That Infinite Sky
Some men sleepwalk through life and others sprint to their death. Prince Andrei is a sprinter.
Stopping by a deserted house, General Kutuzov and his adjutants see that the morning fog has lifted. Normally this would be a good thing. With the obscuring fog finally dissipating, Kutuzov can now survey the battlefield clearly and direct his army accordingly. Unfortunately for him the lifting of the fog reveals that the French are already upon them. Everyone panics. A terrified confusion sets in. Shouts for retreat disturb the morning air. As the rest of the army degenerates into pandemonium Prince Andrei realizes this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for to make a hero out of himself.
But what to do?
He scans the area. Amid the madness, he sees that a second lieutenant has been shot and dropped the flag he was holding. Prince Andrei pounces. He runs to the standard, picks it up, and charges forward. He implores his countrymen to join him in attack. And they do.
They rush towards the battery which is being run over by the French who are turning the Russian cannons against the Russians. Prince Andrei takes note of a particular struggle between a Frenchman and a Russian. He wonders what will happen of this fight. But he’s never given an answer because a projectile of some sort hits him in the head and he falls to the ground.
Before consciousness slips away he finds himself looking up at the sky above him. We’ve written before about how Tolstoy often pairs a scene of great human tragedy with a pastoral description of nature. Tolstoy’s idea, as I see it anyway, is to highlight nature’s indifference to the human struggle. That’s what going on here. As Prince Andrei dies on the battlefield surrounded by men butchering each other the sky disinterestedly carries on. It’s just as Thomas Ligotti writes of history in his short story “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures”: “Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumerable souls — while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.”
Throughout the novel so far Prince Andrei has been the most thoughtful, the most reflective. And what, now that he’s bleeding out on the field of Austerlitz, has this thinking obtained for him? What great truths did he find that brought him to this moment?
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.