Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Five

Tolstoy as soldier, 1856
 War And Peace is part story, part history, part math, part science, part philosophy and part religion. Tolstoy rambles quite a bit and that is how he works all this stuff in. Sometimes the story feels secondary to his assertions about history and historians. Since I set out to read a novel I was obviously looking for a story. I also got contention - what is history? It’s not this! It should be that! Tolstoy could have written a treatise on the art of writing history and left out the story altogether; then he could have written a novel about this same time period. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book very much. Many passages resonated with me. He and Dickens share the tendency to write about members of the privileged class coming to appreciate the poor/serfs. (Also, if you're a shipper you are so going to be surprised!)

Book 11 begins with a philosophical study of history and mathematics. To those armchair generals, Tolstoy says –
A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event – the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself…
Isn’t this true of our lives, as well? We never know when a trial or a joy is beginning or ending. We know only what we live moment to moment.
… watching the movement of history, we see that every year and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes; so that what once seemed good, ten years later seems bad, and vice versa.

Tolstoy speaks of death a great deal – well, it is a book about war, but he speaks of it so tenderly that it is obvious he has witnessed the deaths of loved ones. I’m deleting the names in the next passage so as not to spoil it -

Both ______ and _____, who did not leave him, felt this. They did not weep or shudder and during these last days they themselves felt that they were not attending on him (he was no longer there, he had left them) but on what reminded them most closely of him—his body.
Witnessing the illness and death of a loved one is both a terrible and a beautiful thing. It provides perspective. It teaches that all the hurrying and scurrying we do in an attempt to be in control of our lives mean nothing. We cannot forever be kept safe from illness, war, accidents or random violence. None of us is in control. And once we accept this, it’s quite liberating. I see this as one of Tolstoy’s messages, and I concur.

Tolstoy in 1873, four years after the publication of War And Peace

My assertion is that what we take from a book depends upon who we are when we read it. My feelings about War And Peace would have been different if I had read it a decade ago. So to those participating in either Allie’s or Jillian’s read along and struggling with this book to the point of dreading picking it back up, my advice (which, like all advice, should be taken with a grain of salt) is to put it down for now. Try it again in another decade when you’re a different person.

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