Saturday, April 14, 2012

Diving Deeper 15 - War and Peace 11

Returning to Fatalism

Tolstoy returns several times to his belief that all things in life, or in history, are fated to happen. 

We are forced to fall back on fatalism to explain the irrational events of history (that is to say, events the intelligence of which we do not see).   The more we try to account for such events in history rationally, the more irrational and complicated do they become to us.  (War and Peace, p. 717).  

God's Folk

There was a custom in Irish speaking areas, certainly when I was growing up, to call simple, uneducated, innocent and somewhat slow people "daoine Le Dia," that is "people with God."  It would seem that Tolstoy has a similar understanding with respect to what he calls "God's Folk."   And Princess Maria, Prince Andrei's sister looks after these special people on their large estate. (See, ibid., p. 816 ff.)

The Battle of Borodino

"Battle of Borodino, 7th September 1812", 1822 by Louis Lejeune
The Battle of Borodino was fought on September 7, 1812, and it was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the French invasion of Russia and of all the Napoleonic Wars.  It involved more than 250,000 troops and resulted in at least 70,000 casualties. The French Grande Armée, under Emperor Napoleon I,  attacked the Imperial Russian Army of General Mikhail Kutuzov near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk, and eventually captured the main positions on the battlefield, but failed to destroy the Russian army despite heavy losses. About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded; Russian losses were also heavy, but her casualties could be compensated since large forces of militia were already with the Russian Army and replacement depots which were close by had already been gathering and training troops.  Although the Battle of Borodino can be seen as a victory for Napoleon, some scholars and contemporaries described Borodino as a Pyrrhic victory.   Russian historian Oleg Sokolov agrees that Borodino ultimately constituted a Pyrrhic victory for the French, which would ultimately cost Napoleon the war and his crown, although at the time none of this was apparent to either side.

Anyway, once again, there is nothing as good as the threat of one's extinction in war to concentrate the mind before battle.  Here are some of the reflections, yet again of Prince Andrei, before this particular battle:

He gazed at the row of birch-trees with their motionless green and yellow foliage, and the white bark shining in the sun. "To die, to be killed tomorrow.... to be no more .... and that all this shall still be but no me..."  He pictured the world without himself, and the birches with their light and shade, the curly clouds and the smoke of the camp-fires - everything around him suddenly underwent a transformation into something sinister and threatening.  A cold shiver ran down his spine....  (Ibid., p. 915)

"Tens of thousands of men meet - as they will tomorrow - to massacre one another, to kill and maim, and then they will offer up thanksgiving ceremonies for having slain such vast numbers (they even exaggerate the number) and proclaim a victory, supposing that the more men they have slaughtered the more credit to them.  Think of God looking down and listening to them!" cried Prince Andrei in a shrill piercing voice.  "Ah, my friend, life has become a burden to me of late.  I see that I have begun to see and understand too much.  And it doesn't do for a man to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.... ah well, it's not for long," he added.... (Ibid., p. 922)

Diving Deeper 14 - War and Peace 10


It is interesting to note that Tolstoy himself, somewhat enigmatically, said of War and Peace that it was "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle."  As we have seen large sections of the work, especially in the later chapters, are philosophical discussion rather than narrative.  This, I argue, was a characteristic of nineteenth century Russian literature.  He went on to elaborate that the best Russian literature does not conform to standard norms, and certainly War and Peace does not. Tolstoy regarded Anna Karenina as the first of his novels.

Library and Reading

Tolstoy in his study
Tolstoy was a prodigious reader.  In fact that library at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, long since his memorial museum, contained some 20,000 volumes.  So the following extract does not surprise us as it pertains to reading and study (as well as to alcoholic drinking - a common concern in Ireland as in Russia), and the character in question is Pierre, whom I have adjudged to show characteristics of Tolstoy himself along with Prince Andrei:

He read and read everything that came to his hand.  Returning home at night he would pick up a book and begin to read even while his valets were taking off his things... Drinking became more and more a physical and moral necessity alike.... Only after emptying a bottle or two did he feel vaguely that the terribly tangled skein of life which had appalled him before was not so dreadful as he had fancied.  He was always conscious of some aspect of that skein and with a buzzing in his ears he chatted or listened to conversation, or read his books after dinner or supper.  But it was only under the influence of wine that he could say to himself: "Never mind.  I'll disentangle it..."...

