Sunday, August 30, 2015


(28) Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Neurons

Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is full of passages in which "inner voices" speak with characters. Here is an example [all page numbers here from the Marian Schwartz translation, 2014]. Early in the novel (Part One, Ch.15) Kitty has just rejected Lyovin's proposal, thinking herself in love with Vronsky. "She vividly recalled that courageous, resolute face, the noble calm and the goodness toward everyone that illuminated everything; she recalled the love for her of the man she loved, and once again she felt joy in her heart, and with a smile of happiness she lay her head upon her pillow. 'It's too bad, it is, but what can I do? I'm not to blame,' she told herself, but an inner voice told her otherwise. Whether she regretted having misled Lyovin or having refused him she didn't know. But her happiness was poisoned by doubts" (52). Something inside Kitty knows something that she does not about Vronsky.

Another example is Koznyshev, who is trying and yet resisting proposing to Varenka (see an extended treatment of this scene in an earlier posting, #14 on Anna Karenina, "Love and Mushrooms"). "Quickly in his mind he repeated all the arguments in favor of his decision. He repeated to himself, too, the words with which he wanted to express his proposal; but instead of these words, a thought came to him unexpectedly, and he suddenly asked, 'What is the difference between the white and the brown [mushroom]?'

"Varenka's lips were trembling from agitation when she answered: 'In the cap there is almost no difference, but there is in the stem.'

"As soon as these words had been said, both he and she realized that it was over, that what ought to have been said would not be said, and their agitation, which before this had reached the highest degree, began to subside" (518).

So someone, or something, inside Koznyshev speaks words that establish there will be no marriage proposal. He himself is unaware of where the words come from, but something inside him has subtly worked to sabotage the proposal. Modern-day brain scientists would assume that one or some of the multitude of neurons deep within the human brain were opposed to the marriage, and it was they who created the sabotage. Only within the past 10-15 years neuroscientists have come up with amazing new discoveries about the extent to which we humans are controlled by neurons deep within our brains, how we are largely unaware of even important decisions relative to our lives that those anonymous neurons make. See, e.g., David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011), a recent study written for laymen.

Tolstoy, who of course never had a chance to read recent studies in neuroscience, was, nonetheless, amazing insightful in the ways that he intuited things about the workings of human psyches and brains. Here is another example. In Eagleman's book he mentions how eyewitness testimony is largely untrustworthy, since deep in our brains we see things and people that we, for all that, never get around to seeing on the conscious level. One neuron or other, so to speak, may not want us to see what we see.

In Part Three, Ch. 12 of AK Lyovin has spent the night in a haystack and is walking home in the early morning, when he sees a passing carriage harnessed to a team of four horses:

"Dozing in the corner of the carriage was an old woman, but by the window, evidently having only just awakened, sat a young girl holding the ribbons of her white cap with both hands. Fair and pensive, filled with an elegant and complex inner life alien to Lyovin, she was looking past him at the sunrise.

"The very instant this vision was disappearing, her truthful eyes looked at him. She recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face.

"He could not be mistaken. There was only one pair of eyes in the world like that. There was only one being in the world capable of concentrating for him the entire light and meaning of life. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Ergushovo from the railway station, and all that had made Lyovin so restless that sleepless night, all the decisions he had made, all of that suddenly vanished. He recalled with disgust his dreams of marrying a peasant girl" (255).

Skip ahead a hundred pages and we have the scene in which Kitty and Lyovin meet again (Part Four, Ch. 11). Sitting together, they are "having their own conversation, not even a conversation, but a kind of mysterious communication that tied them closer and closer together by the minute and produced in both a sense of joyous terror before the unknown into which they were entering" (358). This scene is to culminate in the famous chalk writing business and the second (wordless) proposal of marriage a few pages later.

Here Lyovin remarks that he had seen her in her carriage last year, "told her how he had been walking back from the mowing down the highway and encountered her.

"'It was very early in the morning. You had probably only just awakened. Your maman was sleeping in her corner.It was a marvelous morning. I was walking along and wondering who that was in the carriage with the team of four. A glorious team of four with bells, and for an instant you flashed by, and I saw through the window--you were sitting like this and holding the ties or your bonnet with both hands and thinking terribly hard about something," he said, smiling. 'How I would have liked to know what you were thinking about then. Something important?'

"Wasn't I very untidy? she thought; but when she saw the ecstatic smile these details evoked in his recollection, she sensed that, on the contrary, the impression she had produced was good. She blushed and laughed delightedly.

'Truly, I don't recall" (358)

But wait a minute. Back on p. 255 Tolstoy told us that "she recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face." Now she does not recall. Did she really see him or not? Or did one neuron see her future husband and light up her face with delight, while another neuron decided to keep this encounter hidden within her subconscious? You wonder what Tolstoy wants us to think here. You wonder if maybe he just made a mistake and forgot what he had written one hundred pages earlier. Given his obsessive re-writings of his texts, you doubt that this "seeing and not seeing" was not put there on purpose, to show us one more time how strange our psyches conceal some seeings from us and reveal others.

One other possibility: when he saw Kitty's face light up with delight at recognizing him, Lyovin, could be, was indulging himself in some wishful thinking. We'll never know, since all persons capable of answering our questions are no longer amidst the living. At any rate, Tolstoy is dead. As for Kitty and Lyovin, they will live forever on the pages of this great novel, but they cannot answer questions from our dimension.

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