The Onion: Stripping Illusions to Reach Enlightenment

Dr. S. Kelley
REL 315: Religious Themes in Modern Literature
22nd of November, 2016

The purpose of this paper is to compare two short novels, and how the main character strips away the illusions of conventional society to reach enlightenment. The two literary pieces that were analyzed were The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy, and Siddhārtha, by Hermann Hesse. This paper will look at how Buddhism and Catholicism have separate religious views, and yet, have a similar goal – Buddhism is enlightenment through self-realization and Catholicism is salvation through redemption.

Death of Ivan Ilych: Catholicism

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910), a Russian author who penned novels and short stories primarily. Tolstoy is “equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer” (“Tolstoy”). The novel, The Death of Ivan Ilych, is universal in religious issues and holds a mirror up to modern conventional society. Catholicism is implied through the death journey of Ivan Ilych.

This novella divides Ilyich’s life into two eras, before and after the accident. This strategy allows the reader to share with the characters’ inner thoughts of selfishness, distanced and death-denying. The division and the responses are placed to implicate the reader in partaking in the wrong responses made by the characters.

In this literary masterpiece, the characters are content with the society’s illusion of materialistic needs and have little to nothing to do with religious orthodoxies (the “right” belief). This misapprehension occurs seen when a death notice is given which elicit a response in Ilyich’s colleagues, family, and friends. Immediately, each lawyer in the office thinks of himself and what this death could mean for them, for example, a new promotion. The thought of a tiresome, demanding visit to the widow, to what may be interrupted because of death, the reader feels Ivanovich’s frustration in the inconvenience of mortality. All responses from the announcement to the widow visitation, remain at a superficial level.

Through Ivanovich’s visit to the widow, Praskovya Federovna Golovina, he learns of Ilyich’s suffering. Ilyich’s life is summed up as “ordinary” and “therefore most terrible” and lays the foundation of the story as moral and spiritual than physical. The narrator that takes the reader through Ilych’s success in which social conformity triumphs, which is summed up in this passage,

“Even when he was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good – natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority” (12).

Ilych fits right in at grammar school and law school, which make him “ordinary.” After graduating law school, he gained “an easy and agreeable” position. Life of social conformity continues when he “settled down very pleasantly” to “a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman” (13). When the element of social conformity is highlighted to this extent, one cannot help but see that it is being mocked.

From infancy to marriage, Ilych lived a life of ease, spiritual void, moral nonentity, inherently self-absorbed. The first threat comes with Golovina’s pregnancy which forces him to become submerged with professional life. Ilych’s life of marriage, domesticated, life becomes a social convenience, not a value, “separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction” (17). This immersion into work pulls Ilych into being an organization man, “a person who subordinates his personal life to the demands of the organization he works for” (“Organization man”).

All this is written so that only death will bring the protagonist Ilych into a state of cognizance regarding the exact problems of his life. Ilyich familial life is summed up in these words, “in which [his] sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing” (16).

The second form of torment came when his marriage became unsatisfactory and his income insufficient. The lack of ‘happiness’ brings on depression which causes Ilych to leave work. He escapes real suffering when there was a “change of personnel” and “obtained an appointment” which placed him in “two states above his colleagues” (20). “Two states” in this statement means an executive position, which leads to better pay and leaves Ilych “completely happy” (20). This new status in his professional life leads to a new passion for worldly things. His life and marriage reach a new level of triviality when furnishing a new home become the passion of his life. Even “official work – interested him less than he had expected” (21). Ilych has become interested in materialistic things rather than people.

The turning point is the accident; that stemmed from his carnal needs. This accident left a bruise that became a pivot point in Ilych’s spiritual life. This seemingly trifle bruise is paradoxically important: just as Ilych’s life revolved around the shallow trivialities, so this bruise is the start of the stripping of these.

Ilych has already separated himself from Golovina’s problems, this statement we see Golovina turns the tables, “the more she pitied herself, the more she hated her husband” (26).

She urges him to see a “celebrated doctor” and “he went” with unsatisfactory results. The physician treats Ilych as a lawyer/judge treated those in the courts, as a professional case. The physician is more concerned with the substantial bruise than he is with the pain and anguish felt by Ilych.

As Ilych’s physical state deteriorates, his mental anguish leads to an increased isolation. Concluding line in chapter four sums up Ilych torment: “And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him” (32). This brings the reader from sympathizing with Peter Ivanovich, to sympathizing with Ivan Ilych. The last few chapters portray Ilych as a dying man, the refutation of death, and seeking to become spiritual clarification that is two-fold.

The first is the indifference and deceptiveness of family, colleagues, and friends regarding the illness. The only exception to this is Ilych’s butler, Gerasim, who shares in the suffering, who “alone did not lie everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but merely felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master” (40). Gerasim does not pretend that his master is not dying, nor does he avoid contact. In fact, he holds Ilych’s legs up on his shoulders “easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych” (41). Gerasim stands as a reminder of the good that people have in them; his positive examples are to emulate, and the negative of the social world examples are to eschew.

The second is the thought and feelings that run through the mind of Ilych as he suffers physically and mentally. This is seen in the statement, “being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack” (49). This unmistakable symbolism, shows the impediment of his progress to strip the illusions that society has taught him. Ilych considers the meaning of life and his imminent death; the result is a life of conformity. He looks for an understanding of the present, past, and future; coming to a conclusion of “there was nothing to defend” (55), that this conformity was a deception. This conviction makes Ilych move beyond his lost condition to a state of redemption.

The moral and spiritual progress begin with the backdrop of fallaciousness, fraudulence, and inattentiveness of society, which are death denying and just cannot understand Ilych’s suffering, illness, and dying.

The psychology of facing death, in truth to the human experience, is seen rivetingly in the mindset that flood through all when confronted with a physical ailment. This fear of mortality captures the psychologic torment that becomes a persistent mental obsession. “It was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him” (51) portrays this fear. This psychology of suffering represents the impulse to blame G-d as seen in Ilyich’s reaction, he “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of G-d, and the absence of G-d” (51). Self-realization of sin leads to the conviction of sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a “priest came and heard his confession” and Ilych “was softened and seemed to feel a relief” (55). After the reconciliation, Ilyich receives the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick.

In the Book of Job, the perception through suffering in the character, Job, who goes through terrible trials beset on him by Satan, who had to gain permission from G-d (Job 1:12). These tests strengthened Jobs spiritual conviction through the pursuing to the meaning of suffering. As for Ilych’s torment, he is reinforced in the awareness of living for “falsehood and deception, hiding life and death” (56) come nothing, but to surrender a soul is to gain much.

The path to salvation brought the awareness of “what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might, after all, be true” (55). The realization of living a life of lies stimulates Ilych to “pass his life in review in quite a new way” (55). Ilych concludes that the life he had lived “was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death” (56). The idea of being lost, brought a new sensation, being forced into a black sack, “as a man condemned to death struggles” (56).

The moment of salvation is the experience of losing a burden, coming to a realization of not fearing death, but welcoming it. Ilych “sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because there was no death…In place of death, there was light. ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly explained aloud. ‘What joy!’” (58). This rebirth is instantaneous, with the effects permanent, hence Ilych’s statement, “Death is finished… it is no more” (58).

The reader went from seeing what colleagues thought through a tie-in to Peter Ivanovich’s feelings of the inconvenience of death, which could have but did not, interrupt a scheduled card game. Then the reader is taken from the death notice to being tied into Ilych’s life before the accident, which left a bruise that became an illness. Then is tied into Ilyich’s mindset of struggling with the stripping of the illusions of social conformity, that society and he, himself built. Lastly, the reader is then released of the implications with Ilych’s reconciliation at death. Again Catholicism is implied through the priest visit, were the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, which is given in haste because the priest has other obligations, another form of social illusion – time. Ilych’s in his tormented body, allows his soul find relief in that there is “no fear because there is no death.”

Siddhārtha: Buddhism

German author, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), born to Pietist Protestant missionaries and publishers, was taught several languages, lore, and the mysticism of the Far East, all had an effect on his writings. Hesse abhorred industrialism, right-wing nationalism, and war, for these reasons, he left his family and Germany to live in solitude in Switzerland in 1912 until his death in 1962 (Siddhartha, 2016). In Switzerland, Hesse wrote Siddhārtha, a narrative of asceticism set in the time of Siddhārtha Gautamā (Gotamā Buddha), the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a philosophical system that instructs its follower on the Chattari-ariya-saccani (Four Noble Truths), and Atthangika-magga (Eightfold Path), the path of the spiritual noble – those who understand the Chattari-ariya-saccani. Siddhārtha Gautamā (490-410 BCE), who at age 29, found the “Middle Way,” a path between the ascetic arts and pleasures of life (Buddhism, n.d.). In “Pali literature commonly refers to Siddhārtha Gautamā as Gotamā Buddha” (Violatti, 2013). Gautamā did not believe in the existence of a supreme being, which consequently is either atheistic (disbelieving in the existence of G-d) or non-theistic (not involving a belief in god or gods). Gautama taught that there was no heaven, just a state of eternal, undisturbed, peaceful sleep (Siddhartha, 2016).

