Love (My Sighs Speak, Each One a Grievous Thing) — The Rusty Door Opens

Day 328 of A Year of War and Peace

Before Dante could brave the icy pits of Hell or ascend the crucibles of Purgatory in order to meet his beloved Beatrice in Paradise he first had to meet the woman. Their introduction, documented in his immortal prosimetrum Vita Nouva, actually presaged the great sufferings he’d later endure on his path to her in the Divina Commedia. “At that moment,” he writes of their meeting, “the natural spirit, which dwelleth where our nourishment is administered, began to weep, and in weeping said these words: ‘Alas! how often shall I be disturbed from this time forth.’ I say that, from that time forward, Love quite governed my soul.”

If suffering is indeed the constant consort of romantic love as Dante has it then Pierre is in trouble. Deep trouble. For today when he is reunited with Natasha he is aware immediately that he is in love with her and probably always has been. Tolstoy writes, “The more he tried to hide it the more clearly — clearer than any words could have done — did he betray to himself, to her, and to Princess Marya, that he loved her.”

On the one hand we should be very happy for Pierre and for Natasha. Love is a wonderful thing. After all the pain they’ve been through lately they deserve a little respite from their sorrow. On the other hand, as the infinite pages of forgotten teenage poetry can attest, romantic love is also the author of unspeakable heartbreak and misery. “Love,” Dante writes in the Vita Nouva, “also gathers to such power in me / That my sighs speak, each one a grievous thing.”

Pierre doesn’t need any of that. He’s already been hurt by Helene. Further, he’s only freshly entered into the blissful state of detachment. As we read early in today’s chapter he now moves forward well disposed towards the world but “instinctively on guard for fear of binding himself in any way.” This is a practical application of the intellectual stoic case for detachment we’ve so frequently written about at A Year of War and Peace. But the brain, we must remember, is the most overrated organ. The heart, quite literally, flexes its muscle and displays its power over the mind. How is Pierre to resist his attraction to Natasha? I mean, really, the passage where we watch him fall in love is one of the great romantic passages in world literature:

Pierre looked again at the companion’s pale, delicate face with its black eyes and peculiar mouth, and something near to him, long forgotten and more than sweet, looked at him from those attentive eyes.

“But no, it can’t be!” he thought. “This stern, thin, pale face that looks so much older! It cannot be she. It merely reminds me of her.” But at that moment Princess Mary said, “Natasha!” And with difficulty, effort, and stress, like the opening of a door grown rusty on its hinges, a smile appeared on the face with the attentive eyes, and from that opening door came a breath of fragrance which suffused Pierre with a happiness he had long forgotten and of which he had not even been thinking — especially at that moment. It suffused him, seized him, and enveloped him completely. When she smiled doubt was no longer possible, it was Natasha and he loved her.


If a man should transgress moderation, the things which give the greatest delight would become the things which give the least.

Epictetus, Enchiridion

This is the three hundred and twenty eighth 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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