The Cosmopolitan Dream
Family, as The Scottish Play has it, are “those precious motives, those strong knots of love.” Such knots are capable of binding even the most fractious of families together. Indeed, the bond of kinfolk is strong enough to withstand the damage of distance, disappointment, betrayal, absence, and even ill-informed Thanksgiving political acrimony. So that’s saying something.
In today’s chapter, my favorite of the entire novel, we witness these bonds binding the Rostovs, particularly Natasha and Nikolai, ever closer together.
There is a lot going on in their lives. Nikolai is on leave from a nasty war. Natasha is engaged to prince Bolkonsky, but at the price of having to spend one year separated from him as a condition laid upon the engagement by Bolkonsky’s father. All this while the Rostov family is on the brink of financial collapse. Their night together, spent mostly at Uncle’s with good wine and even better song and dance, concludes with a trap ride home through the dark. As the trap sloshes along the wet earth road and as the horses splash through the mud below the two siblings drop into a deep contemplative quiet under the canopy of the moon-shadowed trees above. It’s a moment we’ve all had: a seemingly insignificant, quotidian moment small to the world but expansive to the individual. Natasha’s sudden soft singing of Russian folksong is the perfect punctuation to the scene as the two share this private and intimate moment while all about them history is on the move and nations are at war.
We’re now approaching the midpoint of the book. As we progress we’ll find that with War and Peace Tolstoy has in mind something much larger than merely telling a narrative story of the Russian experience during the Napoleonic Wars. He’s also interested in developing a theory of history. Part of this theory is investigating the connection, if any, between an individual’s action and the larger social movement of history. Tolstoy’s ideas, fully explored much later in the book, have come to influence my subsequent readings of the novel. So now when I look at how familial bonds bring Natasha and Nikolai closer together I can’t help but ask how the same bonds can be expanded outwards, encircling even more people within their precious motives and strong knots of love.
The consideration of the duties pertaining to our other kindred is consequent to the discussion of those that pertain to parents, brothers, wives, and children; for the same things may, in a certain respect, be said of the former as of the latter; and on this account may be concisely explained. For, in short, each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which every one describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body are comprehended. For this is nearly the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters. After this is the circle which comprehends the remaining relatives. Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race.
These things being considered, it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour to earnestly transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.
Hierocles, How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves Towards Our Other Kindred