Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Diving Deeper 7 - War and Peace 3


After leading his valiant but futile charge against the French Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky is wounded badly, and his thoughts are almost a stream of consciousness, prefiguring in a embryonic way the method of our own James Joyce.  The prince is lying on his back, wounded on the battlefield:

  • "What's this?  Am I falling?  My legs are giving way," he thought, and fell on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the Frenchmen and the gunners ended, anxious to know whether the red-haired artilleryman was killed, whether the cannon had been captured or saved.  But he saw nothing.  Above him there was now only sky - the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty grey clouds creeping softly across it.  "How quiet, peaceful and solemn!  Quite different from when I was running," thought Prince Andrei.  "Quite different from us running and shouting and fighting.  Not at all like the gunner and the Frenchman dragging the mop from one another with frightened, frantic faces.  How differently do these clouds float across that lofty, limitless sky! How was it  I did not see that sky before?  And how happy I am to have found it at last!  Yes, all is vanity, all is delusion, except these infinite heavens.  There is nothing, nothing but that.  But even it does not exist, there is nothing but peace and stillness.  Thanks be to God!...."  (War and Peace, 326)
There is much that could be said about this piece of writing, not least its mystical touch, and Tolstoy was himself quite a mystic in the most general and loose sense of that word.  Here I am reminded of the mystical traditions within both the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches and indeed within the Hasidic mystical practices of Judaism as recounted by the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Mordechai Buber.  Mysticism relates to union with the Godhead or with a personal God in most mainline Christian Churches, though these latter organizations tend to be very suspicious of it, simply because they wish to keep the power of intercession between God and His people in their clerical hands.  Mystics, after all, have a privileged access to the Deity without the intercession of the Church and its clerical caste.  Anyway, one can sense this mystical union in the above piece of writing.  There is also a Buddhist feel to the piece as Prince Andrei speculates on the unreality of the world of war about him - it is all illusion or maya as the Buddhists say. 

Then there is also the sense of the littleness and insignificance of man against the backdrop of the infinity of the heavens above the wounded prince.  I am reminded here of the words of the brilliant and eccentric English Romantic poet and philosopher  Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that the whole spiritual thrust in the human heart and mind was towards unity and that the goal of spirituality was to see "the unity behind the multeity."   He also said, commenting on his nocturnal walks in the country with his father, that his "mind had become habituated to the vast" when he was but little.  The vastness of space, "of that lofty, limitless sky" as Tolstoy puts it in the above passage, is very much a parallel sentiment.  Then one is reminded of the words of the teacher in The Book of Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth from the Old Testament where the author declares again and again that "all is vanity," and "vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  The work emphatically proclaims all the actions of man to be inherently "vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", "fleeting," or "mere breath," depending on translation, as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death. While Qoheleth clearly endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this perceived senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.  I always found it heartening that such a sceptical book could make it into the Bible. 

To be continued

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