Defeat in Victory

Day 46 of A Year of War and Peace

Often, in film, a narrative with an ensemble cast and an otherwise frenetic and zesty pace will feature a scene of calm, deliberate, and plodding denouement. This scene will sedately string together the remaining characters and briefly show them, having completed their current story, preparing for whatever lies ahead. I’m thinking in particular of that great steadicam shot from Boogie Nights that follows Jack as he goes room to room surveying his household. This is exactly what Tolstoy is doing in today’s chapter that closes out Book One, Part Two.

Gone is the panic and the rush of battle.

Instead we’re treated to scenes of keen exhaustion as the Russian army settles into their post-battle camp. These are very powerful passages, a literary expression articulating Ludwig von Mises’s notion that war is an evil even for the victor. We find Rostov, injured and depleted, sitting dazed before a camp fire. Across the camp, Prince Andrei defends Tushin’s actions during the battle. Both are fatigued, having been pushed to the extremes of the human experience at the Battle of Schöngrabern. Tolstoy’s restrained, weary, and melancholy prose reflects this state of mind perfectly.

Over the camp a light, indifferent fluttering of snowflakes falls from the dark nighttime sky onto the troops below.


He felt sad and depressed. It was all so strange, so unlike what he had hoped.”

This is Prince Andrei’s mental state as the chapter closes out. The disconsolate timbre of this sentiment is sharply contrasted against the buoyant ideas of heroism and adventure both he and Rostov brought to the war. Instead of glory and renown they found defeat in victory.

Casting aside other things, hold to the precious few, and besides bear in mind that every man lives only the present, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or is uncertain. Brief is man’s life and small the nook of the earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

This is the forty-sixth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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