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    portrait of a young man

    What Can Only Be Shown

    Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn hint at life’s meaning by depicting, in their characters, the feeling of its discovery.

    By Gary Saul Morson

    August 1, 2023

    The greatest Russian writers do not tell us what life’s meaning is, but they show us what the discovery of it looks and feels like. That is because meaning is not a proposition we could learn, as we master the binomial theorem. If there were such a proposition, we would all already know it. It would be the first thing we had been taught. In Brothers Karamazov Madame Khokhlakov implores Father Zossima to prove that something beyond “the menacing phenomena of nature” – something truly meaningful – actually exists. “There’s no proving it,” Zossima replies, “but you can be convinced of it.” The distinction is crucial: some things cannot be adequately addressed from a third- person perspective. Physicalism and materialist philosophy notwithstanding, the world as described “from nowhere” is incomplete.

    As it leaves out consciousness, the third-person perspective bypasses meaning. Meaning cannot be learned by scientific demonstration or mathematical proof. Strictly speaking, one does not know it, one senses it; that is why it isn’t proved, but rather convinces. And it convinces only if one leads the right sort of life. When Madame Khokhlakov asks exactly what sort of life, Zossima replies: a life of “active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In so far as you advance in love, you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt.”

    Profoundly influenced by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein read Brothers Karamazov “so often he knew whole passages of it by heart, particularly the speeches of Father Zossima, who represented for him … a holy man who could ‘see directly into the souls of other people.’” Tolstoy apparently mattered even more to him, having saved him from suicide (“kept me alive”). As Wittgenstein’s student, the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, observed, the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which so puzzled analytic philosophers, runs parallel to the eighth part of Anna Karenina, where Levin overcomes his existential despair and senses the meaning of things.

    So similar are the arguments of these two works that each can be used as a gloss on the other. Overcome by his sense of the futility of all human activity in the face of death, Levin first seeks meaning in natural science, which had taken the place of his former religious faith. “The organism … the indestructability of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution were the words that usurped the place of his old belief. These words and the ideas associated with them were very useful for intellectual purposes. But for life they yielded nothing, and Levin felt suddenly like a man who has changed his warm fur cloak for a muslin garment, and, going for the first time into the frost, is immediately convinced, not by reason, but by his whole nature, that he is as good as naked, and he must inevitably perish miserably.” He soon recognizes that science, which discerns causes and describes the facts of the world, can never address such unscientific concepts as “goodness” or “meaning.” “He was in the position of a man seeking food in a toy shop or at a gunsmith’s.”

    portrait of a young man

    Domnhall Gleeson as Levin in Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina. Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

    “Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something unavoidable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages,” Wittgenstein comments. “The modern system tries to make it look as if everything is explained.” But that is not so: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Levin at last realizes that by its very nature goodness cannot be reduced to cause and effect: “If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect. And yet I know it, and we all know it.”

    When evolutionary biologists, sociobiologists, and neurophysiologists explain how the concept of goodness has arisen, they imagine they have adequately explained it. Of course, one can explain any human belief, true or preposterous, in these ways; and one can equally well account for behavior, whether sadistic or altruistic. What one cannot do is assess the validity of an argument or the rightness of an action. The truth of the Pythagorean Theorem cannot be ascertained by any conceivable evolutionary reasoning. Neither can the rightness or wrongness of torturing children be established neurophysiologically. That is what Levin means when he concludes that goodness is not a matter of causes.

    Goodness is not a matter of effects or rewards because to perform an action because of the benefits it confers is not to perform it because it is right. As the Grand Inquisitor legend suggests, to behave well in order to be rewarded in the afterlife does not significantly differ from saving for retirement: delaying gratification is a matter of prudence, not goodness.

    If so, then, as Wittgenstein maintains, “the sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen.… If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case.”

    Our sense of goodness, Levin concludes, is given. “I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give me an answer to my question – it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given [dano], because I could not have gotten it from anywhere.”

