“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
The American novelist, Amor Towles, wrote A Gentleman in Moscow, a remarkable story that centers on the Count, an aristocrat confined to a luxurious hotel during the tumultuous political climate in Russia in 1922.
The Count’s circumstances have changed as a result of conflict. When he’s required to downsize, he chooses one book to keep with him: a collection of essays by Michel de Montaigne.
As the story develops, the reader suspects Michel de Montaigne’s ideas are to set the mood, which adds to the sense of nostalgia the reader absorbs. The third essay of Montaigne’s actually solidifies this idea in referencing Rousseau and quoting Seneca.
Through Montaigne’s pen, Rousseau teaches us,
“We are never present with, but always beyond ourselves: fear, desire, hope, still push us on towards the future, depriving us, in the meantime, of the sense and consideration of that which is to amuse us with the thought of what shall be, even when we shall be no more.” Michel de Montaigne
This is then followed by Seneca’s proverb: “Calamitosus est animus futuri auxius.” which translates to“The mind anxious about the future is unhappy.”
Herein lies the idea of the Count’s aim to master his circumstances, so as to not be anxious about the future. The conflict in the novel is internal, which is brilliantly contrasted with the climate of political turmoil happening right outside the doors of that hotel (and sometimes within).
The narrator describes the dilemma for the Count as follows:
“Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.” Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
The Count’s model for mastering his circumstances is most interesting and aligns with Paul Valery’s serious commitment to a call for action in poetic thinking.
“But the Count hadn’t the temperament for revenge; he hadn’t the imagination for epics; and he certainly hadn’t the fanciful ego to dram of empires restored. No. His model for mastering his circumstances would be a different sort of captive altogether: an Anglican washed ashore. Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair, the count would maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Having dispensed with dreams of quick discovery, the world’s Crusoes seek shelter and a source of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study their island’s topography, it’s climate, its flora and fauna, all the while keeping their eyes trained for sails on the horizon and footprints in the sand.” Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
This idea caught my eye. A theme emerging in most of my non-fiction reading lately is resilience. Whether you call it resilience, grit, mental strength, or learned optimism, the idea is that we must learn to master our circumstances.
Many of the books on this topic are written by former Navy Seals, or at least refer to their training as an illustration to make an argument about resilience. A book with that very title, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, explores this subject through a series of letters written to the author’s friend and brother, suffering from PTSD.
What the average reader and thinker is figuring out, whether their field is education, military, parenting, is that trauma, difficulties, and challenges are inevitable and everyone ought to have some grasp of resilience training in order to not fall into (and stay trapped by) a victim mentality. More than that, we need to practice (and teach younger generations to practice) resilience in everyday circumstances. For that reason, Greitens teaches Zach four key principles to pass on to his children:
- They have some control over their lives.
- They can learn from failure.
- They matter as human beings.
- They have real strengths to rely on and share.
Greitens says that if we can help children develop these four core beliefs, then they’ll be on their way to cultivating resilience.
At this point, I’m only 80 pages into our novel, but I’ve already started to wonder how we’ll see the Count’s character develop over the course of the narrative. Will we see him build resilience and master his circumstances?
Creating the space for peace behind the coats in his closet is one example of just that kind of mastery. The old adage, “bloom where you’re planted” comes to mind, even when you are planted in the abandoned servants’ quarters of an old, luxurious hotel in communist Russia.
With that tense political backdrop in mind, the reader wonders how the new policies will influence an individual, especially one who ruffled feathers as a poet.
And speaking of poetry, how many of you had the old poem “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman in mind while you were reading? Whether you’ve studied literature or not, you might be familiar with the reference in the 1997 movie Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams.
Walt Whitman wrote the poem to both mourn and honor Abraham Lincoln, but the meaning has evolved to evoke a kind of carpe diem sentiment, especially the line:
“O Captain, my Captain, rise up and hear the bells.”
All that to say, it’s lurking in the back of my head while I read, as I wonder if, when, and how our Count will master his circumstances.
What do you make of Michel de Montaigne’s continual presence in the early pages? What are we to learn from him? Do you suspect the Count will learn to master his circumstances?