Revisit the Lofty Sky of Austerlitz
Today Prince Andrei reports for duty at Tsarevo-Zaymishche. First he meets with Denisov and then with Kutuzov. It’s an interesting exercise to compare and contrast what Prince Andrei experiences during these two meetings.
Kutuzov — whose new appellation, Serene Highness, is thoroughly mocked by Tolstoy by means of absurd repetition in the text — has recently assumed his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces. One of his first decisions is to order Prince Andrei to report to him. Their interaction, however, is limited to mere pleasantries as Kutuzov is distracted on all sides by official business. Most of this official business concerns people like Denisov pestering him about war strategies and tactics.
It is Kutuzov’s reaction to this pestering that forms the basis of the book’s philosophy of history. It is true, after all, in the words of A.J.P. Taylor, that whereas Napoleon is the butt of War and Peace, Kutuzov is its saint. So keep the following passage in mind whenever we dip into the philosophical passages of the book:
He was listening to the general’s report — which consisted chiefly of a criticism of the position at Tsarevo-Zaymishche — as he had listened to Denisov, and seven years previously had listened to the discussion at the Austerlitz council of war. He evidently listened only because he had ears which, though there was a piece of tow in one of them, could not help hearing; but it was evident that nothing the general could say would surprise or even interest him, that he knew all that would be said beforehand, and heard it all only because he had to, as one has to listen to the chanting of a service of prayer. All that Denisov had said was clever and to the point. What the general was saying was even more clever and to the point, but it was evident that Kutuzov despised knowledge and cleverness, and knew of something else that would decide the matter — something independent of cleverness and knowledge. Prince Andrei watched the commander-in-chief’s face attentively, and the only expression he could see there was one of boredom, curiosity as to the meaning of the feminine whispering behind the door, and a desire to observe propriety. It was evident that Kutuzov despised cleverness and learning and even the patriotic feeling shown by Denisov, but despised them not because of his own intellect, feelings, or knowledge — he did not try to display any of these — but because of something else. He despised them because of his old age and experience of life.
Here again we find Kutuzov’s disdain for the pseudo-scientific treatment of war as if it were a machine in need only of fine-tuning to produce desired outputs. Kutuzov is aware that war, like all complex systems, is a profound and unknowable phenomenon, immune to the presumptuous fiddling of feeble human scheming. He doesn’t even allow himself to get worked up over the details of something so significant as the defense of the motherland.
Turning now to Prince Andrei’s conversation with Denisov we see that Prince Andrei cannot summon the strength to apply to matters of love Kutuzov’s laissez-faire approach to war. It takes great strength to do nothing, it appears. He knows Denisov to have been Natasha’s first suitor so meeting Denisov he naturally turns his thoughts to his former fiancé. Needless to say, he is plunged back into the painful feelings of their broken engagement. Note, however, that these feelings are not as strong as they once were, especially in comparison to all the recent sorrows he has endured (the occupation of his lands by the French, the death of his father, etc.).
Maybe there is a lesson for Prince Andrei here. If these events, so small and close in time, can dampen the pain of his break with Natasha then certainly his pain can be pacified if measured against the all-encompassing, ever-expansive lofty sky of Austerlitz.
If only he can remember.
And consider what is near to you, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? For they vex him only for a time.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations