Of dead Russian authors and dead-er French kings

Note: I’m in a gradual process of anonymizing this blog. This is just so that I can write more freely, and include observations from my life that cannot be tied to my boring real world grad student existence. We’ll see how that goes.

There’s a theme from Anna Karenina by Tolstoy that has stayed with me for years. Anna is cheating on her husband Alexei with a young army man. Alexei is a reputable senior statesman who has maintained his family’s irreproachable position in society through hard work and intelligence, and is generally respected by the higher echelons of Russian bureaucracy. Hence, his self respect and position in society take a major hit when his wife is found to openly be having an affair with someone else. Seeing as we’re talking about society in 19th century Russia, Alexei is expected to “discipline” his wife and forcibly put the affair to an end, or perhaps divorce her and leave her to fend for herself without money in an unforgiving Russian society.

Instead of all of this, Alexei has a religious awakening, and he suddenly begins to sense the love in all of humanity (perhaps seeing himself as Jesus Christ incarnate). He refuses to discipline his wife or divorce her, and tells her that she can continue living in their house with their children, while having an affair with the young army man at the same time. He protects her dignity and her standard of living, while also going out of his way to ensure that she has a romantic partner of her choosing. This is perhaps as close to God as one can get. This, as one might expect, leads her to hate and loathe him even more, so much so that she cannot even bear to look at him or be in the same house as him.

I was shocked when I read this for the first time. It seemed unfair and bizarre and very real, all at the same time. I couldn’t quite put it all together. Why would she not be grateful to such an accommodating husband? It has taken me a couple of years to understand that Anna did not need a semi-god like figure to “forgive” her for her mistakes. She just needed someone who would empathize, and not necessarily position himself above her as a superhuman, even if he was only offering kindness and not punishment.

Why am I talking about all of this? Because I face situations like these in my daily life too. If I am nice to a friend, and they don’t reciprocate the way that they “should”, I sometimes remind them that I was nice to them, and they’re not being fair to me in this social transaction. Nine times out of ten, it leads relations to sour between us. Instead of empathy, I offer them terms of an implicit social contract that they’re violating. I’ve almost always been this way, and often thought that this was a fair and honorable way to conduct human relationships. Of course I was wrong each time.

However, my life is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Hence, there is a more important reason why I am writing this post. I have been listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, and am currently at the French Revolution. A short summary would be that a bunch of French intellectuals thought that the only way to make society better would be to kill the royals, and then subsequently guillotine their own leaders. They’d read a lot of books, heard some sophisticated rhetoric, and concluded that they were smarter and better informed than everyone else. Hence, they should put their knowledge to good use, and kill everyone. Of course Colonialism, Communism, Fascism, and almost every other overarching genocidal movement in the last five hundred years has been the result of a bunch of educated elites reading a ton of books, and deciding that this made them smarter than everyone else. They would write thick manuscripts and manifestos on what an “ideal society” should look like, and then decide that anyone who stood in the way of their irreproachable vision was the enemy and deserved to be killed.

Of course each and every of these educated, intelligent men was wrong. They single handedly led to the avoidable deaths of millions. Adopting the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist’s terminology, observing patterns and constructing theories, all of these are the domain of the left hemisphere of the brain. Empathy and connectedness – these are the domain of the right hemisphere. The French intellectuals were predominantly using their left hemispheres in devising their grand plans and writing flowery manifestos on what the future could look like, but rejecting their right hemispheres and consequently empathy for their fellow citizen. The French king Lous XVI was not an evil tyrant who would not listen to reason. He was an uncharacteristically pliant ruler who essentially followed almost every whim of his citizens. And he was still beheaded on the streets of Paris.

Whenever we think we know what’s best for other people and the world in general, we are almost always wrong. All our grand plans are probably flawed, and will need to be re-worked. Hence, if our plans can only be realized by killing or hurting other people, that’s good a sign as any that we’ve made a major mistake and we need to go back to the drawing board. The only grand plans that have ever worked, say Capitalism, Democracy or public infrastructure, are ones that gave people even more freedom, whether it be political freedom or freedom of movement.

The best that we can do in this world, apart from giving the people in our lives even more freedom, is empathize with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be a Christ-like specter of unconditional love and forgiveness. It just means that we step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective, rather than look down on them from above and pass judgement on them or forgive them out of divine grace. This is (of course) is a repeat of what Tolstoy said about farmers in Anna Karenina: that we should seek to understand and empathize with them rather than seek to “uplift” them, treating them as animals unfit to fend for themselves.

I will make a greater effort to not write sappy blogposts in the future, doling out generic “love everyone” advice. However, I feel strongly enough about this to put it in writing, if only to laugh at it years later.

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Graduate student

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