(being another potable portion of a chapter not yet posted with A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this site)
Every social group has their myths. ‘Meme’ is the au courant word some use for this now in our foreshortened culture. Myths take too much time. They require story. And where myths arise from the need of explanation and understanding, given a universe which is for the most part still unknown, memes are convenient translations of the ‘known.’ Accepted truths. Settled science. The sort of shorthand rule of thumb a Richard Dawkins might invent to dismiss those matters, like God, or happiness, he is too busy with other memes to think about.
One of these memes you’ll often hear repeated in book reviews, instead of an application of actual thought, is this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is an observation out of context made by Leo Tolstoy in opening the great novel, Anna Karenina. Of course, few who use the meme have read or will read that book. The story there is far deeper and heady with myths. It’s too long, don’t you know. But a reviewer can appear to be of an intellectual bent, and a member of the club, just by using the reduction.
Having encountered the quote once again in reading, I was thinking about its overuse while considering the sweet and sour of my own small family. Why that observation and not, say, ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, and in your way of thinking.’ Marcus Aurelius said that. He was a very wise fellow, and very powerful. He could afford to say anything. But his statement does not give itself to any absolute principle. Merely a direction of thought.
And I was seeking an answer to that when I noticed on Wikipedia that another twit, Jared Diamond, has further appropriated the vacuous reduction of the weighty Mr. Tolstoy by deriving a hypothesis from it, inappropriately called ‘the Anna Karenina principle,’ I suppose to give it some semblance of substance. This tick on the back of a doggerel of theory apparently suggests that a successful endeavor is one where all deficiencies are avoided. Right. And this passes for wisdom with some. Sounds like Mr. Diamond didn’t read the book either. Given that such assumed omniscience is still well beyond our grasp, the idea that we might know all the deficiencies of an enterprise before we set out, or that the reason for a particular success after the fact was an absence of deficiencies, is merely fatuous. Thus, the thing really boils down to knowing what you are about before you set out.
And how this relates to happy families is certainly a twist of deficient imagination—an attempt to drag literary allusion into pseudoscience. Even Anna was not fated by such a narrow mind. Her choices were many. A novel’s worth. Her failure was a construct of her own moral ambivalence. There were many ways she might have chosen to better her life, but she ignored them in favor of a single obsession (certainly not love). For myself, the more complex and interesting character in the book, if only for his pursuit of happiness, is her cousin, Kostya Levin. He most fully realizes his ignorance. Though Anna does serve as an exemplar to many in the cult of modern womanhood, unwilling to accept the responsibility of her own actions until she is driven mad by the contradictions. Perhaps this is the appeal of the book for some of those who fancy themselves as intellectuals. I can’t guess.
But back to Mr. Tolstoy, the better mind. His struggle at the end of that work, as was Levin’s, is unfinished. He knows what he wants to know at last, and is willing to learn what he needs to learn in order to achieve that much. I have already taken him as my mentor in this. And what happiness finds me, I will continue to relish.