In the morning on an empty stomach all the old questions looked as insoluble and as fearful as ever, and Pierre hastily picked up a book, and was delighted if anyone called to see him. Sometimes he remembered having heard how soldiers, under fire in the trenches, and having nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger.  And it seemed to Pierre that all men were like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in playthings, some in horses, some some in politics, some in sport, some in wine and some in government service. "Nothing is without consequence and nothing is important.   It's all the same in the end.  The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can, " thought Pierre.  "Not to see it, that terrible it."  (War and Peace, p. 636)

Engaging the Reader

All good literature, no matter what its provenance, engages the reader.  Novelists, if I may generalise here, are those lucky writers who manage to engage readers the most.  It is the literary genre most popular worldwide.  Novelists are lucky souls in my book, and to a great extent I envy them their success, not least their talent.  Now, what I love about good novelists like Tolstoy is that they engage the reader at the level of the soul.  That's why I say Tolstoy was a great existentialist writer, and I place him in the company of his fellow Russian writer Fydor Dostoyevsky, of whom I have written many times in these pages before, for their ability to engage the reader at a deep existential level.  In the above passage, it is very easy for the flesh and blood reader (if I may be somewhat ridiculously tautological here to emphasise my point) to identify with the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in the above quotation.  In other words, I have found with all the works of both these Russian authors that they have hooked me by these completely existentialist passages.  Indeed, we Irish are wont to sit in our public houses, and indeed at home more frequently these days, quaffing our alcoholic beverages while philosophising, theologising, sociologising or politicking or whatever.

Here endeth, dear reader, today's or tonight's meandering thoughts on Tolstoy's wonderful epic.  One could do worse than reading the above passage several times by way of a simple contemplation.

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) 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Diving Deeper 12 - War and Peace 8

Tolstoy and the Unconscious

The unconscious is as old as humankind itself, though its official acknowledgement and popularization lay with the founding father of all psychotherapy (in the form of psychoanalysis), namely one Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).  It goes without saying that all creative artists used their dreamworld, to a greater or lesser extent, by way of inspiration in their works of art, no matter what genre their work was in. They may not have explicitly called it by the term "unconscious."  They would have used a plethora of other words like unintentional, automatic, mechanical, instinctive, involuntary, reflex, or intuitive.  What drives the great Empires to war against one another?  What drives humans to hate other humans?  In short, what drives humankind to evil in all its multifarious forms.  It is obviously the unconscious whose drives and instincts have us in their grip.  It is these unconscious urges that drives humankind to war.

Fatalism versus Free Will

Tolstoy's attitude to history is the exact opposite of Thomas Carlyle's (1795 – 1881) hero-worship. For Carlyle, chaotic events demanded that those whom  he called 'heroes' take control over the competing forces erupting within society. While not denying the importance of economic and practical explanations for events, he saw these forces as 'spiritual' – the hopes and aspirations of people that took the form of ideas, and were often ossified into ideologies ("formulas" or "isms", as he called them). In Carlyle's view, only dynamic individuals could master events and direct these spiritual energies effectively: as soon as ideological 'formulas' replaced heroic human action, society became dehumanised.  (Note that by "spiritual" Carlyle means something more akin to an energy, as he was a committed atheist who had been reared a Calvinist.  Even though he had turned from his Calvinist faith, he still retained many of its forbidding characteristics.

Tolstoy sees the unconscious urges of mankind as the only agents of history, and applies to events the law of necessity that he observes operating in the lives of individuals.  In other words, what we see here in Tolstoy is a philosophical fatalism.  Things are ordained to be as they are.  One can hear his characters echo this philosophy throughout this epic novel.  Almost like Luther each of them seems to be saying "I can do no other" - "Ich kann nicht anders."

All of nature is working towards an eventual triumph of truth, and that truth is the driving force of necessity, against which it is stupid for humankind to resist or oppose.  To this extent, then, the second part of the Epilogue of War and Peace is entirely devoted to the problem of freewill versus this driving force of necessity.  I will discuss this in a later post. 

Tsar Alexander I of Russia
Tolstoy shows us the futility of war as presented by the three warring Emperors - Emperor Napoléon of France, Emperor Francis II of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Against this backdrop, he paints the lives of his five great families.  Tolstoy is arguing that before the beauty and truth of Russia that whole might of the Napoleonic Great Army crumbled away to nothing.  The spirit of simplicity, goodness and truth, which lies at the heart of the Russian nation, Tolstoy argues, overcame the brutal power of Napoleon.  This brutal power of conquest and oppression ignored simplicity, and because it ignored simplicity, it was essentially rooted in evil.  This would seem to be what War and Peace is all about.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, General Kutuzov, according to Prince Andrei, "knows that there is something stronger and more important than his own will - the inevitable march of events, and he has the brains to see them and grasp their significance, and seeing that significance can abstain from meddling, from following his personal desires and aiming at something else."

