Pierre’s Abortive Mission

March 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout War and Peace, Pierre exhibits Tolstoy’s ideals of passivity, humility, and passion. However, even Pierre succumbs to self-centered willfulness. He uses a highly contrived occult numerology and calculates the value of almost every possible rendition of his name until he reaches L’russe Besuhof, which, when added up, yields the number “666.” Pierre concludes that this coincides with the numerological value of Napoleon’s name, and with an outrageous stretch of logic, he decides that he has a divine mission to alter history by assassinating Napoleon. By subscribing to the belief that Napoleon is the sole demonic cause behind the destruction of Europe, and that he himself is the man destined to alter the course of events for the salvation of Russia and Europe, Pierre succumbs to the myth of the Great Man that Tolstoy so fervently opposes. Despite this shift from passivity to an aggressive willfulness, Pierre is simply incapable of maintaining such a false mentality without faltering and eventually forsaking it. Tolstoy shows us that Pierre’s passion is constantly puncturing his rational plan.Though Pierre uses every bit of his rational powers to come to his apocalyptic conclusion and to plan out his mission, it is, when viewed in its totality, completely irrational. He uses logic illogically, repeatedly changing his name and the letters in his name until it yields the answer he was subconciously looking for. When planning, Pierre goes over everything in “the minutest detail” (1079), yet he misses the fact that his pistol is unloaded and is too conspicuous. Thus, he has to hastily and clumsily revise his plan at the last minute. Pierre also fails to notice the logical inconsistencies within his philosophy of life and of his mission. When he experiences a “vague sense of his own insignificance” (1077), in the very next sentence his passivity changes to a desire for action as he starts getting the idea of taking part in the defense of Moscow in the belief that he can actually alter a series of events that are beyond his control. He also says that passion compels him upon his mission, that it is the “Russian contempt for everything conventional, artificial, and human,” which causes “the drunken man to smash mirrors and windowpanes for no apparent reason, though he knows it will cost him all he possesses, the feeling that causes a man to commit actions which (from an ordinary point of view) are insane, testing, as it were, his personal sovereignty and power, and bearing witness to the existence of a higher judgement of life beyond mere human conditions” (1078-1079). Here the allusion of the drunk man who smashes mirrors and windowpanes at personal cost alludes to Dolokhov, who acts with passion regardless of the consequences. He reflects a personal freedom that is not contingent upon his actions’ effect on the outside world or the outside world’s reaction to him. Pierre’s mission, however, encapsulates none of these ideals. He is not acting with spontaneity, but with deliberate intention, and the worth of his actions are completely dependent upon the effect that they have on the outside world. Thus, Tolstoy shows us that, since humans are naturally irrational, human logic is an illusion and is not an adequate instrument for deriving truth. Logic is only used to confirm a preconceived idea that arises from our passions. People like Pierre rationalize their passions to make it seem as if they are based on reason.As a result of the clash between his artificial rationalization and his true nature, Pierre experiences a cognitive dissonance that severely affects his identity and self-confidence. He experiences this clash when he begins spending time with the Frenchman, Ramballe. His mission requires him to be secretive, isolated, closed off. Such a mentality runs strongly against his natural disposition of honesty and openness. Because he both wears his heart upon his sleeve and now feels it necessary to conceal his intentions, Pierre feels insecure and exposed around others. Only Ramballe, a completely self-absorbed individual, puts him at ease: “If [Ramballe] had been endowed with the least faculty for discerning the feelings of others and had had even the faintest inkling of his companion’s feelings at the moment, Pierre probably would have left him, but his lively insensibility to everything other than himself disarmed Pierre” (1084). However, when Pierre inquires about Napoleon, Pierre’s “face assumed a melancholy, embarrassed expression” (1087). During this conversation, he also “stammered sheepishly” and displayed a “guilty look” (1087). Pierre’s lack of confidence betrays his unconscious moral resistance against his ostensibly righteous mission. This dualistic conflict makes him suffer, but Pierre attributes this suffering to cowardice. He is frustrated that his intentions “had been dissipated like dust by contact with the first man he met” (1088). This contact with another person subconsciously reminds Pierre of his humanity, a humanity that he confuses for weakness. This humanity makes impossible the idea that Pierre could actually murder another human being.By this time, Pierre’s self-image is already vested in the completion of his mission, regardless of whether it turns out to be successful or unsuccessful. The fact that he has already fled from his house and acquired a peasant coat and pistol commits him to his plans; he would feel ridiculous if he forsook his mission after already investing so much in it. When the time comes for him to carry out his plot, Pierre has already lost his enthusiasm while his strategy looks increasingly flawed and inadequate. “But as Pierre’s chief aim seemed to consist not so much in carrying out his plan as in proving to himself that he would not renounce it and was doing all that he could to achieve it” (1105).Pierre’s crisis of self-identity is evident in his attempt to hide his name. When talking to Ramballe, “After blushing and trying to invent a name, Pierre replied that he could not tell him who he was, and was about to speak of his reasons for concealing his identity when the Frenchman interrupted him” (1085). Later, he does give away his name and rank to Ramballe. His blushing indicates a lack of confidence that prevents him from lying or concealing information. When Pierre is confident, he can lie effortlessly. After Pierre saves a little girl from a fire and another woman from sexual harassment, Pierre firmly withholds his name from French soldiers and lies to them that the little girl he saved is his daughter. This change represents a process he undergoes in which his confidence is restored and enhanced by passion.This change begins at the sight of the fire burning in Moscow, when “he felt himself liberated from the ideas that had been weighing on him” (1109). The crisis of the fire displaces his original mission and gives him a more compelling sense of purpose. Pierre’s subconscious knows that saving the little girl from the fire is a noble act whereas killing Napoleon is not. This replacement of purpose gives Pierre a sounder basis upon which to act, so his self-assurance expands accordingly.Such instances, in which Pierre’s natural compassion breaks through, occur throughout the entire assassination endeavor. When the French come, he had planned to be clever and hide, but “an invincible curiosity kept him there” (1081). Pierre takes too much of an interest in others to shut them out, in sharp opposition to the self-absorbed Ramballe. Later, when Ramballe meets a German hussar, it is Pierre that understands the languages of both men and has to help them communicate. The Frenchman is contained unto himself whereas Pierre is expansive and naturally perceives everyone around him.While trying to carry out his plan, Pierre keeps “forgetting.” The narrator says: “Forgetting his intention of concealing his knowledge of French, Pierre… exclaimed in French: ‘You are not wounded?'” and ” ‘Oh, I am really in despair at what has happened,’ said Pierre quickly, completely forgetting the part he had intended to play” (1082). Pierre’s absentmindedness, though a social vice, is a moral virtue. Just as he keeps forgetting the superficial social conventions that he must follow in social settings, he also forgets the details of his unholy plan due to his genuine concern. When he actually sets out into town to kill Napoleon, he is unwittingly sidetracked by the distress of a little girl who is caught in a fire and a lady who is being harassed by a French soldier. Pierre’s carefully outlined scheme suffers multiple ruptures by involuntary eruptions of compassion towards those who are unrelated to his plan, but whom he is nonetheless highly attentive of.Tolstoy likens Pierre’s suspension of his passive and compassionate self to sleep, to a dream, and to drunkenness and insanity. Pierre, throughout much of this episode, acts as if he is in a trance: “He heard and saw nothing around him” (1106). “All that he saw or heard around him seemed to take place in a dream.” He is in the midst of a “reverie,” a daydream (1077). He compares the concept of his divine mission to “dreams” (1078). Also, “Pierre was in a state bordering on insanity” (1077) and he was in “a state of nervous irritability bordering on insanity” (1079). The narrator’s description of Pierre makes Pierre sound like a drunk man: when Pierre “remember[ed] his intention, he grew dizzy and felt so faint that he leaned against the fence to keep from falling” and with “unsteady steps… lay down on the sofa and instantly fell asleep” (1092-1093). Thus, Pierre’s destructive intentions inebriate him and dull his common sensibilities. Figuratively, “Pierre was as it were intoxicated” (1114). Pierre’s servant, Makar Alekseyevich, acts as a doppelganger for Pierre in that Makar, who is actually physically drunk, is insane with delusions of killing Napoleon. “Pierre… looked with pity and revulsion at the half-crazy old man. Makar Alekseyevich, frowning with exertion, held onto the pistol and cried out in his hoarse voice, evidently imagining some heroic scene” (1080) [italics added]. Of Makar, Pierre says, “He is a madman, an unfortunate creature who did not know what he was doing” (1082), but Pierre does not consciously recognize his own reflection in Makar.The quality that sleep, dreams, and drunkenness all exhibit is that they wear off over time. In the same way, the weeping of the mother amongst the burning houses causes Pierre to suddenly return to his natural self, “as if awakening from a dream.” Whereas