Saturday, April 07, 2012

Diving Deeper 10 - War and Peace 6

The Symbol of Atheism
Tolstoy, like Dostoyevsky, likes to give both sides of every argument.  That's what I like about this late nineteenth century literature.  I have already indicated that they are both existentialist writers who present their characters as flesh and blood human beings struggling to make sense of life and what it means to live.  I have described in detail already Prince Andrei's scepticism or atheism and his friend Pierre's despairing atheism until his conversion and joining of the Freemasons.  Now, in book two the two friends meet after two years.

In fact the two begin to argue about the meaning of life and what happiness is.  Here the strong believer (reformed atheist) meets the committed sceptic.  Their argument is worth reading in full.  I shall confine myself to just a few brief snippets here.

Pierre informs Prince Andrei that

'the great thing is... I know, and know for certain, that the enjoyment of doing this good is the only sure happiness in life...'

Pierre had just informed Andrei of all the good things he was doing for his serfs on his estates since his newly found faith in God.  Here is the sceptical Prince Andrei's response to his friend's newly found concern for the poor:

'Come, let's argue the matter,' said Prince Andrei. 'You talk of schools,' he went on, crooking a finger, 'education and so forth.  In other words you want to lift him' (he pointed to a peasant who passed by them taking off his cap) 'out of his animal existence and awaken in  him spiritual needs, when in my opinion animal happiness is the only happiness possible, and you want to deprive him of it.  I envy him while you are trying to make him what I am, without providing him with a mind or feelings like mine, or with my means... I go to bed after two in the morning, thoughts come into my mind and I can't sleep but toss about till dawn, because I think and cannot help thinking, just a she can't help ploughing and mowing... 'O, yes. Hospitals and medicine.  Our peasant has a stroke and is dying, but you have him bled and patched up.  He will drag about, a cripple, for another ten years, a burden to everybody.  It would be far easier and simpler for him to die.  Plenty of others are born to take his place...

(War and Peace, pp. 450-451)

The extreme scepticism spewed forth by Prince Andrei unsettles Pierre who is simply brow-beaten into silence and merely listens to this very negative individual that Prince Andrei has become.  Pierre realises that his friend is very unhappy, has gone astray in his life and does not see the true light.  Pierre is forced then to expound his new faith in Freemasonry to Prince Andrei.  But the sceptic, nay nihilist almost, in the prince will have nothing of Pierre's arguments for belief in God.

However, here I am reminded of John Henry Cardinal Newman's perspicacious and wise remarks that unbelief or atheism is essentially a fault of the heart and not of the mind, and that it is as useless to attempt to beat a man physically into believing as it is to arguing him into so doing.  There is much wisdom in both these remarks.  As Andrei's and Pierre's arguments progress we realise that the prince's heart has been not only broken but actually crushed with grief, and that it is this unresolved grief that has added bitterness and passion to his unbelief.  Here are the words of a crushed human soul:

'... life and death are what convince.  What convinces is when you see a being dear to you, whose existence is bound up with yours, to whom you have done wrong that you had hoped to put right... and all at once that being is seized  and racked with pain, and ceases to exist...Why?  There must be an answer.  And I believe there is... That is what can convince a man, that is what convinced me... I only mean that one is not persuaded by argument that there must be a future life: it is when you are journeying through life hand in hand with someone, and suddenly your companion vanishes there, into nowhere, and you are left standing on the edge of an abyss, and you look down into it.  As I have...  (Ibid., p. 456)

Then we get the inklings of Prince Andrei's openness to the religious dimension of life in his final thoughts on his meeting with his friend Pierre:

...and stepping off the ferry he looked up into the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw those lofty eternal heavens he had watched while lying on the battlefield; and something long dormant, something better that had been in him, suddenly awoke with new and joyful life in his soul.  The feeling vanished as soon as Prince Andrei fell back again into the ordinary conditions of life, but he knew that this feeling, which he was ignorant how to develop, lived within him.  Pierre's visit marked an epoch in Prince Andrei's life.  Though outwardly he continued to live in the same way, inwardly he began a new existence.  (Ibid., p. 456)

The above quotations illustrate the depths of understanding that Leo Tolstoy had for his characters.  They illustrate how great a psychologist he is also.  He is able, like Dostoyevsky, to literally get into the mind, the heart and the soul of his characters.  He is able to portray both characters of great intellectual sophistication like Pierre and Andrei on the one hand and the minds and hearts of ordinary soldiers and simple peasants on the other.  When reading these Russian authors I am overcome with the passion with which they write, with the sheer conviction with which they paint their pen pictures of what happens in the course of their novels.  That these two novelists were great human beings with a deep empathy for others goes almost without saying.


Friday, April 06, 2012

Diving Deeper 9 - War and Peace 5

We now begin a short perusal of Book 2 of War and Peace. Much of Book Two concerns Pierre's  (Pyotr Kirilovich) Bezukhov 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.

Somewhat near the beginning of this section we are invited into Pierre's thoughts on ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology:

'What is wrong?  What is rights?  What should one love and what hate?  What is life for and what am I?  What is life?  What is death?  What is the power that controls it all?' he asked himself.  And there was no answer to any of these questions, except the one illogical reply that in no way answered them.  This reply was: 'One dies and it's all over.  One dies and either finds out about everything or ceases asking.'  But dying, too, was dreadful.'  (War and Peace, p. 407)

Then, looking at the poor pedlar-woman seeking to sell him goat-skin slippers, he muses to himself:

'And what does she want the money for?  As if it could add a hair's breadth to her happiness or peace of mind.  Can anything in the world make her or me less enslaved to evil and death?   Death which is the end of all things and must come today or tomorrow - at any rate in an instant of time as compared with eternity.'  And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and the screw still went on turning in the same place.  (Ibid., p. 407)

'And all we can know is that we know nothing .  And that is the sum total of human wisdom.' (Ibid., p. 408).

Then he meets a freemason and he debates the existence or non-existence of God with him.  This debate is pure theology:

'I should never be so bold as to assert that I know the truth', said the mason, impressing Pierre more and more with the precision and assurance of his speech.  'No one can attain the truth by himself.  Only by laying stone upon stone with the co-operation of all, through millions of generations from our forefather Adam to our own day is the temple raised which is to be a worthy dwelling place for the Most High God,' said the freemason and closed his eyes.

'I ought to tell you that I don't believe... I don't believe in God,' said Pierre regretfully and with an effort, feeling it essential to confess the whole truth.'  The mason looked at him and smiled...

'Yes, you do not know Him, my dear sir,' said the freemason.  'You cannot know Him.  You do not know Him, that is just why you are unhappy.'

'Yes, yes, I am unhappy,' assented Pierre; 'but what am I to do?  (Ibid., p. 410)

Freemason Symbols
From there on over some five or six pages the two men proceed with a dialogue about belief and unbelief with the freemason presenting the Christian viewpoint.  The freemason proffers strong faith-based arguments to meet Pierre's objections and then states, with respect to belief in God:

'... but in our lack of understanding we see only our own weakness and His greatness.'  (Ibid., p.  411)

'It is not the mind that comprehends Him; it is life that makes us understand,' said the mason. (Ibid., p. 412)

And then he proceeds to talk about "the science of all" which is a deep piece of wisdom as he is explaining faith as a way of embracing the mystery of all in a oneness of apprehension or a oneness of grasping what the mystery of life may be.  His argumentation here is somewhat akin to the arguments for the existence of God put forward by John Henry Cardinal Newman in Victorian times in his extremely closely argued and complex book The Grammar of Assent In other words, it's the whole person in the totality of his/her being - not just with the intellect which is just one part of that being - who answers the "yes" of faith to the revelation of God:

