Sunshine and Storm
What we feel becomes what we see. “The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer in his book The Wisdom of Life. “And so it proves different to different men; to one it is barren, dull and superficial; to another rich, interesting, and full of meaning.” Here Schopenhauer is speaking about how our general mental disposition and innate character determines how we look at and experience the world. Perhaps, however, it goes even deeper than that. Often, it seems, our situational emotionality has the power to shift from brightest sunshine to darkest storm.
Our beloved characters of War and Peace are intimately familiar with this meteoro-psychic phenomenon. Their emotional state is more uncertain than the weather forecast a month from now. In few chapters is this more apparent than in today’s as Natasha negotiates her first ball.
We pick up where we left off yesterday. The ball is just getting started. Natasha is still joyfully excited. Peronskaya continues her cataloging of the guests just like Homer and his ships. When the Emperor enters the room with his hosts, though, things really pick up. The music swells with the polonaise and the party pairs off into dancing partnerships.
But not Natasha. Nobody seems interested in asking her to dance.
This plunges Natasha into a state of despair and humiliation. Her mind becomes a dim drizzle of doubt and worry. “Is it possible,” she asks herself, “no one will ask me, that I shall not be among the first to dance?” And this is where we see how our mental disposition exercises such power over us. Before, remember, Natasha was excited and happy to be attending her first ball. Now, however, having experienced just the slightest rejection, everything sours for her. Even the music, probably an objectively upbeat polonaise, sounds like a mournfully sad reminiscence to her ears. Her feelings are altering her interpretation of objective reality.
Across the room we find the very same curiosity with Prince Andrei. For a long time now, as we’re familiar, Prince Andrei has been a profoundly unhappy young man. All it took was a simple, brief meeting with Natasha to vault him to the heights of happiness. So whereas he used to brood and sulk, now he’s out of the country, back in the city, and hard at work with Speransky on military reform. So far this Natasha bump has lasted. He appears to be more well-adjusted than he was during our initial encounter with him and he’s certainly much better off than he was during the funk he fell into after he got shot and his wife died. Natch.
So when his old friend Pierre approaches him today and suggests that he abandon his conversation with a colleague and instead dance with Natasha, Prince Andrei doesn’t hesitate to accept. He’s such a charmer about it, too. He is courteous and kind. So much so, in fact, that Personskaya must reappraise her remarks about how rude he is.
Their dance proves to be too much for him. “Scarcely had he embraced that slender supple figure,” Tolstoy writes, “and felt her stirring so close to him and smiling so near him, than the wine of her charm rose to his head, and he felt himself revived and rejuvenated when after leaving her he stood breathing deeply and watching the other dancers.”
It’s nice that Natasha and Prince Andrei are so happy right now. Who doesn’t like happiness, after all? They’d probably do well to remember, however, that emotions can — as the gods of our cognizance — both giveth and taketh away. If they’re ever to achieve any semblance of emotional stability they can’t afford to continue to allow ungovernable events to rule their perspectives. They must focus instead of what they can control.
What, then, is it to be properly educated? To learn how to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases, in accordance with nature; and, for the future, to distinguish that some things are in our own power, others not. In our own power are choice, and all actions dependent on choice; not in our power, the body, the parts of the body, property, parents, brothers children, country, and, in short all with whom we associate. Where, then, shall we place the good? To what class of things shall we apply it? To that of things that are in our own power.
Epictetus, The Discourses