    The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men. —from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

    Levin has hoped for a miracle revealing the meaning of life, but he needed an awareness of what he has known since childhood. The absence of the need for a miracle is itself the miracle: “And I watched for miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle that would convince me. A material miracle would have persuaded me. And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it.… I have discovered nothing. I have found out only what I knew.” As so often in Tolstoy, the truth lies not in the distance but in the prosaic facts right before our eyes.

    Levin has not exactly found an answer to the question of life’s meaning. Rather, he senses the meaning directly and so the question vanishes. As Wittgenstein observes: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is this not the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)” Levin finds he cannot convey his discovery to others by a chain of argument. Some things cannot be stated; “they make themselves manifest.”

    And yet, something can be done to guide others. One cannot state the meaning, but one can show the process of arriving at it. Realist novels, like Anna Karenina, enable readers to trace a character’s moment-to-moment experience from within and so are uniquely adept at such showing. They can do what no philosophical treatise ever could.

    Literature, as Russians have usually understood it, does not merely present a digestible version of discoveries made by philosophers. In this respect, as in others, it goes beyond the philosophers. It shows what cannot be stated.

    Meaning Changes No Facts

    In his enthusiasm, Levin expects his life to change completely. “He thought that now his relations with all men would be different.” There would be no more aloofness from his brother; he would no longer quarrel with his wife Kitty; friction with Ivan the coachman and his other servants would vanish. Within minutes each of these dreams is shattered.

    The sense of meaning changes no fact in the world. It changes one’s experience of the world as a whole. “In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is an altogether different one from that of the unhappy man.” As the novel ends, Levin understands this truth. “This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed,” Levin tells himself. “Faith – or not faith – I don’t know what it is – has come … through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.” Anna Karenina concludes:

    I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions … there will still be the same wall between the holy of holies in my soul and other people, even my wife … I shall still be unable to explain with my reason why I pray, and shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless, as it was before, but it has an unquestionable meaning of the goodness which I have the power to put into it.

    Overcoming False Ideals

    The Soviet experience intensified the question of life’s meaning as it intensified other ultimate questions. In the torture chambers of the Lubyanka, the idea that life is about personal happiness seemed absurd. Nadezhda Mandelstam reports her husband Osip asking: “Why do you think you should be happy?”

    In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn remarks that those who behaved bravely under extreme conditions were “those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept that pitiful ideology, which holds that ‘human beings are created for happiness, an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.”

    Solzhenitsyn in exile shocked Westerners. In several speeches, he applied the insights he had gained from Russian literature and Soviet totalitarianism to Western life. “When the modern Western states were being formed,” Solzhenitsyn observed in his Harvard address, “it was proclaimed as a principle that … man lives in order … to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence.)” With technical progress and the welfare state, every citizen has in fact acquired “material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness in the debased sense of the word.” What has resulted is not happiness – debased or not – but “a weakening of the personality” that threatens the West’s survival. Weapons alone are never sufficient. “To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.” If there is no ideal above personal happiness, no one will sacrifice life for country, civilization, or anything else.

    What Solzhenitsyn calls “the humanistic way of thinking,” which fails to recognize “any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth,” led, eventually, to the cult of physical well-being and material accumulation “as if human life did not have any higher meaning.” For the American founding fathers, happiness was only one goal, but over the centuries “the meaning of life has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the ‘pursuit of happiness’.… It has [even] become embarrassing to appeal to eternal concepts, embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system.”

    The West’s spiritual enfeeblement should lead people to ask: “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?” Are there no values and “eternal concepts” outside material life? “Let us ask ourselves,” he concluded his Templeton lecture, “are not the ideals of our century false? We must look at existence differently by recognizing that “our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth.… Material laws alone do not explain life or give it direction.” Significant striving, purpose beyond satisfaction, and goals not felt to be arbitrarily chosen, all depend on acknowledging something higher than ourselves. For a life to be meaningful, “it has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life’s journey may become above all an experience of moral growth.”

    Source: Excerpted from Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on The Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter by Gary Saul Morson, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2023 by Gary Saul Morson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    Contributed By GarySaulMorson Gary Saul Morson

    Gary Saul Morson is an American literary critic and scholar best known for his work on the great Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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