Former president and dissident of Czechoslovaka Vaclav Havel points out in his essay “Power of the Powerless” how “absurd” it was that most Czechs and Slovaks lived under Czechoslovakia’s repressive Communist regime in the 1970s and 80s according to the mantra, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (Havel 1978). One great point he makes is that most of the conformists living this “absurd,” submissive way of life are content to do so—and are completely confounded by why some of their former friends have alternatively chosen to “live in the truth” by performing dissident music and writing dissident literature at the cost of being jailed by the state—because these conformists have never experienced an alternative way of living, and thus could only judge the “absurdity” of their submission if they stepped outside the way they currently live. (See here for more background and full text.)
Taking this lesson outside the context of repression in Czechoslovakia, it seems quite possible that if I were living another way of life B, I would spot many “absurd” aspects of my current way of life A, where I’m defining an absurd aspect to be an aspect in A that is much less preferred than the corresponding one in B—for example, if I were swimming in B as an alternative to basketball in A, and having seen basketball from the swimming point of view and vice versa, I were to prefer swimming to basketball. My intuition for why this is true is that people often need help from outside lenses to see aspects of themselves in their true form. One example is the surprise many people experience after hearing their voices recorded on a recorder for the first time. “Do I really sound like that to the world?” Additional vibrations within our body that are picked up by the inner ear when we speak or sing automatically bias our lens of our own sound. Another example is people not being able to see mistakes in their form/technique in sports without a coach, videocamera, or other pair of eyes. Phoebe running in Friends is a fun example of running form, and since my dorm room has a view of people running on the Charles River, I can confirm that many people (including myself, until my girlfriend corrected me) would run differently if they knew what they looked like. Other great examples of needing other lenses include people’s many psychological biases and the usefulness and often surprising nature of feedback in the workplace or from friends.
So given that our lenses of ourselves are imperfect, how can we spot our “absurdities”? My friend Ben points out that regularly getting feedback from those around you is one way. Another way seems to be to carefully study other people and (as objectively as possible) figure out how you compare to them along certain dimensions; this relies on how self-aware you are.
But consider the way Havel suggests. Intuitively, it seems that living out the alternative life yourself (i.e. trying swimming for a time) is a more robust way for you to judge how much you prefer one way of living versus another (instead of guessing at how much you’d prefer swimming by seeing that someone else does it every morning and enjoys it, but seeing nothing else). Unfortunately, real-world constraints (e.g. time, financial resources, relationship obligations) might prevent us from even being able to try the alternative life to test how much your prefer it. Here is where characters from literature (hence the title) might be one solution.
Perhaps the next best thing to living out the alternative life yourself is seeing it lived out in a literary character about whom you can observe every detail, including his thoughts, motivation, close relationships, past life, and personality, as well as the internal and external consequences of his way of living. (At least the genre of the realist 19th century novel, according to my English professor Phil Fisher, permits such intimate knowledge of the characters, more intimate than you might have of your closest friends.) Authors often use foils to bring out contrasts between different characters—why not use literary characters as foils for ourselves? Luckily, I found exactly such a foil in Levin while reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
What makes Levin a good foil for me is that we share enough attributes that I can empathize with him, but differ on the other attributes enough that I can make many comparisons between my life and his. (You’ll have to read Anna Karenina for a full appreciation of Levin’s character, or you can see a summary here if you don’t have time and just want an overview or refresher of Levin.) What follows is the beginning of my unedited freewrite about how Levin is a foil for me and my learnings from that. See here for more.
The story of Levin is at times comical, idyllic, and most relatable for me in the novel. He comes to Moscow wanting to propose to Kitty, the daughter of his schoolmate. He envisions a wife to fill his home as his mother did for his father when he was a child (he still lives in his childhood home, so we see the role of tradition for him). (Cf. my initial motivations for dating Kanjun—I saw that we grew together and learned from each other, making our time together high-quality.) He is attracted to Kitty (and the other Scherbatsky sisters) by the sisters’ refined and “mysterious” aristocratic habits. He is nervous, out of place in Moscow—and moreover his mood is tied to Kitty’s every move (e.g. during skating)—I can empathize with the discomfort he experiences changing environments (especially his independent rural life to the socialite urban life—does the reverse discomfort hold?) and to a much lesser degree his caprice (responding to Kitty’s moves). Then he proposes, is rejected for a rival Vronsky, spends the rest of the evening sadly, and leaves. He returns to the comfort of his home base in the country side – his maid, books, land, peasants, huting, solicitude. He can crafts plans for his agriculture in solicitude and bounce his ideas off his perhaps not-so-educated maid Agafea (akin to Casaubon and Bulstrode in Middlemarch in their isolation having the power to dream up plans without any external check). Sometimes I feel that I in my room, or in quiet working spaces, might be akin to Levin in his comfortable home base. Kanjun tells me that Boston, maybe Chicago, maybe Palo Alto (but not SF) is my home base (where I am most comfortable/confident), but even in crowded, loud social spaces in Boston (or anywhere), I feel less at home. And sometimes in my room I can see the slowness and danger of trynig to plan things all by myself (leading to possible error of not having others check me), although thinking on one’s own is good to (a) learn how to think and (b) develop independent perspective. So perhaps strike a better balance between planning/thinking/learning independently vs. with others – do the first as I’m doing now, but then actually talk to others/profs, see how other people solve problems and do things, etc. to see other ways of doing after my own…
1. Havel, Vaclav. “Power of the Powerless.” 1978.