The Curtain is Raised
Of all the parents on the block Arthur Schopenhauer probably received the least requests to serve as babysitter for the neighborhood kids. One can imagine him gathering the little tikes together for their bedtime story, opening his On the Sufferings of the World and, leafing through until he found a suitably cozy passage, reading to them: “In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre, before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly awaiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet unconscious of what their sentence means. Nevertheless, every man desires to reach old age; in other words, a state of life of which it may be said: ‘It is bad today, and will be worse tomorrow; and so on till the worst of all.’” Sweet dreams kids!
The curtain is raised for Petya Rostov today. Up until this point he’s enjoyed quite a cosseted existence in the theater of life. His mother and father, rich aristocrats, have provided him all life’s comforts while sheltering him from the hard Schopenhauerian truths. It’s show time now though and Act 1, Scene 1 is a brutal introduction to the tragedy.
It begins innocently enough. Tikhon returns to camp and Petya listens while that man reports his adventures to Denisov. It turns out Tikhon actually did fulfill his mission of capturing a Frenchman from the transport, though that Frenchman is nowhere to be seen. Denisov asks why. Tikhon responds that he felt the captive wasn’t good enough and he could do better so he tried to fetch another one leading to the scene we read about yesterday. Denisov and Tikhon squabble over the wisdom of this decision. Initially, noting Tikhon’s gap toothed, boobish grin, Petya laughs. He doesn’t laugh for long, however, as the realization dawns on him that the reason Tikhon’s captured Frenchman isn’t with Tikhon is because Tikhon murdered him.
Petya handles this harsh reality fairly well. The knowledge of the Frenchman’s senseless death makes him uneasy at first but he quickly assumes the role of a seasoned theatergoer who has seen this show before. There is still plenty of the play left though. Petya’s no longer at home. He’s out in the world, in a war no less. A war the likes of which Europe has never seen before. Like all of us, he’s going to need to develop the philosophical armor necessary to protect against the onslaughts of a hostile world. Simply ignoring or suppressing his emotions isn’t going to work for too long. Instead Petya might do better to ask himself whether if that which makes him feel bad is truly bad or if his feelings are merely mistaken impressions.
But death and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure — all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore, they are neither good nor bad.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations