“Once we’re thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost;
but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.”
We’ve all had moments when our world suddenly snaps. It’s as if we’ve just woken up from a troubled night’s sleep — or perhaps even a good one — to find the earth shifted beneath our feet. Yesterday all at once seems ancient, the future unknowable, and the present…utterly strange.
These moments of altered consciousness may be terrifying or blissful. They may engulf you all at once, or creep over you, like a slowly unraveling nightmare, or a sublime dream. But they inevitably leave their mark for a lifetime. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is full of such moments.
Meet Nikolai Rostov, a coddled young man from a happy family who comes home on leave, and his family and relatives are jubilant at the return of their darling Nikolushka. The girls naturally swarm about Moscow’s most eligible new bachelor, the handsome hussar lieutenant with a St. George freshly pinned upon his chest — and a very good dancer, to boot.
Times are indeed good for Nikolai at home, where he sings, plays games, and shows off his dancing skills. “‘Seize the moments of happiness, make them love you, fall in love yourself! That is the only real thing in this world — the rest is all nonsense. And that is the one thing we’re taken up with here,’ said the atmosphere.”
But if happiness is in the air, so is officer Dolokhov, the handsome, maleficent rake whom Nikolai has recently befriended. Dolokhov is now visiting the Rostovs in the hopes of courting Nikolai’s cousin, Sonya — which creates something of a conundrum for Nikolai, since Sonya, whom he himself had once promised to marry, is still in love with him. And so when Sonya rebuffs her would-be suitor, Nikolai must both free himself from her advances and smooth things over with a now vengeful Dolokhov.
Arriving at Dolokhov’s farewell party held at Moscow’s swanky English hotel, Nikolai is escorted into a private room, and seated at a candle-lit poker table with Dolokhov and twenty other men. The first thing Nikolai notices is his friend’s cold, expectant gaze, as if he’s been waiting for him. All too familiar to Nikolai is the mood behind this gaze, in which Dolokhov tries to curb his boredom with life “by some strange, most often, cruel act.” And so the settling of scores begins.
“‘Why aren’t you playing?’” taunts Dolokhov. So concerned with winning his charismatic friend’s approval is Nikolai that he does not at first grasp that this is a game of cat and mouse, in which, naturally, he is to be the mouse — a mouse with a gambling addiction, as both he and Dolokhov know. Nikolai stakes five rubles and loses, repeats the bet and loses again. He does this ten times in a row. “‘I let the others win, but you I beat,’” says Dolokhov. “‘Or are you afraid of me?’”
For hours the goading continues, the champagne keeps flowing, and eventually Nikolai leaves an 800 ruble bet on the table. Waiting with a sinking heart for the card that will determine his fate, he recalls the conversation he had only a week earlier with his father, who gave him two thousand rubles with the understanding that this was the last money he could afford to lend his son until spring.
Nikolai fixes his eyes on Dolokhov’s reddish, broad-boned hands, even as recollections of jokes with his brother Petya, warm talks with Sonya, duets with Natasha, and card games with his father flit across his mind. He cannot believe that “stupid chance, making the seven fall to the right rather than the left, could deprive him of all this newly understood, newly illuminated happiness.” But this is just what chance can and will do.
His head in a whirl, Nikolai tries to make sense of what’s happening:
“Can he really wish for my ruin? He used to be my friend. I loved him….I’ve done nothing wrong. Did I kill anyone, insult or wish evil to anyone? Why, then, such a terrible misfortune? And when did it start?… I was so happy, so free, so cheerful! And I didn’t realize then how happy I was! When did it end, and when did this new, terrible condition begin? What marked the change?”
When did Nikolai’ misfortune start? When he sat down at the poker table? When he decided to go to the hotel? Started traipsing about with the shady Dolokhov in the first place? Or earlier yet, when he came home from the front? Tolstoy refuses to answer such impossible questions.
For what if things sometimes happen just because? One minute you’re this nice aristocratic boy from an excellent family with a St. George’s Cross pinned to your chest, and then you go and get drunk and gamble away a chunk of your dad’s dwindling fortune to the stone-hearted bastard you thought was your friend. Where’s the logic in that?
At first, Nikolai thinks he’ll just wiggle his way out of this one by adopting a self-assured tone and promising to repay his debt the very next day. But to actually come home alone to his sisters, his brother, and his parents, and ask for the money to which he knows he has no right after giving his word of honor, that is another matter altogether.
Sure enough, the full magnitude of the crisis hits him the minute he walks in the door. Enveloped by that joyous atmosphere filled with singing and laughing and card-playing, he feels none of it. He cannot understand why everyone else remains so happy when his own life is now in ruins. “‘For them, everything’s the same,’” he observes. “‘They don’t know anything! What am I to do with myself?’”
