Not quite half way through War and Peace, Count Pierre Bezukhov, the soul of the novel, describes an understanding that rocks his sense of his purpose in life: “And to Pierre, all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life; some with ambition, some with cards, … some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with wine…. ‘Nothing is either trivial or important, it’s all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!’ thought Pierre. ‘Only not to see it, that dreadful it.’”*
Neither Pierre nor Tolstoy ever defines the “dreadful it”. What seems to be implied by Pierre is that it is all those actions and distractions that stand as screens between us and the full weight of reality. If so, the crucial word in the quote is, I think, “from” – Pierre suggests that life is so strong that we must sometimes soften it by filling our time with pleasures and work. But why the adjective “dreadful”?
Yesterday I spent two hours with a friend from school who had resigned to raise her child and who is now expecting her second child. We sat in a small bookstore, and over coffee and cake talked about all that has happened since we had last seen each other. Her little boy smiled and smiled, a happy boy, and played peacefully with books and a toy phone next to us. It felt good to be sheltered from everything outside that warm circle.
My phone rang — the number from the high school where I had taught.
A friend who had previously texted me with a mysterious message now told me that a 16 year old student had been in an automobile accident the night before and was in bad shape.
Nothing is a more powerful wielder of the real than a severely sick or injured child. Nothing. Even detached from school, from the anxiety and sorrow that were even then pervading the staff and kids, I felt the pressure of this most grievous of life’s pitiless shocks.
Last year a terrible incident occurred involving a senior boy, one of my students. The line at his viewing wound through rooms and ended with an open casket. You turned a corner and there…. There was no time to prepare one’s self for the jolt of seeing his face on the silk pillow, a face that even in repose was utterly baffling and heartbreaking because of his youth.
I do not have any explanation for why children are struck by misfortune. I understand the explanations made by religion, but I distrust them. I know … I feel … in my deepest core that this specific kind of misfortune is wrong – physically and metaphysically, morally and naturally, bloody, goddamn wrong. I cannot explain what .. it .. is any more than Pierre, but I sense that his .. it .. invaded that warm circle in the book store with another demand for recognition of the eternal presence of an unforgiving power.
After I placed the phone down, I thought of all the good people in my old school now mobilizing to bring comfort to those made bereft and broken by this terrible accident. I cannot explain what it is, but I know that its natural, implacable foe is love.
*War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Part V, Volume II, Chapter I, p. 538 (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)