Monday, July 13, 2009

Leo Tolstoy – ‘War and Peace’ (Vols 3, 4 & Epilogue)

A few years ago a shortened version of War and Peace was published, which amongst other things left out ‘the philosophical elements of the published version’. I had this in mind reading the first half of my edition (Anthony Briggs’ 2005 translation), and kept wondering whether I had got the wrong one by mistake. It was all action, there was no philosophy to be found anywhere. I needn’t have worried, though: the second half is full of it. In ‘the game of war,’

there is no question of one man’s will directing events through his control of soulless machinery, because everything develops from the interplay of infinitely varied and arbitrary twists and turns! (p. 787)

This is the point at the centre of all the ‘philosophical elements’: that one person cannot directly cause any event, and that leaders don’t cause the actions of the people who follow them. Specifically that, contrary to appearances, Napoleon was not the cause of the French advance into Russia in 1812.

The soldiers of the French army set out to slay Russian soldiers at Borodino not because of Napoleon’s orders, but because they wanted to. The whole army, Frenchmen, Italians, Germans and Poles, hungry men dressed in rags and weary from the long campaign, took one look at the army that barred the way to Moscow and came to the conclusion: if the wine was uncorked it had to be drunk. (p. 871)

You can sense the delight Tolstoy takes both in praising the Russians (see the quote on abandoning Moscow, below), and in finding fault with the French. He is proudly nationalistic. Sometimes it almost amounts to taunting:

The Napoleon that comes down to us as the motive behind this movement (just as primitive people saw the figurehead on the prow of a ship as the motive force driving the ship), the Napoleon who was active at this time was like a child in a carriage who pulls on the straps inside and thinks he is doing the driving. (p. 1120)

Discursive, metaphor-happy passages like these pepper the third and fourth volumes, and take up most of the epilogue. Beginning with war and the respective approaches of Napoleon and Russian commander-in-chief Kutusov (Napoleon convinced that he is in total control; Kutusov knowing that he isn’t, and couldn’t be), the argument broadens out into a discussion of human nature and free will, which Tolstoy sees as essential to an individual’s identity, but nonetheless illusory:

Reason gives expression to the laws of necessity. Consciousness gives expression to the essence of free will. (p. 1353)

It is necessity which causes events, not free will. This, he argues, is why people are constantly repeating the same mistakes, and why they are constantly surprised to find themselves doing it. The self-deception is necessary because, as Pierre says:

Once you allow that human life is subject to reason you extinguish any possibility of life. (p. 1261)

Pierre is such a sweetie. After the existential angst of the first half of the book, exercised from within the confines of his exalted social position, he spends much of the second half under the radar, needing to be somehow involved in his country’s struggle. Despite having no military position, he wanders blithely on to the battlefield at Borodino, the final clash with the French before Moscow is taken. He spends it in the heart of the battle, mooching around, trying not to get in the way. Tolstoy’s rhetoric on this battle is insistent, mostly persuasive, but also contradictory. Only once does he say that the Russians lost (p. 1147). The rest of the time he argues that they won, despite the subsequent loss of Moscow. In the book’s most potent metaphor, he describes one billiard ball (the French army) colliding with another (the Russians): the first ball carries on for a short distance after the impact, but its energy is spent. Kutusov’s whole strategy is passive: his energy goes into preventing engagements with the enemy, because he understands how little good they will do. The Muscovites’ abandonment of their city shows the same spirit:

Moscow was not like Berlin, Vienna and other cities that escaped unscathed from the enemy occupation. The difference was that her inhabitants, instead of welcoming the French with the keys of the city and the traditional bread and salt, preferred to walk away. (p. 997)
Let Napoleon wear himself out, we’ll come back when his tantrum is over, is their attitude. This stoicism is not without its risks, though, and Kutusov’s emotion when he finally has proof that Napoleon no longer has any idea what to do, and that Russia is therefore saved, is very moving.

After Borodino Pierre returns to Moscow. Already estranged from Hélène (safe in Petersburg), he slips out from his house at the moment her emissary arrives carrying a request for a divorce, which is also when everyone else who has the means to do it is abandoning Moscow in advance of the French army’s arrival. He stays behind, in hiding, and hatches a plot to assassinate Napoleon. Natasha spots him from her place in the Rostovs’ convoy as they leave, and somehow guesses that this is his purpose. Regardless, he gets sidetracked, saves a child from a burning building, gets arrested by the Russian military then transferred to the French after they have occupied Moscow. Whilst in custody he witnesses an execution at which he believes he too is to die:

Who was it, then, when all was said and done, who was punishing him, killing him, taking his life, Pierre’s life, with all his memories, yearnings, hopes and ideas? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt he knew the answer: no one was.

It was the way of things. A pattern of circumstances. (p. 1070)

The same point, again and again. The action fuels the argument, and the argument lends a purpose to the action. It gets quite circular, in fact, because the purpose the action is given is to demonstrate how purposeless the action is, and how futile it is to attempt to plot the course of history as a historian would do it, with maps of battlefields, biographies of generals, etc. The only way an account of a war can hope to make sense is by taking into account as many ‘arbitrary twists and turns’ as possible: not just the generals but the foot soldiers, not just war but peace. It must also acknowledge how limited its own scope is, that there is much which can’t be explained, which happens with no apparent cause, seeming inevitable only in retrospect. This is War and Peace’s justification of itself. This, and:

The connection between cause and effect has no beginning, and can have no end. (p. 1353)

I think this is why, after a fairly neat finish to volume 4, Tolstoy interjects some more narrative amongst the philosophising of the epilogue: he wants to fray the ending. The sketches of his characters in the decade or so after the main action are wonderful: they carry on as necessity dictates, becoming more domesticated with children and age. Because the reader knows so much of the necessity that has brought them to this point, it is impossible not to be happy for them.

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