I finished reading Volume V of The Works of Lyof Tolstoi today; the above picture is the frontispiece of Volume VI, the last volume of War and Peace. The illustration is called “The Death of Petya.” Volume VI will begin with Part XIV of this great novel/epic.
The last pages I read today described how Napoleon tried to secure Moscow, how his soldiers would not stop pillaging, how all his plans for getting life back to normal all came to nought. Tolstoy describes all this with his typical disdain for historians and the cult of great men, says that, once again, Napoleon was a pawn in the cause of Fate, the forces of history.
Then he describes Pierre’s time in prison, how he and the other prisoners are made to march with the army as it leaves Moscow. But right before they leave, he takes an entire chapter to describe how his time in prison has made Pierre, for the moment, a new man.
Finally, these pages return to the movements of the army, of Kutuzof fending off demands for attacks, of practicing his two strategies of patience and time, of how when he hears that Napoleon is leaving he knows he has won. That Russia has won. Then comes the description of Napoleon’s retreat.
What mostly stood out to me was the chapter about how prison changed Pierre. When Tolstoy preaches about history and fate, well, I still enjoy it and nod my head as I read, but I am beginning to tire of it and of his high and mighty attitude, that he knows all, that he knows more than historians, that he has found the key, etc. It’s amazing how persuasive he is in the moment, though. It seems to me he has valid points, but he is too absolutist in his application of them.
I also read further into Russia Against Napoleon and want to discuss his view on Tolstoy, but first about Pierre.
First Tolstoy says that for four weeks, “Pierre experienced almost the utmost privations which it is in the power of man to endure” but because of his strong constitution he “bore them easily but even cheerfully.”
“And at this very time he began to feel that calmness and self-satisfaction which he had before vainly striven to attain. He had been long seeking in various directions for this composure and self-agreement, the quality that had amazed him so in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino; he had sought in in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the diversions of fashionable life, in wine, in the heroic effort of self-sacrifice, in his romantic love for Natasha. He had sought it in the path of thought, and all these efforts and experiments had disappointed him.
“And now without any effort or thought he had discovered this calmness and self-contentment only by the horror of death, by privations, and by what he had found in Karatayef [the peasant with his common-sense proverbial wisdom].”
This reminded me of what both Walker Percy and Rebecca Solnit describe in their works of how when disaster strikes people pull together and behave better. This week we had a blizzard here in Maine, and as I did some errands the morning the snow began falling but before the wind began blowing, I was struck by how strangers were joking with one another and everybody seemed more cheerful.
The second aspect of this section about Pierre I can only call a Zen aspect, Zen of Taoist, or both. Such as here: “Here and now, for the first time, Pierre appreciated the pleasure of eating when he was hungry, of drinking when he was thirsty, of sleeping when he was sleepy, of warmth when he was cold, of converse with his fellow-men when he felt like talking and hearing a human voice.” This is a definition of Zen: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.
Then the prisoners are moved and begun to march, and the French soldiers who have been friendly to them up till now, are back in their uniforms and transformed: “‘Here it is! . . . . here it is again!’ said Pierre to himself, and an involuntary chill ran down his back.
“In the changed face of the corporal, in the tone of his voice, in the exciting and deafening rattle of the drums, Pierre recognized that mysterious, unsympathetic power which compels men against their wills to murder their kind, that power the working of which he had seen during the executions.
“To fear this power, to try to escape it, to address with petitions or with reproaches the men who served as its instruments, was idle.
“Pierre now realized this. It was necessary to wait and have patience.”
I wonder if you could say that this “it,” this “mysterious power,” is the scapegoating Satan that Girard writes of. Or is it just the tribal imperative of humans, or is that the same thing?
Finally there is another Zen moment when the prisoners are halted for the night and Pierre wanders away from the encampment and suddenly laughs so hard and long people ask him what’s wrong. He goes away from them to be by himself:
“The huge, endless bivouac, which shortly before had been noisy with the crackling of camp-fires and the voices of men, was now silent; the ruddy fires were dying down and paling. High in the bright sky stood the full moon. Forest and field, before invisible beyond the confines of the bivouac, could now be seen stretching far away. And still farther beyond these forests and fields the eye followed the bright, quivering, alluring, infinite distance.
“Pierre gazed up into the sky, into the depths of the marching host of twinkling stars.
“‘And all that is mine, and all that is in me, and all that is me,’ thought Pierre. ‘And they took all that and shut it in a hut made of boards!’
“He smiled, and went back to his comrades, and lay down to sleep.”
That is a description of an experience of Zen enlightenment if I ever heard one.