Monday, March 10, 2014

Look to the Sky

I have always felt that characters and events I have read about in great works of fiction are at least as real as people I have met and experiences that I have had in my life. I am not confessing to a psychosis, since I am smart enough to know the difference between things real and imaginary - even if I often wish the real were as substantial as some of the imaginary people and places I have visited in books. If verisimilitude were merely an attempt to approximate the truth, or what we sarcastically call reality, then novels like Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Augie March wouldn't be nearly such marvelous creations as they are.

In Tolstoy's War and Peace there is a startlingly beautiful moment involving Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who is surely the most noble of Tolstoy's heroes. It takes place at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when the Russian army was fighting against Napoleon's French army. Prince Andrei is caught in a losing position trying to defend old general Kutuzov. When the Russian standard, a flag suspended on a heavy staff, falls to the ground and a battalion of Russians is abandoning a battery of cannons to the French, Andrei leaps from his horse, rushes forward, picks up the standard and screams "Hurrah!" Running forward alone at first, hearing the whizzing of bullets past his head, Andrei manages to turn his men around and together they charge toward the cannons. But as soon as he reaches them and notices a strange tug of war between a Russian gunner and a French soldier over a mop, Andrei is struck down.

"It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.

"'What's this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,' thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the French men with the gunners ended . . . But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky - the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with clouds gliding slowly across it. 'How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! 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! . . ." (Book Three: 1805, Chapter XVI)

Andrei appeared to be dying, but he survived the battle, and he remembered the sky that he saw, lying on his back in the midst of a terrible battle, for the rest of his life. I first read War and Peace when I was 20. I wasn't at all intimidated by its great length then, and by the time I finished it I found, as so many readers have done, that the novel wasn't too long but too short. I could've gone on reading about Tolstoy's marvelous people for at least another few hundred pages. 

I, too, couldn't forget the experience of Andrei. Years later I found myself turning back to that episode in which he saw the beauty and stillness of the sky. I was just turning 30 in Orlando, Florida. It was during Navy basic training in 1988. It was nothing like the Battle of Austerlitz, even at its most strenuous or unpredictable moments. But it was the first real physical challenge of my life. Living, eating and sleeping among strangers in unfamiliar and inhospitable surroundings was stressful by design. Developed over decades to transform boys into men, I found it as much an emotional strain as a physical one. And at the particularly stressful moments, like being marshaled through drills on a parade ground known as the "grinder," in central Florida in June, I found casting my eyes, taking care never to move my head, skyward.

It inspired a quietude, a calmness that I needed - the sense that, no matter how unmanageable things became down below on the parade ground, the sky was lovely, reassuring, even indifferent to our madness far below. How could the rest of the recruits,or the drill instructor himself, know of the perspective I knew? Even now, when moments become too self-absorbed, when pain or despair threaten to appear, when experience becomes too overpowering, I remember to look to the sky. I'm lucky that, unlike Andrei, I hadn't had to face death in order to discover it, but I'm happy that I found it, thanks to him.

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