Crave Not These Things
Luke Skywalker, Jedi hero of the rebellion against the Empire, was not always so heroic. In fact, his first attempt to study the Jedi way was nearly thwarted by Jedi Master Yoda who perceived in young Luke many of the dangerous traits that lead Luke’s father, Anakin, down the path of the dark side of the Force. For this reason Yoda initially refused to train Luke. But Luke insisted that he was ready to undergo the training. “Ready, are you? What know you of ready?” asked Yoda. “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained! A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!”
It turns out Nikolai Rostov really isn’t Jedi material either for he engages in similarly reckless and mindless behavior in today’s reading. The first instance comes early in the chapter as he surveys the Russian troops moving across the bridge over the river Enns. The entire Russian army has gone over, save for Rostov’s squadron of hussars. Instead of focusing on the present task of completing the crossing Rostov daydreams of glory. He assumes “the happy air of a schoolboy” as he contemplates ways in which he can distinguish himself in battle. This reverie distracts him from noting that the French are arriving just over the horizon.
And then, when he does discover the approaching French army, he probably takes part in the same thoughts Tolstoy writes all soldiers have upon taking sight of the enemy:
One step beyond that boundary line which resembles the line dividing the living from the dead, lies uncertainty, suffering, and death. And what is there? Who is there? — beyond that field, that tree, that roof lit up by the sun? No one knows, but one wants to know. You fear and yet long to cross that line, and know that sooner or later it must be crossed and you will have to find out what is there, just as you will inevitably have to learn what lies the other side of death.
Even then Rostov isn’t finished with his mindlessness. When he perceives that the French will attempt to cut them off at the bridge he realizes that the Russians must fire the bridge first. He looks to his colonel, Bogdanich. Things aren’t great between him and Bogdanich. After his dustup with Telyanin, Rostov rushed off to complain to Bogdanich about Denisov’s stolen purse. And he did so, very rudely, embarrassing Bogdanich, in front of other officers.
So now Rostov loses himself in paranoid thoughts about how Bogdanich will somehow target him personally for revenge. Rostov believes Bogdanich has found his method for this revenge by accepting the order to burn the bridge. Surely, Rostov imagines, Bogdanich will order Rostov’s squadron to execute the order. This, it turns out, is the case. Rostov’s squadron is tasked with burning the bridge, though certainly not for the reasons Rostov thinks. At any rate, Rostov losses his focus again as he daydreams about the sky above him (recall our discussion about this Tolstoyan literary technique of contrasting indifferent nature with the strivings of mankind).
Rostov’s daydreaming is cut short when French grapeshot mows down a few of his fellow soldiers. He retreats in fear.
Consider how much time Rostov wastes on mindless thought in this chapter. Consider how much time we waste on mindless thought every day. Then consider what Marcus Aurelius has to say on the subject of staying focused on the present rather than wasting time on mindless thought:
I consist of a little body and a soul. Now to this little body all things are indifferent, for it is not able to perceive differences. But to the understanding only those things are indifferent that are not the works of its own activity. But whatever things are the works of its own activity, all these are in its power — and of these, however, only those that are done with reference to the present; for as to the future and the past activities of the mind, even these are indifferent for the present.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations