Last month I finished rereading Leo Tolstoy’s great novel War & Peace. I started it as bedtime reading (although the novel is well over 1400 pages long, the chapters are all very short), which eventually evolved into more intensive reading secessions as my schedule permitted. It was great to reacquaint myself with this classic work of literature.
I read it the first time back in the 1980’s before I went to India. It was part of my spiritual quest. I was reading everything remotely truth-seeking at the time. My initial reading was with just that intent, to find all the heady things the novel had to say of a spiritual or philosophic nature. As I have all my life, I underlined the most interesting parts.
The paperback I just finished is one and the same, with all the markings that I had made back in my 20’s. This trip through the now yellowing pages, however, was more for the entertainment value of the work. The story is incredible, the multitude of characters are vividly presented. Tolstoy crafts the work so that it expresses a lot of action, dramatic empathy, and even a good dose of humor as the complex telling unfolds.
Right after Christmas last year, I purchased a DVD set of the old BBC version of the story that I had watched when I was still in high school on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. That series served as my introduction to Tolstoy and, by coincidence, (and a quick aside) to the terrific acting abilities of Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins has been one of my favorite actors ever since.
Anyway, re-watching the BBC series inspired me to read the book again, eventually causing me to read ahead, and then pause to allow the 20-episode televised dramatization to catch up, making note of what was left out or slightly changed for the TV version. Overall, the BBC rendering stayed true to all the primary points of the novel, though – as usual in such cases - the novel is superior to its abbreviated 15-hour TV form.
With the passage of almost 30 years since my first reading, I had the joy of experiencing the story anew, as if for the first time (a nod to T.S. Elliot). Before rereading, I hardly remembered anything about it beyond vague notions of the characters of Pierre and Natasha, the Battle of Borodino, and Napoleon’s considerable supporting role in the plot.
Though I primarily enjoyed the book as entertainment, I was particularly impressed with how Tolstoy ended his work, which was both totally unexpected and brought me back around to its more philosophical aspects.
I had forgotten most of the Epilogue, which begins in my old paperback on page 1351 and runs on until 1455, the last page. The story concludes with Pierre and Natasha talking about how wrong it is for everyone to say the best years of a marriage are at the beginning. The characters agree that marriage becomes more wonderful, more intimate (though certainly at times challenging) the longer the couple remains together. This happy moment segues into a dream by a adolescent child of a now deceased major character, the child waking and thinking, for the first time in ages, about his dead father. The end. Life goes on.
The epilogue is divided into two parts, the second lasting about 40 pages, which is purely an essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history. History itself is often the subject of Tolstoy’s musings throughout the course of the work and, of course, many of these key passages were already underlined from my 20-something year old hand decades ago. The end of War & Peace drops the story entirely and places all the many happenings and messages of the novel within the context of history itself.
Reading Tolstoy’s concluding essay on the nature of history was a wonderful moment of rediscovery, which is why I generally hang on to classic works of literature in my personal library. You find something worthy and new in them every time you read them. In the case of War & Peace, however, Tolstoy has an interesting take on the meaning of history that is rather unique and contrasts in many ways with, say, Gunter Grass’ view of history in my post on Crabwalk (see January 30, 2010 post).
In a nutshell, Tolstoy believes that history is not the story of great works by great human beings, it is, rather, the result of the countless stirrings and synergy of the innumerable individual whims of the masses. Tolstoy democratizes history and makes great persons merely the residue of larger forces working throughout the whole of humankind.
Long before Book Two of the Epilogue, Tolstoy generously sprinkles his perspective on history throughout the second half of the story itself. On page 732, for example, he writes rather famously that: “A king is the slave to history.” On that same page, more clearly stating his point, Tolstoy says: “Consciously man lives for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of the historical, social ends of mankind.” Further, “the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as an instrument for its own ends." This, for Tolstoy, is history.
History is a living force, perhaps even a spiritual revelation. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are merely “the involuntary tools of history, performing a function unsuspected by themselves…” (page 822) History is woven into a “complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and wishes.” (page 825)
The workings of the force of history are perhaps no better signified by Tolstoy than in contrasting the behavior of Napoleon and Russian Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov during and after the Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy depicts Napoleon as aggressively submitting orders and attempting to control the situation. But, in reality, very little of what Napoleon orders is actually accomplished. The battle rages on chiefly out of his control with most of his orders ignored or irrelevant. Later, after the capture of Moscow, Napoleon is helpless to save the destruction of the city despite his enforcement of martial law. Things just seem to happen of their own accord.
Meanwhile, Kutuzov is plagued by a large number of staff members and subordinates (even the Tsar himself) persistently pressuring him to attack Napoleon’s army, particularly as it retreats from Moscow in winter. Kutuzov, however, insists that there is little he or the Russian army can do to hasten the destruction of the French as it is happening inevitably of its own accord. For his care not to shed more Russian blood when the French army was bound for destruction anyway the Tsar dismisses the commander.
Kutuzov is Tolstoy’s zen-master of history.
Of course, for the primary characters there is little or no discussion of history as a philosophical concept or as a natural force. Pierre and Prince Andrei toy with the vague musings of it briefly and Pierre often contemplates it privately but Tolstoy wants his characters to be like us, real people caught up in history’s “swarm” but far more concerned with the “little” events of our lives than the vast workings of humanity as a whole. It is, in fact, precisely the “innumerable” concerns of everyone to their own, private “intrigues, aims, and wishes” that drives history.
“And yet actually those personal interests of the moment are always so much more significant than the general issues that because of them the latter are never felt – not even noticed, in fact. The majority of the people paid no attention to the general course of events but were influenced only by their immediate personal interests.” (page 1126)
Tolstoy goes on to emphasize that even though “the human mind cannot grasp the causes of phenomena in aggregate”, “the essence of any historical event” is to be found in “the activity of the mass of men who take part in it…” (page 1178) Even though he infers that there are certain “laws” of history, he remains vague about the specifics of his approach until we arrive at the final book in the novel.
He begins Part Two of the Epilogue with a discussion of how the events of ancient peoples were interpreted as “the will of God” whereas modern history attributes everything to the work of heroes and great men. Tolstoy thinks the contemporary approach to history is a shallow one: “…modern history is like a deaf man replying to questions no one has put to him.” (page 1416)
Then he asks what is the “power of nations?” To which he answers: “Power is the collective will of the masses, vested by expressed or tacit consent in their chosen leader.” (page 1423) Ultimately, however, “On what condition is the people’s will vested in one person? On the condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. In other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not know.” (page 1429)
Whereas recent “historians have assumed that events depended upon the commands” of great leaders, in reality, Tolstoy claims, “they and their commands were dependent on the events.” (page 1436) Again, the sum of all individual initiatives makes history. Ironically, the power lies with the very beings that pay no attention to it and do not even seek power directly.
This leads to Tolstoy’s final inquiry, which addresses the dialectic of free will versus “necessity” as expressed in the unfolding of history. Essentially, Tolstoy believes that, when considered individually and in isolation, human actions take on the appearance of being free. However, when considered in conjunction with the mass of various persons and other influences upon an individual’s life, most of our “free” actions are “influenced” and “controlled” by these other factors.
In conclusion, the illusion of free will in the context of history is exactly the same as the illusion that the earth is fixed in space and the sun revolves around our planet. Both realities require us to give up on what appears to be true and to accept that which, by intimate experience, seems to be completely wrong.
The last paragraph of the great novel summarizes (metaphysically with hints of spirituality) the connection between the facts of astronomy and the facts of free will as Tolstoy sees it: “In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case, it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.” (page 1455)
For Tolstoy, history is a great irony, little contemplated by the masses that are the source of all history and ill-considered by modern historians who do not understand that events shape the figures of history, not the other way around.
Again, though featured heavily in essay form at the conclusion of War and Peace, the idea of history is sprinkled through the latter half of the massive novel. Yet, it is ultimately just the icing on the cake of what is a terrific read, with many fascinating characters, exciting moments, epic battle sequences, large aristocratic glamour, surprises, comedy, tragedy, indeed to full spectrum of human experience brought to life through a multitude of characters that are a testament to Tolstoy’s’ genius.
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