Plotting Gardens on Volcanic Earth
Meanwhile, on the homefront, Pierre is involved in an entirely different type of war: a spiritual war. Though his body may be secure from French artillery shelling his soul is under constant attack from the predations of a scheming and dishonest Russian high society, and the self-doubt and insecurity of his own psyche. The first salvos in this battle are launched by Prince Vasili. The battlefield is yet another party hosted by Anna Pavlovna.
Prince Vasili lost his first campaign against Pierre. But that doesn’t discourage the old man. He’s got a young daughter in dire need of a rich man to marry. So there is no time to waste. His first move is to ingratiate himself with the newly wealthy Count Bezukhov. This is easy enough. Pierre, after all, is one of the most marble-headed and muddled-thinking individuals this side of the Volga. For now anyway. So Vasili encounters no resistance whatsoever in establishing himself as Pierre’s trusted confidant and financial advisor. He takes this opportunity to break himself off just a little piece of the Bezukhov pie. But since his real goal is to pimp his daughter out and get her installed as wife with legal title to the Bezukhov estate he restrains his embezzlement just enough.
Then, once he has Pierre’s full confidence, Prince Vasili makes his move. He invites Pierre to an Anna Pavlovna party where his beautiful daughter, Helene, will be waiting. Pierre doesn’t stand a chance. Vasili pushes him towards Helene. Anna Pavlovna does too. Helene, bosom bared, gets into the game herself, working under the assumption, in a variation on the wisdom of Elizabeth Bennet, that rich and stupid men are the only ones worth marrying.
“Pierre on unexpectedly becoming Count Bezukhov and a rich man, felt himself after his recent loneliness and freedom from cares, so beset and preoccupied that only in bed was he able to be by himself.”
It may be hard for many of us to sympathize with the struggles of a rich man but Tolstoy achieves this amazing feat of unwilling empathy in the character of Pierre Bezukhov. Sure, Pierre is one of the richest men in all of Russia but rich men are human too. In fact, he’s all too human, in true Nietzschean fashion laying out his garden plots of happiness too close to the sorrowful volcanic earths of the world. He yearns for human connection and, at this point in the novel anyway, seeks to access this comfort in the material and carnal delights of his newfound wealth. He suspects, for instance, that Helene is bad for him but, on the other hand, she’s also super hot. In addition, the social respect his money has earned him is flattering. He’s totally buying what Vasili is selling.
But such things are the manacles that restrain us.
We have, as it were, these fetters attached to us, namely the body and its possessions.
Epictetus, The Discourses