Friday, 20 December 2013

Leo Tolstoy on the Difference between People and Lampposts

In the week leading up to Christmas, after several months of abstinence, I’ve finally found the time again to read a great novel, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And as usual, I find a lot that interests me philosophically.

Here’s one example: about a hundred pages into the book, Vronsky, the man who will eventually destroy Anna’s life by encouraging her to love him, is so thrilled by his first encounter with Anna that, while riding the train back to Petersburg, he becomes completely oblivious to the world and the people around him. It is not love yet, perhaps not even infatuation, but it is certainly heading that way. We would normally not find the notion of someone becoming blind and deaf to the world out of love particularly worrisome. We are probably more inclined to find it endearing. But here’s how Tolstoy describes what happens:

“He looked at people as if they were mere things. A nervous young man across from him, who served on the circuit court, came to hate him for that look. The young man lit a cigarette from his, tried talking to him, and even jostled him, to let him feel that he was not a thing but a human being, but Vronsky went on looking at him as at a lamppost, and the young man grimaced, feeling that he was losing his self-possession under the pressure of this non-recognition of himself as a human being and was unable to fall asleep because of it.”

I find this brief passage remarkable for two reasons. First, because it seems to suggest that love can give rise to evil just as much as hatred can. When people do terrible things, they often do so not out of hatred, but out of indifference. What allows them to act as they do is that they make no difference between people and things. In contrast, if I hate someone, I thereby at least acknowledge that they are real and not a mere thing. One cannot hate things. That is why we may very well prefer to be hated (and thereby recognised as a human), rather than to be treated with complete indifference (and thus as a mere thing). If love can make us indifferent to people, then love can bring about more evil than hatred.

The other thing that intrigues me about that passage is the way the young man reacts to Vronsky’s indifference. He can hardly bear the “pressure of this non-recognition of himself as a human being”, and even though Vronsky is a complete stranger to him, his indifference concerns him so much that he cannot sleep. His strong reaction suggests that we cannot stay indifferent to the indifference of others. We desperately need to be recognised as human beings, and being refused that recognition destroys us. Vronsky is just one person, and yet his indifference is enough to deeply disturb another man. Imagine how we would feel if everyone looked at us as if we were a mere thing. The pressure caused by that absence would be enormous and we would be crushed under it. If we didn’t die, we would have to stop seeing ourselves as human and would actually become the thing that the world sees in us.  

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