Ask the Dust
Dust, the vagrant flake of shedding matter, swarms about in today’s chapter like a cloud of baleful portent. It falls hot and heavy on the retreating troops, choking them with an oppressive dry thirst. It is harsh and unforgiving. As such, it’s the perfect metaphor for Prince Andrei’s psychology.
The young man is in a bad state. He’s still reeling from the sorrow of the Natasha affair and while he cannot subdue his sorrow he does manage to mask it with the anger he feels for the invading French forces. His command of troops temporarily offers him at least some respite. As he encounters old acquaintances when his regiment passes through Bald Hills, however, he can’t help but grow spiteful, ironical, and contemptuous. “In truth,” writes Tolstoy, “everything presented itself in a dark and gloomy light to Prince Andrei.”
It’s true. He can’t even summon an old, familiar happiness when he talks with Alpatych. Then, when he watches his troops joyfully splashing about in a local pool he can only think of how pathetic they are and how their dancing bodies are, in the end, mere cannon fodder.
Contrast this despondency with the simple contentment of the old, deaf peasant Prince Andrei encounters as he approaches Bald Hills. The old man seems totally undisturbed while all around him, everything is in ruin. Bald Hills has been abandoned. Window panes are broken, weeds grow upon the garden path, trees have been toppled and raped of their fruit, the garden house has been destroyed. He soldiers on, though, plaiting bate shoes for his future.
Consider that this man is a peasant. He has been denied the pleasures and riches of Prince Andrei’s entitled life. Yet, it’s the old man who is unmoved and resilient against the disaster and tragedy of the French invasion. Prince Andrei, on the other hand, is a roiling cauldron of negativity and bleakness.
Tears and incessant sighs are for dainty spirits unmanned by long prosperity; at the slightest stirring of discomfort they are prostrated. But people who have passed all their years in affliction should bear even the heaviest blows with unflagging fortitude. This is the one benefit of constant misfortune; eventually it hardens those whom it persistently afflicts.
Seneca, Consolation of Helvia