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“We must believe in free will, we have no choice” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

Good maps are essential to avoiding your fate.

Good maps are essential to avoiding your fate.

The universe rarely gives folks a premonition of a bright and sunshiny future.  How many prophets out there have ever given dire warnings about how awesome humanity’s fate will be?  Rare is the cryptic quatrain that appears about flying cars, peace on Earth, universal brotherhood, or never-ending bliss.  Sadly, that stuff generally gets reserved for the hypothesized afterlife, assuming you put your karmic money down on the appropriate theology.  No, our prognostications and premonitory dreams typically involve imminent death or maiming.  Statistically, not many people have managed to sidestep a gruesome end based solely on the fact that their untimely demise was predicted.  It seems a cruel joke that we should be given glimpses of our fate, yet rendered incapable of doing a darn thing about it.  If the future is so well written that it can be offered up on a platter to a reluctant visionary, but denies us the opportunity to alter it, it begs the question of how free will fits into the picture, or if any such thing exists.  There is of course, a subtle, yet vitally important distinction between fatalism (that your fate is inevitable) and determinism (that your fate is inevitable given the causes that preceded it –the special case of “predeterminism” attributes this originating cause to rather rigid divinity).  To a certain Russian general named Count Toutschkoff, struck down at the bloody Battle of Borodino in 1812, as predicted by his wife three months before anyone had ever heard of Borodino, the difference between fatalism and determinism would no doubt be academic.  To us living folks it still makes a difference.  If we live in a fatalistic universe, prophetic visions are just plain mean, as there is absolutely no way to avoid the ensuing unpleasantness.  Determinism, in maintaining that an event is caused by an unbroken chain of previous events (and how far back in the chain they wish to ascribe the cause to is a matter of debate), actually gives us a little breathing room.  You just have to figure out where your causes went wrong, and manufacture yourself some new causes and hope the great chain doesn’t go all the way back to the Big Bang.  Unfortunately, the world is a complicated place and we often lack enough information to make an informed judgement based on a vague prophetic dream.  When the storefront psychic has vague notions about a doomed relationship, you’re out five bucks and a little self-esteem, but when grim death is at stake, the consequences of prophetic rumblings can be, well, fatal.  Free will or not, it seems that Poor Count Toutschkoff didn’t stand a chance.

Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Neman River on June 24, 1812 with the intention of smashing the Russian Imperial Army, but Russia had other plans – they simply kept retreating and burning towns and crops as they fell back.  The French found this somewhat disturbing, but continued to pursue them as they backed up towards Moscow.  The Russians would have merrily kept up this tactic until the last French soldier had starved or frozen to death, but Russian aristocrats were almost as disturbed as the French at the wholesale destruction the Russian army was wreaking on the homeland (particularly since they owned much of it), so they convinced Russian Emperor Alexander I to employ slightly less successful tactics.  The Russian Army dug in seventy miles west of Moscow at a little town called Borodino, and it was here that the French caught up with them, fighting the single bloodiest one-day battle of the Napoleonic Wars (over 70,000 casualties).  While the French took the day, it was widely regarded as a Pyrrhic victory.  The Russians resumed their tactic of retreating.  The French resumed their tactic of starving and freezing as the Russian winter set in, eventually giving up the notion of conquering Russia.  And the turning point was at a tiny rural village where peasants grew rye and oats.  Before 1812, nobody gave Borodino a second thought – records seem to indicate that in 1628 only 23 people lived there and half of the village was given away as some minor chief’s daughter’s dowry.  After the 1812 Battle of Borodino, we get the 1812 Overture (written to commemorate the battle), paintings, poems, and commentary from Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace declaring Borodino “a continuous slaughter which could be of no avail either to the French or the Russians”.  The odds are low that an aristocratic lady such as Countess Toutschkoff had ever even heard mention of Borodino, making her prophetic vision all the more puzzling.  A famous American Quaker missionary in Russia named Stephen Grellet (1773-1855) recorded the story, as related directly to him by Countess Toutschkoff, in his memoirs.

The Countess Toutschkoff gave us an interesting narrative of the manner in which she was first brought to the conviction that there is a secret influence of the Spirit of God in the heart of man. The impressions made upon her were such that she can never doubt that it was the Lord’s work. It occurred about three months before the French army entered Russia; the General, her husband, was with her, on their estates near Toula; she dreamed that she was at an inn in a town unknown to her, that her father came into her chamber, having her only son by the hand, and said to her in a most pitiful tone, ‘all thy comforts are cut off, he has fallen (meaning her husband), he has fallen at Borodino.’ She woke in great distress, but, knowing that her husband was beside her, she considered it as a dream, and tried to compose herself again to sleep; the dream was repeated, and attended with such increased distress of mind, that it was a long time before she could rise above it and fall asleep again. A third time she dreamed the same; her anguish of mind was then such that she woke her husband and queried, ‘Where is Borodino?’ and then mentioned her dream; he could not tell her where that place was; they and her father carefully looked over the maps of the country, but could not discover any such place. It was then but an obscure spot, but has since become renowned for the bloody battle fought near it. The impressions, however, made upon the Countess were deep, and her distress great; she considered this as a warning given her of the Lord, that great afflictions were to come upon her, under which she believed that His Divine grace and mercy could alone sustain her. From that period her views of the world became changed; things that belong to the salvation of the soul, hitherto disregarded, were now the chief object of her pursuit. She ceased to attend places of diversion, which formerly had been her delight; she looked forward to see what the Lord would do with her; for she believed that she had not had mere dreams, but warnings, through the Lord’s Spirit, of what was impending over her. At that time the seat of war was far off, but it soon drew near: before the French armies entered Moscow, the General Toutschkoff was placed at the head of the army of reserve; and one morning her father, having her little son by the hand, entered the chamber of the inn at which she was staying; in great distress, as she had beheld him in her dream, he cried out,’ He has fallen, he has fallen at Borodino.’ Then she saw herself in the very same chamber, and through the windows beheld the very same objects that she had seen in her dreams. Her husband was one of the many who perished in the bloody battle, fought near the river Borodino, from which an obscure village takes its name. The countess said that the impressions made upon her that the Lord, through His Spirit, communicates Himself to man, became strongly confirmed; she was convinced that there is a sensible influence of the Divine Spirit; she endeavored to attend to it; one thing after another was unfolded to her of the ‘deep things of God’ and those ‘which concern the Lord Jesus Christ’; and it was by this that she had become acquainted with the nature of spiritual worship. This was the case also with her two sisters, then present; the same conviction had been wrought on the minds of the other pious females, through the immediate operation of the Lord’s Spirit and power; they knew it to be the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Truth that leads into all truth. The Georgian princesses are in a humble and tender state; we were indeed all broken and contrited together before the Lord.” Those who have read the able volumes of Mr. Wallace on Russia will remember that in two remarkable chapters he describes groups of pious persons, who in these days have separated themselves from the ceremonial observances of the Greek Church, and are to be found in almost all parts of the empire. A still newer evangelical movement is in progress, but neither of these must be confounded with Nihilism. Nor let such a fragment of personal history as that of the Countess Toutschkoff be received with incredulity. No doubt there is in some persons a morbid love of the marvellous. But a creed that should accept nothing beyond the province of a common and ordinary experience would scarcely be a creed. Men of cool, calm temperament, who have had much intercourse with Christianly enlightened and pious persons, have been constrained to admit the direct operations of a preternatural power in the awakening of men to the realities of an unseen spiritual world. The incredulity as to these “heavenly visions” may be a deliberate closing of the heart to incontestable evidence. Moreover, a time like that under notice, of Napoleon’s march to Moscow, was one of inconceivable consternation. He came as the invincible, at the head of nearly half a million of men. At such a period there were compassionate drawings and movements of the Divine love, not conformable to ordinary methods (Guest, 1881, p162-165).

Clearly, the Countess had received a handy little bit of specific information.  Her husband was going to die at Borodino.  The problem is they had never heard of it, and could not even find Borodino on a map.  Note to self: Must investigate if global positioning systems have changed the nature of prophecy.  Certainly, it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that a Russian general would die on the battlefield as Napoleon was inexorably moving east towards Moscow, but one would think that the specificity of the predictive dream was helpful, would that anybody knew where Borodino was, or soldiers at war have any kind of say where they wind up.  Nobel Prize Winning author and renowned fatalist Maurice Maeterlinck suggested that one of characteristic of premonitions is that they seem to be given only when one can’t actually do anything to alter the results.

