Friday, March 14, 2014

Perception of Tolstoy's History Over Time

    As I skimmed through the Second Epilogue, trying not to get lost in all the repetition of ideas, I found myself not terribly excited about this section of War and Peace. I wasn't surprised by that-for the most part, I found the sections on history more than little tedious. The ideas themselves were not always the problem, but more how they were written and placed in the text as a whole.
    What I keep wondering is how did people react to the sections on history when War and Peace was originally published? The novel itself was fairly popular, but that doesn't mean people were actually reading these lectures on how Tolstoy thought history should be analyzed and perceived. Did people generally enjoy the sections about history or just skim to the more exciting parts? For that matter, does Tolstoy's way of earnestly presenting his thoughts on history add to the novel as a whole or were the various stories and how they unfolded enough to convey the message?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Conceptual Conflicts

In the second epilogue, Tolstoy spends a large amount of time examining the dichotomy between freedom and inevitability. Indeed, Tolstoy claims to have distinguished the "two fundamentals of which man's whole outlook on the universe is constructed--the incomprehensible essence of life, and the laws defining that essence" (1070). Drawing upon Tolstoy's remarks in the epilogue and the events of the novel, natural binaries start to emerge, in correspondence with the aforementioned remark: essence vs. the laws of essence, content vs. form, freedom vs. inevitability, life vs. death (although this seems slightly more tenuous), worldliness vs. other-wordliness, immanence vs. transcendence, and consciousness vs. reason. 

Moreover, the characters of the novel seem to fall neatly into these binaries. After all, Andrew dies, experiencing "an awakening" through a transcendence of the world via death (871), while Pierre finds happiness and freedom in life by learning "to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything" (977). It seems that we could draw similar distinction between Princess Mary, who is described as "a soul burdened by the body," (1038) and Natasha, who devotes herself entirely to her family. As Alosha pointed out in her blog post earlier this week, neither side of the binary, at least as expressed in the contrasts between characters, seems to be objectively better than the other. However, if this is the case, then how do we resolve the apparent conflict between ways of life that seem so diametrically opposed? Tolstoy writes that to really understand human life we must take both freedom and inevitability into account (1071), but does this more fruitful way of looking at human life find embodiment in any of the characters of the novel?

On the topic of binaries: It's an interesting coincidence that the title of the novel itself expresses a dichotomy between two opposing concepts.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pierre's Enlightenment

I find it interesting that Tolstoy characterizes Pierre's newfound happiness as a return to simplicity: "The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one's needs and consequent freedom" (p. 896). Tolstoy contrasts Pierre's total faith in man's ability to achieve happiness in life to Andrew's conclusion that "positive happiness is implanted in us merely to torment us and never be satisfied" (p. 896). Pierre is a "feeling" character. Tolstoy implies that those who are too analytical or intellectual will not find joy in life; however, joy is not necessarily the aim of life for every man. I do not believe that Andrew is an inferior character because he achieved self-actualization in death rather than in life. Pierre possesses a disposition towards emotionality and nature while Andrew is more rational and thoughtful but neither is implicitly superior. 

Pierre's enlightenment also immunizes him to the mob mentality that controls the French officers. I find it interesting that while Pierre is a very impressionable character he is able to recognize that a "mysterious force" (p. 898) causes them to act without agency. For the first time in his life, Pierre acts of his own free will. His ability to distinguish when others are not exercising their free will is indicative of the enormous growth he undergoes as a character. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"There it is!... It again!..."

In Book 13, as the French are moving out and taking the prisoners with them, Pierre notices the "it" come back. The narrator explains "it" as "that mysterious callous force which compelled people against their will to kill their fellow men" (897). I was very intrigued by the way Pierre sees this in the previously friendly French faces and understands that they are no longer the same men that can be reasoned with. Also of note is the role of drums in the scene. The drums act as a cue to Pierre that the "it" is there again. (It would be interesting to follow up and see where else drums come up.) To me, a pacifist, this scene gives me the room to believe Tolstoy had criticisms of waging war. War, besides the destruction it has caused Russia and the lives that have been sacrificed, changes individuals in way I do not think we've really seen. After World War I, the U.S. really saw what war did to humanity and those that witnessed it through the "Lost Generation." Yet, in War and Peace, I don't feel like we've really seen anyone in shell-shock other than when experiencing moments of cowardice. We've also seen another small hint that Tolstoy may have been against war (or at least understood its effects on an individual level) when he has Rostov recognize a Frenchman as homely. I think that as a class, we have discussed and understood Tolstoy's belief that war is not scientific nor affected by individuals. However, I'd love for us to discuss how Tolstoy feels about war given what it does to the individual. For example, this "it" will be seen again by the world in World War II. Tolstoy very accurately describes humanity's tendency to obedience and conformity as psychologists have seen through various experiments after WWII. These men are being driven by a will to commit atrocities that they would find impossible to commit outside of war. Thus, my question posed to the class, how does Tolstoy feel about war?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

War as Related by the Narrator

Once again at the beginning on Book 13 we see the narrator pontificating about the insignificance of individuals in the face of larger historical laws. However, this section immediately follows Pierre's close encounter with death and the death of Andrew. Do these individuals really count for nothing?

The theme of universality seems to carry over, as Andrew accepts the unearthly love of death just as humans should accept the inevitability of the tides of history. I am continually baffled by the narration of War and Peace, as the intricate details of a few characters are painstakingly told, then immediately followed by philosophical ruminations on the inconsequentiality of humankind.

Does this juxtaposition echo Tolstoy's own uncertainty about the meaning of life? Are readers supposed to choose either individuality or universality as the take-away of the "novel"?  

How do we relate to writing?

As I am reading War and Peace the second time, many of the motifs and themes that had escaped me the first time are becoming more apparent, I start to notice more aspects of the personality of characters and it is a very interesting experience.

I know that most of the rest of the people in our class are having their first experience with War and Peace and potentially with Tolstoy as well. The question that our conversation in class on Monday brought to me was - how do we engage with the characters we see? What makes us see good or evil in one or another and why do we like some better than others? Obviously, some of them do really good deeds, others not so much, some are just oblivious to the unhappiness they cause. Yet, in my previous class on War and Peace, there was someone who really liked Dolokhov and kept insisting that he is a good guy ( and as Rostov discovered, he does have a family that he loves very much) and now Cynthia brings up a very good point about Helene's honesty about her manipulative nature which could redeem her.

It is very interesting to me how much of ourselves we allow into our readings. Like I mentioned in class, Natasha seemed like a charming ideal of femininity to me (although I didn't love her) and I was obsessed with Andrew, with his calm and composed nature and his ability to anchor other characters and learn from his experiences. This time around I respect Mary so much more than I did the first time, I find it hard to relate to Natasha's exuberance anymore and Andrew, although still appealing, has lost his capacity to awe me. I was a first-semester first-year when I first read War and Peace and I definitely grew up since then. Thus, is the way I relate to characters now a result of my growth or a result of being able to re-read the book and noticing the details I couldn't see the first time?

My question for all of you is - do you think that upon reading the book a second time you would empathize with the same characters or change? And if you think you would change your minds, would that be a result of your own change?

For instance, just to change the frame a little bit - imagine reading Family Happiness as a happily married individual 20 years from now. Imagine reading it as a recently divorced individual. Although Family Happiness is not an accurate description of modern life - could it maybe have a different meaning for you in different contexts?