'Supreme wisdom is not founded on reason alone, not on those worldly sciences of physics, history, chemistry and the like, into which intellectual knowledge is divided.  The highest wisdom is one.  The highest wisdom has but one science - the science of the All, the science which explains all creation and man's place in it.  In order to absorb this science it is absolutely essential to purify and regenerate one's inner self, and so, before one can know, it is necessary to have faith and be made perfect.  And for this purpose we have the divine light we call conscience, which God implanted into our souls.  (Ibid., p.412)

William Blake's Ancient of Days: God the Creator
We are not too surprised either, that like Newman, this man of faith, this anonymous freemason finally appeals to the argument from conscience as one of the arguments as to why God exists.  Anyway, this man goes on to lecture Pierre on his indolent and carefree life and on how he has wasted his gifts.  He tells him to examine his life and to have faith and to repent and turn back to God.  This is presented in a very dialogical rather than a hectoring way where the freemason sets out his stall with strong logical argument that breaks Pierre down. The upturn of these five or six pages of argumentation about the existence of God is that Pierre repents and joins the freemasons.  He now, obviously, has renounced his former opinions and has declared his belief in the existence of God.

Pierre has to go through an induction ceremony to become a freemason and has to be instructed in the seven virtues corresponding to the seven steps up to Solomon's Temple.  These virtues were: (i) discretion = secrecy about their Order, (ii) obedience to those of higher rank, (iii) morality, (iv) love for mankind, (v) courage, (vi) generosity and (vii) love of death.

This last one is interesting and ties in with what I have already written many time sin these posts about the meditation on our own death recommended in Buddhism of all strands and indeed in most religions.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Diving Deeper 8 - War and Peace 4

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Tolstoy in this masterpiece has time to allow us into the mind of the wounded hero Prince Andrei.  We are well aware of the confusion of the Battle of Austerlitz and of all the regiments in the various armies that were embroiled in it: La Grande Armée de Napoléon with all its various corps and regiments on the French side and then the armies of the Third Coalition, comprising the Russian Imperial Guard and other Russian brigades as well as the Austrian Calvary Brigades under the command of Karl Wilhelm von Stutterheim, and and so on, which makes this one of the great battles of history.  He describes this battle with consummate skill and knowledge, and yet he has time to slow things down, to change the focus like a good film director to be somewhat anachronistic in my commentary here.  Indeed, as I mentioned in a previous post this anachronistic cinematographic technique actually describes well what our author Tolstoy is doing in this great novel.  Firstly we have the wide angled view of the battle as the narrator pans over the expanse of the scene of the military encounter and then we have the narrow focusing in on the wounded Prince Andrei as I described in the last post.   I want to continue now with the observations on life made by the badly wounded Prince Andrei.  As I have already said, Tolstoy's writing is sheer existentialism through and through.  Nor is the pain and suffering of the wounded forgotten by our author.

Further observations of Prince Andrei:

1. "That's a fine death," said Napoleon, looking down at Bolkonsky.  Prince Andrei grasped that this was said of him, and that it was Napoleon saying it.  He heard the speaker addressed as Sire.  But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly.  Not only did they not interest him - they made no impression upon him, and were immediately forgotten.  There was a burning pain in his head; he felt that his life-blood was ebbing away, and he saw far above him the remote and eternal heavens.  He knew it was Napoleon, his hero, but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between his own soul and that lofty, limitless firmament with the clouds flying over it.  It meant nothing to him at that moment who might be standing over him; he was only glad that people were standing near, and his only desire was that these people should help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had learned to see it differently.  He made a supreme effort to stir and utter some sound.  He moved his leg feebly and gave sickly groan which aroused his own pity. (War and Peace, p. 338-339)

Here we have a wonderful scene.  If one were directing this for a film one would have the camera at ground level pointing up at the Emperor on horseback and the remoter sky above him.  Everything around Bolkonsky would be magnified, the dirt, the blood and the gore and the bloodied instruments of war.  Then there is the wonderful sentence about the insignificance of the Emperor's words which are from the Prince's perspective as insignificant as the life of a fly.  Now this analogy has other references in literature, notably Shakespeare:


