It is Yourself You Spare
Ramballe returns. The last time we met with the good French officer he had just strolled into Moscow with the conquestial confidence of Hernán Cortés, the liberal munificence of the Lilly Endowment, and the sly Gallic charm of Jean-Paul Belmondo. Things aren’t so good for him anymore though. They’ve changed for the worse. Dramatically so.
Today he finds himself divorced from the comfortable confines of fine urban living and confronted instead with the awful choice of either freezing to death in the cold Russian winter countryside or entering the enemy’s camp. The enemy, let us recall, are the Russians. These are the very people who he, as an agent of the French invasion, has recently burned to the ground and expelled from their homes. Ramballe has much to fear. But, baby, it’s cold outside.
One could imagine all the horrible, vengeful things that await him. None of them materialize, however. He’s treated just fine. He is brought to the fire and offered food. Then, when his orderly, Morel, communicates to the Russian soldiers that Ramballe is an officer and therefore due better treatment they usher him to the officer’s hut. Morel remains behind for food, song and dance.
In a novel that has articulated the intrinsic evil of war with the brutal rage and visceral cruelty of Twain’s Aged Stranger, this act of clemency and grace comes as a welcome respite from the madness. Here we also find the universal reason of cosmopolitanism and forgiveness, two practices routinely emphasized by A Year of War and Peace.
It is yourself you spare when you appear to be sparing another.
Seneca, On Clemency