A comedic motion picture trope of recent vintage is to trumpet a character’s maudlin despondency by having them listen unironically to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” while in the throes of some cheap emotional crises. Think Dwight Schrute in his Trans Am grieving over Michael Scott’s affections for Ryan Howard. The trope works because of the juxtaposition between the superficial passions of the character and the profound sadness of the song. Few artistic expressions are sadder than that song. Tolstoy stories and characters are. We see that today.
Old Count Rostov literally dies of dejection. His wife can’t even bring herself to change her clothes she’s so crestfallen. And Nikolai isn’t much better. After he honorably and dutifully accepts his father’s inheritance of crippling debt he takes a job with the government and endures his impossible situation by secreting away his gloom deep within the recesses of his dolesome heart.
All of the Rostov sadness today is born of the now familiar insight that most of our negative emotions arise from our desire for outcomes that are beyond our control. The old Count wants to live in a world where he hasn’t squandered his children’s inheritance. The Countess wants a world where death hasn’t taken her son. Nikolai is perhaps a different matter. At least he’s enduring. He’s still gloomy though. He’d do better— as would have his family — to immediately detach himself, at the first hint of melancholy, from the source of his sadness, create some distance between it and himself, and then apply the stoic prescriptions we’ve learned this year. It’s a better remedy than listening to R.E.M.
Just as all vices become deep-rooted unless they are crushed when they spring up, so, too, such a state of sadness and wretchedness, with its self-afflicted torture, feeds at last upon its very bitterness, and the grief of an unhappy mind becomes a morbid pleasure.
Seneca, De Consolatione ad Marciam