Hesse’s novel, Siddhārtha, is divided into two part that follows the tenets of Gotamā Buddha, with the first four chapters following the Chattari-ariya-saccani and the last eight chapters are the Atthangika-magga. These divisions give the reader an awareness of the process of stripping traditional social ideas to reach nibbāna (cessation of suffering). Five major themes are running throughout Siddhārtha are self-realization, personal experience verse formal teaching, persistence, the folly of materialism, and a paradox of unreal reality.

Self-realization is continuous from the beginning to the end of Siddhārtha. This self-realization can be observed in the lead character, Siddhārtha, through his exertions on achieving self-realization are essential to ending samsara (cause of suffering), to come to nibbāna (cessation of suffering), through the maggā (the path to the cessation of suffering through the Atthangika-magga). This brings Siddhārtha to demand on being released from his father’s house, to follow the Samana, (a fifth caste who renounce everything). They practice stripping social illusions to reach enlightenment through a life of meditation, yoga, starvation, self-mortification, and deprivation of all kinds, to find freedom, self-knowledge, and fulfillment (Human Journey, n.d.). The Samana’s renouncement becomes the path of self-realization for Siddhārtha. This immerses the reader into Siddhārtha’s mindset of yearning for knowledge.

The second theme is personal experience verse formal teaching. Siddhārtha rejects formalized learning after meeting the Gotamā Buddha. He does not condemn the formal instruction but feels that pursuing knowledge independently will help the progression toward enlightenment. He begins to listen to nature and to the voice within, however, he does accept advice, such as that given by Vasudeva.

Persistence is seen through Siddhartha never abandoning his quest for self-realization, although he does become deeply discouraged at times. The closest he comes to giving up is the moment he considers drowning himself. He then meditates on the sacred word, Om, and gains renewed strength to carry on.

The apex, or the truth of all humans, in Siddhārtha, is the folly of materialism. This is a false reality, in Hindus, it is known as maja, that materialism hinders spiritual development. Siddhārtha immerses himself in the indulgences of the physical world, and “slips’ from the wisdom of the Gotamā Buddha, the tenants of self-realization. Through false love and desire to satisfy the needs of the lover, he becomes depressed, in which drives him to suicide. With the counsel of the river and Vasudeva, Siddhārtha returns to a simple life. Here he rediscovers that less is more, and achieves enlightenment.

The final theme of a paradox of unreality is that reality of desire is an illusion in which one must strip the illusions of society to reach nibbāna. Gotamā Buddha teaches that to gain enlightenment, one must embrace these illusions with love. Siddhartha exhibits this through the process of continuous self-realization and recognizing the hindrances that society places on human life. He recognizes this but cannot fully explain this paradox of unreal reality, and in the end, continues to the Atthangika-magga.

Comparison and Contrast

The Onion of Society is the illusions that conventional society places on a person. These are more often a hindrance, or blindness, to what the real meaning of life is. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, the reader is then implicated in emotions of the characters needs to meet the misconception of carnal needs.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a high-court judge of 19th-century Russia, whose life was carefree according to conventional society norms. Ivan Ilych climbed the social ladder by marrying a woman whom he felt was demanding, and so he immersed himself in work. Ivan Ilych artificial life masks the real meaning of life which gives to fear of death. Gerasim, the servant of Ilych, is a symbol of compassion and sympathy. A mere accident which forces him to peel away the layers of the onion to gain salvation.

In Siddhārtha, the reader is immersed into the yearning for enlightenment through Siddhārtha. The reader is taken through the promising of illumination to the conformity of society and then back after a near suicide attempt.

The process of the journey can be started at a young age, as seen in Siddhārtha, or it can be a near death experience, as with Ivan Ilych. The path of seeking is typical in any religious system, the believer or follower, is on the “right path” but then something intervenes and brings them to societies “norms.” There are many ways of stripping illusions, but one destination, that is to reach enlightenment or a god.

To summarize, all live in the onion of society and the need to stripping illusions that are prescribed must be wrought by the individual according to his/her belief system to reach enlightenment.

Excellent paper. Well organized and thoughtfully presented. Very nice attention to the language of each text.

Works Cited

“Buddhism, Siddhartha Gotama 490-410 BCE.” Human Journey. n.d. Web.

“Catholicism.” Collins English Dictionary, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 2012. Oct. 2016. Web.

“Leo Tolstoy.” Goodreads Inc., 2016. 18 Oct. 2016. Web.

Tolstoy, Lev Nikolayevich. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Translated by Louis and Aylmer Maude, An Electronic Classics Series Publication, 2013. PDF.

“Organization man.” Collins English Dictionary, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 2012. 18 Oct. 2016. Web.

“Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse Biography.” CliffsNotes. 20 Oct. 2016. Web.

Violetta, Cristian. “Siddhartha Gautama.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 17 Oct. 2016. Web.

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