Tuesday, January 27, 2015


(16) Rationality and Irrationality

In Tolstoy's time there were no computers reading human faces, puzzling out the furrows in our brows or the lack thereof (see previous posting: "Big Brother Wants to Know"), but Tolstoy seemed already to be an expert on how looks and smiles sometimes communicate better than words (see previous posting: "The Eyes and Smiles").

Russian writers of the nineteenth century often have a way of reasoning their way toward non-reasoning. In other words, they use a great deal of logical thought to arrive at the conclusion that the great truths of the universe are not rational, but intuitive.

The two greatest anti-rational rationalists--or to look at it from the other direction--rational anti-rationalists--of nineteenth century Russian literature are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Certainly one of the best novels in this vein is "Anna Karenina." Note how often in this book that the characters are guided by emotions, rather than reason. A good deal of the communication between characters is wordless, and sometimes the most important decisions in people's lives come about through misinterpretation of bodily language, or through a reliance on anything but logic.

Late in the book, e.g., Anna's and Karenin's lives are influenced by Karenin's acceptance of a quack, the spiritual medium (Landau), and the hyper-rationalist Koznyshev lets emotions and mushrooms distract him from the rational speech of proposal that he is about to proclaim.

Reasoning does not seem to lead to solutions of life's problems, nor does philosophizing (which is a kind of deep abstract reasoning). Lyovin agonizes all through the novel, attempting to reason his way to truth, but he ends up deciding that the instinctive life of the non-reasoning peasant is the best truth of all:

"Isn't it distinctly to be seen in the development of each philosopher's theory that he knows what the chief significance of life is beforehand, just as positively as the peasant Fyodor and not a bit more clearly than he, and is simply trying but a dubious intellectual path to come back to what everyone knows?" (832). Of course, Lyovin is Tolstoy's alter ego, and both his struggles to understand life through reading the great philosophers and his ultimate conclusion that the illiterate peasant knows best after all are Tolstoy's own conclusions.

In "Anna Karenina" people do not act very reasonably, even when it may be in their best interests to do so. Toward the end of their life together Anna and Vronsky are involved in continuous destructive quarrels, which some outside evil force seems to promote, and which they carry on even when they are aware that they are destroying one another. Here Tolstoy seems to be suggesting that there are many things more important in motivating human behavior than logic and reason.

Lyovin's (Tolstoy's own) desire to abandon reason and find some "natural," non-thinking, intuitive truth (usually in communion with nature or the earth) is nothing new in Russian literature, or in world literature for that matter. In the twentieth century, e.g., Solzhenitsyn--much influenced by Tolstoy--perpetuated this ancient idea.

All of this, however, in wrapped up in a huge contradiction (the very contradiction of Lyovin in "AK"), since an intellectual, a thinker, arrives--through or by means of thought-- at the idea of negation of thought. It also, of course, can be a very dangerous thing, since denigration of reason and exaltation of human "natural" animality is just a step away from admiring beastliness and amorality, even chaos. The great twentieth-century short-story writer, Isaac Babel, got himself rather badly involved in this disturbing contradiction, when he wrote his Red Cavalry stories.

Here are several examples of how important a role unvoiced communication plays in "AK":

(1) Examples where one character misinterprets another's thoughts by "reading" body language

   (a) When Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant with his child, while still married to Karenin, "a proud and stern expression came over his face.
   "Yes, yes, that's better, a thousand times better! I know how painful it was," he said

"But she was not listening to his words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression on his face. She could not guess that the expression arose from the first idea that presented itself to Vronsky--that a duel was now inevitable. The idea of a duel had never crossed her mind, and so she put a different interpretation on this stern expression" (333).

   (b) Lyovin watches Kitty in her conversation with Veslovsky. She is moved by his description of Anna's life, but Lyovin thinks she is in love with Veslovsky:

"He saw on his wife's face an expression of deep feeling as she gazed with fixed eyes on the handsome face of Vasenka" (598). This leads to an eruption of jealously and to Lyovin's decision to throw the young fop off his estate.

(2) Good examples of unspoken communication

   (a) Before the beginning of their affair Anna and Vronsky are at a soiree, V. is pursuing A. and she is pleased despite herself. At one point she says, "That only shows you have no heart". . . . "But her eyes said that she knew he had a heart and that was why she was afraid of him" (148).

  (b) Lyovin and Kitty in the scene already discussed (previous posting), when she is trying to spear a mushroom and talking about bears, but "her lips, her eyes and hands" are expressing all the significant things (405)

[Another good example of unspoken communication is to be found in Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilich," when the hero's brother-in-law comes for a visit, lays eyes for the first time on the sick man and says nothing. But his eyes are clearly saying, "You're a dead man."]

(3) Bad, rather unbelievable examples of unspoken communication

  (a) Kitty and Varenka at the spa in Germany:

"The two girls used to meet several times a day, and every time they met Kitty's eyes said, 'Who are you? What are you? Are you really the exquisite creature I imagine you to be? But for goodness sake don't suppose,' her eyes added, 'that I would force my acquaintance on you; I simply admire you and like you.'

'I like you too, and you're very, very sweet. And I would like you better, still, if I had time,' answered the eyes of the unknown girl" (228).

The problem here is that eyes simply don't have such a big vocabulary!

  (b) The scene of the writing with the chalk at the time of Lyovin's marriage proposal to Kitty (already discussed: see posting "Love and Mushrooms")

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