Dying the Human Condition: Re-reading Ivan Ilyich with Levinas

By Benda Hofmeyr.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This essay consists in a Levinasian reading of Leo Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich in an attempt to accomplish two objectives simultaneously. First, Tolstoy’s novella beautifully illustrates and therefore unlocks the complex dynamics at play in Levinas’s ethical metaphysics. Both Levinas and Tolstoy are concerned with the human condition, the human condition as it is most intensely lived and felt, i.e. life in the face of death. What happens to the dying Ivan Ilyich helps us to understand Levinas’s conceptualization of the event that happens when confronted by the Other/death and the ethical reorientation that it implies. What we hope to show, however, is that a Levinasian reading does not only underscore the standard interpretation of Ivan Ilyich but also augments it in a critical way. For Levinas also stresses that “economic” life cannot simply be dismissed as “not the real thing” as Ivan Ilyich does. Levinas shows that our egoist “economic” exploits in the world are a necessary condition for the ethical life. In short, I cannot be a self claimed by the other if I do not enjoy the world.

Keywords: Philosophy, Literature, Phenomenology, Ethics, Levinas, Tolstoy, The Human Condition, Death, Life, Suffering, The Other, The Self, Ethical Metaphysics, Tolstoy, Ethical Reorientation, Ethical Conversion

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp.129-136. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 524.548KB).

Dr. Benda Hofmeyr

Post doctoral fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa

After having completed her PhD on the work of French philosophers Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas at the Radboud University Nijmegen (NL), Benda Hofmeyr conducted research at the Jan van Ecyk Academie, Maastricht (NL) on the political dimension of art and cultural production. Her current research is focussed on the conditions of possibility of ethical agency in Levinas and Kant. She is the recipient of numerous prestigious sholarships and awards and has published in a variety of fields including contemporary Continental philosophy, political and moral philosophy, art and cultural production.

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