Return of the Mack
Day 28 of A Year of War and Peace
Kutuzov and the Austrian general convene in a private room to discuss the campaign. Looking on, in silent attention, is Kutuzov’s aide-de-camp, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei watches and listens as Kutuzov attempts to delay the deployment of Russian troops just a bit longer. The Austrian general, however, wants to get the Russians into the fight as soon as possible. Kutuzov’s argument is that surely this is unnecessary. After all, he argues, certainly Mack, an esteemed Austrian general, has already gained a decisive victory against the French. So why rush things? In support of this view Kutuzov reads a letter from Archduke Ferdinand himself saying that the Austrians are in a position of power. The Austrian general replies, rather sensibly, that still one should always plan for the worst.
At this point Kutuzov directs Prince Andrei to collect reports from some scouts and to deliver some letters. He sets off to execute this order immediately. And what a change we see in Prince Andrei. Before, in peacetime, amid all his leisure, he was melancholy and indolent. Now, at war, occupied totally with the war effort, he is much brighter and animated. Much like Fanny of Mansfield Park, he has found that there is nothing like employment, active employment, for relieving sorrow. This personal growth has even caught the attention of some important people in the Russian military. They have noted his exceptional intelligence and have come to expect great things from him.
He may be able to display even more of this intelligence when he sees that general Mack has arrived to admit his defeat. Immediately Prince Andrei understands that this means Russia must take a more active role, and that he’ll probably be called upon to fight the fight.
Prince Andrei decides it’s best to write to his father, something he does every day, no doubt using it as a way to think through his military experience and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, concluding the chapter, he meets with two of his friends. Both of them embarrass him in front of his superiors. He, correctly in my view, severely reprimands his friends in a fit of righteous anger.
So he’s still got that old, harsh Bolkonsky charm. Nice.
“But you know the wise maxim, your Excellency, advising one to expect the worst.”
So says the Austrian general in today’s chapter. We’ve already explored this idea, somewhat, at the end of Book One, Part One. By thinking about stressful situations we can better prepare ourselves for when stressful situations actually manifest.
We can’t be sure if Prince Andrei is practicing this type of premeditation. We are, however, told that he is “one of those rare staff-officers whose chief interest lay in the general progress of the war.” Further, we know that this interest benefits him because all the thought he has put into the war allows him to know exactly what will be needed to be done now that Mack has lost his battle. Andrei must have contemplated this outcome before it occurred. It’s what prepared with such a quick response. This type of forethought is important if we’re to deal variously with adversity.
The most famous exercise of meditation is the premeditatio mallorum as practiced by the Stoics. It is an ethical, imaginary experience. In appearance it’s a rather dark and pessimistic vision of the future. You can compare it to what Husserl says about eidetic reduction.
The Stoics developed three eidetic reductions of future misfortune. First, it is not a question of imagining the future as it is likely to turn out but to imagine the worst which can happen, even if there’s little chance that it will turn out that way — the worst as certainty, as actualizing what could happen, not as calculation of probability. Second, one shouldn’t envisage things as possibly taking place in the distant future but as already actual and in the process of taking place. For example, imagining not that one might be exiled but rather that one is already exiled, subjected to torture, and dying. Thirdly, one does this not in order to experience inarticulate sufferings but in order to convince oneself that they are not real ills. The reduction of all that is possible, of all the duration and of all the misfortunes, reveals not something bad but what we have to accept.
Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self