Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Death of Prince Andrei: An Awakening

The Death of Prince Andrei: An Awakening

Prior to his being mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky has been existing completely in life affirmation. He moves in both the reactive world - dwelling on the wrongs done to him by Kuragin, Napoleon and Natasha - and in the envisioned world - planning the duel he intends to have with Anatole when they meet and keeping busy with various tasks. He is obsessed with an image he has of the perfect state of things, symbolized by the lofty sky at Austerlitz. He constantly tries to instill this loftiness in the people and activities that he associates himself with: “All life appeared to him like magic-lantern pictures at which he had long been gazing through a glass by artificial light....Glory, the commonweal, love for a woman, the fatherland itself-how grand those pictures appeared . . . and with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled” (925-6). Although he has often been frustrated by what he has seen as life’s short-comings, he has always attributed those short-comings to whom or what-ever has disappointed him. It isn’t until he is wounded that he realizes “There was something about this life that I did not and do not now understand” (975).

His relationship with Natasha and its corruption is a prime example of this. “I believed in some sort of ideal love that was to keep her faithful to me” he thinks as he contemplates the likelihood of his death in the coming battle (926). Unfortunately, when the real-life Natasha fails to live up to his lofty ideals, Prince Andrei turns bitter: “But it [the love between him and Natasha] was all so very much simpler....So horribly simple and revolting” (926).

In fact, Andrei show similar revulsion towards anything associated with the earth or flesh. When he returns to the now-abandoned Bald Hills and sees the soldiers swimming “He long[s] to be in the water, however muddy it might be . . .” yet when asked whether he would like to have a swim, he refuses, saying that it is “Too muddy” (848). It seems that his lofty ideals are offended by such earthy displays. All he sees are “Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder.” Even the sight of his won naked body makes him shudder “ . . . from a sense of revulsion, incomprehensible even to himself . . .” (848).

In order to keep his mind off Natasha he keeps himself busy with his estates, politics, the military, or his pursuit of Anatole. However, none of these pursuits satisfies him as none are able to live up to his idealized notions, and he is left feeling empty. His vision is always focused upward so that he is unable to appreciate that which life has to offer.

Nevertheless, Prince Andrei is in no hurry to die. Moments before he is injured he thinks “I can’t die, I don’t want to die. I love life . . .” (973). He even gazes earthward for a change, thinking “ . . . this grass, this earth . . .” Yet even as he thinks these thoughts, his mind is drawn back to maintaining his image, his ideal because “ . . .he remembered that people were looking at him” (973).

Because of his idealized principles he is unable to forgive either Anatole or Natasha for what happened. In this rigid life affirming mode, forgiveness is impossible. He makes this clear to Pierre concerning Natasha, and later, concerning the French when he says, “Since they are my enemies they cannot be my friends” (931).

After being wounded, however, Prince Andrei’s outlook changes completely. When he is brought into the field hospital tent where “All he saw about him merged into a single general impression of naked, bleeding, human bodies,” he is confronted with the flesh that has filled him with such horror and revulsion all his life, and he remembers the naked soldiers at the muddy pond. When the initial agony of his injury subsides, he is filled with a profound sense of contentment. “All the best and happiest moments of his life . . . rose to his mind, not as something past, but as a present reality” (977). Prince Andrei has begun to move into the phenomenal world.

When he realizes that the recent amputee who is lying near him is his enemy, Anatole Kuragin, Prince Andrei experiences a moment of non-self induced psychological possibility and “in a flash” he moves from life affirmation to death affirmation. At first the shock of seeing Anatole is too great for him to understand. He knows there is some connection between them, but for the moment it eludes him. Then “All at once a new and unexpected memory from that realm of childhood, purity, and love, presented itself to Prince Andrei . . . now he remembered the connection that existed between himself and this man . . . and a fervid love for this man welled up in his exuberant heart”(978).

Knowing that his wound is fatal, Prince Andrei is finally able to break out of the bonds that have imprisoned him as he realizes “Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, and for those who hate us, love for our enemies . . . that is [what] . . . I did not understand; that is what made me loathe to relinquish my life; that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late” (978). Only by being faced with the reality of death, of flesh both his and others’, has he been able to put aside his lofty ideals and begin to live in the moment. “Yes,” he thinks, “a new happiness was revealed to me-a happiness which is man’s inalienable right” (1101).

Suddenly Prince Andrei understands love and forgiveness. As he lies moving in and out of delirium, he thinks, “I saw my enemy and yet I loved him . . . an enemy can only be loved with divine love. And that is why I knew such joy when I felt that I loved that man” (1102). His thoughts turn to Natasha and how he has hated her. Just as he wishes to see her again in order to make amends, she appears. She asks his forgiveness and, repudiating the choice of either forgiving or not forgiving, he says, “Forgive what?” (1103).

Later, when his sister Princess Maria comes to see him, Prince Andrei has moved deeper into death affirmation. Seeing how sad she is concerning his condition, he thinks of quoting a choice-repudiating passage from the bible, “The fowls of the air sow not, nor do they reap, yet your heavenly Father feedeth them,” but he realizes that there is no point as the living will not understand (1171).

As death approaches he repudiates life more and more until “He was conscious of an alienation from everything earthly, and of a strange and joyous lightness of being. Without anxiety or impatience he awaited what was to come” (1172). No longer fearing death he reflects on his new understanding of divine love and how it helps him to accept death, “ . . . the more imbued he became with this principle of love, the more he renounced life and the more completely he destroyed that dreadful barrier which, in the absence of love, stands between life and death” (1173). The only thing that stands between him and death is his rekindled love for Natasha, but of this too, he is able to let go as he thinks, “Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the eternal and universal source” (1175).

Finally Prince Andrei dreams of struggling against death. It is a struggle in which he can only fail, and when he does, and he dies in the dream, he wakes to the realization that “ . . . death is an awakening!” (1176). He is finally able to let go completely and give himself up to death.

Throughout the early part of the novel Prince Andrei is a man who is locked into a mode of life that is governed by his lofty ideals. Because he has impossibly high standards for the world he envisions, he is invariable disappointed and looks on the events of his life with disillusionment. Earthly things, human things, mud, flesh, all fill him with revulsion. It is not until he is forced to face death and the reality of his own flesh and blood that he is able to transcend the confines of his former life. With the sudden understanding of divine love, he finds the ability to forgive the world for the wrongs he has imagined himself to have suffered. Finally, by repudiating choice (whether to forgive or not to forgive, whether to struggle against death or to embrace it) and renouncing life, he finds himself, and is able to die content with the feeling that all is well. “And his soul was suddenly suffused with light, and the veil concealing the unknown was lifted from before his soul’s vision. He felt as if powers that until then had been confined within him were liberated, and from then on that strange lightness did not leave him again” (1176).

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