Speechmaking to Worms

Day 15 of A Year of War and Peace

Invoke posterity, talk to me

The Rostov party has split into two factions. On one side we have the Countess Rostova, her daughters, and a large number of their guests gathered together in the drawing-room. The talk here is about Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova, a famous society woman noted for her sharp wit and bravery of speech. Everybody wants to know when she’ll be arriving. They can’t wait for her.

The other group, all men, join the Count in his study to look at and smoke from tobacco pipes. Talk here is about the war as recently declared in a manifesto which, like War and Peace itself, is much spoken of but little read. The conversation is dominated by two men: A man named Shinshin and a man named Berg. Berg, in an effort to prove Mr. Knightley’s dictum that vanity working on a weak head produces every kind of mischief, can’t help boasting of his new position in the Guards, the riches it will bring, and what he plans to do with these riches after, of course, returning safely from a war where the world’s preeminent military machine will be trained on killing him.

When the men return to the drawing-room we see that Pierre has shown up. Naturally, he’s taken the chair most strategically placed to obstruct everyone’s path. He’s the only one unaware of this social faux pas.

Marya Dmitrievna, the anticipated guest, has also just arrived. She immediately rolls up her sleeves and gets to work fulfilling her social role of acerbic, provocative critic. She singles out Natasha and Pierre. She calls Natasha a Cossack, she admonishes Pierre for his behavior in Petersburg. Then she, not the hosts, calls everyone to dinner.

At dinner the guests are treated to a lavish meal. The best is the German tutor of the Rostov children who, instead of enjoying the meal, preoccupies himself with sampling and noting everything so he can send a full report back to his people in Germany.


This is a chapter of frivolous future focus. Here the characters are presented with a bountiful banquet and, like Ferdinand Bardamu’s bastards, none seem to value the present. Countess Rostova’s group cannot even enjoy their own conversation because they’re too busy anticipating what Marya Dmitrievna will say when she arrives. Berg plans for his future even though his immediate present will bring him into combat with Napoleon’s army, an institution notorious for exterminating futures. The German tutor obsesses on noting all the various foodstuffs rather than enjoying them.

These, of course, are all minor distractions. But, in the aggregate, over a lifetime, these little distractions add up making John Lennon’s lyric that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans more of a tragic warning than simply a tuneful observation.

We complain often that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything we need to do. But how much of our time, really, is wasted on this type of unfocused, inconsequential frittering?

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

This is the fifteenth 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 my introduction to the series here.

I’m also very interested in hearing what you have to say about the novel. So leave a comment and let me know.

If you like these essays and would like to support me please consider purchasing my eBook A Year of War and Peace. I also have a Patreon or you could make a one time donation to my PayPal account at brianedenton@gmail.com. Please use that email address if you want to contact me. Or you could follow me on Twitter.

For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store