Good Grief, Part 2

Day 24 of A Year of War and Peace

Yesterday’s reading concluded with the old Prince calling everyone to dinner. Today’s reading begins in the Bolkonsky dining-room as that dinner commences. We learn that in addition to his family the old Prince, contrary to normal aristocratic social practices, invites his lowly architect to table. This, we are told, is to showcase his liberality and open mindedness. Maybe. The old Prince does not emerge as too open minded and liberal in this chapter.

In fact, the entire chapter is basically the old Prince ridiculing his son. To the old Prince the contemporary conflicts of Europe are little more than playacting. Napoleon in particular is singled out for ridicule, probably because Prince Andrei has displayed such admiration for him.

Beneath this jesting, I believe, lies a deep grief. The old Prince’s attitude betrays a frightened worry that something bad will happen to his son at war. The strongest support for this idea is found in a musical refrain the old Prince keeps repeating. In yesterday’s chapter the old Prince, in response to hearing his son’s war plans, sang, “Malbroug s’en va-t-en guerre. Dieu sait quand reviendra.” This translates to: “Marlborough is going to war; God knows when he’ll return.” He repeats this song towards the end of today’s chapter.

Could it be that part of the reason the old Prince behaves so severely is that he worries that the future of his son, like Marlborough’s, is uncertain and dangerous?


Yesterday, in reflection on the dysfunction of the Bolkonsky house, we spoke about how one way to deal with grief in life is to first look at life realistically, not to shy away from the bad parts.

Today let’s look even closer.

Let’s look at that most mournful of life events, that which the Bolkonsky house is currently occupied with: the potential loss of a loved one.

A death in the family is a traumatic event, something that can cause long-term psychological damage to those that remain. Just like Gilgamesh grieving over the loss of Enkidu, we often feel like it’s to the one who survive the gods leave grieving.

But what is it that causes this grief? Is it death itself? Probably not. Death is an infant’s fart. It’s natural, it’s going to happen. We certainly don’t expect our loved ones to live forever: valar morgulis. Looking closer, then, we find it is our reaction to the death that causes the grief. That is, we look at the event of death and then, independent of it, make a decision to consider it horrible. But why become so upset over something that must, like the passing of gas through a baby’s ass, occur?

Now, of course, there is an equally natural emotional reaction to something like the loss of a loved one. But sustained, corrosive grief can be assuaged by attempting to separate the event from our sorrowful reaction to it. So the Bolkonskys, when they feel themselves drifting off into grief over Andrei’s deployment, they should remind themselves of the following:

Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’

Epictetus, Enchiridion

This is the twenty-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.

I’m also very interested in hearing what you have to say about the novel. So leave a comment and let me know.

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

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