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Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 5

by John Cobley

Saturday Apr 10th, 2021



After being wounded at Borodino and then miraculously reunited with the Rostov family, Prince Andrei lies on his deathbed in a rural cottage. Tolstoy uses the situation to express some basic views on life though Andrei’s meandering mind. And he conveys these views by quoting Andrei’s thoughts (yellow highlight). These thoughts are conveyed in 255 words, about 1/5th of this excerpt. 


Perhaps to make Andrei’s thoughts easier to absorb, Tolstoy divides the 255 words into two sections. This division is achieved by having Andrei distracted by sounds (green highlight) after considering his first topic (happiness). First to distract him is a voice that seems to be speaking gibberish--“Ee pitti-pitti-pitti.” The source of this voice is seen as some kind of edifice of  “thin needles and kindling.” Then there are crickets chirping, someone outside singing and shouting, cockroaches rustling and a fly hitting surfaces. So there’s a lot of sound to impose on Andrei’s delirium. After feeling oppressed by all these interruptions, Andrei returns to his serious thoughts and his second topic (love).


This second part of Andrei’s thoughts is itself interrupted by sounds. Then the climax comes as the two topics of Andrei’s thoughts, happiness and love, are united in his final gaining of consciousness with Natasha herself gazing at him.


Tolstoy uses a lot of repetition. The two themes of Andrei’s thoughts, happiness and love, are repeated seven and 17 times respectively. Other repetition is highlighted in green.


Three images invite interpretation: the edifice, the sphinx, the fly.



Andrei’s Deathbed Delirium 

War and Peace iii.3.xxxii 

For the first time Prince Andrei understood where he was and what had happened to him, and he remembered he was wounded and how, when the carriage stopped in Mytishchi, he had asked to be taken into the cottage. Confused by the pain while being moved, he came to his senses on drinking tea in the cottage, and then again, going over in his mind all that had happened to him, he vividly imagined the moment in the dressing station, when at the sight of the suffering of a man he had not liked, he had been struck by new thoughts that promised happiness. These thoughts, though unclear, now possessed his soul again. He remembered that he had now a new happiness and that this happiness had something in common with the Gospels. That was why he had asked for the New Testament. But the new position they had laid him in, which was bad for his wound, and the agony of being moved had confused his thoughts again, and it was only in the complete stillness of night that he had regained consciousness for a third time. Everyone around him was asleep. A cricket was chirping from above, someone in the street was shouting and singing, cockroaches were rustling over the table and the icons, and a fat autumnal fly was beating against his headboard and around a tallow candle beside him that had burnt down into the shape of a large mushroom.


His mind was not in its normal state. A healthy man usually thinks, feels and remembers a large number of subjects simultaneously, but he has the power and resolution to select one series of thought or phenomena and focus on this series of phenomena with all his attention. A healthy man, in a moment of deepest meditation, can tear himself away to say a polite word to someone who disturbs him and can then return to his own thoughts. But in this respect Prince Andrei’s mind was not in its normal state. All his mental powers were more active and clearer than ever, but they functioned outside his will. A vast array of thoughts and ideas possessed him simultaneously. Sometimes a thought would suddenly arise in his mind, developing with the kind of power, clarity and depth that it had never functioned when he was in good health, but suddenly in the middle of this thinking, the thought would collapse, only to be replaced by some unexpected image. And then he was unable to return to his original thought.