There is nothing he can do in that moment, Tolstoy hints, except let go of everything he thought he knew about himself, his family, and his world. Nikolai has again entered foreign territory. The giant glittering ballroom that was his life has just darkened, nasty Dolokhovs have crashed the dance floor, and he himself has turned out to be far less dashing than his lithe dancer’s body or his medal of bravery might have suggested.
At this moment he is right about just one thing: They don’t know anything. Then again, neither does he; nor does any of us, really. And that honest admission, Tolstoy suggests, is an excellent place from which to start rebuilding his broken world.
“‘A bullet in the head is all that’s left for me,’” Nikolai thinks. But then he begrudgingly listens to his sister Natasha sing, something he has done any number of times before. Only this time he really…hears:
“What’s happened with her? How she sings today!” he thought. And suddenly the whole world became concentrated for him on the expectation of the next note, the phrase, and everything in the world became divided into three beats: “Oh mio crudele affetto [Oh my cruel affliction]…One, two, three…Oh mio crudele affetto…Ah, our foolish life!” thought Nikolai. “All this misfortune, and money, and Dolokhov, and spite, and honor — it’s all nonsense…and here is — the real thing…
Oh, how the third had vibrated, and how touched was something that was best in Rostov’s soul. And that something was independent of anything in the world and higher than anything in the world. What are gambling losses, and Dolokhovs and words of honor!…It’s all nonsense! One can kill, and steal, and still be happy…
A Reality Larger Than Ourselves
Tolstoy isn’t advocating stealing and killing, of course. What he is showing is that in this moment of emotional rupture Nikolai taps into a reality larger than himself. This swashbuckling young man who only a day earlier was on top of the world and more recently has come to feel the weight of the world bearing down upon him, suddenly senses that there is something in life that is bigger than his own ups and downs, his narrow concepts of himself, his familiar frameworks of understanding.
Natasha’s irrational joy infects him now, and just as mysteriously as his life had been transformed only hours earlier — undeniably for the worse, it seemed to him — so is Nikolai suddenly transported again, only this time to a state of momentary bliss. Had he not lost 43,000 rubles, had his world not just been turned on its head, would he have been able to hear the full beauty of his sister’s voice? Surely not.
Tumultuous times, Tolstoy tells us, can jar us into a heightened awareness, expanding our sense of both ourselves and life’s possibility. Losing something valuable, that is, we gain in return something invaluable: a radically widened perspective.
Tolstoy knew this to be so, because the scenes describing Nikolai’s wartime baptism by fire, not to mention his later, gut-wrenching gambling loss, were inspired by Tolstoy’s own experiences as a young cadet.
At 23, he’d traveled with his brother Nikolai and joined the army in the Caucasus with the aim of changing his libertine ways and winning some glory on the battlefield. But war turned out to be far less glamorous than he’d imagined; and his high hopes for personal transformation, no match for the seductive gypsy girls and enticing poker tables he encountered.
Open Tolstoy’s diaries from his twenties, and you’ll find a morbidly entertaining portrait of a young man in a seemingly constant state of crisis: “When shall I cease at last to lead a life without purpose or passion, or to feel a deep wound in my heart and know no means of healing it?” Tolstoy pined in his diary, while stationed in Simferopol. “God alone knows who inflicted this wound, but from birth, I’ve been tormented by the bitter pledge of future nothingness, by wearisome grief and doubt.”
Not that there weren’t moments of contentment amid all of the young Tolstoy’s soul-searching angst — the period immediately leading up to the insane gambling spree that cost him the house he was born in being one of them. Tolstoy was twenty-six at the time, and things had actually been going rather well for him.
He had twice been recommended for the St. George’s Cross for courage in battle, even though the notoriously absent-minded young man couldn’t get his official documents in order long enough to actually receive the honor. He was excited, too, about his concept for a military journal that had made it up the chain of command for consideration by the Tsar himself.
Beyond these successes, Tolstoy was surrounded by acquaintances who enjoyed congregating in his rooms for long evenings of cards and vodka, punctuated by philosophical and literary discussions. The young count was even something of a jokester, “really the soul of the battery,” wrote one of his fellow officers, known for making up and leading his comrades in nursery games: for instance, seeing how long you could balance on one leg atop a tent peg.
Tolstoy was enjoying daytime hikes in the mountains, where he drank in the tableau of Turkish and British soldiers battling in the distance — sights that would inspire some of the grandest battle scenes in his later fiction. In the evening, when he wasn’t drinking or gambling with fellow soldiers or chasing local beauties, he’d promenade about the charming little Tartar village of Eski-Orda, and watch the southern sun setting on the snow-capped mountains.
Then he was transferred to a new battery station in the region of the Belbek River — a hell-hole, as Tolstoy described it in his diary, consisting of shabby old huts, few interesting comrades or books, and worst of all, no women. The battery commander was “the dirtiest creature you could imagine,” and Odakhovsky, the senior officer, “a nasty, mean little Pole” who embezzled battery funds and was a notorious cardsharp. “And I’m tied to, even dependent on these people!” lamented Tolstoy.
Nowhere was Tolstoy’s dependency more evident than at the poker table. On the evening of January 28, 1855, just as he was settling down in his tiny hut, there was a knock at the door. It was Odakhovsky. “We’re gonna start dealing in an hour,” he told his young officer. They’d be playing shtoss again tonight. Tolstoy hesitated. He hadn’t done anything all day. He’d meant to go for a walk, write some long overdue letters. “Just for an hour,” he said, though from long personal experience he knew perfectly well he didn’t mean it.
The first hand had already been dealt when he arrived and joined the other officers at the table. He played cautiously at first, resolving to continue just long enough to win back his losses, before quitting the table. A few hours later, he was only deeper in debt and unable to stop.
The thick, pungent tobacco smoke, commingled with the scents of the chilled chikhir and hot piroshky, engulfed him in a toxic mixture of desire and frustration, much as only a few months earlier, a landlady’s daughter had made him writhe under the influence of her jet black hair, fiery eyes, and supple figure, ill-disguised by the thin, Oriental gown she was wearing.
The self-induced torture continued for several hours more now, the champagne flowing, debts mounting. When dawn broke, the chips were in and the tallies counted. Tolstoy had lost a cool 6,000 rubles — more or less what you needed in those days to buy a medium-sized country estate on a decent plot of land.
What killed Tolstoy even more than the serious financial loss was the fact that he had reneged on the word he had repeatedly given to his family, his fellow soldiers, and himself — that he’d put an end to his shameful gambling sprees. The cost of this broken promise was equal to that in significance: the loss of the actual house in which he’d been born.
This house was one key symbol of stability in an otherwise meandering life, not to mention a central fixture on the estate bequeathed to him by his late parents, those scions of an older, agrarian Russia, descendants of one of the country’s most important dynasties. Now, board by board, brick by brick, that mansion, with its three stories and forty-two rooms, would be dismantled, loaded onto horse-propelled telegas, and hauled away to an estate some seventeen versts (around 11 miles) away, where it would stand empty until 1913, when local peasants tore it down for rubble brick and firewood.
It was around the time of his 1855 loss that Tolstoy descended into yet another one of his depressive spirals.
Then, one evening in March, he took a walk on a gravel path near his barracks. For weeks he had been hiking, doing gymnastics, trying anything, in fact, to keep his agitated mind focused. But it all seemed mechanical, perfunctory — until this evening, when he sensed the stony mud path beneath his feet, smelled the first shoots of spring, glanced up, and for the first time in weeks actually saw that endless, inky vault above him, with its innumerable piercings of shimmering stars, every one of them suddenly alive to him.
In an instant, weeks of emotional turmoil and self-flagellation seemed to melt away. Rather than falling down on his knees and extending his hands up to the heavens, however, Tolstoy would do even better: He’d bring heaven down to earth, for under the influence of that grand tableau combined with a conversation he had earlier that day with a fellow officer he was inspired with:
a great idea, a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I am capable of devoting my life.
This idea is the founding of a new religion appropriate to the stage of development of mankind — the religion of Christ, but purged of beliefs and mysticism, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth.
There he is, in the middle of a nondescript gravel pathway deep in some god-forsaken village in the Crimea, and instead of cutting his own throat, as he knows he deserves, Tolstoy contemplates starting his own religion.
Of course, founding a new faith takes a while, and in the meantime Tolstoy continued gambling, sleeping with random Asiatic beauties, and waking up with hangovers at noon. The bouts of self-hatred, too, would continue: “It’s amazing how loathesome I am, how altogether unhappy and repulsive to myself,” he penned in his diary in June, only a few short months after his epiphany.
But for a brief moment anyway, in the aftermath of one of his most devastating financial and personal losses to date, he was moved by a vision that would inspire his later art and thought — not least the pages of his most life-affirming masterpiece.
For if War and Peace can be said to espouse any religion, it is nothing more or less than the religion of life itself, encompassing all its joys, triumphs, and frustrations alike. The “bliss on earth” that Tolstoy was referring to in his diary does not suggest a belief in a world without pain so much as a deep fulfillment in life as it actually is.
And who better to embody the tenets of this faith than the Rostovs, whose family name comes from the verb, rosti, “to grow.” Nikolai can lose a fortune, after all, without losing his mind, or his belief in the basic goodness of life.
