Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #23: The Stranger, by Albert Camus & The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

I combined these two books to sneak over the 200 page requirement because I think together they present a stunning consideration of how one should live. I'm going to monitor my guilt levels to decide whether to read an additional book to assuage my guilt at this jury rigging of page quotas. To be fair, both books are certified Notable Literary Achievements and together gave me several days of productive deep thinking, so my guilt levels are not too high if I'm honest with myself.

The Stranger is a sad, odd little story about a man - whose surname alone is mentioned, Meursault - so ambivalent about life that he more or less commits a murder by accident. All of his relationships are superficial, and his life just happens to him. The story opens with the death of his mother and he can't even really relate to that tragic event, describing it in a very clinical, detached manner while even her short-term friends from her retirement home are devastated by her death. The book follows a short period of his everyday life, just long enough to show us how disconnected from his life he is; he can identify intense human feeling in others that he observes, but it remains elusive for him personally. The story would be sad enough if left here, but once he makes a "friend" in his apartment building, the man winds up shooting a man on the beach and being arrested for the crime. Even throughout the trial and his eventual imprisonment, his understanding of real life remains distant though he does begin to view it somewhat differently than when he was a free man.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, we are presented with another empty life. Ivan Ilych has spent his life creating the illusion of the "perfect life," constructing a perfect family and coworkers and home without ever feeling anything about them. The lack of emotional connection is shared between Ivan and his friends and family; when Ivan is about to die and later at his funeral, all his wife and coworkers can talk about is money and Ivan in the abstract. The McMansions up on Winter Hill always strike me as a horrid echo of Ivan's perfect construct; they may by definition look like the stately homes that inspired the modern American Dream, but when plunked down amidst dozens of tiny plots squished together, each sporting its own carbon copy, what was so appealing about the type of home these mansions were inspired by completely disappears. The same is true for Ilych's life. It looks good, and he appears to be living the good life, but the moment the illusion is tested, it breaks down irreparably. It is not until just before his death that he understands what is truly important in life, through the lens of his young son.

In Ivan Ilych, Ivan believes for most of his life that simply going through the motions is The Stranger, Meursault doesn't even try to accomplish that much - he just floats along on the surface of his own life, unaffected even by such Big Life Moments like getting engaged or burying his mother. Both books show us ways not to live our lives, though it is only in Ivan Ilych that we see true reconciliation develop.

There's a lot of bad stuff in the world, and while I think Ivan and Meursault may have chosen their tactics of avoidance subconciously, a lot of people do so today because they are afraid that the bad stuff is going to hurt them. A million quotes are out there in the ether about nothing being really good or joyous without something sad or traumatic to compare them with, so I won't try to include them all, but the fact of the matter is...yeah, there's bad stuff out there and sometimes it's going to feel incredibly, horribly crappy. A friend of mine once just absolutely adored this one woman and was rebuffed by her a couple times. Needless to say, I wanted to get out my stabbin' knife, but what really killed me was that my friend felt that he needed anxiety medication to cope with the severely hurty situation that is unrequited love. Maybe he did - I'm not a psychiatrist - but I couldn't help but feel that what he actually needed was ice cream and a couple really good, ugly crying jags followed by a long run and some time out with friends. Not being loved back is horrible. It's painful and horrendous and makes you want to just lay in bed and die. But that's what it is; it's supposed to hurt. Here's the friend eventually got together with this woman and now they're totally euphorically happy. Would they be so happy if not for the pain of that rocky start? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be tough to even consider the acme of that happiness if there wasn't a bottom of sadness to compare it to.

There are a lot of people who I think shut out a lot of "real life" simply because they feel like if they care about one thing, they have to care about everything. I used to encourage people to just pick one thing and if more followed, to deal with it when it came about. I've since changed my tune. You do need to try and expand your worldview and to see what's out there. You won't like everything - I, for example, hate the Atlanta airport - but if you poke around and see what's out there, you might miss the great loves of your life. You should try and care about what's around you. It might hurt, it might feel bad, it might just be "eh," but it could also be something you can't live without, something you were missing all along to this point without even knowing it. You have to actively engage with your life and its environment. Meursault and Ilych both avoided reality in different ways - Meursault by simply laying back and allowing life to carry him along, and Ilych by constructing a great trompe l'oeil painting of a life - but in the end the message is the same...faking it, or ignoring it, will forever keep you from the greatest heights of the human experience. And what is a life without moments of true joy, no matter how small and inconsequential?

144 pages and 86 pages

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