“It was clear and frosty. Above the dirty, ill-lit streets, above the black roofs, stretched the dark starry sky. Only looking up at the sky did Pierre cease to feel how sordid and humiliating were all mundane things compared with the heights to which his soul had just been raised. At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the centre of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812–the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having travelled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly–like an arrow piercing the earth–to remain fixed in a chosen spot, vigorously holding its tail erect, shining and displaying its white light amid countless other scintillating stars. It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.” War and Peace, end of Book Eight.
Roughly half way through War and Peace, Tolstoy has Pierre Bezuhov, a character already given to philosophical turns of mind, notice the Great Comet of 1811/1812 and wonder what the future holds. This was a genuine astronomical event and was, at that time, even known as Napoleon’s Comet, given his apparent stranglehold over most of Europe, and his attempted invasion of Russia, at that time. Indeed, not long after this, Pierre adopts the bizarre idea that he has to assassinate Napoleon, an attempt which history reminds us will fail. But it is interesting to my mind to see Tolstoy using the comet as a portent, a means for illustrating humanity’s tendency to see signs where there aren’t necessarily any.
This isn’t a new idea. Strange astronomical observations, including comets, have long been considered bad omens. It is said that a comet was observed on the eve of the Battle of Hastings by the English, which did not bode well for King Harold; indeed, said comet was stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry, just to reinforce the point.
It is said to be an early recorded sighting of Halley’s Comet, which can be seen from Earth every 76 years. Consequently, it has been extensively studied by scientists. However, this did not stop many people viewing comets as harbingers of doom. Even Shakespeare got into the spirit of things, having Calpurnia pronounce:
“When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” (Julius Caesar, Act II Scene 2)
Comets, for me, have always been exciting, thrilling to watch and to follow if possible. I was on holiday in rural Ireland one year, watching a comet break up and smash into Jupiter, although the best views definitely came from the photographs published in the newspapers. I remember missing Halley’s Comet, as only I can, by completely forgetting it was coming through and doubting very much I’ll be alive for the next fly-past, although I hope I will be. Just last year, the European Space Agency even managed to land a probe on a comet; I remember vividly watching ranks of scientists as they patiently waited to see whether or not their mission would be successful. As it turned out, it was only successful in part, but I doubt very much any of them blamed the appearance of the comet for that.
Obviously, the more that we understand about the universe, the less we view astronomical events such as comets as omens or portents. That said, they are still a useful tool for that philosophical scene to precede a dramatic turn of events. Shakespeare knew that, and so did Tolstoy. Hopefully now I’ve found the comet, this might be a sign I’m near the end…