Monday, April 02, 2012

Diving Deeper 5 - War and Peace 1


Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco asserts in his wonderfully thought-provoking book On Literature  (2004) that we humans write and read literature in order to learn how to die.  I have since found this insight quite incisive and perspicacious as well as being somewhat haunting and not a little scary.  However, the fact that I experience these feelings means for me that there is not a little truth in what this erudite Italian scholar, critic, professor and novelist says.  This sentiment from Eco I believe is parallel to the sentiments we find in the Bardo Thodol (Commonly called The Tibetan Book of the Dead * here in the West, though these two ancient Tibetan words translate as "liminality" and "liberation" respectively implying I believe that we are liberated through the liminality of the experience of death) and also in Sogyal Rinpoche's wonderfully meditative The Tibetan Book of Living and DyingNow, with these preliminary remarks aired, I should like to return to that great masterpiece by Tolstoy, namely War and Peace, because I argue that therein the great Russian novelist was doing nothing less than what Eco believes is the essential work of all good literature - attempting to teach us how to die.  (Indeed I should imagine that this sentiment could be ascribed to all art in its many forms and not just to literature.  It occurs to me also that perhaps this sentiment is just one side of the coin, to use an appropriate metaphor, as perhaps the task of all art is to teach us to live and to die - both are in extricably linked, and indeed needed here, are they not?)

War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy
As I intimated in the last post I read this novel way back in the late 1970s when I was a college student somewhat "green about the gills" as the saying goes.  I remember that this novel fairly blew my mind away at the time by its epic size, by the sheer power of the author's words, by his wonderful depiction of the lives of mostly Russian nobles and some notable Russian serfs during the Napoleonic Wars.  These characters were so well depicted that they seemed to me to jump off the page.  Once I had got over the strangeness of the Russian names, heavy with patronymics, I could not put down this tome of a book.  I was also intrigued by the wide use of French by the nobles in this novel.  I soon learned that this was a tradition among the Russian nobility from the time of Catherine the Great who made French the official language of her court because she thought Russian somewhat barbaric as a language and that French was far nobler.  Indeed, I remember coming across the fact that the Russian nobles had so taken to French that they often spoke it better than they did the language of their fellow Russians.  However, be that as it may, let us return to the matter at hand. 

That this book has also been made into many motion pictures is also a testament to its enduring worth: (i) War and Peace: An American/Italian version, directed by King Vidor and produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti (1956), (ii) War and Peace (Voyna i mir) a Soviet-produced film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk who also co-wrote the screenplay and acted in the lead role of Pierre. It was produced over a seven year period and released in four parts between 1965 and 1967 and (iii) Robert Dornhelm's TV mini-series (2007).  (See here  for a scene from War and Peace (2007) by Robert Dornhelm and Brendan Donnison with a music score by composer Dosia McKay. The soldier in the white uniform is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.  At the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei is inspired by a vision of glory to lead a charge of a straggling army. He suffers a near fatal artillery wound. In the face of death, Andrei realizes all his former ambitions are pointless and his former hero Napoleon (who rescues him in a horseback excursion to the battlefield) is apparently as vain as himself.) 

The story of the novel and of these three films is basically as follows: There are two major story-lines that are complex and intertwined. One is the love story of young Countess Natasha Rostova and Count Pierre Bezukhov, who is unhappy in his marriage. Another is the "Great Patriotic War" of 1812 against the invading Napoleon's armies. The people of Russia from all classes of society stand up united against the French enemy. The 500,000 strong French army moves through Russia and causes much destruction culminating in the battle of Borodino. The Russian army has to retreat. Moscow is occupied, looted and burned down, but soon Napoleon loses control and has to flee. Both sides suffer tremendous losses in the war, and Russian society is left irrevocably changed. Change and our struggle to cope with the problems we encounter by such change are surely two of the perennial themes of all art and literature.  As I write these short notes here, I have rescued my old edition of War and Peace from its attic cardboard box container and have it placed beside me for ease of access.  It is also a fitting way to spend these few hours perusing the great novel I once read and reacquainting myself not alone with its characters and concerns but also with personal memories.

The WIKI informs us that this novel was first published in 1869 and that the work is epic in scale and is regarded as one of the most important works of world literature.  Without a doubt it is considered Tolstoy's finest literary achievement, along with his other major prose work Anna Karenina (1873–1877).  War and Peace, this article tells us, delineates in graphic detail events surrounding the French invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families whom I name below.   It also informs us that portions of an earlier version of the novel, then called The Year 1805 by Tolstoy and written under the peculiar pseudonym of 1805, were serialized in the magazine The Russian Messenger between 1865 and 1867. The novel was first published in its entirety in 1869.  Interestingly also Newsweek in 2009 ranked it first in its list of the Top 100 Books.  (see here )

Tolstoy did much in the mid to late nineteenth century to bring new life to the genre of the novel -  indeed we may say he brought a new consciousness to it.  Yes, he was interested in story, but the sweep of his universal consciousness brought a more profound depth and breadth to the novel.  This new consciousness of an overarching significance to life can be seen very clearly in his narrative structure.  The narrator is omnipotent, omnipresent almost like a creator-god building his own world or universe of action. To speak anachronistically here, his use of visual detail is almost cinematic in its scope, using the literary equivalents of panning, wide shots and close-ups, to give dramatic interest to battles and ballroom scenes alike. These devices, while not exclusive to Tolstoy, are part of the new style of the novel that arose in the mid-19th century and of which our author proved himself a master.  No wonder this great epic of a novel makes for good cinema and TV as we have outlined above.
It needs little thought or imagination to realise that Tolstoy was a consummate researcher as the novel is set some sixty years before he was writing.  Our author would have known intimately the world of the military as he had fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856).  He was also conspicuously "modern" in so far as he conducted "interviews" (conversations) with old soldiers from the period. Moreover, Tolstoy read all the standard histories then available in Russian and French about the Napoleonic Wars and combined more traditional historical writing with the novel form. He explains at the start of the novel's third volume his own views on how history ought to be written. His aim was to blur the line between fiction and history, in order to get closer to the truth, as he states in Volume II.  He read letters, journals, autobiographical and biographical materials pertaining to Napoleon and the dozens of other historical characters in the novel.   The WIKI points out that there are approximately 160 real persons named or referred to in War and Peace (See the link above).

