When King Laugh Come (But Only For Some)
“It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of misery, and woes, and troubles; and yet when King Laugh come he make them all dance to the tune he play.”
These are the words of Dr. Van Helsing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He speaks them during a particularly depressing moment when, after the death of a good friend, it looks as if his vampire hunting endeavour will certainly fail. We’re at a similar moment in Nikolai Rostov’s story. He has just visited the soldier’s ward of the dilapidated Prussian hospital where he went in search of his friend Denisov. What he found instead was a scene of total carnage composed of death, disease and various stages of human decomposition.
Moving on to the officer’s ward, however, he’s greeted by none of that. Quite the contrary. His first impression there is the sound of laughter. Rostov finds this extremely odd given that while the conditions here are much better, still the stench of human rot wafts into the room from the adjacent soldier’s ward.
Here in the officer’s ward there is very little of the despair that permeated the soldier’s ward. Instead we have convalescence proper. Even debate. Indeed, when Rostov finally locates Denisov he finds that Denisov has been engaged in a long talk with his officer comrades about the right way to respond to his court martial. You’ll recall that Denisov has “borrowed” from the army provisions line to feed his own men. Most of the room insists that Denisov beg pardon of the Emperor as the auditor has suggested he do. The auditor has even drawn up a document requesting the pardon. All are confident the Emperor will grant it. Denisov, however, remains unmoved. He believes he has done nothing wrong. He shouts he will not act dishonorably and request the pardon. But then he takes Rostov aside and secretly hands him the auditor’s document, asking him to please deliver it to the Emperor for consideration.
Rostov’s thinking on the matter is very interesting. He believes Denisov should take the auditor’s advice. This is a somewhat radical departure from Rostov’s character so far. Two days ago we discussed how the hardships endured during Rostov’s second tour of duty have started to change him. We see that here. Previously, he has been unwilling to rely on his familial connections to further his career. Unlike his friend Boris Drubetskoy, he has preferred to go it alone. But today he thinks to himself that if he were Denisov he would take the auditor’s letter and request a pardon of the Emperor.
While Rostov’s character development is very important in our readings, I’d like to focus on something else for our meditation today. During our reading of War and Peace we’ve focused quite a bit on the importance of a certain species of egalitarianism and cosmopolitanism. These past two chapters show what can happen when those principles are violated. Consider the horrid nature of the soldier’s ward yesterday and contrast it with what we find in the officer’s ward today. This differing treatment of individuals based on social distinction — the soldiers versus the officers — runs contrary to the stoically informed philosophy of A Year of War and Peace.
The idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government that respects most of all the freedom of the governed.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations