Eating the Other
“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life,” Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something special; but misfortune in general is the rule.”
For those poor, sad souls who insist on looking the bright side of things, old Schopie points them to nature itself: “The pleasure of this world, it has been said,” he replies, “outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.”
No beast feasts more in the Schopenhauerian sense than the human animal. The annals of human history are uniformly decorated with oppression, injustice, and violence. So much so that even the most staunch of atheists must prostrate in worship before that foundational metaphysics of the Abrahamic faiths: mankind’s fallen and corrupt nature. What’s more, confoundingly so, is that the individual author of misery often, like old Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky today, composes their lines of misery upon the very people they love the most.
The old prince has his pen out today. Pity poor Marya Bolkonsky. It’s a rough chapter for her.
She has moved to Moscow with her father so she is separated from her only true friends, the pilgrims of Bald Hills. She has lost all hope of getting married, despite how badly she wanted to earlier. Her friend, Julie, has abandoned her to the fawnings of local men interested in her hand in marriage and, obvious to everyone but herself, her considerable dowry and income.
But the person who makes Marya suffer the most is the person who loves her the most: the old prince, her father. He’s a nasty bastard. Throughout the chapter he’s cruel, irritable, and often loses control of himself. It’s sad to watch. What’s even worse is this irritability seeps even into Marya herself. She notices it as she instructs young Nikolushka in his studies.
This is one of the sadder scenes in the novel. Marya, just like her father, explodes in frustration at the young boy when he doesn’t immediately grasp the subject being taught. She sends him to the corner. Realizing her cruelty, the internalization of her father’s faults, she begins to cry. Then the boy begins to cry. Then they’re both crying together in each other’s arms over the sadness of it all and if there was a painting of it, particularly if it was executed in the dark chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio and informed by the tragic sensibility of Sophocles, I’d look at it everyday to remind myself of the power of forgiveness and the merit of self-reflection.
Because it’s Marya’s self-reflection, or her self-awareness at least, that really stands out today. We see it most brilliantly in the closing portion of the chapter as she chastises herself for raging at her father and Mademoiselle Bourienne for their bad behavior. “He is old and feeble,” she tells herself, “and I dare to condemn him!”
It’s here that Marya Bolkonsky learns the answer to Schopenhauer’s unasked question: How to live in a broken world so full of sorrow? Her answer, so far as we can see in her response, is to be easy in forgiveness and live in such a way so as not to contribute to the quantum of suffering in the world.
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.
Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus