Fantasy, Empathy, and the Other

In writing about the character Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I commented on the way our unconscious fantasies drive our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how, in our unconsciousness, we take our illusions for reality, sometimes with tragic results. After all, wasn’t it, at the very roots of the Western tragic tradition, only Oedipus’ unconsciousness that led him to kill his father and wed his mother?  But fantasies are not only destructive. In fact, they are the very lifeblood of the soul. Even in the case of Alexei Karenin, one might argue that his problem was really that he did not have enough fantasies—about his wife, for example.

He began thinking about her, about what she thought and felt. For the first time he vividly pictured to himself her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes, and the thought that she could and should have her own particular life seemed so frightening to him that he hastened to drive it away. It was that bottomless deep into which it was frightening to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental act alien to Alexei Alexandrovich. He regarded this mental act as harmful and dangerous fantasizing. (Tolstoy, 1877/2000, pp. 143-144)

The mental act of putting oneself, in thought and feeling, into another being has a name. It is called empathy, and this capacity is at least one of the things that make us human. People with little or no empathy for others are sometimes diagnosed as narcissists or sociopaths. In Karenin’s case, he has until now seen his wife as an accessory to his lifestyle, that is, as an object, and not as a subject with thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. To recognize her as such is, for him, terrifying, because it means he can no longer maintain the fantasy that he is in control of this fundamental part of his life. The bridge is gone.

And yet, our fantasies of others are our only way of knowing them. In psychotherapy, the therapist’s empathic feeling-into the patient’s world has been called vicarious introspection (Kohut, 1959). The same vicarious introspection is operative in all authentic relationships. Indeed, it is the beginning of the spiritual virtues of compassion and love. A mother needs this capacity in order to understand the feelings and needs of her infant, and as we grow from infancy into adulthood, our capacity to relate to others in this way only deepens—if all goes well. This process can be interrupted in many ways: by trauma, neglect, or an unsympathetic culture. And so many of us ultimately find our way into psychotherapy in search of just that experience of being seen into, listened into, felt into, and understood. It is this experience, we sense, that Anna Karenina was missing in her relationship with her husband, and that lack ultimately led, in Tolstoy’s story, not only to her affair and separation, but ultimately to her tragic death.

Face to Face with Life

There is a moment in Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, when the government minister Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin begins to confront the possibility that his wife, Anna, is in love with another man.

Alexei Alexandrovich stood face to face with life, confronting the possibility of his wife loving someone else besides him, and it was this that seemed so senseless and incomprehensible to him, because it was life itself. All his life Alexei Alexandrovich had lived and worked in spheres of service that dealt with reflections of life. And each time he had encountered life itself, he had drawn back from it. Now he experienced a feeling similar to what a man would feel who was calmly walking across a bridge over an abyss and suddenly saw that the bridge had been taken down and below him was the bottomless deep. This bottomless deep was life itself, the bridge the artificial life that Alexei Alexandrovich had lived. (Tolstoy, 1877/2000), pp. 142-143)

Who has not experienced that sinking feeling, that sudden vertigo? For some, like Karenin, it is the discovery of an affair. For others, it might be a divorce, a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or even a natural disaster. Inevitably, in such a moment, we discover that the things we took for granted and relied on were not so permanent or so stable after all.

Tolstoy describes Karenin as having drawn back from life itself each time he was confronted with it, preferring instead to deal with reflections of life. These reflections of life might take many forms. There are, for example, our concepts and opinions, derived from our family, our education, the government, and the media. We quote statistics from the newspapers and parrot the reasonable-sounding and politically correct opinions of television talk show hosts. On a more subtle level, even our ideas about ourselves and the people closest to us are abstractions at best, always one step removed from our direct experience of life. Most of the time, this works relatively well for us, and life proceeds smoothly, as we believe it should—until, as happened to Karenin, the bottom drops out, exposing our most unquestioned assumptions and cherished beliefs as fantasies.

Most of the time, we fail to recognize our fantasies as such. Karenin, for example, had up until this moment lived with the fantasy that it would be impossible for Anna to love anyone but him. Where did this fantasy come from? Perhaps he had imbibed it unconsciously from the culture in which he lived, the circles in which he moved, the books he read. This fantasy became one of the many beams making up the bridge that Tolstoy calls his artificial life.

One of the great benefits of psychotherapy, and of psychodynamic therapy in particular, is the gift of having one’s fantasies recognized as fantasies, and pointed out as such. One of the key insights of psychoanalysis is that our unconscious fantasies drive our behavior. But when we see our fantasies for what they are, we are freed from their invisible influence. We have a choice as to how to act, where before we had none. Of course it is frightening, and often painful, to recognize our assumptions about life as “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Self-knowledge requires courage, but without it, we might someday wake up to find we had spent our lives walking across bridges that were never really there.