“It Has Begun! Here It Is!” Or: Smoke Puffs, French Pancakes and Bagration’s Chill
Calmness and tranquil mental equipoise is not something we very much value in our favorite literary characters. Achilles raged, angry over being deprived of his rightful war booty. Hamlet fluxed, an emotional chameleon, once a suicidal overthinker, now a murderous mind-changer. Ellison’s Invisible Man panicked, swept underground by the race riotous, inharmonious fugue of American progress and ethnic conflict. These characters stay with us. But who among us is likely to remember poor Prince Bagration and his sturdy psychological repose found in today’s reading?
You. You should remember Prince Bagration. We all should. Here’s why:
The French have attacked. The Russians have responded. The battle begins. Here, finally, is the war of War and Peace. Prince Andrei feels a rush of excitement in his soul and discerns this same excitement brimming on the faces of his compatriots. Then along comes Prince Bagration, trotting towards Prince Andrei on his horse with a few other mounted men, including one accountant who asked to attend because he was curious about what war looks like. Bagration wears an impassive face and speaks slowly and calmly about battle developments. His indifference to the situation never falters, not even when the accountant must credit the Russian soldier asset account one Cossack who has been blasted dead by a French cannonball.
Bagration’s placid behavior does not escape Prince Andrei’s notice. In fact, Prince Andrei makes two mental notes concerning Bagration’s cool style.
The first is very important to one of the major themes of War and Peace. Tolstoy writes: “Prince Andrei listened attentively to Bagration’s colloquies with the commanding officers and the orders he gave them, and to his surprise found that no orders were really given but that Prince Bagration tried to make it appear that everything done by necessity, by accident, or by the will of subordinate commanders, was done, if not by his direct command at least in accord with his intentions.” This is Tolstoy planting an early thematic seed that will fully flower in the second epilogue (because, of course, there must be two of them) wherein he develops his bottom-up theory of history.
The second thing Prince Andrei notes is that Bagration’s calmness seems to be infectious. The Russian troops, formerly possessed of the same excitement for battle that Prince Andrei felt, cool down once they encounter Bagration’s chill.
The distress of war must rank high on the table of human tribulation. And, yet, Bagration manages to maintain. How? Tolstoy doesn’t get into it but Epictetus has something to say about the secret to maintaining mental tranquility during stressful situations:
The soul is like a vessel filled with water; and impressions are like a ray of light that falls upon the water. If the water is disturbed, the ray will seem to be disturbed likewise, though in reality it is not. Whenever, therefore, a man is seized by vertigo, it is not the arts and virtues that are confounded, but the spirit in which they exist; and, if this comes to rest, so will they likewise.
Epictetus, The Discourses