Friday, July 28, 2006

Meaning and meaninglessness

[Adapted from my scribblings on these subjects on my blog.]

Am having a great deal of trouble figuring out how or where to start. As I started to write this, it seemd I was stringing together quotations more than articulating any useful connections between them, but maybe this is where you can help. I need to spit it all out before I paralyze myself into not writing about anything on this novel at all.

Page references are to the Signet Classic Dunnigan translation (I can cite you a book and chapter on request).

The book begins for me on p 377. That is, really begins — this is where I realize there's more going on than soirées and troop movements.

Prince Andrei is wounded (B1, P3, ch17).
He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the gunner and the Frenchman ended; he wanted to know whether the red-haired artilleryman had been killed or not, and whether the cannons had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was nothing but the sky, the lofty heavens, not clear, yet immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly drifting across them. "How quiet, solemn, and serene, not at all as it was when I was running," thought Prince Andrei, "not like our running, shouting, fighting; not like the gunner and the Frenchman with their distraught, infuriated faces, struggling for the rod; how differently do those clouds float over the lofty infinite heavens! How is it I did not see this sky before? How happy I am to have discovered it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all is delusion, except those infinite heavens. There is nothing but that. And even that does not exist; there is nothing but stillness, peace. Thank God..."

This scene is often cited as being one of the most memorable in W&P. I held my breath for the next few chapters; I shifted with Andrei, in and out of consciousness, between reality and something else. He is before Napoleon, "such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was taking place between his soul and that lofty, infinite sky with the clouds sailing over it."

This bit still puzzles me: What did he see? What did it inspire in him? Not God. He's ill for some time. When he returns, his wife dies with a reproachful look on her face. For 2 or 3 years it seems Andrei is merely going through the motions; he's in a depressive state. Is he mourning (the wife he thought stupid)? Is it posttraumatic stress disorder? Somehow that clarity, that sense of what it all means, translates into inaction, the pointlessness of everything? Russian fatalism? All that is left for him is his son, he thinks, and this does not seem much to him.

There's the oak tree; we pass by it a few times. I love the oak sequences better than the lofty heavens.
A whole new sequence of thoughts, hopeless but ruefully satisfying, rose in Prince Andrei's soul in connection with that oak tree. He considered his life afresh as it were and arrived at the same hopeless but soothing conclusion as before, that it was not for him to begin anything anew, but that he must live out his life harming no one, disturbed by nothing, desiring nothing.

Andrei inspired by the first blush of love finally recognizes the oak for the metaphor it is. "All the finest moments of his life suddenly rose to his mind. Austerlitz with its lofty heavens, the reproachful look on his wife's face in death, Pierre at the ferry, that young girl thrilled by the beauty of the night, and the night itself and the moon — all this suddenly came to his mind." Wait a minute! His wife's reproach, a fine moment?! (Then, "No, life is not over at thirty-one!" Hah!)

So Pierre doesn't believe in God. He meets a Freemason. He starts reading Thomas a Kempis, sent to him anonymously.
One thing, and one thing only, he realized as he read this book: the hitherto unknown joy of believing in the possibility of attaining perfection, and the possibility of an active brotherly love among men.

And about a week later, just like that, Pierre believes in God (p 432). Or he says he does when asked. He actually thinks about it and hesitates before answering, then very quickly reaffirms his position. Is this genuine? A sudden realization? Or does he give this response to gain access to the Brotherhood, for all the other benefits and social good he believes in? Is he fooling himself, or others?

A couple years go by and he is disillusioned. A line I really like (p 527):
"At this meeting Pierre for the first time was struck by the endless variety of men's minds, which prevents a truth from ever appearing the same to any two persons."

And he sinks into a depression (p 529).
It was all the same to him: nothing in life seemed to be a matter of great consequence, and under the influence of the depression that possessed him, he valued neither his liberty nor his determination to punish his wife.

The Russian mentality
What strikes me as evident particularly in Andrei and Pierre, but also Nikolai, is a swaying between extremes. From "Life is meaningless" to "life is full of purpose" and back again, and again, in 60 seconds.

Is this a Russian characteristic? Is this part of Russian fatalism? What is Russian fatalism anyway? Nietzsche said "Against it the invalid has only one great remedy — I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt with which the Russian soldier, when a campaign becomes too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, to take anything, to take anything in — to cease reacting altogether." That phrase — "Russian fatalism" — is usually considered gloomy, depressing, pessimistic. Is it?

All this back and forthing has me thinking about Pythagorean dualism or a dualism of contraries (a subject I don't know a whole lot about, but read some stuff on many, many years ago). Aside from swaying between meaning and meaninglessness, Tolstoy sways also between (obviously) war and peace, big picture and small details, masculine and feminine (on p517 he refers to "the feminine world, society").

From Dictionary of the History of Ideas: "The Pythagoreans taught that all things are composed of contraries: the one and the many, the limited and the unlimited, the odd and the even, right and left, masculine and feminine, rest and motion, the straight line and the curve, light and darkness, good and evil, etc."

I'm not sure what to make of this. My understanding is that Pythagoras blended mathematical principles with the mystical, and it's also my understanding that Tolstoy tries to apply a mathematical calculus to History, and I find this kind of exercise interesting.

Tolstoy said "Neitzsche was stupid and abnormal." In trying to find out a little about this thing called Russian fatalism, I came upon some quotes by Nietzsche, on women, war, truth, etc, and was astounded by how well suited many of them are to summing up the attitudes expressed in War and Peace. I'll probably look into this a bit further myself, but thought I'd ask if anyone knows anything more about their relationship or how their ideas relate.

This bit reminds me of Middlemarch, this idea of tying to be a good person, the betterment of the world depending on unhistoric acts...
He surprised me by asking whether I remembered the threefold aim of the order: (1) The preservation and study of the mystery. (2) The purification and reformation of oneself for its reception, and (3) The improvement of the human race by striving for such purification. Which is the principal aim of these three? Certainly self-reformation and self-purification. Only to this aim can we always strive independently of circumstances. But at the same time just this aim demands the greatest efforts of us; and so, led astray by pride, losing sight of this aim, we occupy ourselves either with the mystery which in our impurity we are unworthy to receive, or seek the reformation of the human race while ourselves setting an example of baseness and profligacy.

Notes to self
There's some references to the dreamlike quality of things (by Pierre, primarily, I thought, but can't find references now). I think Andrei's lofty sky counts. Also, meeting Speransky, then seeing him in a new light, as if for what he really is — somehow separating the essence from the actions, the superficial representation. And Natasha at the opera. Is there something Platonic in all this?

Again, Natasha at the opera is in stark contrast to the other musical moments. She is not technically perfect but sings with "soul," charms everyone. Also, at Uncle's house after the hunt — this is my favourite and the most enchanting episode thus far.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Anybody there?

Just a quick note...

Sorry for keeping so quiet lately. I've been swamped with work, etc. The spare time I've had I've devoted to reading rather than writing about what I've read. I'm pleased to say I've passed the halfway mark, and am finding W&P to be unputdownable.

Anyway, constraints on my time are easing up, and I hope to organize some thoughts for a post or two in the next couple days.

Of course, this shouldn't stop you from saying anything.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tolstoy's bloopers

Is it sacrilege to pick apart War and Peace — "the greatest novel ever written" — on this most superficial of levels?

It started innocently enough: the copyeditor in me notes a discrepancy and dismisses it as a typo. The next point I notice is not something wrong, exactly, but a disconnect between specific words and my sense of events in time — perhaps something unintended was introduced in the translation. But the more it goes, the more I believe Tolstoy had a very poor sense of time; at least he didn't map out a timeline for his characters.

Here are the discrepancies I've found:

1. Anna Pavlovna holds a soirée some July evening, 1805; Pierre leaves the party, visits with Andrei, and steps out into the June night. Typo?

2. Lisa goes into labour March 19, 1806. That previous July evening, we're told she "being pregnant, no longer attended any of the gala evenings," as though it had been going on for some time. How long had she even known she was pregnant? — "soon to become a mother," "bore her burden," "waddling steps"; she's plump and stout even in these early days. Were these references to her condition translated with some exaggeration?

