Affection, ambiguity and Anna Karenina

I had planned to read much of Anna Karenina over Christmas. That didn’t happen: between being ill, cooking food, playing with my nieces and defending the ending to Downton Abbey’s Christmas special, I managed a scant 60 pages. However in those early pages of this Russian masterpiece I came across a line that struck me with considerable force.

“But Levin was in love, and therefore Kitty seemed to him so perfect in every respect, so transcending everything earthly, and he seemed to himself so very earthly and insignificant a creature, that the possibility of his being considered worthy of her by others or by herself was to him unimaginable.”

Anna-Karenina-Poster-–-Pure-Love-460x650Two things immediately strike me from this passage, firstly, the early throws of affection limit our ability to think clearly. And secondly, sometimes when we like someone so much we find it hard to conceive that they might feel the same way.

It’s that moment when you meet someone and suddenly they become everything that matters. All else fades away. Except it doesn’t, it just retreats into a corner of your self which you allow to go untended for a while. They capture your imagination with an unreal sense of importance, you are for a short period of time infatuated. You see only their positives, only the things about them you want to be true. As Levin did with Kitty you see them as perfect. If you know the story of Anna Karenina you’ll know it’s not quite as simple as this, in fact, if you know anything about the interaction between any two people you will know it is never as simple as this.

No person is ever perfect, and no infatuation is ever pure. There comes a moment when you realise things about the person who has so exclusively dominated your attention which draws your attraction away from them.

Doubt sets in. Maybe it wasn’t to be. Maybe the infatuation was an illusion. Maybe, echoing Levin, you think they could never reciprocate the emotions you feel for them.

Sometimes things just don’t work out, the affection you felt at first fades and there isn’t the substance beneath, substance which would hold something more long lasting together. And that’s okay, at least, I’m starting to learn that it is okay. For too long I’ve lived in a halcyon state where I think the right relationship starts in a certain way and if it doesn’t carry on then I must have got something wrong at the outset. I’m less sure about that, I think part of working out how the intricate jigsaw puzzle fits together involves the messiness of agonised, attempted and aborted efforts at getting to know someone and whether there is a future for you and them.

When I’ve written about relationships I often keep it incredibly abstract, not wishing to involve myself or anyone else in the thoughts and ideas I set out. But time for some honesty. This messy state, where you are trying to work out if there is the beginning of a relationship emerging, is where I’ve been these past few months, and it’s largely why I’ve avoided writing about relationships. And I look back and I don’t have any regrets. I’m surprised by that, if I had thought at the start that it was going nowhere I probably would never have set out along this particular path. Yet that’s exactly what I’m learning: we do not know where we are going to end up, and if we live in the fear that a vague proto-relationship may fizzle out, then we are better off not even getting out of bed.

The other thing from Levin’s thought process, that of feeling unworthy of another’s affection, also resonated as I reflected on my situation over Christmas. I had doubts about parts of me I never usually thought about. I worried about how I looked, whether I was sufficiently articulate, funny, insightful, whether I was showing enough compassion and attention – or maybe too much attention. I found it hard to believe that me as me would ever be enough.

Strangely, in a line being drawn beneath the situation and agreeing it wasn’t going to go anywhere I did not feel vindicated in my doubts. The fact that a potential something turned out to be nothing did not persuade me of my lack of worth but encouraged me to be confident in who I am.

Funny how the messy stuff sometimes works out. I’ve learnt that dealing in ambiguity is okay, it requires honesty and openness, but sometimes accepting things aren’t clear is the quickest way of casting light on a confused and complex situation. Sometimes clarity doesn’t come, sometimes it is elusive, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.


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