Une Belle Mort!
Day 65 of A Year of War and Peace
Our foul age of depthless soul and detached irony is not interested in a chapter like this. Prince Andrei’s specific yet eternal ruminations on life and death are unlikely to yield any dank memes. It’s rather more likely they’ll be dismissed, if even read at all, with insouciant disdain. To borrow from Tyler Cowen, economist and blogger, the aesthetics of this type of fiction is at odds with today’s complacent zeitgeist of faux-pomo pococurantism and taste for placidity. People just don’t like this stuff anymore.
Except for you, of course.
You love it. That’s why you’re here. So let’s get to it.
The last time we met with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky he had just been shot in the head. He lay on the earth contemplating the lofty sky while awaiting death. When we meet him today he’s in the same position.
And then along comes Napoleon to survey the wreckage he has wrought. Prince Andrei is still conscious enough to recognize that he’s in the presence of his hero. Only now, under the tutelage of the lofty sky, Prince Andrei no longer sees Napoleon as a great man but, rather, as a mere fly buzzing inconsequentially about.
Napoleon, noticing that Prince Andrei is still alive, orders him taken to the field doctor for care. Later, Napoleon approaches Prince Andrei once again and asks how he is feeling. Prince Andrei’s response:
Though five minutes before Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed straight on Napoleon, he was silent . . . So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.
Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death, aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon’s eyes Prince Andrei thought of the insignificance 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.
The field doctor, diagnosing certain death, leaves Prince Andrei to the care of any locals who may want to tend to him.
And so ends Book One of War and Peace.
In today’s chapter Prince Andrei learns that in the restaurant of life the only menu item is a meaningless meat sandwich served up between two slices of infinite nothingness.
From Plato: “The man who has an elevated mind and takes a view of all time and of all substance, do you suppose it possible for him to think that human life is anything great?” “It is also not possible,” he said. “Such a man then will think that death is no evil.” “Certainly not.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations