Tolstoy Epilogue – Boney Demolished

December 30, 2010

I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812.  He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history.  A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures.  It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:

She glanced back.  For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable.        .            .            .             .              .              .          .              .            .

What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this.  The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.

Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz),  who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke.  He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”

He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes.  He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time.  He sees it as simply chance upon chance.  He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on.  Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.

Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another.  Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws.  Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:

Why did it happen this way and not otherwise?                                                                                                                                            Because this is how it happened.

Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory.  One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below.  It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.

For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site:  Brown University Digial Library



Russian Satori

December 25, 2010

I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace.  The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat.  Is that the real story?  Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre?  When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.

Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story.  They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx.  Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death.  First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded.  In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes.  He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.

He is barefoot as the weather is still mild.  He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete.  This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat.  A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night.  They are keeping him prisoner!  Him, and his immortal soul!  They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him!  Satori, the zen enlightenment,  comes at odd times.


Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.


Heureux de faire la connaissance de votre décolletage*.

October 17, 2010

I have been thoroughly enjoying the new translation of War and Peace by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I read the novel first when I was about fifteen, and parts of it remain with me yet.  Memory is amazing!  I also recall avidly watching the full set of BBC episodes dramatizing the novel with Anthony Hopkins starring as the naive, but genuine Pierre Bezukhov.  The image above shows him enduring a dinner next to the woman, Helen, intended to be his wife.

Just now, I read the passage where he realizes that Helen, stunningly beautiful, but very stupid, could be his.  Really, physically his.  Never mind that he is nearsighted, bumbling, plump, filled with strange liberal ideas, and prone to being tactlessly honest.  He’s just been elevated to the nobility from the state of bastardy:  his father died and adopted him in his will, making him sole heir to a humongus fortune!  Everyone thinks it’s the perfect match, and she is…so…icily beautiful.  Look at that … at those…  Oh well, that was the fashion of the day.

An amazing piece of fiction, it draws one in immediately.  It’s strange too.  There is no plot, only history.  No real hero, although, I guess Pierre comes close.  War is shown as brutal, stupid, filled with vanity and destruction, but also heroism.  The action cuts back and forth across space like a contemporary film.  The Russian upper crust is depicted as filled with scheming, vain, shallow, money-grubbing twits.  Tolstoy spends much time describing the sad and confusing mental state of several young people aching for love, physical love too, and not understanding the circumstances and conventions surrounding it.  And events move slowly, inevitably towards that dreadful calamity.

* Happy to meet your cleavage.


1812

July 20, 2010

Ségur’s account of the first entry of Napoleon’s troops into Moscow, which they find eerily deserted:

They were exalted by that which is second to virtue only, by glory. Then succeeded melancholy; either from the exhaustion consequent on so many sensations, or the effect of the operation produced by such an immeasurable elevation, and of the seclusion in which we were wandering on that height, whence we beheld immensity, infinity, in which our weakness was lost: for the higher we ascend, the more the horizon expands, and the more conscious we become of our own insignificance.

A powerful but tattered army reaches its prize, the capital city of the Russian Empire.  A pause, a passage of silence. They are at the pinnacle, and from there, the only way is down.

Defeat cover


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