War and Peace Essay

The Power of Shifting Attention in War and Peace

 [T]hey alone knew what life was for them, and therefore did not understand or believe that it could be taken from them. (966)

There are three things that I am trying to put together — the first is the way in which Tolstoy does do an admirable job of conveying what his character’s lives are for them. There are, of course, many things in the way he writes that allow for that, including the duration of time during which he follows them, his remarkable power of being able to describe particularities, both of people and of objects, as when Prince Andrei is perhaps dying and the surgeon comes out with a cigar that he must hold “between the thumb and little finger, so as not to stain it” (812), what seems not to have anything to do with the plot of the novel, but in aggregate add a sense of truth to the rest; there are other things he does as well. One thing he does that I found especially striking, and also seems important to his understanding of what life is for people, is the way in which they utilize the “power of shifting attention” in situations that would otherwise be overwhelming. This is expressed throughout the book, especially in the battles, and is best summed up in Pierre’s captivity:

Only now did Pierre understand the full force of human vitality and the saving power of shifting attention that has been put in man, similar to the saftey valve in steam engines, which releases the extra steam as soon as the pressure exceeds a certain norm.

     He did not see how the prisoners who fell behind were shot, though more than a hundred of them had died in that way. He did not think about Karataev, who grew weaker day by day and would obviously soon be subjected to the same lot. Still less did Pierre think about himself. The harder the situation became, the more terrible the future, the more independent of the situation he found himself in were the joyful and calming thoughts, memories, and images that came to him.  (1060

But the thing about that power as it is experienced by characters like Prince Andrei and Pierre is that it is not simply shifting attention to more pleasant thoughts as a kind of escapism, though it may have that effect as well. Something happens that seems more fundamental than that. That is to say, it does not read as merely psychological, but more like a composite knowledge consisting of sensory experience combined with the noetic — in the form of an epiphany; something which remains in their souls.

“They say: misfortunes, sufferings,” said Pierre. “Well, if someone said to me right now, this minute: do you want to remain the way you were before captivity, or live through it all over again? For God’s sake, captivity again and horsemeat! Once we’re thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins. As long as there’s life, there’s happiness. There’s much, much still to come.” (1118)

I’d like to examine instances of this “saving power of shifting attention” in War and Peace, and consider what it is that’s happening in them. There are dramatic examples in the war, such as Pierre in captivity and Prince Andrei at Austerlitz and Borodino, as well as less dramatic but fairly obvious cases, as with Nicholai at the battles and the Russian soldiers as they pursued the French under terrible conditions toward the end of the war; is there something similar happening in the peace as well, and if so, when?

At the campaign leading up to the battle of Austerlitz there are already suggestions of Pierre’s observation on the shifting of attention under pressure, but it may not be quite the same thing. Bullets whiz merrily by killing one’s neighbors and cannons pleasantly thud into earth and soldiers; a sense of joy and happiness prevails in the midst of mass slaughter. Is the manner in which these characters experience primarily the merry side of war a similar, unconscious version of what Pierre sees as a prisoner? Perhaps, as when Nicholai Rostov is sent to burn down the bridge, and yet doesn’t know how to actually do anything to help, and as he stays there, people being killed and wounded all around him, his attention keeps going between the possibility of fear and death and the beauty of the sun, the trees, the convent; but he is not altogether successful, and that lack of success shows itself as cowardice (149). At this point Nicholai is young and inexperienced, and has not yet acquired the ability to avoid considering the more terrible things that are going on around him, and that continues at his next battle, where he suddenly realizes that the French might want to shoot him, even him, who is so loved by his family, and panics (189), and afterwards, when he is indulging in self-pity on account of the discomfort of his arm and absence of people to love him. It seems that there are two things going on: first, Nicholai at that point has neither the competence to plunge into his work as a soldier as he later can, nor the inwardness of Pierre, and he has not yet reached a state where the pressure of the situation absolutely requires him to do so.

Seven years later, shortly before the battle of Borodino, Nicholai is observing the nervousness of the younger Ilyin and remarks that in the intervening years he had acquired the ability not to feel the least fear “not because he was used to gunfire (one cannot get used to danger), but because he had learned to control his soul in the face of danger. He became accustomed, going into action, to thinking about everything except what would seem more interesting than anything else — the impending danger.” For him, the ability to do so is something that can only be gained by time and experience. That may be true before a battle, when Rostov is making these observations, but in the face of actual danger, nearly everyone seems to have an instinctual power of distraction, as when Prince Andrei’s regiment is stationed in the reserves at the battle of Borodino, and “all the forces of his [Andrei’s] soul, as of every soldier, were unconsciously bent solely on keeping himself from contemplating the horror of the situation they were in” (810).

At the beginning of the campaign in Poland Prince Andrei doesn’t even seem to need to do as much as shifting attention away in order to be happy; he’s the one most often enjoying the pleasant buzz of the bullets and so on, as when he’s acting as Prince Bagration’s adjutant and “[he] felt that some invincible force was drawing him forward, and he experienced great happiness.” It seems almost like the reverse perspective from Pierre leaving Moscow with the French:

From the moment Pierre recognized the appearance of the mysterious force, nothing seemed strange or frightful to him: not the corpse smeared with soot for the fun of it, not these women hurrying somewhere, not the charred ruins of Moscow. Everything that Pierre now saw made almost no impression on him — as if his soul, preparing for a difficult struggle, refused to receive impressions that might weaken it. (1018)

While Pierre, Kutizov, and the narrator seem to be the only characters quite aware of the inexorable force of the necessity of history, nearly everyone feels it in one way or another. It seems to be necessary both that there is such a force and that people act within it unconsciously not only so that people might be swept up in the necessities of history and still be happy, but also that they might still be good. It is necessary that there not be many such instances as when Nicholai meeting the dimpled French officer or suddenly realizing in his second battle that the French really do mean to kill him. In the first instance, every person involved in the events of history would either fail to achieve his ends or be wicked, and in the second, they would be cowards.

In constant activity, at the center of the battle Bagration led to distract the French from the Russian retreat, the artilleryman Tushin was, without trying, altogether successful at remaining unaware of the suffering all around him:

As a result of the dreadful rumbling, the noise, the necessity for attention and activity, Tushin did not experience the slightest unpleasant experience of fear, and the thought that he could be killed or painfully wounded did not occur to him. On the contrary, he felt ever merrier and merrier… Though he remembered everything, considered everything, did everything the best officer could do in his position, he was in a state similar to feverish delirium or to that of a drunken man. (193)

In one sense, then, Tushin does well; he is competent in his duty, and can do what is demanded by the “inexorable force” of history, while remaining a good man. Yet it seems that something is also lacking which makes him a victim of the force of history:

How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God!…” (281)

When I wrote earlier of the power of attention combining with something else, Prince Andrei’s revelation of the lofty sky is the first event that comes to mind, and suggests Pierre’s second statement, that in suffering, as we are thrown off our habitual paths, that is where the new and good begins. Literally, Prince Andrei is knocked down as he rushes forward into the battle, he is overwhelmed and cannot get up, his attention shifts, just as Nicholai’s did on the bridge, and as Tushin’s did in the battle led by Bagration, to that which is not the horror of the battle and possible death, and he looks up and admires the loftyness of the sky. That’s literally what happens, but is it all? Because there seems to be another element in this experience than there perhaps was in the others, of a kind of epiphany. It seems a true and beautiful thing to feel the power of the infinite sky, which before I called noetic, or perhaps transcendent, which stays in Prince Andrei’s soul and comes back in the future in a way that the usual lively excitement of the army does not. Why is that the case?

Most obviously, Prince Andrei is suffering from a serious wound, and an accompanying altered state of consciousness. That does not so much cause as allow him to get outside of his former concerns for glory and to glimpse something more transcendent, both because glory is insignificant in the face of death, and perhaps also because suffering causes him to be unable to think with his mind only but with his whole soul, or as is said of Pierre as a prisoner, with his whole being?

Though Pierre recounts that the limits of freedom and suffering are both very close, and that the suffering he endured as a prisoner could be likened to that of a society man who has a leaf askew in his bed of roses or dances in too-tight shoes (1060), yet at the same time the necessity of retaining some happiness in suffering — perhaps especially physical suffering — seems in some way constitutive of its  power to open up new paths where “the new and good begins,” and maintaining a state of soul that retains those new truths in their full force may require it. That question seems to come most strongly after Prince Andrei is wounded at the battle of Borodino.

It seems reasonable to expect that after being hit by a grenade one would primarily experience something like pain and suffering. That, however, is not the case with Prince Andrei, and comments such as were dreamed by Pierre that “the hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering” (1064) suggest that it may not be the case with any person of any moral worth — perhaps not of any person at all (it would be interesting to see if there are any inner workings in Anatole after his leg is cut off). Consistent with this understanding, along with suffering, Prince Andrei also experiences bliss in simply existing, and universal love; a kind of love that Andrei seems unable to maintain in life. It is beautiful, but also perplexing. Why would Tolstoy suppose there to be such a connection between suffering and states of bliss, love, and so on? Is it based upon experience, necessarily so, or simply a peculiarity. Judging by other characters it does not seem to be a peculiarity of Andrei, though his inability to conceive of having that kind of bliss and universal life as Pierre does in the months before his marriage to Natasha may be.

Lise’s death is something of a mystery, but does not appear to conform to the expectation that “the most difficult and blissful thing is guiltless suffering,” for though she does suffer guiltlessly, there is no suggestion of an inner transcendence in the midst of it. Is that because her death is seen only through the eyes of others, because she lacks inwardness, or for some other reason? That such guiltless suffering is “the most difficult thing” (supposing Pierre’s dream to be correct) suggests that perhaps there is some agency involved: that of acceptance?

Is the vitality in Natasha as she recovers from serious moral wounds the same as Pierre sees in the prisoners? — In the peace there are allusions to the same “force of human vitality,” but it seems to direct itself in a somewhat different manner, and perhaps less inexorably. After Natasha’s fling with Anatole, the moral illness she suffers as a result seems to parallel the physical illness resulting from her poisoning herself. Whereas in physical suffering there’s an impulse to experience joy, bliss, and merriment, in moral suffering there seems to be a more complicated impulse: she is distracted from her moral suffering by physical illness, such as is “so serious that, fortunately for her and for her family the thought of all that had been the cause of her illness — her act the break with her fiancé — moved into the background” (655), and she was so ill that for a time nobody was able to think of how much she was to blame in all that was happening to her. Yet even so, and despite Tolstoy’s derision of medicine, the illness and the church seem to act as a kind of bandage over the wound in her soul that allows it to begin to heal. After the death of Prince Andrei, when she is again subject to great grief, Tolstoy observes that, just as nobody can remain completely happy, so neither can they remain completely miserable, and that:

A wound in the soul, coming from the rending of the spiritual body, strange as it may seem, gradually closes like a physical wound. And once a deep wound heals over and the edges seem to have knit, a wound in the soul, like a physical wound, can be healed only by the force of life pushing up from inside.   (1080)

Part of what allows it to do so seems to be intervening concerns, such as her illness in the first case and comforting her mother in the second. But at the same time moral suffering seems to be in this sense more terrible, for as it affects the power of attention itself, fixing it upon a single grief, it becomes less inevitable and after perhaps a longer duration that there be relief — because people feel a responsibility to maintain a certain amount of grief, as when Natasha is uncertain that she should be joyful so soon at Pierre’s presence after the death of Prince Andrei.

While her father lives Princess Marya suffers a kind of chronic moral pain which she endures because she believes it to be right, and perhaps it is. In the face of more immanent grief, such as the loss of her father and brother, she has a similar reaction as Natasha, and is driven out of the depths of mourning by the necessity of circumstance and life. While it is not possible for her to be completely miserable, and she does find comfort in her religious hopes, of the major characters Princess Marya seems perhaps the least inclined to accept the possibility which Pierre believes in during his captivity, that “man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs” (1060). Though she endures a kind of moral captivity to her father which might be analogous to Pierre’s captivity to the French, she believes it her duty to not only suffer as is necessary, but also to believe in suffering, that it is her calling in life, and so chooses not to accept the possibility of joy as well. Is she different in that way because she is subject only to moral and no physical distress, because such distress is chronic rather than overwhelming and immediate, or perhaps simply because who she is as a person? Where it might be expected that she would find consolation or at least distraction in belief, instead she usually finds reason to disbelieve in the possibility or even the desirability of human happiness.

Without the intervention of circumstances and a substantial personal vitality the result can become that of Countess Rostov in the epilogue, where at one level she is still functioning, because all is normal with her physically, yet that mysterious spiritual force present in Natasha and Pierre and Prince Andrei has left her, resulting in a creepy state of being reasonably well physically, but undergoing a kind of death nonetheless. Such a moral collapse seems to be possible primarily in those who are older and have less natural force at work in their souls; philosophically Prince Andrei seemed determined to live so after the death of his wife, but was brought out of it almost despite his intentions and understanding of life and himself.

The way in which Tolstoy shows people’s tendency in danger and suffering to think and feel about nearly anything except what is going on around them seems to be both true and unexpected in its’ results. In great or prolonged distress it opens up for his characters the possibility of experiencing the new and unexpected, and therefore of allowing them to become fuller persons in ways that their intellectual understanding of the world might not have allowed them to under more normal circumstances. Pierre’s observations on that count are bourn out by the experiences of many of the other characters during the wars, though the evidence is more mixed during the peace, and especially for the women. The suffering of grief does allow for similar growth, but there are no instances I’m aware of where it leads also to bliss and joy such as physical suffering does; Natasha regains her joy in life not on account of her moral suffering, but rather as a force pushing against it, though that grief may work to deepen and solidify what is natural to her, as when Princess Marya’s conviction to suffer and love shines through in her relationships with Nicholai as some manner of spiritual luminosity.

All characters are, to greater or lesser degrees subject to the “power of shifting attention” which Pierre likens to a safety valve, allowing them to always experience life within fairly close limits of happiness and suffering, and Tolstoy’s power to show that contributes greatly to the interest and complexity of his characters’ inner lives, especially during times of war. The degree to which this power allows the new and good to come through, rather than being simply distraction depends on circumstances, the degree of suffering involved, and the state of the person — his or her readiness to accept and understand what is happening to them.


Quotations and page numbers are from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (2008), Vintage Classics.

2 thoughts on “War and Peace Essay

  1. There are grades, but we have to go ask to find out what they are. In the case of this particular essay I think perhaps I’d rather not know…

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