I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(See King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37)

Again, we get the mystical experience of the man near death.  He is tasting of something sublime, something beautiful and ever so meaningful beyond him.  One might today call this a "near-death experience."  Or again moments of transcendence  - when, in the muddle of existence, we somehow manage to break through everything to engage with each other, and with higher values, or some personal ground of our being, which some call God.  This is captured in the following sentence above:  He knew it was Napoleon, his hero, but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between his own soul and that lofty, limitless firmament with the clouds flying over it.

2. Everything did indeed seem so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought induced in him by his lapsing consciousness, as his life-blood ebbed away, by his suffering and the nearness of death.  Gazing into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.  (Ibid., p340)

The above is indeed existentialism at its best.  Indeed, one could even go so far as to say it is absurdity at is best.  Here we have one of our would-be heroes realising the sheer vanity and futility of the whole project which life is.  He realises the unimportance of everything - especially of greatness, even the unimportance of life and death.  There is also the futility of even trying to understand these mysteries.  In other words we have had in quotation 1 above the mystical experience and then, out of the blue almost, the juxtaposition of futility and absurdity with it.  Here we are reminded of other pieces of literature: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Samuel Becket
And indeed, I am reminded also of that great play, even non-play by our own inimitable Samuel Becket - Waiting for Godot - the sheer absurdity and insignificance of our little lives which are snuffed out no matter what our achievements are.  On a personal note I think of Gerard Smith who died far too young, around 30 years of age, from a congenital heart defect and who once asked me, referring to life, "What's it all about at all?"  Or again, the time when I and my friend Kevin drank a bottle of good Irish whiskey - Jameson -  between us in an attempt to answer the same question when we were philosophy students in the Augustinian Order many years ago in another life.

The Leap of Faith

In this context, then, it would seem that the leap of faith as it is called makes some existential sense, if it cannot make any rational sense at all.  Are we, or at least are some of us driven to make that leap in faith when we crash into the sheer futility and absurdity of that which we experience as life.The phrase is commonly attributed to Søren Kierkegaard; however, he himself never used the term, as he referred to a leap as a leap to faith.  Here below Prince Andrei toys with the idea of simple faith, of believing.  Is he about to leap to that faith?:

3. "How good it would be," thought Prince Andrei, letting his eyes rest on the icon which his sister had hung round his neck with such emotion and reverence, "how good it would be if everything were as clear and simple as it appeared to Marie.  How good it would be to know where to seek help in this life, and what to expect after it, beyond the grave!  How happy and at peace I should be if I could say now: 'Lord, have mercy  on me!...'  But to whom am I to say that? Is it to the great Power, indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot turn to, but which I cannot even express in words - the great All or Nothing, " said he to himself, "or is it to God who has been sewn into this amulet, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of everything within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all important.  (Ibid., p. 341)

Albert Camus 1913 – 4 January 1960
This last piece is shot through with the confusion of a very sick man in pain and suffering, who wants some clarity of thought.  I am reminded here of Albert Camus' introductory words to The Myth of Sisyphus that what he desired above all was clarity, clarity at all costs. Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd in that great book: man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world, devoid of God and eternal truths or values. Such looking for clarity may indeed be the philospher's downfall or the believer's leap to faith.  Each of us must make our own choice.

