Fifty Thousand Corpses Lay There (This Heart Within Me Burns)

Day 224 of A Year of War and Peace

The very deep did rot

And I had done a hellish thing,

So says Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner to a captive wedding guest in what is surely literary history’s most bizarre social stop-and-chat. The Ancient Mariner’s tale is worth listening to, it turns out, at least inasmuch as it has something to teach us about the self-damage done by self-deception. His is a simple enough story. It begins with a sea journey through Antarctic waters icy enough to warm the hearts of House Stark but chill the hopes for survival of everybody else. Indeed, at just the point where his ship is doomed to perish among the halting glaciers an albatross drops from the heavens and leads the ship to open waters. In return for this help the mariner, naturally, shoots and kills the albatross. Fair enough. But when things break bad for the ship again (this time killing off the entire crew) the ancient mariner plunges into a lifetime of remorse and guilt. He convinces himself that his action, murdering the albatross, is what killed his crew rather than, you know, the perils of nineteenth century deep sea voyaging. Clearly, the poaching of an albatross has no relation to the fate of a ship at sea. Other forces are at work here. The ancient mariner, however, believes his own action is central to the fate of other men.

In today’s chapter Napoleon displays a similar self-aggrandizing impulse. There are differences between the two, of course. The Ancient Mariner’s self-deception leads him to falsely assume responsibility for his crewmates’ destruction. Napoleon’s self-deception, on the other hand, helps him disavow responsibility for the carnage he causes. Nevertheless, this internal crookery ultimately corrupts the soul. Throughout the chapter Napoleon is either horrified at what he has done or he is dark and gloomy over the erroneous conviction that he must do them.

The chapter starts with Napoleon in horrified survey of the gruesome battlefield. He cannot believe what he sees. The massacre is too much to process. “At that moment,” Tolstoy writes, “he did not desire Moscow, or victory, or glory (what need had he of more glory?). The one thing he wished for was rest, tranquility, and freedom.” In this brief moment Napoleon emerges temporarily from his false consciousness and assumes a human perspective.

The moment doesn’t last long.

When he sees that the Russians hold out against the intense French cannon fire he becomes angry and orders even more fire to rain down on his enemies. It’s at this point that his mind transitions from horrified to dark and gloomy, a sad state, Tolstoy says, he is never able to escape. As he watches the destruction of his own making unfold on the battlefield below he “repudiates all truth, goodness and humanity.”

He justifies these terrible crimes as cheap expenditure necessary for the purchase of a unified Europe. It’s for the people’s welfare, you see, that he’s scorching a march through the continent and peppering so many bodies with deadly gunshot. And, besides, when he looks at the dead there’s like a 5–1 enemy to French casualty rate anyway. C’est la vie!

The difference between Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Tolstoy’s Napoleon is that Napoleon actually works some woe. What emerges from both Coleridge’s poem and Tolstoy’s portrait of Napoleon, however, is the power a self-deceived mind exercises over an individual’s spiritual well-being. The Ancient Mariner needlessly punishes himself and commits to a lifetime of repeatedly sharing his tale with others as an act of penance. Napoleon submits to the “cruel, sad, gloomy and inhuman role” of war criminal because he hastricked himself into believing that what he’s doing is for the benefit of humanity. In both cases the men unsettle themselves.


No one is undone by an action not his own.

Epictetus, The Discourses

This is the two hundred and twenty fourth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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