Starlight in Hell

By Valiunas, Algis | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June-July 2009 | Go to article overview
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Starlight in Hell


Valiunas, Algis, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


One cannot say with assurance that Russia has outdone all other modern nations in cruelty; the competition is just too stiff. Nevertheless, the memorabilia of inhumanity with a Russian face are indelible: the birch, the knout, the Cossack's saber, the cattle car, the Arctic slave-labor camp, the nine grams of lead in the back of the skull. For the past two centuries in Russia, the principal concern for millions was how long they were going to survive.

This preoccupation has been transmitted in Russian literature of a high order. Indeed, inhumanity is perhaps the great theme of Russian literature: War, political devastation, and the savage perversities of the Russian character are nearly always present as the backdrop--at its best, a backdrop for courage, kindness, generosity, sweetness, and nobility. We continue to read Russian literature because it shows the full amplitude of the soul, from the bestial to the holy.

Interestingly, however, that literature most often presents the sacred soul in contrast to the souls of those who live by something other than the sacred, who manufacture themselves in accordance with a master idea--usually a revolutionary political idea--that permits any manner of violence and barbarism to achieve their intentions. Those intentions may seem unimpeachable, but in their realization they prove a horror.

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1868) sets the stage for this saga, with its depiction of how individuals forget their humanity and plunge into blood. At the battle of Borodino, Tolstoy claims, Russian and French soldiers alike were exhausted by the carnage and could not see any reason to continue. "But though by the end of the battle the men felt all the horror of their actions," he writes, "though they would have been glad to stop, some incomprehensible, mysterious power still went on governing them, and the artillery men, covered with powder and blood, reduced to one in three, though stumbling and gasping from fatigue, kept bringing charges, loaded, aimed, applied the slow match; and the cannonballs, with the same speed and cruelty, flew from both sides and crushed human bodies flat, and the terrible thing continued to be accomplished, which was accomplished not by the will of men, but by the will of Him who governs people and worlds."

Tolstoy's understanding of the cause and prosecution of war is blatantly theological: The hand of God stirs the hearts of whole populations to kill and die, pulls the strings of so-called great men, and determines the outcome of the conflict. In the novel, Napoleon lives for illusory glory to be won by mad and unnatural actions. He does know a momentary moral lucidity at Borodino, where he feels the sufferings and death of the men he sent into battle and fears for his own mortality, but the clarity vanishes as abruptly as it comes:

   And again he was transferred to his former artificial
   world of phantoms of some sort of greatness,
   and again (as a horse walking about a slanting
   treadmill imagines it is doing something for itself),
   he began to obediently fulfill that cruel, oppressive,
   and inhuman role which had been assigned to him.
   ... Never to the end of his life was he able to understand
   goodness, or beauty, or truth, or the meaning
   of his own actions, which were too much the
   opposite of goodness and truth, and too far
   removed from everything human for him to be
   able to grasp their meaning. He could not
   renounce his actions, extolled by half the world,
   and therefore he had to renounce truth and goodness
   and everything human.

Napoleon appears to lack the free will of a true moral agent; like an automaton, he does what he is programmed to do to fulfill the destiny of nations. In himself, Tolstoy insists, Napoleon is insignificant.

In War and Peace, the fate of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is linked with the fate of Napoleon. Andrei's fate, however, is significant because something beautiful might be made of his soul.

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