Like a Morning Dream
Pierre Bezukhov is a questioning man. We know this. He’s always setting about on one quest or another: sometimes intellectual, other times spiritual but always with the intention of answering his questions with certainty. In this wavering world of flux and variation it’s no surprise that he has so far discovered only disappointment. In today’s chapter, though, noting the staggering diversity of experience in a war zone, Pierre just might be starting to understand the wisdom of Mrs. Judith Norton who wrote in counsel to her weary and battered friend Clarissa Harlowe: “What, after all, is this world on which we so much depend for durable good, poor creatures that we are! — When all the joys of the world, and all the troubles of it, are but momentary, and vanish like a morning dream?"
The variety of experience in the chapter immediately announces itself. On the one hand we have Pierre, attired aristocratically in a curious white and green swallow-tail coat. On the other hand we have the soldiers in tattered and war-torn uniforms. Pierre is healthy, resting safely up in his carriage. The soldiers are wounded, piled together into carts. They are somber and sad, seeking to escape the war. The calvary, however, passing in the opposite direction, happily sings their way right into the fight.
It’s a vexing scene for Pierre. He loses himself in deep thought. He cannot fathom “that of the thousands of men, young and old, who had stared with merry surprise at his hat (perhaps the very men he noticed) twenty thousand were inevitably doomed to wounds and death.”
And then, as so often occurs in Tolstoy, peasants appear in order to unwittingly offer some life lessons. The peasants, just like Pierre and the wounded soldiers, have their own radical changes in circumstance to worry about. Whereas for probably their whole lives they’ve been expected only to work Russia’s farms, they have now been drafted into the militia and are expected to go to war. You’d expect them to share in the somber and sad mood but instead we’re told they are “talking and laughing loudly, animated and perspiring” as they work the killing fields.
Their indifferent response to and acceptance of change and the threat of that ultimate change, death, makes a strong impression on Pierre.
Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another, and constantly attend to it, and exercise yourself about this part of philosophy. For nothing is so much adapted to produce magnanimity. Such a man has put off the body, and as he sees that he must, no one knows how soon, go away from among men and leave everything here, he gives himself up entirely to just doing in all his actions, and in everything else that happens, he resigns himself to the universal nature.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations