Friday, September 20, 2013

Against Boundaries 2

I decided that I had a bit more to say about Leon Wieseltier’s anti-scientism argument in The New Republic.  I have moved part of the last post to this one, which concerns Jared Diamond’s use of a quote from Tolstoy.  Here is Wieseltier’s complaint (my paragraph breaks):
In 1997, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel, another scientistic theory of everything. In one of its less charming passages, Diamond proposes “the Anna Karenina principle” for the understanding of the domestication of animals: “domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.” He is mimicking the renowned opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel: “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The adage is rather overrated, since all happy families are not alike; but here is how Diamond explicates it: “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.”
This is a fine instance of the incomprehension, and the buzzkill, that often attends the extension of the scientistic temperament to literature and art. Of course Tolstoy had no such sociology or self-help in mind. His proposition was a caution against generalizations about the human heart, and a strike against facile illusions of intelligibility, and an affirmation of the incommensurability, the radical particularity, of individual experience. In-laws!
I am sorry, but Diamond’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s comment is manifestly superior to Wieseltier’s interpretation.  Let’s put the sentence on the table:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 
Wieseltier uses a lot of buzz words (radical particularity) to describe this passage.  If his stuffy phrases meaning anything, they seem to be manifestly wrong.  Is Tolstoy’s sentence really “a caution against generalizations about the human heart.”?  “Happy families are all…” and “every unhappy family is…” are about as broad as generalizations get.  Is the famous opening line really “a strike against facile illusions of intelligibility,” or is it an attempt to say something intelligible about families?  And how can it be “an affirmation of the incommensurability, the radical particularity, of individual experience”?  Families aren’t individuals.  If all happy families are indeed alike, doesn’t mean precisely that families are not “incommensurable”? 
By contrast, Diamond’s interpretation, that happiness (achieving a satisfying outcome, whether in building a life or a family or a herd) means solving a lot of ubiquitous problems and that there are more ways to fail than to succeed, is both intelligible and provocative.  It also makes sense of the quote.  Obviously literature tends to present unhappy situations more than happy ones, for that is where the drama is.  The fact that literature is translatable suggests that all of us have something like a common understanding of unhappiness and that suggests that we can perceive, however dimly, what happiness might be. 
Diamond’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s famous line makes sense of it and, intentionally or not, links back to Aristotle’s view of blessedness.  Virtuous men, in Aristotle’s view, recognize and admire one another because they are more or less alike.  Diamond takes a powerful literary gem and creatively applies it to a new phenomenon: animal husbandry.  In doing so, he reveals the power of the original insight.  He does more to honor the humanities than ever Wieseltier is doing with his attempt to erect property lines between the intellectual domains. 
I think that there is something more profoundly wrong with Wieseltier’s complaint against scientism than bad literary interpretation.  Clearly, he is objecting not just to the abuses of scientific reasoning but to the application of “the scientistic temperament to literature and art.”  Wouldn’t that work also in reverse?  Here is an example of the extension of literary temperament to science, Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful little poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself.” 
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
 The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
 When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
 If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

 A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
 Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
 Why should they, when they know they're right?

 Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
 in every other way they're light.

 On this third planet of the sun
 among the signs of bestiality
 a clear conscience is Number One.

Szymborska’s “third planet of the sun” and "the course" of lions and lice leave no doubt that she is crossing boundaries examining the scientific world view from a literary temperament.  Perhaps Wieseltier should swear out a warrant for her arrest.  I testify for the defense.  This strikes me as a profound reflection on the natural world and on the astonishing fact of human conscience.  Human beings are indeed more than animals, even if we are at least animals. 
Is science allowed to reply?  It certainly is going to do so, in effect, whether Wieseltier likes it or not.  Human moral emotions can be understood in light of our evolutionary history, as I have argued in many previous posts.  I could also point out that, if the science is right, she may be a bit stingy.  There is evidence of something rather like a moral conscience in a handful of other animals.  I am pretty sure that she is right about piranha.  I doubt that hands would enable snakes to make claims, but I understand what she means by that.  None of this tells against the poem.  The human things are psychologically rich in ways that constitute a quantum leap (metaphorically speaking) over all other visible creatures.  I can’t imagine a scientist (or even scientizer) objecting to the poem on grounds of a boundary dispute.  


  1. I suppose Diamond’s view of Tolstoy might be superior in the same way that a corpse might be more useful than a living, breathing human being. It’s true that a scientist might be able to learn a great deal from a corpse – free from the objections a living person might have were he to undergo an examination - but a corpse lacks the best thing about a human being – his spirit. That’s what Diamond has stripped from Tolstoy. Wieseltier’s interpretation may not be better, but his objection is right.
    You write, “I can’t imagine a scientist (or even scientizer) objecting to the poem on grounds of a boundary dispute.”
    But they certainly would object if the English community tried to crowd out the scientific community and began claiming that Charles Darwin’s claim to fame was that he was a great writer, while never making any mention of his contribution to science. If English began absorbing science as Wieseltier claims science is absorbing the humanities, someone might be inclined to object – and with good reason.

  2. I am completely at a loss as to why or how Diamond's view of Tolstoy's famous opening line "strips from Tolstoy" the human spirit. His interpretation of the line in its context still strikes me as correct. If all happy families are alike, it is because they have solved a number of universal problems. They feed, clothe, and house themselves, manage the marital and parental relations, nurture the children, etc. Is that wrong? Some of these tasks are mundane and physical, like keeping the toilets running. Others involve love, respect, sacrifice, and grace. From the bottom to the top, these are hardly the things that one observes in a corpse.

    Likewise, unhappy families fail in unique and interesting ways, from the point of view of a novelist. The failures tell us a lot about the human being and the human spirit, which is why so much of literature is sad. Wieseltier sneers at Diamond's mention of in laws. Apparently W. hasn't read Amy Tan's JOY LUCK CLUB. You will find a lot about in-law problems there. I would not accuse her of stripping away the human spirit.

    I think your analogy fails. Diamond is hardly claiming that Tolstoy is a biologist or that his importance is limited to the light he sheds on the history of agriculture. What he does is offer a good (if textbook) reading of Tolstoy's comment and then notice that it reveals a principle that extends well beyond the novelist's subject. In the same way that happy families are alike, happy societies are alike. Good regimes, good bodies, good herds, all have to get a lot of things right. Showing that an author's insight extends well beyond his original point is hardly an offense against literature.