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