Oh Mio Crudele Affetto
Today Nikolai Rostov learns lesson number one of the Ferdinand Bardamu School of Hard Knocks: “We are the minions of King Misery. He’s our lord and master! When we misbehave, he tightens his grip.” Rostov’s feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts, brought on by his recent losses at the gambling table, are further compounded when he returns home and finds such a happy gathering.
It must have been very hard for him to endure this scene of merriment. After all, he’s suffering intensely while all about him his family expresses their happiness in song and dance. Denisov, his friend, joyfully sings a composition he has created for Natasha who he is obviously in love with. Natasha, in turn, is flattered and, still ensconced within the blissful intoxication of her first ball experience, enjoys it all with a big smile.
Rostov, meanwhile, remains sadly intent on finding his father so he can ask for the money he owes Dolokhov. But his father is not home yet. Given what we know about him he’s probably out losing money for the family too. Like son, like father.
We might expect, given Rostov’s recent mood that he’d remain aloof from the happy proceedings of this home while he awaits his father’s return. But instead something interesting happens. Natasha starts singing. Her singing is so beautiful it provokes something in her brother’s heart. Something wondrous and soothing.
He opens up. “All this misery,” he thinks to himself as he listens to his sister’s sonorous voice, “and money, and Dolokhov, and anger, and honour — it’s all nonsense . . . but this is real.”
And with that, a simple change of heart, he joins, if only momentarily, the elation of the Rostov home.
One shouldn’t minimize the problem of amassing such a huge debt. Nikolai is in trouble, that’s for sure. The final passage of this chapter, however, is instructive. It just may point him towards a mindset that will enable him to deal better with difficult situations in the future. In order to cope with these difficult situations or, better yet, avoid them altogether, it helps to cultivate a robust and mindful mental disposition. That is, if he could somehow capture the joyful temperament he experiences while listening to Natasha sing and find a way to make it a permanent resident in his mind rather than a passing traveler, then perhaps he wouldn’t feel compelled to gamble, allow himself to get so angry all the time, or engage in other risky behaviors.
In the blessings of life as well as in the ills of life, less depends upon what befalls us than upon the way in which it is met, that is, upon the kind and degree of our general susceptibility.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life