3. Later in the summer of 1805, the Rostovs have a party for Natalya's name day (August 26). Natasha we're told is 13. (Sonya is 15.) When her brother returns in early 1806, she is "smiling as only a happy girl of fifteen can smile" (Sonya is now 16). (Later in 1809 Natasha is 16.)

4. Early in 1806, Rostov returns home on leave. (He'd left sometime after Aug 26.) Twice it's mentioned he'd been away for a year and half. (These bits are intercut with other scenes definitely occurring in 1806.)

5. In November 1805 the deal of Pierre's marriage is sealed, and he's married 6 weeks later. March 3 he's at dinner at the Rostovs and calls Dolokhov out to a duel. Dolokhov's mother: "And if he was so jealous, well, as I see things, then he ought to have shown it sooner, instead of letting it go on for a year."

6. It's the third day of Christmas holidays; Nikolai and Denisov plan to rejoin their regiments after Epiphany (January 6 by our calendar). There's dinner, a ball, a couple days go by, gambling, Denisov leaves, Rostov stays on a couple weeks, then leaves at the end of November.

Of course, none of this diminishes the quality of the work as a whole. Although, in a lesser novel, I might find these discrepancies distracting, evidence of a sloppy mind even, reason to (gasp!) abandon a book (or at least scoff at it).

I believe W&P was published in instalments, which likely accounts for most of these oversights (any insight into 19th-century Russian publishing practices?), but I'm curious whether any of these might be the effects of sloppy translation (are they present in your editions?). Most importantly, I want to know: have you come across any other "bloopers"?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book I, Parts 2&3, in general

I thought a separate post might be in order to open some general discussion on Book I, Parts 2 & 3.

1. So? How's it going? I admit to having fallen behind the schedule this week, but I'm back on track now. Are we going too fast? If you don't speak up we'll never know.

2. How do feel about the war scenes? Do you prefer them over the scenes in society?

3. Can Prince Vasily be any more unpleasant?

4. Nikolai Rostov: coward? What do you make of his love for the Tsar?

5. Tolstoy really dwells on the ugliness of women (or is it just me?).

6. Do you have any favourite quotations or scenes?

State your opinions, ask your questions, gossip!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Napoleon, Bush and Tolstoi

The best way to see Pierre's initial admiration for Napoleon is in the context of the time's politics. Yes, Pierre is naive, like a lot of intellectuals and free thinkers of the time, about Napoleon and what he stood for. Although a lot of what Napoleon represented seemed to be admirable on the surface--an end to kings, establishment of constitutional governments, the end of the power of the Catholic Church--in reality Napoleon tried to effect all this through constant militarism that bled Europe dry for a generation and completely ruined France. When Napoleon took up the cause of Italian or Polish freedom against outside occupiers he seemed enlightened. But Napoleon never liberated a country without becoming the new oppressor--"meet the new boss, same as the old boss," in the words of Pete Townshend.

Pierre's mistaken understanding of Napoleon, shared by Beethoven and many intellectuals and supporters of the Enlightemment, was common. By 1812 most of them (Pierre included for those of you who've read ahead) had turned against him. Tolstoi's view of Bonaparte was neither that he was the savior of Europe nor the Anti-Christ. He thought Napoleon and Tsar Alexander were both pathetic because they didn't realize that they were as caught up by Fate as the lowliest peasant. He thought Napoleon mistaken about his own genius and Alexander mistaken about his own righteousness. Tolstoi believed that most historians were wrong for casting these men as great leaders rather than just tools of the forces of history.

If we put this in the present context: what is the role that history will assign George Bush II in the Iraq debacle? Can any of us, having seen this guy stumble over a speech a sixth grader could slam-dunk, think that Bush II was smart enough to plan and carry out such a historical act? The invasion was a fact of history brought on by many converging forces and mistaken world-views: conservative think tanks, industries looking for contracts, political responses made to cover up incompetence over 9/11, a stolen election in 2000, oil greed, upper echelon officers looking for advancement, diplomatic posturing, etc. To think Bush II had much control over these forces is to be sadly mistaken--or so I think Tolstoi would argue.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Face Of War

Part Two has us in the thick of war. One of my favourite passages occurs when Natasha's brother, Nikolai, faces a rush of Frenchmen after being thrown from his horse:

From the Ann Dunnigan translation:
"He stared at the approaching Frenchmen, and although only a moment before he had been galloping ahead to reach these men and cut them down, their proximity now seemed to him so awful that he could not believe his eyes. "Who are they? Why are they running? Can they be coming to me? Really coming to me? Me whom everyone loves?" He recalled his mother's love for him, the love of his family and his friends, and the intention of the enemy to kill him seemed impossible. "But perhaps--they are not going to kill me!" He stood for more than ten seconds, not moving from the spot, not understanding his position.

The foremost Frenchman, the one with the hooked nose, was now so close that the expression on his face could be seen. And the excited, alien appearance of this man with his bayonet tilted forward, holding his breath and lightly running towad him, frightened Rostov. He grasped his pistol, but instead of firing flung it at the Frenchman and ran with all his might toward the bushes. He ran not with the feeling of doubt and conflict with which he had marched onto the Enns Ridge, but with the feeling of a hare fleeing from the hounds. One single feeling of fear for his young, happy life took possession of his whole being."

For those interested there is an article in the current issue of The Walrus magazine by David Gilmour, called My Life with Tolstoy. It is a memoir and focuses Gilmour's passion for Tolstoy, and particularly War and Peace, over the years.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pierre and Napoleon

I don't know much about history, and I'm assured I don't need to to appreciate War and Peace. There's not many references to historical events in Book I, but enough to sidetrack me and want to know more.

Unless otherwise indicated quoatations are taken from Wikipedia's entry on Napoleon, which compares well with other encyclopedic sources I've checked, and I'm assured by a couple history buffs I consulted that it's fairly accurate, it covers the basics, and it's mostly objective.

Napoleon was serving in the military when the French revolution broke out (1789).

Throughout the 90s, as a general, he became increasingly influential in French politics. He published 3 newspapers, widely circulated within France.

From 1795 to 1799, the Directoire exécutif held executive power in France. Power was shared by 5 directors, chosen by the Council of Ancients from a list elected by the Council of Five Hundred (two parliamentary houses).

Napoleon seized power on November 9, 1799 (or 18 Brumaire on the French Republican calendar).

War and Peace begins in 1805. Genoa and Lucca (city-states) had just been annexed by France.

On the second page Prince Vasily tells us, "They have decided that Bonaparte has burned his boats." This doesn't appear to match a historical event. Perhaps it's meant as a metaphor? Although, it's the sort of thing that Napoleon would do, or that would be attributed to him.

At the beginning of chapter 3, the party is discussing the assasination (see below) of the Duke of Enghien.

I can find no substantiation for the Viscount's anecdote, that the Duke and Bonaparte both enjoyed Mademoiselle George's favours, although Napoleon's association with her is mentioned in the Historic Court Memoirs of France.

Toward the end of chapter 4, Anna Pavlovna's guests gang up on Pierre:
" can you account for a great man who is capable of executing a duke or even an ordinary person, for that matter, without cause and without trial?"
In January 1804, Bonaparte's police uncovered an assassination plot against him, ostensibly sponsored by the Bourbons. In retaliation, Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the Duc d'Enghien, in a violation of the sovereignty of Baden. After a hurried secret trial, the Duke was executed on 21 March. Bonaparte then used this incident to justify the re-creation of a hereditary monarchy in France, with himself as Emperor, on the theory that a Bourbon restoration would be impossible once the Bonapartist succession was entrenched in the constitution.

"I should like to ask Monsiuer how he explains the Eighteenth Brumaire... Was that not a hoax? It was an act of trickery in no way resembling the conduct of a great man."

When Napoleon had returned to Paris in October 1799,
the military situation had improved due to several French victories. The Republic was bankrupt, however, and the corrupt and inefficient Directory was more unpopular with the French public than ever.

Bonaparte was approached by one of the Directors, Sieyès, seeking his support for a coup to overthrow the constitution. The plot included Bonaparte's brother Lucien, then serving as speaker of the Council of Five Hundred, Roger Ducos, another Director, and Talleyrand. On 9 November (18 Brumaire), and the following day, troops led by Bonaparte seized control and dispersed the legislative councils, leaving a rump to name Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Ducos as provisional Consuls to administer the government. Although Sieyès expected to dominate the new regime, he was outmaneuvered by Bonaparte, who drafted the Constitution of the Year VIII and secured his own election as First Consul. This made him the most powerful person in France, a power that was increased by the Constitution of the Year X, which made him First Consul for life.

"And the prisoners he killed in Africa!"
In early 1799 he led the army into the Ottoman province of Syria, now modern Israel, and defeated numerically superior Ottoman forces in several battles, but his army was weakened by disease and poor supplies. He was unable to reduce the fortress of Acre, and was forced to return to Egypt in May. In order to speed up the retreat, Bonaparte took the controversial step of killing prisoners and plague-stricken men along the way. His supporters have argued that this decision was necessary given the continuing harassment of stragglers by Ottoman forces.

Pierre is referred to as a Jacobin. Napoleon supported the Jacobins. "The terms Jacobin and Jacobinism are used as pejoratives for left-wing revolutionary politics."

In chapter 13, Boris finds Pierre imagining himself as Napoleon. "England is done for"..."Pitt, as a traitor to the state and the rights of nations, is condemned to —" I don't understand this. Thanks to Pitt's efforts, Great Britain in April had joined the Third Coalition, an alliance (including Russia and Austria) to fight Napoleon. I suppose this moment says more about Pierre than anything else. Is this just some geekiness, or possibly childishness, coming through? Possibly it shows that his admiration of Napoleon is blind, and his understanding of political events limited (just thinking out loud...)? Or is he a bit of a megalomaniac himself (and how will this play out when he's a count)?

The couple other historical references, I think, can be taken at face value (movement of troops, etc). (If I've missed any references or if you have any insight into the relevance of these events, please share via the comments.)

The instances noted above do, however, add a little to Pierre's characterization. He's never before been received in "society" (having been abroad, and perhaps because he's illegitimate), but now he appears not only as anti-patriotic, but as a Napoleonic sympathizer — seen at the very least as a fool, though quite possibly as a threat, to be siding with a cause that essentially seeks to do away with the very class he is now associating with.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Initial thoughts

I honestly don't know where to start. I feel like the 148 pages of part 1 barely constitute an introduction to characters and events. I'm having trouble picking out anything that is really discussion-worthy. In case you're having similar difficulties, or if you're just shy, I'll try to start some kind of ball rolling here.

A summary of the difficulties I rambled about on my own blog, hoping it would point me in some direction (but no such luck):

1. I'm not loving this book. It's entertaining, and it's certainly not hard, but I'm not captivated (yet?). Anyone else?

2. I've learned quite a bit about the rise of Napoleon. Comments the characters make in passing are sidetracking me. I'm assured that understanding them is not crucial to appreciating the novel — I could skip right over them — but I can't help but want to know. I'll post a few notes on the historical references in days to come, and I welcome any insight from those of you who actually do know something about the Napoleonic Wars.

3. Do your editions have introductions and/or notes? Have you read them? I'm almost wishing I hadn't read the introduction to my book (John Bayley), as I feel my impressions are quite strongly coloured by it.

4. The big question: "What's this novel all about anyway?"

Matt (who's read W&P before) ventured an answer in previous comments: "the meaning of a man's soul - the tension between one's free will and fate; sort of like if you're put into the position, you have decide whether this is really your passion or merely because it's expected of you."

I'd have to agree there are tensions, but don't think I'd call it "fate" just yet. To this point I see the struggle between following one's desires and doing one's social duty. I think that's clearly true for Andrei, Pierre, and Boris.

Andrei, coming to Pierre's defense and in reference to Napoleon, says, "Besides, in the actions of a statesman one must distinguish between his acts as a private person and those as a general or an emperor." (Chapter 4)

Perhaps this is applicable to anyone, statesman or not: distinguishing between acts of free will and those performed in fulfilling a social/political role.

So? How far have you gotten? What do you think so far?