Friday, February 17, 2017

Yes, it was the same flesh - some War and Peace death

War and Peace is full of Tolstoy’s unoriginal ideas about history in essay form, and his original ideas about death in novel form.  Tolstoy is among the greatest writers about death – sudden or prolonged, in combat or illness, actual or threatened.

If you are bothered by learning about the deaths of characters in a book you have not read and with whom you have no associations whatsoever, skip this post, I guess.

A combat death, Petya Rostov.  His death in XIV.2. is preceded by his great musical dream, where a whetstone, horses, and snoring are somehow combined into a “harmonious orchestra playing some unknown, sweetly solemn hymn.”  Seven hundred pages earlier, Tolstoy suggested that Petya’s sister is synesthetic; perhaps Petya is, too.  I mention the dream because it shows how intensely subjective the point of view has become.  Everything is interior.  To make the text work, I am identifying with Petya, whether he is observing other soldiers, sleeping, or riding into combat.

His charge alongside the Cossacks is chaotic, a breathless blur:

“Wait?...  Hurrah-ah-ah!” shouted Petya, and without pausing a moment galloped to the place whence came the sounds of firing and where the smoke was thickest.

A volley was heard, and some bullets whistled past, while others plashed against something. (ellipses in original).

Tolstoy plays a terrible trick here.  The “something” is or includes Petya, but for two more headlong sentences I do not know that the perspective has shifted to the other cavalrymen.  Something has gone wrong.  “Petya fell heavily to the ground.  The Cossacks saw…”  Now I know the truth.  What a masterful use of a perspective shift.

A number of the best death scenes are attached to Prince Andrew, over and over – he is thinking about death, he is wounded in combat, etc.  Here he is part of the hot, dusty retreat towards Moscow, before the battle of Borodino:

The dust always hung motionless above the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops.

That by itself is an interesting sentence, isn’t it?

As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the ooze and freshness of the pond.  He longed to get into that water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at the pool from whence came the sounds of shrieks and laughter.  The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces, who were splashing about in it.  (X.5.)

Tolstoy emphasizes the “health” and pleasure of the soldiers (“joyfully wriggling his muscular figure and snorted with satisfaction”), but bathing himself Andrew can only imagine them as the corpses that many of them will soon be:

“Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing about in the dirty pond.

Later, wounded, the bodies in the hospital remind Andrew of the bodies in the pond – “Yes, it was the same flesh” (X.37.).  All of 120 pages later, almost adjacent for this book.

Maybe it is a paradox of War and Peace, of much of Tolstoy, is how exhilarating so much of this material about death can be.  Or not a paradox – the reason is art.


  1. death is a topic which i found most important to think over without any break .
    it should be included i each thought elated to LIFE to make it reasonable

  2. Maybe it is a paradox of War and Peace, of much of Tolstoy, is how exhilarating so much of this material about death can be. Or not a paradox – the reason is art.

    War is a very bizarre theme! I've long noticed that many of the most beautiful movies about friendship and human nature at its most decent tend to be war movies. No doubt it's a lingerind vestige of the epic form. You say exhilarating; I remember Borges once saying that he was easily moved by the epic. As a fan of superhero comics, which is the last bulwark of epic fiction, I can say that I regularly felt both exhilarated and moved reading those silly stories.

  3. War is perhaps the single thing that most baffles me about humanity. Not its existence, but its continuance into an age (let's say, since the Enlightenment, when serious antiwar thinking became widespread) when you might have thought we'd have figured out a way to avoid or minimize it. Clearly there's something in us that craves mass destruction, whether it's Fraud's "death instinct" or something else. I'm reading Goncharov's delightful account of the 1852-6 voyage to Japan he took part in, The Frigate Pallada; at one point they leave Nagasaki to provision themselves and get news at Shanghai, where it happens that there's an insurgency the government is trying to suppress, and he writes of the government camp outside the city:

    From time to time they fired off rounds fro the camp, but they were mostly blank cartridges, to show (as the English officers told us) that they they were vigilant. In fact they are only vigilant, and frighten one another. They fire even into fog, at night, unable to see the enemy. That night attack we had seen from the Woosung River was nothing more than a pitiful caricature of a battle.

    A pitiful caricature of a battle! We want the real thing, with blood and gore! What a species.

  4. Baili, for thinking about death, Tolstoy is, for me, as profound as anyone I have ever read.

    The point about the "epic" is right. The literary attempts to humanize or downscale or ridicule the experience of battle, as in The Charterhouse of Parma, have the strange effect of emphasizing its drama. Even the "pitiful caricature of a battle" Goncharov describes is the real thing for the poor schmoes trapped in it, even when it has no importance to anyone else.

    I guess, in dramatic terms, on the battlefield a lot of socially mediated experiences can be presented head on.

    Deaths from war have declined a lot since the mid-20th century. Maybe we have succeeded in minimizing it! The Enlightenment has been an ongoing project.

  5. I must be one of only two people ever who preferred Tolstoy's religious fables to his novels (the other one being Lev Nicolayevich himself). Anyway, thank you for these posts (and the ones about Henry James) they've been very enlightening.

    I notice that you're reading Michaux. I don't think this little early piece was included on the anthology you're reading, and that is a shame:
    I was a fetus. My mother used to wake me up whenever she began to entertain lustful thoughts about Monsieur de Riez.
    Around that same time, sometimes, other fetuses also woke up, children of battered mothers, of alcohol drinking mothers, or of women getting busy in the confessional.
    One night, there were about seventy of us, fetuses, talking belly-to-belly and at a distance: I do not quite know how.
    After that we never met again.
    I was a word trying to move at the speed of thought.
    Thought’s little friends, those hussies, were there too. Not even one of them was willing to put up for me, and there were more than six hundred thousand of them looking at me, laughing.

  6. Petya's death really got me the last time I read the book; I think it was the raisins (a long-ago blog post).

    And Languagehat, I share your bafflement about war and our species.

  7. The raisins, Petya's wide-eyed absorption of sensations. Plus, by that point in the book I hope I'm done with the killing, as Tolstoy well knew.

    Thanks for the bonus Michaux. Yes, I'm reading the old anthology. Remarkable how much more Michaux there is in English now.