War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy includes some profound thoughts on life and death. From Book I, Part 3, Chapter 19, in the aftermath of a Russian defeat by the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte:

On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hands, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering soft, pitiful, childish moans.

Toward evening he stopped moaning and became quite still. He did not know how long he remained unconscious. Suddenly he again felt that he was alive, and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in the head.

"Where is it, that lofty sky I never knew till now and only saw today?" was his first thought. "This suffering, too, I did not know before," he thought. "No, I knew nothing, nothing, till now. But where am I?"

He listened and caught the sound of approaching horses and of voices speaking French. He opened his eyes. Above him once more there was the lofty sky, with rising clouds through which he glimpsed the blue infinity. He did not turn his head and did not see those who, judging by the sounds of hoofbeats and voice, had ridden up to him and stopped.

It is Napoleon himself, surveying the battlefield. The general:

... stopped and looked down at Prince Andrei, who lay on his back with the flagstaff that had been dropped beside him (the flag had already been taken by the French as a trophy).

"There's a fine death!" said Napoleon, gazing at Bolkonsky.

Prince Andrei realized that this was said of him, and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker of these words 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, instantly forgot them. His head was burning; he felt that he was losing blood, and saw above him the remote, lofty, eternal heavens. He knew that it was Napoleon --- his hero --- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was taking place between his soul and that lofty, infinite sky with the clouds sailing over it. At that moment it meant absolutely nothing to him who might be standing over him or what might be said of him; he was only glad there were people there, only wished they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he understood it differently. He made a supreme effort to stir and utter a sound. He feebly moved his leg and produced a faint, sickly moan that roused his own pity.

Prince Andrei is taken away and given medical treatment. Half a day later the French general sees him again:

Although five minutes before Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed on Napoleon he was silent. So trivial at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so petty did his hero himself, with his paltry vanity and joy in victory, appear, compared with that lofty, equitable, benevolent sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.

Indeed, everything seemed to him so futile and insignificant in comparison with that solemn and sublime train of thought which weakness, loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death had induced in him. Looking into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life, which no one could understand, and of the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no living person could understand and explain.

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation, 1968; see also TruthInBattle (11 Feb 2001), OozeOnVerst (22 Sep 2004), IrresistibleAttraction (4 Oct 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicArt - TopicLife - TopicFaith - 2004-10-15

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