Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you–it’s the cage you live in. 

Johann Hari

In the preface to a book on “drunkenness” by Russian physician P.S. Alexeyev, Leo Tolstoy delves deep into the intricacies of the psyche that depends on substances. His analysis of our inclination to lose ourselves from the threatening grip of reality, dares to ditch judgements and understand the Sisyphean algorithms of addiction.

The essay is in essence a socratic piloting in introspection. The central question, that Tolstoy poses is “why do men stupefy themselves”. The question is periodically repeated, like frequent cravings, to find the answers within the answer.

Tolstoy’s analysis begins with two basic assumptions:

  • Our being is of two kinds- a blind, physical one and an enlightened, spiritual one.
  • All of human life can be reduced to two types- those that are in harmony with conscience and those that try to hide from conscience.

Tolstoy’s distinction of the two kinds of being and the tension between conscience and instinct, is a motif that foreshadows many groundbreaking ideas of twentieth century such as the defense mechanisms, cognitive dissonance and incongruence.

The conflicts: Defense, Dissonance and Incongruence.

Tolstoy steers his focus on how we hide from our conscience. The two ways of doing that is through diversion and stupefaction. Diverting one’s attention to something else is but just a partially successful attempt in deceiving the conscience. But the shame, guilt and anxiety that arise due to conscience is too threatening. We stupefy ourselves to hide from this conscience.

Stiffling conscience in films by Darren Aronofsky

Tolstoy’s idea of addiction is that of a moral malady that we inflict upon ourselves so as to escape the fear of confronting our truth. He hints at how addiction, as a form of escapism is naivete. It’s morality, is the morality of cowards, as Nietzsche calls it. We stifle our conscience, silence our inner critic and dissolve shame and guilt. It is an Oedipal process as the child within sedates the internalized parent, who is drunk like Noah.

Tolstoy further elucidates how losing sobriety and shame unleash the reign of the unconscious, a realm of chaos. He quotes mundane and classical examples- of a murderous cook and prostitutes to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov- to illustrate the consequences of loosing oneself to intoxication. He explains how little by little, a little becomes a lot.

An allegory of mesolimbic pathway (source: macbeth.a.k)

History craves for another shot, for humanity is addicted to the naivete that holds us back. It is the temptress in the hero’s journey. Tolstoy points out how, by stifling our conscience, we have become murderers. He suggests that there is an addict in all of us, the difference being in our incentive salient desires, for pot or porn to idealism or nihilism.

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.

Carl Gustav Jung

The antidote, according to Tolstoy, has begun with the awareness of the problem. He instills the hope that little by little, a little progress will become a lot of progess. Tolstoy narrates a tale of the great artist, Bryullov, who was once correcting a pupil’s work. Then the pupil remarked “Why, you only touched it a tiny bit, but it is quite another thing.” Bryullov’s reply holds hope for the ones who are afraid of anything beyond the next step, when he said: “Art begins where the tiny bit begins.”

Read Tolstoy’s remarkable essay here

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