Love and Beauty and a Latent Heat
Charles Dickens, eternal King of English letters, wrote the book on selfless sacrifice. That book, of course, is the magisterial A Tale of Two Cities, and its selfless character is The Jackal, Sydney Carton. Carton is an interesting guy. He’s initially presented as a drunken and bumbling young man, albeit very intelligent — kind of like Pierre, wouldn’t you say? Throughout the novel Carton falls deeper and deeper in love with Lucie Manette, a young woman in love with another man, Charles Darnay, who bears a striking resemblance to our man Carton. Lucie and Charles marry and have children. Later, as the terrible storm of the Reign of Terror settles over France, Darnay returns to that country in order to help free a man imprisoned by the French revolutionaries. While there Darnay is arrested and accused of being an émigré aristocrat. He is an émigré aristocrat so, naturally, he’s sentenced to death. Sydney Carton, recognizing that his own body and life is cheap compared to the happiness of a family, drugs Darnay, switches clothes with him, and assumes his position under the guillotine. This sacrifice not only provides his beloved Lucie with the promise of a happy life but also readers with one of the great sentences of self-sacrifice in English literature: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Today Pierre shows a similar disregard for his own body and life as he voluntarily follows Russian soldiers into battle. Pierre’s path differs from Carton’s in that Pierre isn’t putting his life on the line for love but, rather, for beauty.
It’s an odd beauty, to be sure, as we’ll see.
Pierre wakes up late. After dressing himself he takes to the knoll overlooking the field of battle. The armies are amassed, the cannons are firing. He is transfixed, spellbound by the beauty he beholds. But it’s not the pastoral countryside he finds so alluring. It’s the puff and boom of cannon fire and the men amassed to slaughter each other. This, we’re told, is the “chief beauty of the spectacle” Pierre is so enraptured with. It’s so seductive, in fact, that he follows a dispatched general down into the puff and boom of the battlefield.
To understand why Pierre finds this madness so beautiful we must return to Day 211 of our reading. In that chapter Pierre notes something special in the passing visages of the Russian soldiers:
All he had seen that day, all the significant and stern expressions on the faces he had seen in passing, were lit up for him by a new light. He understood that latent heat (as they say in physics) of patriotism which was present in all these men he had seen, and this explained to him why they all prepared for death so calmly, and as it were light-heartedly.
In today’s chapter Pierre sees this same look on the faces of Kutuzov’s suite. It’s enough to inspire him to follow them into battle, something he is wholly unprepared for.
Keep this look in mind as we move forward in the reading. This intangible, unknowable, unmeasurable essence is what animates the bottom-up, emergent order of war that Tolstoy will argue, contra the Great Man theory, truly drives the course of history.
For now, however, note the common denominator of self-sacrifice as practiced by Sydney Carton, Pierre Bezukhov, and the soldiers of Borodino. They each have their separate reasons for doing what they do but they all share the common trait of valuing their own bodies and lives less than something greater than themselves.
You must not forget that this body is not your own, but only cleverly moulded clay.
Epictetus, The Discourses