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.

6 Comments:

Blogger Krakovianka said...

But was Tolstoy correct? I'm not a fatalist, and what are the "forces of history" that are so compelling we have no choice but to play a part?

I'm not that far into the book yet. In fact, I'm behind the schedule already, only nearly the end of part 2, book 1. I have yet to see what is going to become of Pierre (or anyone).

And incidentally...why is Alexander of Macedon considered "the Great" for conquering the known world, while Napolean and Hitler are classified as evil for attempting the same thing?

3:36 AM  
Blogger Isabella said...

You raise some great issues, Joe. Tolstoy "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." They're just bit players like the rest in this broad tapestry. Tolstoy does an excellent job of showing the converse too — how the less important personages (I haven't encountered any peasants in W&P yet; I've fallen a bit behind) exert as much influence (or as little) within their spheres as do their leaders.

The forces of history at work behind/around Napoleon are, primarily (I think), the rise of the ideals of the Enlightenment (esp ideas of progress and government; the social contract was referred to in Part 1, I believe) and poor economic conditions. What I wonder (I don't know if Tolstoy addresses this in the epilogues, or elsewhere) is — cannot a man, in his actions and influence, himself be a force of history? I mean, not just anyone in that time and place could pull off what Napoleon did — his own force (charisma, ambition) combined with the external ones. Sure, we all exert our own force on the world around us, but I think Napoleon's was a little stronger than average. (And what about the effect of the Tsar on Rostov? I don't think Bush can do that.)

It seems we can't escape that history is written by the winners. I hope we're becoming better at documenting and preserving history as it happens so that Bush's legacy will be seen with more objectivity — I cringe to think of him on the same level as Napoleon. It's interesting too that when Tolstoy wrote W&P, Napoleonic Wars were already very much history — he had no firsthand knowledge of these events; all his information was filtered through the lens of his own education and upbringing, just as any accounts he read/heard were coloured by their tellers.

I love the bit when Rostov's asked to tell the story of his being wounded (B1,P2,ch7): "He began with the intention of relating everything exactly as it happened, but imperceptibly, unconsciously, and inevitably, he slipped into falsehood." There's what they expect to hear, the tradition of how these things are told, etc. "To tell the truth is very difficult."

Karen: When you say Napoleon is evil, you do so as a product of your culture. I've been trying to establish where he falls on the good–evil spectrum for the last few days. My own attitude has been fairly neutral — undeniably an important historical figure, for both good and bad. However, among the French and francophiles, he's regarded as a hero. What you see depends on where you're standing.

Similarly, Adam Czartoryski makes an appearance in W&P — he had a great reputation among Poles, but Prince Andrei regards him with disdain, an offense to his Russian sensibilities, that someone taken as a political hostage should have such great influence. (If my inferences are correct, this is relevant to Andrei's actions later.)

Pierre turns against Napoleon??!! I'm not there yet, Joe! I came across this in a textbook this morning: "the attempt during the revolution to legitimize children born out of wedlock failed." I wonder if that attempt was part of the appeal to Pierre of revolutionary ideals; when his status isn't relavant to his inheritance, he begins to see those ideals in a different light.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Krakovianka said...

I know I view Napolean as a product of my culture, but that's a view we can't easily shed. I was thinking more along the lines of Alexander is "Great" because he succeeded and won (and conveniently died before his too-big empire began to slip away from him), and Hitler and Napolean ultimately failed, so they are bad or evil, or whatever.

I think it's way too soon to have any kind of historical perspective on Bush. We've had presidents and we've had wars that have all but faded into oblivion. Fifty years from now, we'll have a much better historical perspective on Iraq.

I didn't know Czartoryski would show up! That's cool. The Czartoryski mansion here in Krakow has been converted into a museum, containing mostly the family's private collection of stuff. Come to think of it, there is some Napoleanic memorabilia there....

I don't have a lot of knowledge about Napolean, but I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities, and I'm not terribly keen on the French Revolution right now.

Must catch up with the schedule...

11:14 AM  
Anonymous gina c said...

And when I read about Napoleon's dreams of unifying Europe under one culture, one currency, one legal system, one government, there are some eerie parallels with the current attempts of the Europena Union to do the same thing... was he merely ahead of his time, and it took several more bloody wars to accomplish his dream?

12:28 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

In re: Alexander the Great...

He is most certainly NOT regarded as great (in a good sense) in the lands (Iran, Afghanistan) he captured. They still tell horror stories about him there, I understand -- bogeyman stories! stories to frighten the children! -- and a common myth is that he had horns on his head.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous giles said...

ooh boy. you folks got a few treats in the epilogue. phrases like 'force of history' and 'great' are dissected QUITE thoroughly.

12:02 PM  

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