“Yes, a new happiness was revealed to me—an inalienable right of mankind,” he thought, as he lay in the peaceful, murky hut and looked ahead with feverishly wide stare. “Happiness beyond material powers, beyond external material influences on man, happiness of the soul alone, happiness of love! Every man can understand it, but only God can conceive it and ordain it. But how did God ordain this law? Why the son?...” And suddenly his chain of thought collapsed, and Prince Andrei heard (not knowing if it was a dream or reality) heard a softly whispering voice repeating over and over in rhythm: “Ee pitti-pitti-pitti” and then “Ee-ti-ti” and again “Pitti-pitti-pitti.” At the same time, lulled by this whispering music, Prince Andrei felt, that above his face, in the very centre, a strange airy edifice of thin needles and kindling was rising. He felt, though it was difficult for him, that he should keep things balanced so that the airy edifice would not collapse, and yet it did collapse and then slowly rose again to the sound of whispering rhythmic music. “It’s stretching out, stretching out, spreading and stretching,” Prince Andrei said to himself. As he listened to the whispering murmur and sensed the stretching and rising of this edifice of needles, Prince Andrei had glimpses of a red halo around the candle, and heard the rustle of cockroaches and the buzzing of a fly round his pillow and face. And every time the fly grazed his face, it inflicted a burning sensation, and yet at the same time he was surprised that although the fly was hitting the very location of the rising edifice on his face, it did not destroy it. And besides this, something else was extremely important to him--something white by the door, a statue of the sphinx, which also oppressed him.


“Maybe it’s my shirt on the table,” Prince Andrei thought. “And these are my legs, and that’s the door. But why all this stretching and expanding and Ee pitti-pitti-pitti Ee-ti-ti-- Ee pitti-pitti-pitti…? Enough, stop, please,” Prince Andrei begged someone painfully. And suddenly thought and feeling surfaced with unusual clarity and power.


Yes, love (he again though with perfect clarity), but not that love which loves for a reason, for a purpose, for a cause ,but that love I experienced for the first time, when dying I saw my enemy and loved him all the same. I experienced the feeling of love that is the very essence of the soul and does not require an object. And now again I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love your neighbours, to love your enemies. To love everything, to love God in all His manifestations. It’s possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but it’s only possible to love your enemy with divine love. That’s why I experienced such joy when I felt that I loved that man. What happened to him? Is he alive Loving with human love, it’s possible to pass from love to hatred; but divine love can’t change. Nothing, not even death, can destroy it. It’s the essence of the soul. But I’ve hated so many people in my life. And there’s no one I’ve loved more and hated more than her.” And he vividly pictured Natasha to himself not as he had pictured her previously with her beauty that had been such a joy to him, but for the first time he pictured to himself her soul. And he understood her feelings, her suffering, shame and remorse. And now for the first time he understood the full cruelty of his rejection of her and saw the cruelty of his break with her. “If I could see her just once more. Once more to look in those eyes and say….”


Ee pitti-pitti-pitti Ee-ti-ti-- Ee pitti-pitti-pitti—boom, the fly struck.... And suddenly his attention was transported to another world of reality and delirium where something special was happening. In that world everything was still rising and the edifice was still intact, everything was still stretching, with the same red circle of the burning candle, the same shirt-sphinx lying by the door; but apart from all that something creaked, there was a breath of fresh air, and a new white sphinx appeared standing in the doorway.  And the head of this sphinx had the white face and the shining eyes of Natasha, the very woman who had just been in his thoughts.


Oh, how hard this eternal delirium is!” thought Prince Andrei, trying to drive that face from his mind. But the face remained in front of him in all its reality; in fact the face came closer. Prince Andrei wanted to return to the former world of pure thought, but he could not, the delirium was dragging him back into its own world. The soft whispering voice continued rhythmical murmur, something bore down on him, withdrew, and a strange face confronted him. Prince Andrei mustered all his strength to regain his senses. He stirred, and suddenly there was a ringing in his ears, his eyes clouded, and like a man plunging into water, he lost consciousness. When he came round, Natasha was kneeling in front of him, that same living Natasha, who of all the people in the world he most wanted to love with the new, pure, divine love that had just been revealed to him. He understood that this was the real, living Natasha; he was not surprised but quietly pleased. Natasha, on her knees, gazed at him fearfully but fixedly (she was unable to move), holding back her sobs. Her face was pale and immobile; only in its lower part did something tremble.


Prince Andrei gave a sigh of relief, smiled and held out his hand.


Translation by John Cobley with the help of published translations by Anthony Briggs, Rosemary Edmonds, Louise and Aylmer Maude, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.








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