However, my own interest was caught by the "thinking out loud" or philosophizing of the major characters in this novel.  It is literally shot through with theological and philosophical debate and it is with this that I shall engage in tomorrow's post. (My edition is the Penguin Classics edition, 1978 and runs to some 1444 pages including translator's notes).

War and Peace has a large cast of characters, the majority of whom are introduced in the first book. Some are actual historical figures, such as Napoleon and Alexander I. While the scope of the novel is vast, it is centered around five aristocratic families. The plot and the interactions of the characters take place in the era surrounding the 1812 French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic wars as I have already stated. 

For the sake of clarity I will list the five families here: (i) The Bezukhovs: The central character of this family is Pierre (Pyotr Kirilovich) Bezukhov who is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count, an elderly man who is dying after a series of strokes. Pierre is about to become embroiled in a struggle for his inheritance. Educated abroad at his father's expense following his mother's death, Pierre is essentially kindhearted, but socially awkward, and owing in part to his open, benevolent nature, finds it difficult to integrate into Petersburg society. Much of Book Two concerns his struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts to be a better man. Now a rich aristocrat, he abandons his former carefree behavior and enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world? The question continually baffles and confuses Pierre. He attempts to liberate his serfs, but ultimately achieves nothing of note. (ii)  The Bolkonskys: The central character here is Pierre's friend, the intelligent and sardonic Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky, husband of Lise, the charming society favourite.  See the above YouTube link for his bravery in battle. At another point in the novel, he is burdened with such nihilistic disillusionment that he does not return to the army but chooses to remain on his estate, working on a project that would codify military behavior to solve problems of disorganization responsible for the loss of life on the Russian side. Pierre visits him and brings new questions: where is God in this amoral world? Pierre is interested in panentheism and the possibility of an afterlife.  Prince Andrei does eventually go back to fight again, and he does die bravely from his wounds. (iii) The Rostov family are introduced somewhat later in the novel. The head of the family is Count Ilya Andreyevich Rostov who has four adolescent children. One of these is the twenty-year-old Nikolai Ilyich is about to join the army and has already pledged his love to Sonya (Sofia Alexandrovna), his fifteen-year-old cousin, an orphan who has been brought up by the Rostovs. (iv) The Kuragins - Prince Kuragin and his children: his daughter Hélène (Elena Vasilyevna Kuragina) and the equally charming and immoral Anatol, his son. (v) the Drubetskoys:   The chief of these is Prince Boris Drubetskoy — A poor but aristocratic young man driven by ambition, even at the expense of his friends and benefactors, who marries for money, rather than love, an heiress, Julie Karagina.

Tolstoy's Philosophy

It is interesting to note that Tolstoy's fiction grew originally out of his diaries, in which he tried to understand his own feelings and actions so as to control them. He read fiction and philosophy widely. In the Caucasus he read Plato and Rousseau, Dickens and Sterne and through the 1850s he also read and admired Goethe, Stendhal, Thackeray, and George Eliot. War and Peace has a vast canvas that includes 580 characters, many historical, others fictional and his characters reveal his breath of philosophical and literary reading that I have just outlined.  Right through we acquaint ourselves with Tolstoy's view that all is predestined, all that happens is fated, but we cannot live unless we imagine that we have free will.  This is a very pessimistic and fatalistic view of life.  That he was an authentic human being and brilliant writer and artist in search of his own personal truth (and perhaps eternal truth) is beyond doubt both from his writings and from his life.  However, in his later years his thought grew more eccentric and strange and he began to imagine himself as an ascetic, a sort of guru.  Indeed, so heterodox were his views that he was excommunicated by The Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.  In the 1880s Tolstoy wrote a philosophical work called A Confession and What I Believe, which was banned in 1884. He started to see himself more as a sage and moral leader than an artist. In 1884 he made his first attempt to leave home and become a wandering ascetic. He gave up his estate to his family, and tried to live as a poor, celibate peasant. Attracted by Tolstoy's writings, many hundreds of people from all over the world visited his home at Yasnaya Polyana. He became seriously ill and he had to recuperate in Crimea. It is also interesting to note that his teachings influenced Gandhi in India, and the kibbutz movement in Palestine, and in Russia his moral authority rivaled that of the Tsar. Finally, after leaving his estate with his disciple Vladimir Chertkov on the urge to live as a wandering ascetic, Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 7 (Nov. 20, New Style) in 1910, at a remote railway junction. His collected works, which were published in the Soviet Union in 1928-58, consisted of 90 volumes.

*  An interesting comment by the great psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustave Jung is worth quoting here by way of a footnote: "The Bardo Thödol [Tibetan Book of the Dead] began by being a closed book, and so it has remained, no matter what kind of commentaries may be written upon it. For it is a book that will only open itself to spiritual understanding, and this is a capacity which no man is born with, but which he can only acquire through special training and special experience. It is good that such to all intents and purposes useless books exist. They are meant for those queer folk who no longer set much store by the uses, aims, and meaning of present-day civilisation."
Carl Jung (See Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. (1960) [1927]. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1957 3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. lii.)

To be continued.

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