Laughing for Some Reason Like Heaps of Manure on Well-Kept Plough Land and Disfigured by Fear of Death
Just when we thought our boy Rostov was getting better he gets right back to being his old self. We left him yesterday thinking that perhaps he’d learned to conquer his fears and secret griefs. But today we learn that it’s all still too much for him.
Maybe that’s understandable. It’s a rough chapter.
Things begin in total confusion. First Rostov learns that the Emperor, his hero, has been wounded. This is devastating enough. Next he’s told that Kutuzov has been killed. Or maybe not. Maybe that was some other officer. The drunken Russian soldiers can’t be sure. They direct him on, deeper into the warzone.
He considers whether or not to go on. Warzones, so I’m told, aren’t the safest places. He moves forward anyway, giving us more reason to believe that he has indeed conquered his fears.
Rostov is immediately presented with more challenges. The dead and miserable wounded lay strewn across the field like so many lumps of mud. He can’t bring himself to look at them. Then the French, noting his presence, open heavy fire upon him.
He finally makes it to the village of Hostieradek where the Russian troops have retreated from the battle. It’s here that he loses his strength and reverts to his cowardly ways.
The catalyst for this fall is that he sees his beloved Emperor sadly contemplating a kitchen-garden with a ditch around it. Rostov’s first instinct is to go to the emperor and comfort him in his time of need. But this social impulse is muted by fear and weakness. Instead of taking action Rostov is paralyzed by thought and learns like Lucio that “our doubts are traitors, and makes us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
I’d like to end this portion of today’s entry here but it’d be remiss not to talk about the final passage of Dolokhov tragically leading the retreat across the iced over mill-pool and the disaster that leads to. There are few passages in literature I’m aware of that capture the absurdity and horrors of war. Maybe Frederic Henry being blown up while getting cheese. I don’t know. Regardless, go and re-read the last two pages of this chapter. Slowly. So good.
I identify with Rostov in this chapter. Probably anyone does who has ever ventured on a path to self-improvement through philosophy. We read the books, we understand the concepts, and, yet, we fail to apply the lessons learned when confronted with even the slightest inconvenience, setback, or negative impression.
Wisdom which is only theoretical and never put into practice is like a double rose; its color and its perfume are delightful, but it withers away and leaves no seed.
No rose without a thorn. Yes, but many a thorn without a rose.
Arthur Schopenhauer, A Few Parables