Lines Written A Few Miles Above a Totally Ruined and Deserted German Village
Revisitation often gives rise to renewal. There is something deeply affecting — mysterious even — about returning to a familiar place equipped with new experience. It’s as if the reflective present person, in a dialectic with her past, discusses the revisited place, and in so doing plans a fresh path forward for their future self. William Wordsworth had this very experience upon his return to Tintern Abbey with his sister in 1789. He had visited the site five years previously as a surly and uneasy twenty-three-year-old. His revisitation of the site, however, yielded a more positive experience and a poem that allowed him to “see into the life of things” where “the burthen of mystery,/ In which the heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world,/ Is lightened.”
Nikolai Rostov’s unintelligible world is not quite lightened yet. As we see today, he still has his problems, but his return to his regiment does inspire some changes in him.
From the start we’re shown how happy he is to be returning to his regiment. The regiment, he feels, is more like home to him than his actual home is. This is good for Rostov, I think. The last time we saw him, after all, he was sobbing uncontrollably over the debts he’d accrued gambling with Dolokhov. So happy and lost in Wordsworthian reflection is Rostov that he resolves to reform himself and he’ll do this by being the best soldier he can be.
It’s a tough objective. The regiment, we’re told, is in near complete disarray. First of all, they’ve taken up residence is some godforsaken German village. Food is so short that they’re resigned to foraging for plants that turn out to be poisonous. They continue to eat the poisonous root anyway. Indeed, things are so bad that during the period covered by this chapter only two members of the regiment are injured in action but nearly half of them are lost to hunger and sickness.
He does, to be fair, relapse into his old angry self once again towards the end of the chapter. The story is that while out on a foraging expedition he finds a destitute Polish family who he takes in. Some of his comrades say some nasty things about the woman of the group and Nikolai explodes in anger at them, nearly provoking a duel. So it’s clear by the end of the chapter that something is still wrong with Rostov. He hasn’t completed his project of reform quite yet.
The problem, as I see it, is that Rostov hasn’t really committed to a change. He’s merely hiding from his problems. We’re treated to a bit of this early in the chapter when Tolstoy lists Rostov’s thoughts about his real home and all the difficulties he experiences there. So he retreats to the regiment where the strict order shields him from the vagaries of his free, individual existence. But, as Schopenhauer writes, “The life of every man is stamped with the same character throughout, however much his external circumstances may alter; it is like a series of variations on a single theme. No one can get beyond his own individuality.”
Rostov must first change himself. If he does that he can emerge from the false cocoon of the regiment and enjoy the entire world with a Wordsworthian “cheerful faith, that all which we behold/ Is full of blessings.”
The wise man is at home everywhere.
Seneca, Consolation of Helvia