In today’s chapter we reach peak nineteenth-century Russian philosophical novel. Well, one of the peaks at least. War and Peace is really a mountain range of such chapters, such peaks, with a cluster of them shooting up in the southern range towards the end of the book as we shall see.
For now, however, we’ll summit and camp out with Pierre and Prince Andrei as the two reunite for the first time in two years at Andrei’s Bogucharovo estate.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the sharp contrast between how loose and messy Pierre’s management style is, as presented in the previous chapter, compared to the order and good governance Prince Andrei exercises over his holdings in today’s chapter. Here at Bogucharovo the gardens are laid out to perfection, the stone walkways are straight and lovely, and the bridges are sturdy and well-painted.
Yet an even starker contrast greets us when Pierre first meets with Prince Andrei again. Bolkonsky has totally transformed since the last time Pierre saw him. His eyes are now dull and lifeless with none of the excited and intelligent glow they once had. He’s also much thinner and paler than before. Further, Pierre notices that a permanent wrinkle has settled over Prince Andrei’s brow “indicating prolonged concentration on some one thought.”
We’re soon introduced to what this one thought might be as the two old friends get into an undergrad dorm room bull session of sorts. Each is eager to express his new thoughts and opinions on the world. Pierre shares his masonically inspired notion of freeing his serfs or at least improving their lives through education and healthcare. And here is where we learn just where Prince Andrei earned that permanent wrinkle upon his brow.
Summoning his inner John Gray — who wrote that “whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming” — Prince Andrei launches into the following philippic about the freeing and educating of serfs:
‘You talk of schools,’ he went on, crooking a finger, ‘education and so forth; that is, you want to raise him,’ (pointing to a peasant who passed by them taking off his cap) ‘from his animal condition and awaken him to spiritual needs, while it seems to me that animal happiness is the only happiness possible, and that is just what you want to deprive him of. I envy him, but you want to make him what I am, without giving him any means. They you say, “lighten his toil.” But as I see it, physical labor is as essential to him, as much a condition of his existence, as mental activity is to you or me. You can’t help thinking. I go to bed at two in the morning, thoughts come and I can’t sleep but toss about till dawn, because I think and can’t help thinking, just as he can’t help ploughing and mowing; if he didn’t he would go to the tavern or fall ill. Just as I could not stand his terrible physical labor but should die of it in a week, so he could not stand my physical idleness, but would grow fat and die. The third thing — what else was it you talked about?’ and Prince Andrei crooked a third finger, ‘Ah, yes, hospitals, medicine. He has a fit, he is dying, and you come and bleed him and patch him up. he will drag about as a cripple, a burden to everybody for another ten years. It would be far easier and simpler for him to die. Others are being born and there are plenty of them as it is. It would be different if you grudged losing a labourer — that’s how I regard him — but you want to cure him from love of him. And he does not want that. And besides, what a notion that medicine ever cured anyone! Killed them, yes!’ said he, frowning angrily and turning away from Pierre.
I’m always very moved by this passage. Not so much the content as Prince Andrei’s sad anger. I can never tell if he’s angry at having such thoughts or if he’s angry that he lives in a world where they’re true.
Both Pierre and Prince Andrei are hurting. The challenges they’re lately facing are beating them down. Pierre, as we learned yesterday, can’t bring himself to reform. Prince Andrei is losing himself to an unrelenting pessimism.
Perhaps, maybe, this suffering is good for them if they can only learn to harness it towards improvement.
Without an antagonist prowess fades away. Its true proportions and capacities come to light only when action proves its endurance. You must know that good men should behave similarly; they must not shrink from hardship and difficulty or complain of fate; they should take whatever befalls them in good part and turn it to advantage. The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it.
Seneca, On Providence