Olivia, that great Illyrian beauty of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, found herself, as we all have on one Saturday night or another, irresistibly attracted to a transvestite. This compulsive love, this fatal attraction, was not created within her own heart, as she understood it anyway, but, rather, it had been written by the cosmos itself. “Fate, show thy force,” she cries, “Ourselves we do not owe./ What is decreed must be, and be this so.”
A similar fatalism is an integral part of today’s chapter of War and Peace though with significantly less cross-dressing. Not less than four times, an average of once per page, Pierre feels as if the night’s events are guided by fate rather than his own volition.
He first feels it as he follows Anna Mikhailovna from the carriage they took from the Rostov’s party into Count Bezukhov’s mansion. Anna Mikhailovna moves with such confidence and purpose, Pierre reasons, that this moment could not be structured any other way. Confidence and purpose, as we know, are not Pierre’s strong suits. But as the chapter progresses, as the conviction strengthens that everything that will happen to him this evening has been preordained, as he approaches his dying father’s room, following Anna Mikhailovna there, as he slowly resigns to the movement of events rather than trying to direct them himself, things start to change. The reader notes a bit less confusion in Pierre, a bit more calmness. The behavior of others toward him changes too. Those around him treat him with more deference, with more servility. Prince Vasili even takes him by the hand, something he has never done before, and wishes him well.
And with that Pierre enters the chamber of his dying father to meet his fate.
Tolstoy’s fictional world has so far presented us with a diverse range of experience covering portraits of friendship, dysfunctional relationships, and filial duty. Our own world is much messier. Just one day’s news brings us stories of flowering artistic expression, wonderful innovations in technology, and a twelve-year-old boy sticking up a classmate at gunpoint over a chicken nugget.
What to make of this mess?
I like Pierre’s approach in this chapter. He seems to understand that the workings of the world are beyond his control and so he decides to just go with it. Yet, this isn’t a complete resignation. Pierre does, after all, make the choice to follow Anna Mikhailovna’s lead. His autonomy isn’t totally erased.
Much later in the novel, as Tolstoy investigates the causes of the Napoleonic Wars, we’ll explore even more of this tension between individual agency and historical determinism. For now we’ll have to settle on a way to live in this crazy place. Marcus, similarly to Pierre, has a suggestion:
Whatever may happen to you, it was prepared for you from all eternity; and the implication of causes was from eternity spinning the thread of your being and that which is incident to it.
Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I shall stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts. For remembering this, inasmuch as I am part, I shall be discontented with none of the things that are assigned to me out of the whole. For the whole contains nothing that is not for its advantage; and all natures indeed have this common principle, but the nature of the universe has this principle besides, that it cannot be compelled even by any external cause to generate anything harmful to itself. By remembering, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be content with everything that happens.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations