“Grandpa is coming in from the barn, Vince! Quick, hide your book and get out to the garden and pull some weeds!” My grandma’s face was distraught and drawn, so I, a 14-year old boy, fled to the garden stuffing my book under the couch on the way. Several times before, Grandpa had become infuriated when he saw me being “lazy”— sitting down and reading a book.
The books I most vividly remember hiding were Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” Tolstoy’s vivid portrayals of the massive Napoleonic battles of Austerlitz and Borodino ignited my imagination with massed columns of colorful uniformed soldiers marching bravely, murderously at one another amidst canon thunder and smoke. And the gallant portrayal of young men like Nikolay Rostov, his heart “full of joy and happiness” as he gallops into the chaos, seeking honor, glory, adventure and most of all, victory for the beloved Tsar Alexander. All this was irresistible to my boy’s imagination.
I wrote poems and stories glorifying Napoleon, and even a comic book illustrating his triumphs and tragedy. How could I have missed Tolstoy’s contempt for the bloody arrogance of Bonaparte? And only later, re-reading “War & Peace” in my 20’s did I see the horror of wounded and dying men, the screams, the fear and meaninglessness of those battles lurking beneath the pomp. However, even though war was graphically vivid, the real “peace” of “War & Peace” was rather elusive. The periods of absence of wars were still filled with run-away militarism and corrupt nobility living off the labor of the serfs and peasants.
A powerful scene of true peace occurs ironically on a battlefield, in Germany. The young Nickolay Rostov charging into the booming fray is knocked off his horse and is suddenly shocked into an altered state of consciousness, “staring into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, at the sun, as though he was searching for something. How far that sky seemed, how blue and calm and deep. How brilliant and triumphant seemed the setting sun, with what an enticing glimmer along the water … the mountains … the pine forests filled with mist … there all was peace and happiness.”
An even deeper, personal experience of peace is experienced by Prince Andrey on his death-bed: “the happiness of the soul alone.” His mind is suffused with love, “but not that love that loves for something, to gain something, or because of someone, but that love I felt for the first time when dying and saw my enemy and yet loved him.” Andrey goes on to call it divine love, blissful and complete, banishing even fear of death. This is Tolstoy’s deepest vision of peace and the one I still ardently seek, even in the latter days of my life.
I hope to feel it on my own death-bed.
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently in hospice in Madison having concluded a long academic calling at Edgewood College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Friedel-Hunt’s “Living Well, Dying Well” column will return next month.