Before a Blowing Wind
Experience is the educator without a lectern. Early in James Joyce’s Ulysses Stephen Dedalus peerlessly instructs his students on the victories of Pyrrhus, helps them through Milton’s poetry, and then assists one particular student with his arithmetic. After that he goes to visit the headmaster, Mr. Deasy, to collect his wages. While there Mr. Deasy notes that Dedalus doesn’t seem content merely teaching at his school. What does he want to do, Mr. Deasy asks? After some thought Stephen replies that instead of a teacher he’d prefer instead to be a learner. “To learn one must be humble,” Mr. Deasy responds. “But life is the great teacher.”
This is a lesson Nikolai Rostov has been learning lately. Tolstoy makes this explicit in today’s chapter as Nikolai and his new friend Ilyin decamp and make for Ostrovna. They know they’re heading towards battle. Rostov isn’t bothered by it. Not at all. This is a major contrast to how he used to feel while riding out to battle. Back then the proximity to war filled him with fear. No so anymore. Today he is fearless. This change in attitude is not due to mere experience with battle. It’s actually because he has “learned to manage his thoughts when in danger.” Or, in stoic terms, he no longer offers assent to his impressions. And — just as old Marcus, Seneca, and Epictetus predict — his mind when so properly ordered becomes a mind of calmness and tranquility.
This tranquility is similar to how nature is presented in today’s chapter. We’ve discussed previously how Tolstoy often paints a prose natural landscape in close proximity to a scene of battle. He’s at it again today. Before the battle begins we get two solid paragraphs describing the expansive countryside as Nikolai and Ilyin trot along to war. Our previous thinking on this is that Tolstoy wants to present grand nature’s indifference to the small and evanescent travails of mankind. Perhaps he’s up to something else though.
Perhaps he’s saying that nature provides the model for how best to respond to the vicissitudes of life. This is, after all, the lesson Nikolai has learned. He’s heading toward danger without a care in the world, his mind instead focused on plucking leaves from passing trees and smoking a pipe as if he were merely on a rocking chair on his front porch watching the sunset. Nature, like Nikolai’s mind, is indifferent. Below the sky French and Russian armies senselessly slaughter each other and all the while blue-purple clouds redden towards the east and scuttle before a blowing wind.
The lesson life teaches Nikolai here is that in order to achieve mental tranquility he must elevate his mind to be in accordance with nature.
Now the distinguishing marks of a high spirit are composure and serenity and a lofty disregard of insult and injury.
Seneca, On Clemency