(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, as a kind of shorthand in our increasingly foreshortened culture. Myths take too much time. They require story. And where myths arise from a 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, so to speak, like climate change—don’t ask too many questions because we don’t have the time, and you’re going to die anyway, so just give us the power now and we’ll tell you how to live. It’s just the sort of rule by butcher’s thumb that 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 larger myths. It asks too many questions. It’s too long, don’t you know. You might miss something on TV. But a reviewer can appear to be of an intellectual bent, and a member of the club, just by using Mr. Tolstoy’s famous reduction.
Having just encountered the quote once again in my reading, I was thinking about its overuse and probable popularity due to the lack of purpose many people seem to feel and with that the absence of happiness that comes with having aspirations and found myself considering the sweet and sour of my own small family. Mr. Tolstoy’s observation just did not stick. And besides, why that observation and not something like, 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 as well. He could afford to say anything. Importantly, his statement does not give itself to any absolute principle. Merely a direction to think.
And I was seeking an answer to that point when I noticed on Wikipedia that a popular twit, Jared Diamond, has further derived a vacuous hypothesis from the insightful Mr. Tolstoy, inappropriately called ‘the Anna Karenina principle.’ I suppose this association was meant to give Diamond’s artificial jewel some semblance of value or substance. As a tick on the back of a doggerel theory, this parasite of thought apparently suggests that a successful endeavor is one where all deficiencies are avoided. Right. And this actually passes for wisdom with some in our time? Sounds like Mr. Diamond didn’t read the great novel either. Given that such assumed omniscience in knowing our deficiencies before we have tested ourselves is still well beyond our grasp, the idea that we might know all the deficiencies of a particular enterprise before we set out, or more, that the reason for a success after the fact was an absence of deficiencies, is too obviously fatuous. Thus, Mr. Diamond’s mal mot really boils down to knowing more than we know, or perhaps simply knowing what you are about before you set out, but always being certain of uncertain outcomes. What exactly is he aspiring to?
And how this relates to happy families is certainly an odd twist of a 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 (it was certainly not love). For myself, the more complex and interesting character in the book, if only for his faithful pursuit of happiness, is her cousin, Kostya Levin. He most fully realizes his own ignorance while Anna appears to serve as an exemplar to many in the cult of modern womanhood, those unwilling to accept the responsibility of their own actions while blaming others (usually men), and pleased to accept participation trophies in place of learning from their own failures (at least until driven mad by the contradictions). Perhaps this is the appeal of the book for some of those who fancy themselves as intellectuals now. I’m really not smart enough to even 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 at last what he wanted to know, and was willing to learn in order to achieve that much. But he does not pretend to know more than this. I have already taken him as a mentor in this, and what happiness finds me on the way, I will continue to relish.