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Moths and Eyes

I have been rereading Anna Karenina ( the Constance Garnett translation) and had to stop over a chapter that connected a recourse of novelists and theories of mind. The scene is one in which Annas husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch, visits a lawyer (unnamed) to begin divorce proceedings. The lawyer is carefully described: [he] was a little, squat, bald man, with a dark, reddish beard, light-colored long eyebrows, and an overhanging brow. He was attired as though for a wedding, from his cravat to his double watch-chain and varnished boots. His face was clever and manly, but his dress was dandified and in bad taste. Now this seems indirect style, that the judgment of the last line is that of Alexey Alexandrovitch (not of the narrators) who is acutely aware of his exposing his own dignity to ridicule hinted at earlier in his reluctance to have his name publicly announced in the lawyers reception room. Disapproval and condescension suffuse the description.The tension, that arising from Alexeys forced need to open his inmost grief over his wifes infidelity to a lawyer beneath him in station, works itself out in a peculiar snapping up of moths and a telling dance of the eyes. The lawyer precedes his discussion with Alexy by surprising him with an adroit capturing of a moth: The lawyer, with a swiftness that could never have been expected of him, opened his hands, caught the moth, At the end of the interview, in the one moment we have access to the lawyers inner thoughts, he says to himself that he gives up catching moths, finally deciding that next winter he must have the furniture covered with velvet, like Sigonin's. His abandonment of one sort of predatory delight is occasioned by that of another: the lawyer, we gather, anticipates the size of the fees that he will capture from having Alexy Alexandrovich in his hands, in a reversal of positions of authority. Moths seems particularly suitable images here: they threaten domestic fabric, their harm comes by expectation, the change to velvet upholstery (financed by the expected fees) will obviate the need to be vigilant.The capture of moths brackets a technique everywhere evident in Tolstoy: the revelations of the face and eyes, that is the communication that occurs without words in conversations and this chiefly mediated through the eyes. As I was reading this, I happened to see an episode of Charlie Roses show that focused on the brain, in particular the psychology, neurophysiology and the genetics of autism. In the course of the discussions, the researchers gathered around Roses table agreed that the chief manifestation of autism is the inability of one so affected to create a mental map, a theory of mind, for those with whom they have relationships. Quite simply those with autism do not look in the eyes of another person and cannot anticipate the path or greater map along which a conversation might go. Hence they remain disconnected, isolated, not able to enter properly into dialogue.Almost as a complete reverse of this is the technique so effectively used in this scene by Tolstoy. Consider the following excerpts:Alexey Alexandrovitch, following the lawyer's movements with wondering eyes . . . Alexey Alexandrovitch glanced at his face, and saw that the shrewd, gray eyes were laughing, and seemed to know all about it already The lawyer's gray eyes tried not to laugh, but they were dancing with irrepressible glee, and Alexey Alexandrovitch saw that it was not simply the delight of a man who has just got a profitable job: there was triumph and joy, there was a gleam like the malignant gleam he saw in his wife's eyes. He let his eyes rest on Alexey Alexandrovitch's feet, feeling that he might offend his client by the sight of his irrepressible amusement. , he went on, stealing a glance now and then at Alexey Alexandrovitch's face, which was growing red in patches. "It may be obtained if you give me complete liberty of action," said the lawyer, not answering his question. "When can I reckon on receiving information from you?" he asked, moving towards the door, his eyes and his varnished boots shining.The force of the power struggle and the defeat of Alexey Alexandrovitch is expressed not so much in the dialogue but in the recognition of the meaning of the look or the gaze. In this the whole hierarchy of class structure, the sense of humiliation and of triumph, and the vulnerability of Alexy Alexandrovitch are revealed. The latters attitude towards his wife is conditioned by the eyes. He sees Ana as the lawyer sees him. The two characters have clear mental maps and theories of mind that allow them to understand each other beyond words. And then the dancing moth of domestic destruction can go on flying, and its processes work to their tragic conclusion.

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I couldn't get into Tolstoi, in spite of my admiration for Dostoievski. A psychiatrist friend of mind contends that Tolstoi's descriptions are those of an obsessive compulsive and, therefore, his stories are mired down in unnecessary, distracting details such as the number of buttons on a man's coat. Yet this attention to detail also seems to be one of his strengths. Hmm.

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.