Prince Andrei in the Waking Echo of Confusing Strife
Woody Allen once quipped that he wasn’t afraid of death but he didn’t want to be there when it happened. Prince Andrei isn’t afraid of death either but he wants to be there when it happens so he can greet it with a nice high five. It’s true. Each time I read War and Peace I’m more convinced that, at least in these early chapters, Prince Andrei has a death wish on par with wingsuit base jumpers, free solo climbers, and those willing to inhale as their neighbors prepare shutki.
In the previous chapter Andrei declined to retreat with Bilibin into relative safety. Instead he opted to return to Kutuzov, the route to which is rife with danger, including capture by the French. Along the way he encounters the haphazard, chaotic retreat of the Russians and Austrians fleeing the French in the opposite direction. Here he espies a Russian officer abusing some of these refugees and, even though Andrei recognizes the officer is in a state of crazed, drunken rage, he confronts him. Finally, when Andrei reaches Kutuzov and learns that the rumors of Russian capitulation are not true but that the Russians are actually going to give battle, pretty much a suicidal attack as Kutuzov says, Andrei volunteers himself for service.
I admire Prince Andrei’s thinking on death in this chapter. Early on, as he contemplates that much dreaded eventuality, he tells himself, “And should there be nothing left but to die? Well, if need be, I shall do it no worse than others.”
There are plenty of other approaches to death in the literary canon. Lear’s Oswald bemoans his untimely death. Gilgamesh repeatedly laments the absurdity of so short a life and the grief incurred surviving loved ones. Dante takes this sentiment to a whole new level in the Vita Nuova, swearing and raging against it, “Villainous Death, at war with tenderness,/ Timeless mother of woe,/ Judgment severe and incontestable,/ Source of sick grief within my heart — a grief/ I constantly must bear/ My tongue wears itself out in cursing you!”
So who gets it right? I like to think Prince Andrei does. I’d supplement his thinking with Seneca’s:
What is death? Either end or transition. I do not fear ceasing to be, for it is the same as not having begun to be; nor am I afraid of transition, for no alternative state can be so limiting.”
Seneca, Letter on How Many ‘Causes?’