"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Reading War and Peace

My wife rereads Proust every few years because she loves it, thinks its great, and believes that life is too short to read bad books.  (Though she does read a few bad ones for her book club, which is more for socializing than reading.)   I am the same way: there are a few great books that I reread every few years.   One of them is Tolstoy's War and Peace.   Last night I finished the third book, with the great climactic scene of the Battle of Austerlitz where Prince Andrew Bolkonski, who has long idolized Napoleon as a political genius even though he is the enemy of Russia, is wounded and left for dead.   As he lies on the ground in the aftermath of the battle, half-dreaming, Napoleon appears on horseback above him, inspecting  the field.   As he looks up at Napoleon, Prince Andrew (Andrei in my version) realizes that politics are infinitessimally insignificant compared to the realities of death and the hereafter:     
"That's a fine death!" said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.
      Prince Andrew understood that this was said of him and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker addressed as Sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them and at once forgot them. His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon- his hero- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it. At that moment it meant nothing to him who might be standing over him, or what was said of him; he was only glad that people were standing near him and only wished that they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand it so differently. He collected all his strength, to stir and utter a sound. He feebly moved his leg and uttered a weak, sickly groan which aroused his own pity.
     "Ah! He is alive," said Napoleon. "Lift this young man up and carry him to the dressing station."
Life is very big and strange and beautiful, and most of what we talk about -- mid-term elections, TSA pat-downs, tax cuts -- are not very important in the grand scheme of things.  

Just a thought heading into Thanksgiving.  

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