before Pierre was in a listless trance, he is suddenly imbued with “breathless alacrity” and he feels “as though he had suddenly come to life after a deep swoon” (1108). Pierre’s obsession with altering history and saving Russia is merely a temporary condition, from which he inevitably awakens.This change restores Pierre’s confidence, which had been floundering under the mental conflict created by his mission. He “held his head higher… [and walked] with swift strides” (1108) and “he triumphantly strode off between the French soldiers” (1114). Pierre’s righteous act of saving the Oriental lady intensifies him and “his strength increased tenfold” (1113). This leads to a more negative aspect of Pierre’s passion, which is his tendency to exaggerate. After saving the girl, Pierre confidently and willfully lies outright to the soldiers, calling the girl “my little daughter, whom I have just rescued from the flames” (1114), thus imbuing his actions with a more noble, personal, and melodramatic flavor. Pierre’s tendency towards excess is what led him to excesses in hedonism with wine and women, and then to an excess in over-wrought spirituality with Masonry. When Ramballe describes his similarly exaggerated love affairs, which “consisted primarily in an unnatural relation to the woman, and in a combination of outrageous circumstances that imparted the chief charm of the feeling” (1090), Pierre is highly attracted to this perverted, contrived, and over-dramatized conception of love. Ramballe’s description of love is artificially and unnaturally altered from its true nature, but it has such an effect on Pierre that he is suddenly filled with passion and starts to exaggerate about his relationship with Natasha. Pierre recalls and reconstructs his last meeting with Natasha: “At the time, the meeting had not made a deep impression on him – he had not even thought of it since. But now it seemed to him that there had been something very poetic and significant in the encounter” (1091).During that conversation, Ramballe puts forth ideas that have many parallels to Pierre’s deluded mission. Just as Ramballe places significance on “a combination of outrageous circumstances” (1090), Pierre places significance upon the numerology of his name and the coincidence that he is still in Moscow when Napoleon arrives. Pierre echoes Ramballe’s attraction to something “unnatural” with his own attraction to the “alien and awesome” qualities of his assassination plot. They also mirror each other in their farcical rehearsal of melodramatic phrases; Pierre with “Not I but the hand of Providence punishes you” (1079) and Ramballe with “I have saved your life, and now I save your honor!” (1091). The two men experience passions that are fervent but perverted.Altogether, Tolstoy presents an ambiguous view of Pierre’s passion. Ramballe’s perverted passion prompts Pierre to give a somewhat embellished account of his life story. However, this tainted dialogue with the self-absorbed Frenchman does eventually purify Pierre. After his conversation with Ramballe, Pierre “experienced a joyous tender emotion” (1092) and describes the sky, which is associated with divine experience of truth throughout War and Peace. Later on, when Pierre saves the little girl out of his natural compassion, he is “seized with a sense of horror and revulsion… But he made an effort not to throw the child down” (1110). In this case, he uses his reason against the promptings of his passion, which was urging him to commit the immoral act of casting the child away. Also, though Pierre naturally bends towards goodness in the midst of the tribulations caused by the fires in Moscow, Tolstoy paints all the characters around him in a negative light. There is the cowardice and selfishness of the father who will not go save his daughter, the faked concern of the servant girl for the trapped little girl, and the looting of the French soldiers. The French looter explains, “Must be human, we’re all mortal, you know” (1110). Thus, Tolstoy in no way says that passion is unequivocally good or that man’s true nature is good. He does not give us a conclusive verdict on passion, reason, or human nature.Tolstoy does, however, display a guarded preference for passion over reason. It is Pierre’s willful rationalizing, along with the deductions of Napoleon and other major characters in the book, that lead to futile and isolated egotism. Because Pierre subconsciously recognizes that his mission is contemptible, he lacks the passion necessary to carry it out. He remains self-conscious until compassion for other people, whether it be Natasha or the little girl in the fire, releases him. This passion gives Pierre the confidence to withhold his identity and lie to the French soldiers. Even the passion engendered by Ramballe’s falseness leads Pierre to a momentary epiphany of truth. Pierre’s nature resembles the drops of the watery globe, which are expansive to the point that they disappear. Pierre is so naturally attuned to others and forgetful of himself and of his own designs that various events successively sidetrack him from his original purpose, thus dooming his original assassination plan to failure.*All text citations from the Ann Dunnigan translation, Signet Classic, c.1968

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