Diving Deeper 7 - War and Peace 3

After leading his valiant but futile charge against the French Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky is wounded badly, and his thoughts are almost a stream of consciousness, prefiguring in a embryonic way the method of our own James Joyce.  The prince is lying on his back, wounded on the battlefield:

  • "What's this?  Am I falling?  My legs are giving way," he thought, and fell on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the Frenchmen and the gunners ended, anxious to know whether the red-haired artilleryman was killed, whether the cannon had been captured or saved.  But he saw nothing.  Above him there was now only sky - the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty grey clouds creeping softly across it.  "How quiet, peaceful and solemn!  Quite different from when I was running," thought Prince Andrei.  "Quite different from us running and shouting and fighting.  Not at all like the gunner and the Frenchman dragging the mop from one another with frightened, frantic faces.  How differently do these clouds float across that lofty, limitless sky! How was it  I did not see that sky before?  And how happy I am to have found it at last!  Yes, all is vanity, all is delusion, except these infinite heavens.  There is nothing, nothing but that.  But even it does not exist, there is nothing but peace and stillness.  Thanks be to God!...."  (War and Peace, 326)
There is much that could be said about this piece of writing, not least its mystical touch, and Tolstoy was himself quite a mystic in the most general and loose sense of that word.  Here I am reminded of the mystical traditions within both the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches and indeed within the Hasidic mystical practices of Judaism as recounted by the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Mordechai Buber.  Mysticism relates to union with the Godhead or with a personal God in most mainline Christian Churches, though these latter organizations tend to be very suspicious of it, simply because they wish to keep the power of intercession between God and His people in their clerical hands.  Mystics, after all, have a privileged access to the Deity without the intercession of the Church and its clerical caste.  Anyway, one can sense this mystical union in the above piece of writing.  There is also a Buddhist feel to the piece as Prince Andrei speculates on the unreality of the world of war about him - it is all illusion or maya as the Buddhists say. 

Then there is also the sense of the littleness and insignificance of man against the backdrop of the infinity of the heavens above the wounded prince.  I am reminded here of the words of the brilliant and eccentric English Romantic poet and philosopher  Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that the whole spiritual thrust in the human heart and mind was towards unity and that the goal of spirituality was to see "the unity behind the multeity."   He also said, commenting on his nocturnal walks in the country with his father, that his "mind had become habituated to the vast" when he was but little.  The vastness of space, "of that lofty, limitless sky" as Tolstoy puts it in the above passage, is very much a parallel sentiment.  Then one is reminded of the words of the teacher in The Book of Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth from the Old Testament where the author declares again and again that "all is vanity," and "vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  The work emphatically proclaims all the actions of man to be inherently "vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", "fleeting," or "mere breath," depending on translation, as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death. While Qoheleth clearly endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this perceived senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.  I always found it heartening that such a sceptical book could make it into the Bible. 

To be continued

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Diving Deeper 6 - War and Peace 2


What appealed to this reader most about War and Peace was the "thinking out loud," the philosophising and theologising of its main characters.  Another great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky has long been recognised as one of the first existentialist novelists.  I believe that Tolstoy is equally existentialist in his presentation of his characters as they attempt to grapple with all the big questions and problems we all encounter in life.  In existentialism the starting point is in the here and now with the individual's existence.  As I type these words I am sitting in my attic study listening to Bob Dylan singing "I want you" as it chances, and some of my past experiences of love lost come to my mind while the rain rather appropriately lashes against the windowpanes above me.  Other concerns crowd my mind: the various repairs that have to be done about the house, my tax returns, some essays I have to do for college, and then visiting my poor old demented mother (now approaching 95 years young) in her nursing home.  There are many other existential concerns that clamour for space in my addled mind: the death by suicide of a friend's son at 32 years of age, another old friend who has recovered somewhat from brain cancer whom I must visit and so on.  In short, the human "existential" or existing being, which I am, is struggling to make sense of all these concerns and to get on with living a life that I actively choose to live.  The foundational idea, then, in existentialism is that "I"or "You", or "We," dear reader, decide how we ought to live for the individual defines everything for himself/herself.  In short, the individual makes his/her own meaning in this world.

Some Reflections on Life from this Novel:

The Battle of Austerlitz 2nd December 1805: Francois Pascal Simon Gerard
What follows are basic quotations from War and Peace as I marked them as I first read this great novel.  I will give the appropriate pages as we go along. My edition is the Penguin Classics edition, 1978 and runs to some 1444 pages including translator's notes.