This is evidently a very rare and perhaps solitary example of a long-dated prediction of a great historic event which nobody could foresee. It stirs more deeply than any other the enormous problems of fatality, free-will and responsibility. But has it been attested with sufficient rigour for us to rely upon it? That I cannot say. In any case, it has not been sifted by the S.P.R. Next, from the special point of view that interests us for the moment, we are unable to declare that this premonition had any chance of being of avail and preventing the general from going to Borodino. It is highly probable that he did not know where he was going or where he was; besides, the irresistible machinery of war held him fast and it was not his part to disengage his destiny. The premonition therefore could only have been given because it was certain not to be obeyed (Maeterlinck, 1917, p193-194).

Had the Russian nobility not pressured Alexander I into replacing his army commander and consequently digging in at Borodino, or the Russian Army had simply continued to retreat while burning everything before it, perhaps Count Toutschkoff would have lived to fight again.  An unbroken chain of events brought the Russians and French to the Battle of Borodino, and with them Count Toutschkoff, who at some point must have realized that the village of his predicted doom was looming nearby.  Do our lives seem a consequence of fate simply because we are unable to assert control over the chain of events that put us in the wrong place at the wrong time?

This premonitory dream, so tragically precise, is assuredly most characteristic.  Can it be supposed that it had been formulated afterward in the mind of the narrator? No, as its realization had aroused in him an unforgettable emotion, and three months before its realization they had searched for this place on the map of Russia. It presents all the qualities of authenticity. But then, as I have remarked, if the death of the general at Borodino was seen several months in advance, were this death and this battle therefore inevitable? And in such case what becomes of free will? Napoleon, then, was forced to make the fatal Russian campaign and was not responsible? Are human liberty and responsibility only an illusion? We shall later analyze these undoubtedly confusing consequences. What shall we think? Fatalism seems in discord with all human progress. But it is a mistake to suppose that fatality and determinism are identical (Flammarion, 1923, p244).

Or perhaps fate has a crueler hand than we suspect, as scholars record that the awful disaster that was the Battle of Borodino may have resulted from uncharacteristic behavior on the part of Napoleon himself.  This of course further supports the idea that human fate is some sort of horrific Rube Goldberg machine that happily links together chains of improbabilities to achieve incredibly specific results.

Had Napoleon enjoyed better health at the battle of Borodino probably its results might have been very different to what they were. During the whole battle he evinced an apathy and lack of energy which for him seems extraordinary, and which was doubtless attributable to a severe attack of rheumatism and such was his mental depression that at ten o’clock in the morning his spirits had to be sustained by strong stimulants. He who, in all his former battles, at Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Aspern, Wagram, had exhibited such unbounded activity, whose iron constitution had never yet failed him, now at Borodino displayed a lassitude of mind and body which can scarcely be reconciled with the most energetic intellect of modern times. He remained, during the best part of the battle, on an eminence, from which he surveyed the whole scene of action “immovable, seated on the edge of a ditch, or walking to and fro over a small space.” The Russians retreated only four miles from the field of battle, and in such admirable order that the French made no attempt at a pursuit (Beardsley, 1918, p58).

Tolstoy once wrote, “We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand).”  When we are swept along by history, the will of kings and generals, the power of public opinion or our own childhood traumas there is a temptation to regard our fate as inevitable, but what if a premonition is reality’s gentle way of reminding us that cause must precede effect, no matter how remote the cause.  Fate isn’t sitting around waiting for the opportune moment to smack you in the face.  Fate plays the long con, or as the late Terry Pratchett noted, “Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don’t find out until too late that he’s been playing with two queens all along”.

Beardsley, Elystan M. Napoleon; the Fall. London: H. Cranton, ltd, 1918.
Flammarion, Camille, 1842-1925. Death And Its Mystery: After Death; Manifestations And Apparitions of the Dead ; the Soul After Death. London: T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd., 1923.
Grey, E. Howard. Visions, Previsions And Miracles In Modern Times. London: L. N. Fowler & co., 1915.
Guest, William, 1818-1891. Stephen Grellet. Philadelphia: H. Longstreth, 1881.
Maeterlinck, Maurice, 1862-1949. The Light Beyond. New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1917.