In a Word . . . family

Some psychologists insist 95% of families are dysfunctional, with the other 5% in denial

It would appear the first European was also Irish.

It would appear the first European was also Irish.

 

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so wrote the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It is the opening line to his 1878 novel Anna Karenina.

In other words, happy families are boring. Not to worry. Few of us are in that category. These days some psychologists insist that 95 per cent of families are dysfunctional, with the other five per cent in denial. And it may even be true.

Then let’s not forget Friedrich Nietzsche. “Madness”, he wrote, “is rare in individuals, but in groups it is the norm.”

In other words you are just fine; it’s your family that’s driving you mad.

So where did Tolstoy come across those boring happy families he wrote about? Certainly not in his own experience. He lost his mother when he was two and his father when he was nine. He was an unhappy child whose teachers said he was “both unable and unwilling to learn.”

He abandoned university, joined the army and was appalled by the violence of warfare (what did he expect, happiness?).

Still, the early years of his marriage to Sonya were happy and sufficiently humdrum to allow him write his masterpieces – War and Peace and Anna Karenina – proving, were that needed, that happiness can have a positive side even for an artist.

It did not last. Their later married life was described by Tolstoy’s biographer AN Wilson as “one of the unhappiest in literary history.”

Which must come as relief to those who believe that no man, or woman, should live in an institution. Or, as it was put to me by an older man in my younger days (when women had their place whether they liked it or not), “marriage is an institution and no man should live in an institution.”

Nowadays you’d have to add “. . . or woman . . .” to such sage advice.

Too late for Tolstoy, even as he rejected the things of this life, including his wife. Aged 82 he died in a rural Russian railway station running away from his Sonya but pneumonia got to him first. Proving that even in death, unhappiness is so much more interesting.

Family from Latin familia, meaning ‘servants of a household’. However the Latin for family - as in parents and children - was domus, from which the word ‘domestic’ derives.

inaword@irishtimes.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.