Approach of the Kneaded Clod (Bezukhov Smiles)
Pierre enters his father’s room. It’s a solemn scene of lighted taper candles, gathered grievers, priests in vestments, and a dying man propped up in a chair under a collection of red-lighted icons. In the air above them all hang the haunted ghosts of sacramental chanting.
It’s a very confusing time for Pierre. He still doesn’t quite know what to do. He’s confused further when he spies Vasili and Catiche huddle together near his father’s bed, remove themselves from the room through a back door, and then return to the service nearly as quickly as they left it.
When the service is completed and the Count is returned to his bed we’re presented with a very moving scene. Once again, Pierre, encompassed about like Jonathan Harker with terrors he dare not think of, follows the lead of Anna Mikhailovna. He takes his dying father’s hand in his own and kisses it. He looks into his father’s eyes. The Count looks back. “Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm,” Tolstoy writes, “or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Death is that obnoxious relative nobody wants to meet with but none can stop from coming to visit.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be like Pierre locked in terror as he contemplates death through the visage of his dying father. His father, actually, probably has the right idea: greet death with a smile. It’s silly, after all, to cling to something like life that must inevitably, by a mere operation of nature, be taken away. That’s why I think old Willy Shakes, as he usually does, gets it right:
Be absolute for death; either death or life/ Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:/ If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing/ That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,/ Servile to all the skyey influences,/ That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,/ Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death’s fool;/ For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun/ And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble;/ For all the accommodations that thou bear’st/ Are nursed by baseness. Thou’rt by no means valiant;/ For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork/ Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,/ And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st/ Thy death, which is no more.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure