Self-Judgment and the Wild Spectrum of Love

Day 71 of A Year of War and Peace

Be harsh. Be fair.

Je vous aime!”

With these three words, uttered back at Prince Vasili’s during Helene’s Name Day party, Pierre Bezukhov joined himself to a doomed love affair. Funny, the wild spectrum of love. Dante Alighieri described his beloved Beatrice as so winsome and so worthy — tanto gentile e tanto onesta — that just by walking on the earth she showed what miracles can be. The only miracle of Pierre and Helene’s relationship is that so far Pierre has only attempted to murder one person.

Pierre has problems, man. Actually, he seems to have inverted Hova’s hierarchy of predicaments and got himself into just one big problem, that problem being, of course, Helene. So after putting one in Dolokhov, Pierre returns home to interrogate his problem.

It’s tough going. His mind is a “storm of feelings and thoughts.” He can’t help but think back on the three words that start today’s entry and how, provoked by Helene’s lusty beauty and pressured by her father to accept her hand in marriage, he proved Proust’s dictum that “It is always thus, impelled by a state of mind which is destined not to last, that we make our irrevocable decisions.”

After what seems like an eternity of thinking about his problem Pierre comes to the conclusion that Helene is a depraved woman, that he made a mistake in marrying her, and that he must leave her immediately. After all, he reasons, “if you are alive — live: tomorrow you may die as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth tormenting oneself, when one has only a moment of life in comparison with eternity?”

Fair enough but this calm resolve is disturbed when Helene herself comes calling. She’s got a lot to say.

Her words are telling. For if it’s true, as Clarissa Harlowe tells us, that words are the body and dress of thought then Helene’s mind is Mugatu’s Derelicte fashion line: complete garbage. She taunts Pierre with coarse language about lovers. She ridicules his social standing. And when Pierre tells her that he intends on leaving her she informs him the only way that will happen will be if he leaves her with a settlement.

This demand launches Pierre into a murderous frenzy. He throws a marble tabletop across the room. He screams at her in a voice that horrifies everyone in the house. He lunges at her.

Then a week later he gives her power over his estates and leaves for Petersburg.

DAILY MEDITATION

It may not seem like it but Pierre, I believe, is finally taking some prudent steps towards self-improvement. This is the first time, after all, that we’ve seen him sit down with himself and really think. Further, his thinking is one of self-reflection. He’s judging himself. This is a step in the right direction.

Sextius had this habit, and when the day was over and he had retired to his nightly rest, he would put these questions to his soul: “What bad habit have you cured today? What fault have you resisted? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease and become more controllable if it finds that is must appear before a judge every day. Can anything be more excellent than this practice of thoroughly sifting the whole day?
Seneca, On Anger III

This is the seventy-first installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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