Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Diving Deeper 6 - War and Peace 2


What appealed to this reader most about War and Peace was the "thinking out loud," the philosophising and theologising of its main characters.  Another great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky has long been recognised as one of the first existentialist novelists.  I believe that Tolstoy is equally existentialist in his presentation of his characters as they attempt to grapple with all the big questions and problems we all encounter in life.  In existentialism the starting point is in the here and now with the individual's existence.  As I type these words I am sitting in my attic study listening to Bob Dylan singing "I want you" as it chances, and some of my past experiences of love lost come to my mind while the rain rather appropriately lashes against the windowpanes above me.  Other concerns crowd my mind: the various repairs that have to be done about the house, my tax returns, some essays I have to do for college, and then visiting my poor old demented mother (now approaching 95 years young) in her nursing home.  There are many other existential concerns that clamour for space in my addled mind: the death by suicide of a friend's son at 32 years of age, another old friend who has recovered somewhat from brain cancer whom I must visit and so on.  In short, the human "existential" or existing being, which I am, is struggling to make sense of all these concerns and to get on with living a life that I actively choose to live.  The foundational idea, then, in existentialism is that "I"or "You", or "We," dear reader, decide how we ought to live for the individual defines everything for himself/herself.  In short, the individual makes his/her own meaning in this world.

Some Reflections on Life from this Novel:

The Battle of Austerlitz 2nd December 1805: Francois Pascal Simon Gerard
What follows are basic quotations from War and Peace as I marked them as I first read this great novel.  I will give the appropriate pages as we go along. My edition is the Penguin Classics edition, 1978 and runs to some 1444 pages including translator's notes.

  • Soldiers speaking on the eve of battle:

Suddenly, however, he was struck by the earnestness of their tones that he began to listen.
"No, my dear friend," said a pleasant voice, which Prince Andrei seemed to recognize, "what I say is - if one could know what will happen after death, then not one of us would be afraid of death. That is true, my dear fellow."
Another and younger voice interrupted.
"Afraid or not, it's all the same, there's no escaping it."...
"Yes, one is afraid," pursued the first speaker, the one with the familiar voice.  "One's afraid of the unknown, that's what it is.  It's all very well saying that the soul goes up to heaven... don't we know that up yonder it's not heaven but just space."  (Op.cit., p 203)

In the above quotation, the question of death, which is a big one for all soldiers, looms large.  It is also interesting that one of the speakers realises that our use of simplistic directional adverbs like "up" for heaven presupposes that heaven is a place in space, but we all realise that there is no such place in actuality.  Heaven itself, then, what is it?  Mere metaphor?  This is both a good philosophical and theological question.  This is precisely that type of issue that John A.T. Robinson discusses is his brilliant little book Honest to God (1963).  For anyone interested in the God question this is a wonderfully sharp and intelligent book - written by a controversial theologian and Bishop in the Church of England - to begin with.

  • The Battle of Austerlitz
"What a terrible thing war is, terrible thing! Quelle terrible chose que la guerre"...
Just as in the clock the result of the complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and regular movement of the hand marking the time, so the result of all the complex human activities of the 160,000  Russians and French - of all their passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of the three Emperors, as it was called; that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history. (Op. cit., p. 298).

  • Prince Andrei muses philosophically on the night before Austerlitz
The night was foggy and the moonlight gleamed mysteriously through the mist.  "Yes, tomorrow, tomorrow!" he thought. "Tomorrow maybe all will be over for me, all these memories will be no more - all these memories will have no more meaning for me.  Tomorrow perhaps- indeed tomorrow for sure, I have a presentiment that for the first time I shall at last have to show what I can do."  And his fancy painted the battle, the loss of it, the concentration of the fighting at one point and the hesitation of all the commanders... but if I want glory, want to be famous and beloved, it's not my fault that I want it, and it's the only thing I care for, the only thing I live for.  Yes, the only thing!  I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God, what am I to do if all I care for is fame and the affections of my fellow men?  Death, wounds, the loss of my family - nothing holds any terrors for me.  And precious and dear as my people are to me - father, sisters, wife - those I cherish most - yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would exchange them all immediately for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don't know and never shall know, for the love of those men there,... (Op. cit., p. 306

Surrender at Austerlitz: Emperor Francis of Austria surrenders to Napoleon
Again this is a deep enough passage.  Death and extinction - what do they mean?  What does this little consciousness mean?  Am I just a collocation of memories?  Where do they go when I die?  Quite recently the Irish writer and journalist Nuala O'Faoláin, in an interview with the Irish broadcaster Marion Finnucane, shortly before her death from cancer adumbrated similar questions which plumbed the existential depths and soared the existential heights of dying and death.  There is also the soldier in Prince Andrei, the ego of the macho soldier who wants to be hero.  What does it mean to be a hero?  What about that wonderful quotation from T.S.Eliot which he places in the mouth of St Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral - "It is better to do the right thing for the right reason rather than the right thing for the wrong reason!"  What is the truth of that statement?  How do we square love with vainglory?  How do we square love of family with love for fatherland or motherland? And yet, the irony is not lost on the sophisticated Prince Andrei as he realises he will be dying for the love of soldiers and countrymen whom he does not even know.  And then, there are such poems from the pen of the poets of The Great War, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen which question the whole point of war making. These poets raise deep questions for us all to ponder deeply.  Maybe in the end, like these poets, we will end up believing that it is not a sweet and fitting thing to die for one's country?

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