Psychologists have tried to plumb the depths of human motivation to make sense of our behaviour. But our inner mental world is a fiction, sustained by constant improvisation
At the climax of Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train as it moves out of a station on the edge of Moscow. But did she really want to die? Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her lover, Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?
We ask such questions, but can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. But if Tolstoy doesnt tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Annas motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill this void with our own interpretations and debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about what Anna really wanted, because, of course, Anna is a fictional character.
Suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoys masterpiece a journalistic reconstruction. Now Annas motivation becomes a matter of history, rather than a literary interpretation. Yet our method of inquiry remains the same: the very same text would now be viewed as providing (perhaps unreliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Historians, rather than literary scholars, might debate competing interpretations.
Now imagine that we could ask Anna herself. Suppose the great train slammed on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital and, against the odds, pulls through. We catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. But, as likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation as she attempts to account for her behaviour. To be sure, she may have data unavailable to an outsider she may, for example, remember the despairing words Vronsky has left me forever running through her mind as she approached the edge of the platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception. In truth, autobiography always deserves a measure ofscepticism.