Of Heavy Hearts

…and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. –Proverbs 31:6

When I first read Anna Karenina 15 years ago, I hadn’t noticed an interesting detail (perhaps because I was trying to gather up all the plot strands and was missing some details) — late in the novel Anna becomes a junkie, using small doses of morphine to stifle the emotional pain of a declining romance with Vronsky, as she perceives it.

And though she felt sure that a coldness was beginning, there was nothing she could do, she could not in any way alter her relations to him. Just as before, only love and by charm could she keep him. And so, just as before, only occupation in the day, by morphine at night, could she stifle the fearful thought of what would be if he ceased to love her.

What an extraordinary psychologist Tolstoy is: What do humans do to stifle pain? they turn to drugs. Today we get depressed, even a little, and it won’t go away, and we get a prescription to fix it. The chemical compounds are perhaps a bit more controlled than a reaction to morphine, but still we seek solace when trouble comes. The thing Anna has greatly feared — a waning romance with Vronsky — has come upon her, even if that fear isn’t grounded in facts, even if it is wholly irrational (but isn’t that where fear comes from, the irrational?). She has no rest, her mind is unquiet. She has to remain occupied during the day, and on morphine during the night.

I find myself at my most sympathetic with Anna at this point in the novel. What a vast, irrational thing human suffering is: Does it matter how we get to the point of anguish? Anyone who experiences grief in some way — and what is Anna experiencing but grief? — must be able to find some sympathy when others grieve, even if we don’t or can’t accept the rightness or wrongness of the actions that took that person to the point in which grief exposes itself, a storm in the mind, as William Styron calls it in his beautfiful book-length essay about his struggle with depression Darkness Visible.

But back to drugs and drug use to stifle pain: It’s an ancient solution to the one thing that’s truly universal to human experience. "Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more," says Proverbs. And I have to say, "cheers!" to that.


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