Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Diving Deeper 8 - War and Peace 4

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Tolstoy in this masterpiece has time to allow us into the mind of the wounded hero Prince Andrei.  We are well aware of the confusion of the Battle of Austerlitz and of all the regiments in the various armies that were embroiled in it: La Grande Armée de Napoléon with all its various corps and regiments on the French side and then the armies of the Third Coalition, comprising the Russian Imperial Guard and other Russian brigades as well as the Austrian Calvary Brigades under the command of Karl Wilhelm von Stutterheim, and and so on, which makes this one of the great battles of history.  He describes this battle with consummate skill and knowledge, and yet he has time to slow things down, to change the focus like a good film director to be somewhat anachronistic in my commentary here.  Indeed, as I mentioned in a previous post this anachronistic cinematographic technique actually describes well what our author Tolstoy is doing in this great novel.  Firstly we have the wide angled view of the battle as the narrator pans over the expanse of the scene of the military encounter and then we have the narrow focusing in on the wounded Prince Andrei as I described in the last post.   I want to continue now with the observations on life made by the badly wounded Prince Andrei.  As I have already said, Tolstoy's writing is sheer existentialism through and through.  Nor is the pain and suffering of the wounded forgotten by our author.

Further observations of Prince Andrei:

1. "That's a fine death," said Napoleon, looking down at Bolkonsky.  Prince Andrei grasped that this was said of him, and that it was Napoleon saying it.  He heard the speaker addressed as Sire.  But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly.  Not only did they not interest him - they made no impression upon him, and were immediately forgotten.  There was a burning pain in his head; he felt that his life-blood was ebbing away, and he saw far above him the remote and eternal heavens.  He knew it was Napoleon, his hero, but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between his own soul and that lofty, limitless firmament with the clouds flying over it.  It meant nothing to him at that moment who might be standing over him; he was only glad that people were standing near, and his only desire was that these people should help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had learned to see it differently.  He made a supreme effort to stir and utter some sound.  He moved his leg feebly and gave sickly groan which aroused his own pity. (War and Peace, p. 338-339)

Here we have a wonderful scene.  If one were directing this for a film one would have the camera at ground level pointing up at the Emperor on horseback and the remoter sky above him.  Everything around Bolkonsky would be magnified, the dirt, the blood and the gore and the bloodied instruments of war.  Then there is the wonderful sentence about the insignificance of the Emperor's words which are from the Prince's perspective as insignificant as the life of a fly.  Now this analogy has other references in literature, notably Shakespeare:


I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(See King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37)

Again, we get the mystical experience of the man near death.  He is tasting of something sublime, something beautiful and ever so meaningful beyond him.  One might today call this a "near-death experience."  Or again moments of transcendence  - when, in the muddle of existence, we somehow manage to break through everything to engage with each other, and with higher values, or some personal ground of our being, which some call God.  This is captured in the following sentence above:  He knew it was Napoleon, his hero, but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between his own soul and that lofty, limitless firmament with the clouds flying over it.

2. Everything did indeed seem so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought induced in him by his lapsing consciousness, as his life-blood ebbed away, by his suffering and the nearness of death.  Gazing into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.  (Ibid., p340)

The above is indeed existentialism at its best.  Indeed, one could even go so far as to say it is absurdity at is best.  Here we have one of our would-be heroes realising the sheer vanity and futility of the whole project which life is.  He realises the unimportance of everything - especially of greatness, even the unimportance of life and death.  There is also the futility of even trying to understand these mysteries.  In other words we have had in quotation 1 above the mystical experience and then, out of the blue almost, the juxtaposition of futility and absurdity with it.  Here we are reminded of other pieces of literature: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Samuel Becket
And indeed, I am reminded also of that great play, even non-play by our own inimitable Samuel Becket - Waiting for Godot - the sheer absurdity and insignificance of our little lives which are snuffed out no matter what our achievements are.  On a personal note I think of Gerard Smith who died far too young, around 30 years of age, from a congenital heart defect and who once asked me, referring to life, "What's it all about at all?"  Or again, the time when I and my friend Kevin drank a bottle of good Irish whiskey - Jameson -  between us in an attempt to answer the same question when we were philosophy students in the Augustinian Order many years ago in another life.

The Leap of Faith

In this context, then, it would seem that the leap of faith as it is called makes some existential sense, if it cannot make any rational sense at all.  Are we, or at least are some of us driven to make that leap in faith when we crash into the sheer futility and absurdity of that which we experience as life.The phrase is commonly attributed to Søren Kierkegaard; however, he himself never used the term, as he referred to a leap as a leap to faith.  Here below Prince Andrei toys with the idea of simple faith, of believing.  Is he about to leap to that faith?:

3. "How good it would be," thought Prince Andrei, letting his eyes rest on the icon which his sister had hung round his neck with such emotion and reverence, "how good it would be if everything were as clear and simple as it appeared to Marie.  How good it would be to know where to seek help in this life, and what to expect after it, beyond the grave!  How happy and at peace I should be if I could say now: 'Lord, have mercy  on me!...'  But to whom am I to say that? Is it to the great Power, indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot turn to, but which I cannot even express in words - the great All or Nothing, " said he to himself, "or is it to God who has been sewn into this amulet, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of everything within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all important.  (Ibid., p. 341)

Albert Camus 1913 – 4 January 1960
This last piece is shot through with the confusion of a very sick man in pain and suffering, who wants some clarity of thought.  I am reminded here of Albert Camus' introductory words to The Myth of Sisyphus that what he desired above all was clarity, clarity at all costs. Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd in that great book: man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world, devoid of God and eternal truths or values. Such looking for clarity may indeed be the philospher's downfall or the believer's leap to faith.  Each of us must make our own choice.

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