sins would not be absolved, and similarly, Ivan is not able to change his depraved ways until he is faced with the ghastly results of his selfishness. For Christ, it was merely his willing participation in God’s plan for the absolving of our sins, but that was because Christ was without sin. For Ivan, as for all of mankind, his repentance was a prerequisite for him to escape death. In direct contrast to all the pain and anguish he has gone through in realizing this, his unglamorous admission that “Yes, it was not the right thing” is all that is needed for him to find fulfillment. He is reborn withno fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.”

Tolstoy hammers home the sincerity of this conversion with his most blatant, and most poignant instance of symbolism. At the announcement of Ivan’s passing from an ambiguous character- the omission of identity apropos of this final selfless moment- it is a reiteration of John 19:30, and it is indeed “finished."

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