Thursday, April 12, 2012

Diving Deeper 13 - War and Peace 9

Everyday Life

Tolstoy's concern was the life of the ordinary person - the human being as an existential entity.  The lives of the great and the good really did not infringe on the concerns of ordinary human beings for our author:

In the year 1808 the Emperor Alexander went to Erfurt for another interview with the Emperor Napoleon,  and in the upper circles of Petersburg society there was much talk of the magnificence of this occasion... Meanwhile life - actual everyday life with its essential concerns of health and sickness, work and recreation and its intellectual preoccupations with philosophy, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, passion - ran its regular course, independent and heedless of political alliance or enmity with Napoleon Bonaparte and of all potential reforms.  (War and Peace, p. 490)

The Concept of Self

The concept of the self is a very recent one indeed.  There have been wonderful books written on its emergence from ancient to more modern times, e.g., Charles Taylor's magnum opus - The Sources of Self.  Authors like Taylor and others can trace its emergence back to ancient Greece and find rich sources of selfhood there.  However, here I am referring to the concern with self as individual who owns and possesses things and objects and power and prestige as a result of industrialization.  Humankind is now the owner of property, and with ownership comes a new sense of the self, a new sense of the individual.  Indeed, one could argue strongly that the emergence of this self was strongly middle class and corresponded not alone to having wealth, but also to being educated. 

Anyway, Tolstoy is essentially a psychologist and an existentialist.  He, too, as an aristocrat is interested in self-development.  I have already indicated that our Russian author walks through his novels, and in that the two central characters - Pierre and Prince Andrei - in their struggles to get to know themselves are essentially he.  Here is Pierre engaged in self-reflection, and we can rest assured that this is Tolstoy reflecting on his own sense of self:

In the eyes of the world Pierre was a fine gentlemen, the rather blind and ridiculous husband of a distinguished wife, a clever eccentric who did nothing but was no trouble to anyone, a capital fellow - while at the same time in the depths of Pierre's soul a complex and arduous process of inner development was going on, revealing much to him and bringing him many spiritual doubts and joys. (Ibid., p. 517)

And so, after this, Tolstoy writes five or six pages of Pierre's entries in his diary - here we have the character engaged in his "complex and arduous inner development."

Later, we are also brought into Prince Andrei's mind as he listens to Natasha play the clavichord and sing.  Here the music moves the prince to commune with something eternal, with the true meaning of life: The sense of the divine is here linked with music and music appreciation:

After dinner Natasha, at the Prince Andrei's request, went to the clavichord and began singing.  Prince Andrei stood at the window talking to the ladies, and listened to her.  Suddenly in the middle of a sentence he fell silent, feeling a lump in his throat from tears, a thing he would not have believed possible for him.  He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and blissful stirred in his soul.  He felt happy and at the same time sad.  He had absolutely nothing to weep about, and yet he was ready to weep.  For what?  For his past love?  For the little princess?  For his lost illusions?  Or his hopes for the future?  Yes and no.  The chief reason for his wanting to weep was his sudden acute sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable living within him now and the narrow material something which he, and even she, was.  The contrast made his heart ache, and rejoiced him while she sang.  (Ibid., p. 548)


And then we return to the old chestnut as to what happiness is at all.  Prince Andrei continues to ruminate on what's happening within his soul:

Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in tyhe possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and now I do believe in it.  Let the dead bury their dead; but while one has life one must live and be happy.  (Ibid., p. 549) 

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