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.