Such Seething Brains
Day 114 of A Year of War and Peace
Theseus, Duke of Athens, Lord of Love, Ambassador of Affection, has the distinction of being the first to speak in Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this initial speech he bemoans to his beloved, Hippolyta, that the two must wait four long days yet to consummate their marriage. That’s how he feels in Act I. By the end of the play, after all the inane comedy has ensued and he’s been able to observe other relationships, Theseus has developed a different understanding of romantic coupling. Speaking again to Hippolyta he observes, “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains.”
It’s not always so seething. Love in general is often a wholesome, civilizing force. But a particular form of love, romantic love, with its untamed agitation of the passions, can wreak havoc upon those it afflicts. Nick Bottom, the comic reliever of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, recognizes this when he tells Titania that, “Reason and love keep little company nowadays.” Reason certainly doesn’t rule the day with Natasha and Boris in today’s chapter as the two of them, slayed by Cupid, abandon all rationality and submit to the ruckus of romance.
Natasha is haunted by the memory of Boris’ proposal. It’s been four long years since they agreed to marry and not only time, but also distance has separated the two since then. Boris, as we know, has been off building a career and future for himself. Natasha, on the other hand, has remained at home stewing over the state of their relationship. Their perhaps long-forgotten promise torments her.
Boris is also agitated. He looks back upon his previous time with Natasha as the most poetic of all his recollections. And, yet, he understands he cannot fulfill his engagement promise to her. He’s spent the last four years building up a position in society for himself. He cannot, he reasons, throw it all away by marrying a woman without a fortune. He’d be taking a giant step backwards.
But when he meets with her again, fully intending to communicate his decision on the matter, he backpedals fairly quickly. He can’t help wanting to hang out with her despite his decision not to. Like Pierre, Boris is able to reason out a correct course of action, but his passion precludes him from executing it. He continues, over the course of following days, to call upon Natasha at the Rostov estate. He just can’t help himself. He understands that he cannot marry her and that to cultivate their relationship without the intention of marrying her is dishonorable.
Boris and Natasha’s suffering in this chapter results from their failure to grasp Epictetus’ teaching that there are things within our power and things without it and that if we try to control that which is without our power we will inevitably suffer. Natasha, ultimately, cannot control how Boris feels about her. By making the judgment that Boris’ refusal to marry her — something she has no control over — is a bad thing she unnecessarily submits herself to torment. Similarly, it is under Boris’ control whether to see Natasha or not. If he continues to see her, despite having no intention to marry her, he will suffer.
The two must get their judgments about romantic love under control if they plan to avoid anguish and embrace mental tranquility.
In a word, neither death nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of that kind is the cause of our doing or undoing or not doing anything, but rather, our suppositions and judgments.
Epictetus, The Discourses