Sure, he has his moment of doubt, when he wants to put a gun to his head, but in that very instant, when he has been shaken to the core, he is lucky enough to hear Natasha sing, reminding him that sublime happiness and meaning are still available to him here and now, in the midst of his broken world.
When We Fall Apart
Nikolai’s story gained particular relevance for me a few years ago. Around the time the newspapers were announcing the so-called “financial crisis,” I received a call from my father telling me that a significant chunk of our family savings had evaporated in one of those Ponzi schemes then making the news.
My situation that day was irrevocably altered. For weeks I kept asking myself: Why did this happen? With whom should I be angry? My father? The scoundrel himself? I thrashed about for answers, only to realize that I was asking the wrong questions. This “cruel joke,” this “unfortunate event,” — what should one even call it? — was not some riddle to unlock, yet another academic problem to solve.
This was real life, and it couldn’t be explained away by some neat rational framework.
Let the banks and businesspeople decide questions of financial oversight, gullibility, and greed, I suddenly felt. Let the courts debate questions of guilt and innocence. To me these issues were irrelevant.
Something big had occurred — something I neither fully understood nor will ever forget — leaving not a few of my most basic assumptions seriously shaken. I was the guy, after all, who went to the best schools, grew up vacationing in Aspen, who wrote pieces of his Stanford doctoral dissertation at his own private Yasnaya Polyana — my parents’ Michigan home, replete with its woodsy lakeside paths, well-maintained tennis court, beds that made themselves…
None of this seemed so exceptional to me, but in the back of my mind I understood there to be, you know, a safety net, should I ever need such a thing; only after that net had been badly shredded did I realize how much I had relied on it for my psychological security.
Only now was I forced to realize that my father was as fallible as my future was now unpredictable, and my entitled sense of security a precious gift that could be shattered, well, in an instant. Depression set in within hours of this discovery and lasted, I’m not proud to say, for some weeks. Then, one dreary afternoon, I was sitting in my rented Charlottesville home and closed the curtains, wallowing in self-pity when a funny thing happened.
I started filing through a collection of old CDs and put on some random clarinet concertos by Carl Maria von Weber. It had been about twenty years since I’d last heard those pieces, around the time I quit playing the clarinet myself. Slouched there on the couch with my laptop, clicking back and forth between Outlook Express and the Palm Pilot desktop, I listened.
I still don’t know why, but as that clarinet sang over the orchestra, now with sad-sweet cadences, now with forceful, angry passion, something was kindled inside me. Memories of childhood assailed me, including images of my clarinet-playing.
But it went beyond mere memory… I stood up, closed my eyes, and let those sounds wash over me, my body swaying to beauty and mystery well beyond myself.
There I was, in the middle of my messy living room, in my unexceptional Charlottesville house, with the throw pillows strewn about and my poor, incontinent cat’s shit stains amending the carpeting. And for a moment, I was terribly happy. What are Ponzi schemes and stock markets and wash-out shysters in such a moment? Everything seemed irrelevant in comparison to that opening into eternity I glimpsed.
How many times I’d read and enjoyed that scene in which Nikolai listens to Natasha sing, but only now, in the aftermath of my own personal crisis, did I realize, for perhaps the first time, what that scene is about. Tolstoy is describing what you feel when your world has crashed, the ground beneath you has cracked open, and all you want to do is go to sleep — but then, out of nowhere, you hear or see something so beautiful, so strikingly real, that you suddenly awaken into a new consciousness, hoping the day never ends.
The moment didn’t last, of course. For one thing, I had to start making hard decisions about what I was going to do. My once omnipotent father now reduced to the status of mere mortal, it was up to me to take full charge of my life, to take a hard look at my priorities. I could finally be honest with myself about a lot of things, not least of which was the fact that I was growing rather tired of pumping out esoteric scholarly articles for obscure journals.
It wasn’t merely the need to start making money from those hundreds of hours I had been spending at the keyboard; I realized that the ideas I’d been trafficking in among a narrow population of fellow academics are, in fact, vitally relevant to the times we now live in, and I wanted to share this with as many people as I could.
With the perspective of even a few years, I can see now that the phone call from my dad was a crucial stage in my own journey, for it catapulted me into one of the most creative periods of my life. Indeed, I should probably thank the shyster who fleeced my family out of all that money, if only because that event created the circumstances that led to this book.
“You have learned something,” observes one of George Bernard Shaw’s characters in the play Major Barbara. “That always feels at first as if you had lost something.” And although Tolstoy once told the wry British playwright in a condescending letter that “you are not sufficiently serious,” he would have wholeheartedly agreed with Shaw’s famous insight.[vi] We grow up, grow old, and if we’re lucky, grow wise, but such wisdom always comes at a cost. Nikolai’s own journey is an embodiment of this. As was Tolstoy’s.
As, I hope, is my own.