Not the Footprint
Fear is the alchemist of temperament. It has the power, says Fenimore’s Deerslayer, to make the wise silly and the strong weak. The transformational properties of fear, whatever power they may have, are nonmaterial and cannot be measured. They emerge, ghostly, from a reactionary confusion in the mind triggered by incident independent of sentiment and insensible of passion. When Robinson Crusoe, for instance, finds another man’s footprint in the sand of a beach he believes himself to be the sole occupant of the fear he experiences is not the footprint. The fear is his reaction to the footprint. “Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes,” Crusoe reflects later. “And we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about.”
In today’s chapter Tolstoy provides us with contrasting approaches to a dangerous situation. That situation, of course, is Dolokhov and Petya’s penetration into enemy camp. No doubt that action poses danger to the infiltrators. Dolokhov, however, checks his fear while Petya indulges it.
Dolokhov is cool. He moves into the French camp like he owns it. He doesn’t even blink when complications arise. He wills himself to the soldier’s campfire and takes a seat with total conviction. Once there he gets the information he needs and then he takes his leave just as easy as he came.
Petya, on the other hand, is completely terrified. He advertises his terror from the start when he assures Dolokhov that he’s equipped with a pistol should things go south. Dolokhov probably doesn’t even consider that things could go south. And while Dolokhov is busy ushering them safely through the French camp Petya is too petrified to even talk. Finally, once the danger has passed and the two are safely trotting back to their own camp, Petya’s wild emotions, ecstatic of escape, erupt in ungoverned hugs and kisses for his new hero Dolokhov.
A Year of War and Peace would rarely advocate looking to a character like Dolokhov for inspiration on how to live the good life but today, in this specific instance, it might be good to do so. His ability to separate his feelings about a dangerous event from the dangerous event itself, and therefore not get carried away by them, is an admirable trait we should all try to develop.
Passion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these.
Seneca, On Anger II