Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The big sky


I'm only now getting around to reading War and Peace, but I'm glad I am. Here are some good bits that I came across recently:
"That's a fine death!" said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.
Prince Andrew understood that this was said of him and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker addressed as Sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them and at once forgot them. His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon- his hero- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it.
Though five minutes before, Prince Andrew had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed straight on Napoleon, he was silent.... So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.
Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon's eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain. 
Here's another bit:
Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French- all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm- was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors- that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.
No doubt this is irrelevant, but the buzzing fly in the first of these passages reminded me of this by Schopenhauer:
[C]ast our glance forward far into the future, and seek to present to our minds the future generations, with the millions of their individuals in the strange form of their customs and pursuits, and then interpose with the question: Whence will all these come? Where are they now? Where is the fertile womb of that nothing, pregnant with worlds, which still conceals the coming races? Would not the smiling and true answer to this be, Where else should they be than there where alone the real always was and will be, in the present and its content?—thus with thee, the foolish questioner, who in this mistaking of his own nature is like the leaf upon the tree, which, fading in autumn and about to fall, complains at its destruction, and will not be consoled by looking forward to the fresh green which will clothe the tree in spring, but says lamenting, “I am not these! These are quite different leaves!” Oh, foolish leaf! Whither wilt thou? And whence should others come? Where is the nothing whose abyss thou fearest? Know thine own nature, that which is so filled with thirst for existence; recognise it in the inner, mysterious, germinating force of the tree, which, constantly one and the same in all generations of leaves, remains untouched by all arising and passing away. And now, οἱη περ φυλλων γενεη, τοιηδε και ανδρων (Qualis foliorum generatio, talis et hominum). Whether the fly which now buzzes round me goes to sleep in the evening, and buzzes again tomorrow, or dies in the evening, and in spring another fly buzzes which has sprung from its egg: that is in itself the same thing
The buzzing fly echo might be pure coincidence, but Schopenhauer is far from irrelevant to Tolstoy. In the year War and Peace was published (1869), Tolstoy wrote:
Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I've never experienced before. ... no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer 
I don't know when he first read Schopenhauer ("some time in the 1860s," apparently) but if there was no Schopenhauerian influence on War and Peace then there is at least fertile soil there for a Schopenhauerian seed. The idea of the insignificance of greatness, of course, reminds me of the end of The World as Will and Representation: "to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky-ways—is nothing." Perhaps Prince Andrew would seem likely to deny that the "lofty infinite sky" is nothing, but he continues: "All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!" And perhaps this sounds nihilistic, but he goes on to want nothing but to be brought back to "life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand it so differently."

Wittgenstein's interest in aspects surely must (although those words sound an alarm) have something to do with this kind of idea. There is something a bit ugly, though, in Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's ways of making their point(s). "[T]his our world, which is so real [...] is nothing" is paradoxical, and so either mystificatory or cheaply clever. (I'm exaggerating the ugliness or cheapness or whatever we want to call it, but I think it's there. Or is my criticizing not just Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's writing but some of their best writing a sign that I've gone off the rails?) And Prince Andrew leaves much unexplained when he both says, "There is nothing [...] but that. But even it does not exist..." and longs to live although "[T]here is nothing but quiet and peace." How does an enthusiastic desire to live square with the quasi-Schopenhauerian insight that "there is nothing [...] Thank God!"? And what are we to make of the idea that there is nothing but the sky and even it does not exist? The contradictions feel like a prelude, like something to be moved beyond. Which is what Schopenhauer and Prince Andrew intend, of course, but it means that the last words are far from being the conclusion. What matters is not the thought that expresses enlightenment (if that's what it is) but the life lived afterwards. And this means that the intellectual or theoretical route to this life cannot be the only possible one, cannot be essential. At this point, I suppose, you throw away the ladder and go and work in a garden. Whether any of this is helpful for understanding Wittgenstein's later philosophy, though, seems doubtful. 


  1. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/viewFile/5028/5725

  2. Thanks for this. I, too, never read War and Peace (and still haven't, unlike you) but from the excerpts you offer I can see why people think it's worth a go. I also hadn't realized there was a connection with Schopenhauer, that Tolstoy had read him. Very nice quotations. They do point at the ultimate subjective experience, don't they?

    1. It's 361 chapters long, and the average chapter length is four pages, so you can read it fairly easily in a year. That's what I'm doing, although I'm actually slightly ahead of schedule.

      In a way the whole novel (although I haven't read the whole novel, so take this with a pinch of salt) is like these few quoted passages. It goes back and forth between peaceful domestic concerns and matters of life and death, although it's not at all as if the military affairs are all high drama or deep seriousness, or the domestic scenes all trivial. There is a kind of flicking back and forth from one perspective to the other, in the light of which some things (actions, people) seem absurd or terrible and others don't.

    2. Well it's about War and Peace. And everything in between. Thanks. I may give it a try after my current couple of projects reach a more satisfactory point. They have been consuming a lot of my free time lately (both a good thing, I guess, and bad -- I would dearly love to finish them and have them behind me but then what would I have left in life to do? It's like War and Peace puts it I guess).

    3. "Well it's about War and Peace". Exactly!

  3. http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/unfictional/thought-i-was-dead

  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdT4FQ8WWd4

  5. chekhov-for-the-21st-century