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War and Peace 2013: Entry 8--Reading Six

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book One. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.

Apologies for being late with this update. If you feel betrayed by my delay, just look at it this way--now you can look forward to another post within a week!

"How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last!"--Prince Andrew

And so it begins. You may not have noticed it (actually, you probably did), but this reading marks Tolstoy's first all-out salvo against the "Great Man Theory" of history--which, while heavily out of favor among actual historians, is still largely how history is taught to children, at least here in the States. Great Men such as Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, Lee, etc., etc. bestride the earth like colossi, shaping and defining their times. Indeed, it is when we talk about wars--where the temptation to make everything essentially a giant game of Risk is strong--that the Great Man Theory often seems, well, right. With time and distance, battles can look purely like conflagrations of forces controlled by generals and emperors.

Tolstoy, however, removes the time and distance from the Battle of Austerlitz--one of the most discussed and analyzed in human history--and shows us how ridiculous it is to try to construct a battle as if it were a piece of machinery and how, once the battle is joined, everything will be determined by the hundreds of thousands of individual actions taken by the soldiers on the field of war. The Council of War, with the sleeping Kutuzov, is essentially a comic scene showing the ridiculousness of everything that's happening. The people who seem to understand something of the truth aren't being heard and the people who were speaking weren't being listened to. Only Prince Andrew seems aware that this is no way to run a war--and yet he never gets the chance to speak. Kutuzov silences him, essentially saying, "This is the way it is, and fighting against it will do no good."

Perhaps the most telling moment in this regard, for me at least, was Kutuzov's comment to Andrew when his column was suddenly attacked by the French. Andrew rushes to Kutuzov's aid, after the General is slightly wounded, and instead of being concerned with his physical wound, Kutozov shouts that his wound is not on his cheek, but on the field: the fleeing soldiers who, instead of behaving like automata for generals and emperors to wind up and set into battle with each other, are acting like individual human beings. That is where you must staunch the bleeding--with the individual men on the field, not with the general who, in the grand scheme of things, may not actually be more important than any of them.

Which brings us to Andrew's moment of glory. And I think it is a truly glorious moment; as a reader, it is Prince Andrew at Austerlitz, more than almost anything else that happens in the entire book, that has stuck with me all these years. From his scream "piercing as a child's" of "Forward, lads!" right through until the pronouncement by Napoleon's doctor that he "will not recover," Prince Andrew at Austerlitz is the heart of this book for me. Some of that, of course, is with the benefit of hindsight, but I do think Tolstoy deliberately sets Andrew up as a sort of hero figure only to send him on a very different journey.

Prince Andrew, lying, possibly fatally wounded, staring up at the all-covering sky, suddenly understands how meaningless it all is. At least, how meaningless are the things we give meaning to. There is a truth out there, something ineffable and just beyond our understanding, that is real and has meaning--but Andrew cannot quite grasp it. But he knows that all of our petty human concerns are empty and of no consequence. He has gone, believably and completely understandably, in the space of a few short pages, from an ambitious young man who idolizes Napoleon and wants to achieve the same kind of glory for himself to...well, it's hard to describe, but something like a philosopher or mystic. And it's no coincidence that this all happens when Andrew "discovers" the sky. The sky is, arguably, the first unknowable thing man encounters--that's why we ascribe to it so many meanings. Through Andrew's eyes, Tolstoy is replaying the impulse that leads nearly all mythologies to share two principles: the Earth Mother and the Sky Father. With his back on the Earth, and his face staring up at the sky, Andrew, for the first time in his life, sees what he perceives to be Truth.

There's so much more to talk about here--Nicholas' love for the Emperor, the brief scene with Dolokhov and the ice breaking (based on a (possibly?) real event--and highly reminiscent to me of this scene from Thucydides), the oddly placed chapter of Boris attempting to get ahead in the world--but I'm going to cut it short here since I'm already behind. Don't forget you can follow the blog at @WandP2013 and find posts about it on Twitter using the hashtag #WandP2013.

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