Get Contaminated

Day 254 of A Year of War and Peace

ontamination is a good thing. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, published for global consumption by New York based W. W. Norton & Company, argues as much in his discussion of the works of the ancient Latin poet Terence. Terence, Appiah notes, wrote classic Roman comedies based on Greek source material. He “contaminated” Roman comedy by importing these foreign works. In his play The Self-Tormenter Terence expresses the essential creed of contaminators everywhere with the immortal phrase, Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

This is a civilizing reflection and we see its transformative properties at work in today’s chapter.

Recall Pierre’s position. He’s a mess. Well, I mean, he’s been a mess since we first met him. That’s why we love him so much. But he’s much more a mess in recent chapters. He has refused to flee Moscow. Instead he has chosen to wrap himself in Russian peasant clothes, live among only Russians, and speak only Russian. This is a decidedly closed and nationalistic position. His mental state while living like this is one of doldrums and dullness.

Today, however, Pierre sits down to a table of food and wine with the French officer Ramballe. He drinks with Ramballe. He drinks even more Ramballe. He serves as translator, helping Ramballe communicate with some confused Germans. All of a sudden Pierre’s mind blossoms from one of melancholy and murder to one of les femmes and l’amour. Tolstoy writes:

The few glasses of wine he had drunk and the conversation with this good-natured man had destroyed the mood of concentrated gloom in which he had spent the last few days and which was essential for the execution of his design. The pistol, dagger, and peasant coat were ready. Napoleon was to enter the town next day. Pierre still considered that it would be a useful and worthy action to slay the evildoer, but now he felt that he would not do it. He did not know why, but he felt a foreboding that he would not carry out his intention. He struggled against the confession of his weakness but dimly felt that he could not overcome it and that his former gloomy frame of mind, concerning vengeance, killing, and self-sacrifice, had been dispersed like dust by contact with the first man he met.

It’s quite the change and completely the result of getting contaminated. Keep in mind the man who opened up this door is a Frenchman. That’s supposed to be Pierre’s enemy but Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

This change of mind leads to one of the most brilliant passages in the novel wherein Pierre, alongside his new friend, ventures into nighttime Moscow to survey the skyline. He spots a small fire in the distance and, above, the great comet of 1812. He’s overcome with the emotion of it all, the brilliance of openness and love. You can get like that, too.

Just get contaminated.


Buyer: Then first, my good fellow, where do you come from?

Diogenes: Everywhere.

Buyer: How do you mean?

Diogenes: You’re looking at a citizen of the world.

Diogenes the Cynic, Sayings and Anecdotes

This is the two hundred and fifty fourth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.

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