Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death, The Awakening: Leo Tolstoy and John Rutter

Spoiler Alert! This post discusses one of the climactic scenes of War and Peace. If you'd like to experience that scene on your own, read no further! (But go find your copy of War and Peace--you've got some work to do.)

As my last year of high school closes (hurrah!), I thought I should cap it off by reflecting on the best Great Books experience I had this semester. Interestingly it includes not just a book but also a piece of music.

I am happy to say that before the age of 17 I have already put the accomplishment of reading War and Peace under by belt. It was a long tramp of a story, not always thrilling, but at its high points very moving, and ultimately well worth it. Here I would just like to give a little reflection on my favorite chapter--Chapter 14, Book 12, to be exact.

Prince Andrew Bolkonski is dying. By this point in the story, we have followed him down a long river of life, including several rapids and not a few waterfalls--his dissatisfied marriage, his ambition in the army, his capture on the field of Austerlitz. His return home on the same night his wife dies in childbirth. His regret and despondency. His newfound love for Natasha, their courtship and engagement. His shock at discovering his betrothed's near-elopement with the shallow charmer Anatole. His return to the army, his fear of death, and his fatal wounding at Borodino.

Now back in Natasha's care, he has forgiven her and loves her more than ever. But he cannot survive. He senses this and is terrified. But then he receives a mysteriously insightful dream. In his dream he sees a door, feels a horrifying presence behind it:

Something not human--death--was breaking in through that door, and had to be kept out. He seized the door, making a final effort to hold it back--to lock it was no longer possible--but his efforts were weak and clumsy and the door, pushed from behind by that terror, opened and closed again.

Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death, and Prince Andrew died.

But at the instant he died, Prince Andrew remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.

"Yes, it was death! I died--and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!"

This is the insight that brings him profound peace, deeper than any he has experienced so far. And it will be his last:

From that day an awakening from life came to Prince Andrew together with his awakening from sleep. And compared to the duration of life it did not seem to him slower than an awakening from sleep compared to the duration of a dream.

This I found astonishing. Everything that we have gone through with Andrew--ambition and regret, love and hate, sorrow and joy--all this the mere length and vagueness of a dream compared to the Life beyond life? This is a thought to mull over, to hold in one's hands.

When Prince Andrew died I didn't cry. I almost did. I felt an emptiness like I had never felt before at the death of a fictional character. But I had been in this character's mind and soul, been privy to his blackest fears and most brilliant joys. And now he was gone, simply, quietly gone. And I could only ask the same question as his sister, Princess Mary, and Natasha: "Where has he gone? Where is he now?..."

At the same time that I was soaking in this mystery, my high school chorale was rehearsing the first movement of John Rutter's Requiem. And I suddenly realized that the piece drew, in musical terms, almost exactly the same picture as Prince Andrew's death scene. Beginning with bleak and dissonant chords, it moves into mounting moans of despair, only to be abruptly pierced with light and the sweet, serene, gorgeous main melody. It was the same theme--death is an awakening!--translated into sound. For the rest of the year that was my personal connection to the music--Prince Andrew Bolkonski awakening from life to death.

Finally, I invite you to share this experience by clicking on the six minutes of profound beauty below: