All With Whom We Associate
Romantic love may very well be our most chimerical of conceits. It promises a lovely and temperate summer’s day. It delivers, often, as attested to by a multimillion-dollar blues music industry, a winter’s tale of discontent. Marcel Proust, writing in À la recherche du temps perdu, probably gets it right when he says that “love is an incurable malady, like those diathetic states in which rheumatism affords the sufferer a brief respite only to be replaced by epileptiform headaches.” This may seem like a hopelessly dour view but there is a reason Cupid dispenses his gift of love by means of a deadly weapon.
That amorous archer, as it happens, has certainly hit his target with Natasha and Prince Andrei today, subjecting both of them to a riotous and rapid sine wave of oscillation between positive and negative emotional position. At the risk of being too repetitive A Year of War and Peace will argue, as it has repeatedly as of late, that this turbulence might be curbed if only the characters adopted the stoic principle of recognizing that there are things within our control and things without our control and that only those things within our control should be of concern to us.
We’ll start with Prince Andrei. He completed yesterday’s chapter a very happy fellow. Today he discusses his wish to propose marriage to Natasha with his father. The old Prince isn’t pleased. He places the condition that Andrei must wait one year before he marry her. The next time we see Prince Andrei, then, he no longer wears the bright face he wore in the previous chapter. Instead he looks agitated and serious.
As for Natasha it’s rough going too. It takes Andrei three weeks to return to her. Three whole weeks! During this time she is totally ignorant of his intentions and starts to believe that he has abandoned her. So she despairs. She weeps nightly. She moves “from room to room like a shadow, idle and listless.” When she finally summons the courage to speak to her mother about Andrei she can’t push any words past the torrent of tears she cries.
At one point Natasha does attempt to look inward for stability. She sings to herself, participating joyfully in the reverberating notes of her voice. It almost works but she soon realizes that she can never be at peace without Andrei.
It’s fortunate for her, then, that Andrei arrives at nearly the precise moment she comes to this realization. And it’s a happy moment for Andrei too because once he sees her his face brightens from its agitation and seriousness.
But the emotional ride isn’t over yet.
Natasha falls deeper into love and danger. She understands, perhaps misunderstands, that her entire well-being depends upon Prince Andrei. “Is it possible,” she thinks, “that this stranger has become everything to me?” Curious that Natasha, and so many men and women like her, would put all their emotional eggs into one basket. It’s especially odd given the fact that the basket has a mortality rate of 100%.
Prince Andrei fares no better. Upon Natasha’s declaration of love for him “something in him suddenly changed; there was no longer the former poetic and mystic charm of desire, but there was pity for her feminine and childish weakness, fear at her devotion and truthfulness, and an oppressive yet joyful sense of the duty that now bound him to her for ever.”
So we see, once again, that our characters sacrifice any hope for mental tranquility by placing themselves at the disposal of things falling outside their sphere of control.
What, then, is it to be properly educated? To learn how to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases, in accordance with nature; and, for the future, to distinguish that some things are in our own power, others not. In our own power are choice, and all actions dependent on choice; not in our power, the body, the parts of the body, property, parents, brothers, children, country, and, in short, all with whom we associate. Where, then, shall we place the good? To what class of things shall we apply it? To that of things that are in our own power.
Epictetus, The Discourses