Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy


After all the reading I’ve done lately on modern neuropsychology, especially the structure of consciousness and the human need to create moral agencies, I can see the major forms of these ideas in Anna.

I have a good friend who’s an incessant cheerleader for Leo Tolstoy. He champions Tolstoy for both cultural and literary reasons. First, my friend is a Doukhobor (look it up). Second, he’s a keen judge of good fiction. And his Russian used to be good enough to read Tolstoy in the original, something he advocates.

So he and I have enrolled in a continuing ed course titled “Anna Karenina and Her Creator,” which promises to enrich the novel with a look at its time, places, and politics, and at the evolution of Tolstoy’s thinking during the novel’s writing. That course starts today.

This reading was my first time all the way through the novel, not least because its 862 pages always seemed too large a time commitment for a “romance” novel. What’s to say that one couldn’t say in a more modest, Austen-like length? Talk about your voluble Russians!

Of course, I was wrong about the quality of the novel. And after all the reading I’ve done lately on modern neuropsychology, especially the structure of consciousness and the human need to create moral agencies, I can see the major forms of these ideas in Anna.

One of the most impressive features of Anna Karenina is how Tolstoy is able to delve so deeply into the interior lives of his characters. We follow complex and contradictory states of mind, in long passages that ring true with how we ourselves work our emotional ways through our lives.

The novel is much too long, and much too rich, for any kind of thorough analysis in this space. I try to keep my articles rather a lot shorter than that. I may have time to read a long book, but I have no interest in attempting to write one.

That said, I’d like to concentrate on the otherwise problematic last section of Anna. Problematic because I don’t think that Part VIII fits very well with the rest of the book, too often feeling like an artificial anti-climax after the high melodrama of Anna’s action.

But there is one way in which I found the novel’s ending section compelling. Levin, the character most like Tolstoy, has a stagey but nonetheless psychologically valid religious epiphany after his return to his country estate from the soulless life of the city.

It’s in this comparatively short section that Tolstoy demonstrates in a rush of prose several of the key insights of 21st century cognitive psychology. Specifically, Levin engages in the kinds of thought processes identified by current research. Without the jargon of modern neuroscience, Tolstoy creates a compelling character study, artfully bringing to life the homeostatic, emotional, and rational underpinnings of the religious impulse.

Levin’s spiritual transformation expresses Tolstoy’s own evolving sense of the importance of a “natural” religion, a faith that relies not on theology, but on the “gift” of an innate impulse toward goodness. In Anna, Tolstoy argues forcefully that this God-given humanity can be lost, or at least misplaced, in a clutter of ideas, from the mind games of philosophy to the dryness of experimental science. For Tolstoy, truth is not something to explain by reason; rather, it is something to experience by living.

What I want to focus on here, however, is not Tolstoy’s specific faith in God but on the psychology framing his expression of that faith.

Thus, while the specific content of the passages to come is fully religious in the spiritual, other-worldly sense of the word, for the most part I will de-emphasize  that context in favour of what I see as Tolstoy’s instinctive expression of the core processes of human consciousness.

An appreciation of Tolstoy’s insight into human psychology does not depend on accepting or denying the extra-worldly reality he advocates. We can examine the validity of Levin’s characterization separately from any consideration of the truth or falsehood of Tolstoy’s specific stance on religion in Anna, a stance that Tolstoy would soon modify in his own life, retaining the moral impulse to the good while rejecting the miraculous and supernatural.

– * –

First, Levin’s burst of religious awareness at the end of the novel develops in stages that parallel the most convincing current explanation for the development and functioning of self-awareness.

Following the sequence discussed in Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, consciousness proceeds first from primordial feelings that are part of our homeostatic systems. Damasio writes that it is these primordial feelings which are the bases of emotions, behavioural states, motivations to interact with the external world or to alter the internal states of the body in order to achieve or maintain homeostasis: “Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution.”

The “universal emotions” (fear, anger, surprise) are everywhere, existing in all cultures, however differentially expressed. Background emotions (satisfaction, dissatisfaction) and social emotions (shame, guilt, admiration, compassion) are more culturally influenced and are more malleable, but they operate in much the same way, as reactions to body states and environmental information.

Damasio argues that this matrix of physical and mental activity generates our sense of self in three stages: the primarily unconscious “protoself,” the world-interactive “core self,” and the reflecting and story-telling “autobiographical self.”

How does all this relate to Tolstoy’s Anna?

In the last chapters of Part VIII, Levin’s reveries are reactions to the physical and emotional content of the “protoself.” Levin has lost his previous sense of connection to the land and to the life of the peasants. Once pleasurable farming activities like haying and beekeeping, which had previously satisfied him, now seem pointless. He knows that the peasants live more purely than he does, and he wonders what they have that he doesn’t.

In Damasio’s terms, Levin experiences an upset in his homeostatic balance, a discord that he feels as an undefined unease and discomfort. Motivated by these feelings, he searches for an emotional lifesaver. His unhappiness emphasizes how much he needs something that will explain his life to him, something that justifies his continued existence. And his musings and reflections about what it all means culminate in the culture-bound explanations his “autobiographical self” creates.

Levin’s re-immersion in the natural rhythms of life on the estate eventually restore him, although for a long time he does not recognize this. Re-establishing the balance of his life finally cleanses him of the confusion and artificiality of the city and society.

He is impelled inward, and it’s in looking inside himself that he begins to construct his explanation, his own autobiographical narrative, for his existence.

Now, as if involuntarily, he cut ever deeper and deeper into the earth, so that he, like a ploughshare, could not get out without turning the sod.

– * –

The second way in which Levin’s return to faith corresponds to present psychological theory lies in the reasons he gives for believing.

(For a discussion of the general question of how belief in God developed, see Variations on the creation: how we invented God, in the Essays.)

Levin re-embraces the faith of his youth because it gives meaning to his world. He feels so strongly that he cannot live without meaning that he hides his rope, lest he give in to a frightening temptation to kill himself.

Having found no lasting satisfaction in the words and theories of modern philosophers and scientists, Levin finally abandons reason for faith. He gives up trying to be an adult who understands and returns to the uncritical life of the child:

When Levin thought about what he was and why he lived, he could find no answer and was driven to despair; but when he left off asking himself those questions, he seemed to know what he was and why he lived, for he acted and lived unfalteringly and definitely.

The comforts of belief are more necessary, and therefore feel more natural, to Levin than do the realities of science. If reason is barren, then reason must be rejected:

Lying on his back he was now gazing at the high cloudless sky. ‘Don’t I know that that is infinite space, and not a rounded vault? But however I may screw my eyes and strain my sight, I cannot help seeing it round and limited, and despite my knowledge of it as limitless space I am indubitably right when I see a firm blue vault, and more right than when I strain to see beyond it.’

In an earlier interior dialogue, Kitty foreshadows Levin’s rejection of reason:

‘Why has he been reading those philosophies for a whole year?’ she thought. ‘If it’s all written in those books, he can understand it. If what they say is untrue, why read them? He says himself that he would like to believe. Then why does he not believe? It must be because he thinks too much.

Levin’s need for meaning, for life to have a purpose outside of itself, is so strong that it drives him from reason to faith:

Organisms, their destruction, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, development — the terms that had superseded these beliefs — were very useful for mental purposes; but they gave no guidance for life, and Levin suddenly felt like a person who has exchanged a thick fur coat for a muslin garment and who, being out in the frost for the first time, becomes clearly convinced, not by arguments, but with the whole of his being, that he is as good as naked and that he must inevitably perish miserably.


For him the problem was this: ‘If I don’t accept the replies offered by Christianity to the questions my life presents, what solutions do I accept?’ And he not only failed to find in the whole arsenal of his convictions any kind of answer, but he could not even find anything resembling an answer.

Crucially, Levin asks himself how there can be goodness without God. Not induced goodness, the kind whose presence is rewarded and absence punished, but an impulse to goodness that has no external source. If we feel this impulse, Levin reasons, it has to come from somewhere. But if it comes from somewhere, it’s not true goodness, so it has really to come from somewhere “else.” That line of thought evokes the idea of God, in a way that Levin considers sufficient proof for God’s existence.

In the terminology of modern psychology, Levin’s re-conversion follows a familiar pattern. First, his primitive feelings tell him that he is coming into homeostatic balance within his body and with his environment. This positive state he experiences as diffuse feelings of calmness and ease. He responds to these feelings with emotions of love and charity.

How did he get these feelings? Since he craves meaning, he requires a causal agency. But if the summarizing name he gives to his present state of mind is “goodness,” and if goodness doesn’t have a limited cause, as he now believes, then the agent he senses must be invisible.

And it’s in the creation of a necessary, unseen agency that Levin restores the God of his youth, and recaptures the elusive happiness that he — and Tolstoy — seek.

The last words (literally) are Levin’s:

‘My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.’


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