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

La Nuit de Varennes

February 20, 2008


Incompetence among the ruling elite is not new to the world with the administration of GWB. No, it is as old as government. [As Milos Forman said in a radio interview yesterday, “Wise authority, I like, but you so rarely get that!] Louis XVI dithered and dallied as the ancien regime collapsed into a molten puddle around him. To flee? Stay put? So hard to tell, to decide! Finally, he agrees to bolt from Paris with his family, and the tale is one of the most lively passages of Carlyle’s history of the revolution.

Nothing went quite right. Why did the king flee in a huge, elaborate carriage with full escort? Why was an escort sent out ahead, exciting and alerting the suspicions of the populace? The carriage was sooo slow, and it left late. The queen had to have her luggage and her waiting maids. The king’s profile was recognized by a wily patriot who checked it against his likeness on a bank note he had, and he sounded the alarm, quietly. That is, he and a companion took horse to follow the wagon train and caught up with it at Varennes where the king was finally taken into custody.

Ettore Scola presented it all wonderfully in his film that has the name of this post, and Harvey Keitel plays Tom Paine, whom Carlyle calls the rebellious Needleman. Even then, when they were discovered and confronted, Carlyle muses that the king, if he had been resolute, if he had called upon the deep reserves of awe for his royal person that were still present in the Patriot People, might have saved himself with a quick and commanding action and left his stunned would-be captors behind. One of those what ifs for the counter-factualists.

But no, Carlyle subscribes to Lichanos’ Iron Law of Causation. He writes:

…did the World’s History depend on an hour, that hour is not to be given. Whereby, indeed, it comes that these same would-have-beens are mostly a vanity; and the World’s History could never in the least be what it would, or might, or should, by any manner of potentiality, but simply and altogether what it is.

…Alas, it was not in the poor phlegmatic man. Had it been in him, French History had never come under this Varennes Archway to decide itself.

It had to happen that way because that’s what happened.

The Masses are Revolting

February 14, 2008


“Sire, come quickly! The peasants are revolting!!” You know that old joke.

Carlyle, my constant companion these days, writes of the black, sulphorous mass beneath all society, slowly rising up, for good or ill. The masses, with their red Phrygian caps of liberty, planting liberty trees everywhere, staging revolutionary spectacles on the Champs de Mars that mix royal pomp, medieval papistry, and carnival.

Gillray pilloried James Fox, yet again, by showing him as a scruffy, farting, bloodied sans cullote (in fact without [knee] breeches, not without pants, but Gillray can’t let such a chance go) shouting Ca Ira!, [It will go well!] loosely translated here:

We’ll string up the aristocrats!
Despotism will die,
Liberty will triumph
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

And we will no longer have nobles or priests
“We will win, we will win, we will win,””
Equality will reign throughout the land

And the Austrian slave will follow it.
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

zenith_gillray.jpg And here is Gillray showing the zenith of the glorious revolution, speaking of stringing up people on the Lanterne as Carlyle refers to the lampost cum lynching post.

Was this the true birth of mass society? The rule of the mass-mob-demos-and consumer? Carlyle devotes a chapter to journalism of the day – it was everywhere:

One Sansculottic bough that cannot fail to flourish is Journalism. The voice of the People being the voice of God, shall not such divine voice make itself heard? To the ends of France… Constant, illuminative, as the nightly lamplighter, issues the useful Moniteur, for it is now become diurnal: with facts and few commentaries; official, safe in the middle…

A daily newspaper! The Moniteur. Faithfully reporting the news so that I, centuries later, sunk in my collegiate ennui, deep down in the third sub-basement of the library, can happen upon its collected numbers, bound, gilt-edged, in tattered leather covers, and turn hopefully to the news of January 21, 1793, and read of the execution by guillotine of Louis Capet. (Where did I put that photocopy?)

And news for all!

Nor esteem it small what those Bill-stickers had to do in Paris: above Three Score of them: all with their crosspoles, haversacks, pastepots; nay with leaden badges, for the Municipality licenses them. A Sacred College, properly of World-rulers’ Heralds, though not respected as such, in an Era still incipient and raw. Such is Journalism, hawked, pasted, spoken. How changed…since the first Venetian News-sheet was sold for a gazza, or farthing, and named Gazette! We live in a fertile world.

Mass journalism, for anyone with half a penny. Posters, placards, propaganda on parade. The satirical prints of the day were more scatalogical than Gillray’s by far! The revolution sought to manage information, to create its record consciously.

And what of Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses? He despised the mass-man, but like Flaubert, did not identify him with an economic strata, but as a type. (Flaubert: I despise the bourgeois in a worker’s smock as well as the one in a top hat!) Could it be that Ortega is writing about the genesis of kitschman?

He felt that history was moved by aristocrats, the Nietzchean supermen, the special ones, but why did he feel that? Because the movement of history was marked by the “progress” in things he valued. What about movement for its own sake? What if history just moves, never progresses? No theory, no subject class, just one darn thing after another. And the mass-men, the sans cullottes, Carlyle’s hero-men, they all play their part.

Diamond’s View

January 31, 2008


Such a changed France have we; and a changed Louis. Changed, truly; and further than thou yet seest!–To the eye of History many things, in that sick-room of Louis, are now visible, which to the Courtiers there present were invisible. For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same! Let the Reader here, in this sick-room of Louis, endeavour to look with the mind too.

from A History of the French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle

Diamond was, according to legend, Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dog, which, by upsetting a candle, set fire to manuscripts containing his notes on experiments conducted over the course of twenty years. According to one account, Newton is said to have exclaimed: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”

from Wikipedia

Goddesses & Reason

January 30, 2008


… a New Religion! Demoiselle Candeille, of the Opera; a woman fair to look upon, when well rouged: she, borne on palanquin shoulder-high… Let the world consider it! This, O National Convention wonder of the universe, is our New Divinity; Goddess of Reason, worthy, and alone worthy of revering. Nay, were it too much to ask of an august National Representation that it also went with us to the ci-devant Cathedral called of Notre-Dame, and executed a few strophes in worship of her?

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;–Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And straightway, Reason taking seat on the high-altar of Notre-Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; … It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion.

But there is one thing we should like almost better to understand than any other: what Reason herself thought of it, all the while. What articulate words poor Mrs. Momoro, for example, uttered; when she had become ungoddessed again, and the Bibliopolist and she sat quiet at home, at supper? For he was an earnest man, Bookseller Momoro; and had notions of Agrarian Law. Mrs. Momoro, it is admitted, made one of the best Goddesses of Reason; though her teeth were a little defective.

from A History of the French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle