Verbal Blather (War and Peace Notes)

I find it to be helpful sometimes to free-write about my essay topics so as to find some solid ground on which to write. War and Peace has been especially difficult for me in this respect, because the novel is not only vast, but slippery; everything changes, no conclusion is final and universal, and the only thing Tolstoy is willing to express didactically with any force is his philosophy of history, which is not what is beautiful about the book. What I would wish to do, were this not a master’s essay, is to do a personal reflection on beautiful images and ideas in the book. But that wouldn’t work as an essay, so I keep oscillating between the thing that most strongly influenced my own thought, which is the way Tolstoy uses epiphanies in time, and how they are ephemeral but also form what kind of people the characters, especially of Andrei and Pierre, are — and Pierre’s revelation of the closeness of the limits of freedom and suffering. So I keep writing a page or so, make an outline, and then delete it, because that wasn’t what I really meant to say.

“Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being that…” seems to be a key thing in the realizations and changes of the characters: it is not so much that their persons are an expression of their philosophy, as might happen more easily in Dostoyevsky, as that their philosophy is putting into words something that’s already important in their person: it’s based not so much upon reason as upon experience and the various states of soul a person undergoes.

Speaking of states of soul, that’s another thing that intrigues me about the way that Tolstoy writes in W&P — “the harder the situation became, the more terrible the future, the more independent of the situation [Pierre] found himself in were the joyful and calming thoughts, memories, and images that came to him” (1061) seems to be a common reaction of characters to physical adversity (I would tend to separate physical and moral suffering in War and Peace, with moral suffering being shown as the more difficult of the two); thus the bullets whistle merrily by in the battles, Prince Andrei charges the enemy and is “very happy,” Pierre considers his time as a prisoner to be some of the best months of his life; characters sometimes alleviate moral suffering with physical harm, as when Natasha poisons herself after the Anatole fiasco, and Pierre stays in occupied Moscow not eating and sleeping in the study of his masonic patron; dying, Prince Andrei experiences suffering and bliss, sometimes almost as the same thing. Is that true of people, do we really tend to be like that? Tolstoy certainly seems to think so, and with greater force than anyone I can remember reading before. As often as not physical suffering seems to cheer people up, though preferably combined with or followed by an awareness of physical life as good in itself, and perhaps relief and a chance to recover, as with Pierre.

How do we live in time? Platon Karataev seems to do so naturally and almost unconsciously, and that is presented as a good thing, as he is presented as “the eternal embodiment of the spirit of simplicity and truth” (972) for Pierre:

Each of [Platon’s] words and each of his acts was the manifestation of an activity he knew nothing about, which was his life. But his life, as he looked at it, had no meaning as a separate life. It had meaning only as part of the whole, which he constantly sensed. His words and acts poured out of him as evenly, necessarily, and immediately as fragrance comes from a flower. He was unable to understand either the value or meaning of a word or act taken separately (974)

When it comes to participating in great events, Tolstoy is even more adamant that trying to do the opposite of Platon — to understand our place in things, to plan for every contingency like the generals, or find links between one’s own fate and Napoleon’s in masonic numerology, is harmful and stupid; even some vague idea of “sacrificing for the cause” through making bandages or flinging oneself against the enemy thoughtlessly, is derided as wasteful foolishness, which when taken to an extreme (and there’s always someone willing to take things to an extreme in war) results in the Mulons (sp?) drowning themselves in order to impress Napoleon, or the people of Moscow stampeding to get a biscuit from the sovereign. It’s better to be like Nicholai, who’s mostly concerned about food, pay, the young man he’s training as an officer, the particular soldiers under his command, and so on, because then one is able to take advantage of circumstances and actually get something accomplished, as when he rode in because his “keen hunter’s eye” told him it was the right moment.

But it’s not that simple, because while Platon’s way of living in such a state that he cannot even remember what he or anyone last said, nor anticipate (or even wish to anticipate) the future is not possible for someone like Prince Andrei; is it even desirable? When I try to characterize Platon I accidentally make him out to be a functional idiot, though he isn’t — he has feelings and beliefs, speaks, does nearly everything tolerably well, loves stories, is warm toward everyone around him, and like everyone has an inner and outer life; his outer life being to embody all that is warm, round, and desirable about the archetypal Russian peasant. But unlike Pierre, Andrei, Marya, and other main characters, his inner life seems foreign and alien, as though his consciousness does not extend in time the way that the others do. Of course, to be fair, he is only in the story for two sections, and then not in any depth. But I get an impression that that’s not coincidental: he cannot and could not be a main character in a book like W&P because by virtue of living in such a simple, lovely, natural way he is something like Rousseau’s savage — that is to say that he’s something good, but less than a man. That was unduly harsh, but it’s a difficulty when a solution is less full than the problem. At the same time I can’t object to the solution. It needn’t be an indictment of a person that they would not make a very good subject for a novel. I could love somebody like Platon, but I do not think that I could understand him.

It seems to be necessary both to accept that which is unconditionally, and to be conscious of it and of oneself. Or if not necessary, then at least necessary for those who are too self-aware to be able to live as Platon does, or as Natasha did as a girl. Just as it is difficult to love both the all and the particular, as Andrei realizes shortly before his death (and chooses love for everything, which in him is death… more on that in a bit), it is likewise difficult to both be in events, and to see those events. Kutizov seems to be able to intuit the shape of the war and the states of his troops, and to partially affect them — or at least to work to make that which is bound to happen from necessity happen in the least wasteful fashion possible. But he cannot quite be in things, and therefore accomplishes, in Tolstoy’s understanding, less than the soldier who actually shoots somebody. Pierre can partially appreciate the great forces moving the French army and himself within it as he leaves Moscow as a prisoner, but only from his position of passively acquiescing to those forces; he cannot act upon them and recognize them at the same time. But that Pierre philosophizes is not lost or useless — well, it’s useless for the purpose of action, but not for the purpose of making Pierre somebody who learns from his life, and become a better, fuller person. And yet, with phrases like the one mentioned above, “he had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being,” that the words one puts on a realization aren’t central to the realization itself. Epiphanies are alterations not so much of one’s philosophy of life as of one’s being — a nearly physical alteration. Prince Andrei’s discovery of the lofty sky at Austerlitz, his depression after the death of his wife, beginning to recover in the presence of Pierre’s enthusiasm… Human souls often tend to react in ways that are counter to the situation at hand, and it’s possible to be joyful everywhere and always. It’s possible and even necessary to be glad of reality — of the person in front of one, that the French who are shooting at one are also people, and not monsters, of the sky and grass… I’m not saying this very well… it’s that these epiphanies of Andrie’s and Pierre’s are not caused by rationality, and do not consist of previously unknown knowledge; they consist of a state of being that manifests itself as understanding.

It’s necessary to live in the world and accept reality, and to truly be in it, participating and present in time, not worrying about masonic numerology and the social pressure to marry or put on a soiree or get some medal. But to participate in life in that way, while it might not be necessary to be always in extreme situations, yet it is also necessary to be open to the world and allow it to affect one. That’s difficult for most people, and so the situations make it impossible to continue as one has:

“They say: misfortunes, sufferings,” said Pierre. “Well, if someone said to me right now, this minute: do you want to remain the way you were before captivity, or live through it all over again? Fro God’s sake, captivity again and horsemeat! Once we’re thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins. As long as there’s life, there’s happiness. There’s much, much still to come.” (1118)

Mmm… I’m tired for now, and this is disordered… I’ll be back later…


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