And yet, there is someone even nobler and purer than Kutuzov, and that is Karatayev who is only an ordinary foot-soldier, but he is one who knows his place in the scheme of things: "qui accepte sa place dans la vie et dans la mort," and is the very incarnation of wisdom according to Pierre: "His life, as he looked at it, held no meaning as a separate entity.  It had meaning only as part of a whole of which he was at all times conscious." 

Diving Deeper 11 - War and Peace 7

Rosemary Edmonds, the translator of my edition of War and Peace writes a wonderful introduction to this epic story.  We learn many interesting facts, for example, that his wife was his amanuensis during the writing of the novel, and that he re-wrote sections of the manuscript seven times.  It would appear that the Countess, his wife, spent considerable time making what they then called a "fair copy" of the manuscript for the publisher.  Also this magnum opus - "il lungo studio e il grande amore" as he called it - took five years in the making.

The Countess even reported that her husband Leo Tolstoy (Liovna) used to often cry during his writing of this work, and one isn't surprised as it is such a passionate work.  Let's listen now to some sentences from the pen of Rosemary Edmonds:
Tolstoy's subject is humanity - people moving in the strange delirium of war and war's chaos...  In the way Tolstoy has of walking through all his books, in War and Peace he may be identified with the two heroes, Pierre and Prince Andrei, in their passionate, unremitting strivings towards "the infinite, the eternal and the absolute." (He even anticipates his own maturer views when Pierre comes to the conclusion that "to live with the sole object of avoiding doing evil so as not to repent is not enough.  I used to do that - I lived for myself and I spoilt my life.  And only now, when I am living for others - or, at least trying to - only now do I realize all the happiness life holds.")
                                                                             (War and Peace, Introduction, no page given.)


I have already stated that, like Dostoyevsky, that Tolstoy is an existentialist through and through - a Christian existentialist.  He is interested in humanity in all its gamut of experiences from happiness to suffering; from the light to the dark and the myriad of colours in between.  He wants to paint life as it really is.  Authenticity would be something high on Tolstoy's list of values though he would not use that (for him) anachronistic term.  He would also, I believe, be interested in psychotherapy had he been born fifty years later.  Here, I will quote a most appropriate sentence from Tolstoy: "The one thing necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth."  Indeed, his whole life was bound up with this mission to tell the truth about all things, both outward and inward.  He saw this search for truthfulness, both outward and inward, as being the basis of reality

Mysticism or Realism

The Reiki Tree: rooted in the mystic traditions of ancient Japan
I disagree with the brilliant translator, Rosemary Edmonds, that Leo Tolstoy was not a mystic.  I believe he was.  I also believe that being a mystic does not rule out necessarily being a realist to my  understanding.  I suppose it depends on what one means by the real in the end.  Anyway, I shan't delay here on this metaphysical point (See Mysticism Examined: Philosophical Inquiries Into Mysticism by Richard H. Jones, State University of New York, 1983)

I am reminded here of a quotation from the Victorian writer Rev. Frederick Langbridge
English poet and religious writer (1849 - 1923):"Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw the stars."  What puts that famous quotation in my mind this night is the following quotation from Tolstoy, encapsulating the same sentiment entirely: "In the gutter I see the image of the sky."  With such a philosophy, one can understand that it is never events themselves, however important and far-reaching, which interests Tolstoy but rather the effect of the event on the individual and the latter's contribution to the event.   In short, he is interested in psychology - even in the psychology of religion - in what makes the human person tick.  In my book his realism always leads to an interest in transcendence and hence his is a mysticism with its roots in reality.

He is interested in what motivates heroes, what inspires them.  What is the human soul at base?  What is it seeking?  What is the meaning of life. For him the soul is on the quest for the Kingdom of God, which really the peasants understood more truly and authentically than the rich.

I thoroughly agree with Rosemary Edmonds that Tolstoy was preoccupied with the ethical domain of living.  However, his ethical vision is always associated with, indeed secondary to, his artistic or aesthetic vision (indeed the two are inextricably linked when one comes to think about it!  That's worth exploring for another blog entry!)  Here's a quotation from Tolstoy on the artistic vision of the novelist:
My aim as an artist is not to resolve a question irrefutably but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations, and these are inexhaustible.  If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by those who are children today, and that they would read and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then I would dedicate all my existence to it. 

War and Peace is a hymn to life in all its beauty and pain, in all its happiness and fret, in all its vicissitudes.  It is Tolstoy's masterpiece of the human soul in search of authenticity.  For a nineteenth century Russian, very close to his serfs, and much read in philosophy, literature in Russian and French, and in theology, his search for authenticity was essentially religious, or spiritual.  For him, "To love life is to love God" is a philosophy that he places in the mouth (of babes) of Prince Andrei's fifteen year old son at the end o the novel.