  • Soldiers speaking on the eve of battle:

Suddenly, however, he was struck by the earnestness of their tones that he began to listen.
"No, my dear friend," said a pleasant voice, which Prince Andrei seemed to recognize, "what I say is - if one could know what will happen after death, then not one of us would be afraid of death. That is true, my dear fellow."
Another and younger voice interrupted.
"Afraid or not, it's all the same, there's no escaping it."...
"Yes, one is afraid," pursued the first speaker, the one with the familiar voice.  "One's afraid of the unknown, that's what it is.  It's all very well saying that the soul goes up to heaven... don't we know that up yonder it's not heaven but just space."  (Op.cit., p 203)

In the above quotation, the question of death, which is a big one for all soldiers, looms large.  It is also interesting that one of the speakers realises that our use of simplistic directional adverbs like "up" for heaven presupposes that heaven is a place in space, but we all realise that there is no such place in actuality.  Heaven itself, then, what is it?  Mere metaphor?  This is both a good philosophical and theological question.  This is precisely that type of issue that John A.T. Robinson discusses is his brilliant little book Honest to God (1963).  For anyone interested in the God question this is a wonderfully sharp and intelligent book - written by a controversial theologian and Bishop in the Church of England - to begin with.

  • The Battle of Austerlitz
"What a terrible thing war is, terrible thing! Quelle terrible chose que la guerre"...
Just as in the clock the result of the complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and regular movement of the hand marking the time, so the result of all the complex human activities of the 160,000  Russians and French - of all their passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of the three Emperors, as it was called; that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history. (Op. cit., p. 298).

  • Prince Andrei muses philosophically on the night before Austerlitz
The night was foggy and the moonlight gleamed mysteriously through the mist.  "Yes, tomorrow, tomorrow!" he thought. "Tomorrow maybe all will be over for me, all these memories will be no more - all these memories will have no more meaning for me.  Tomorrow perhaps- indeed tomorrow for sure, I have a presentiment that for the first time I shall at last have to show what I can do."  And his fancy painted the battle, the loss of it, the concentration of the fighting at one point and the hesitation of all the commanders... but if I want glory, want to be famous and beloved, it's not my fault that I want it, and it's the only thing I care for, the only thing I live for.  Yes, the only thing!  I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God, what am I to do if all I care for is fame and the affections of my fellow men?  Death, wounds, the loss of my family - nothing holds any terrors for me.  And precious and dear as my people are to me - father, sisters, wife - those I cherish most - yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would exchange them all immediately for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don't know and never shall know, for the love of those men there,... (Op. cit., p. 306

Surrender at Austerlitz: Emperor Francis of Austria surrenders to Napoleon
Again this is a deep enough passage.  Death and extinction - what do they mean?  What does this little consciousness mean?  Am I just a collocation of memories?  Where do they go when I die?  Quite recently the Irish writer and journalist Nuala O'Faoláin, in an interview with the Irish broadcaster Marion Finnucane, shortly before her death from cancer adumbrated similar questions which plumbed the existential depths and soared the existential heights of dying and death.  There is also the soldier in Prince Andrei, the ego of the macho soldier who wants to be hero.  What does it mean to be a hero?  What about that wonderful quotation from T.S.Eliot which he places in the mouth of St Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral - "It is better to do the right thing for the right reason rather than the right thing for the wrong reason!"  What is the truth of that statement?  How do we square love with vainglory?  How do we square love of family with love for fatherland or motherland? And yet, the irony is not lost on the sophisticated Prince Andrei as he realises he will be dying for the love of soldiers and countrymen whom he does not even know.  And then, there are such poems from the pen of the poets of The Great War, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen which question the whole point of war making. These poets raise deep questions for us all to ponder deeply.  Maybe in the end, like these poets, we will end up believing that it is not a sweet and fitting thing to die for one's country?

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.