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War and Peace 2013: Entry 10--Reading Eight

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Chapter 10 of Part 2 of Book II. 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.

While April 2013 has been one of the best months I've ever had in some ways, it had some major drawbacks: it left me precious little time for writing, for one. So, apologies for the lateness of this post. Also, in the spirit of being both a day (fine 14 days) late and a dollar short, it's going to a somewhat abbreviated post--I hope you'll forgive.

"...obedience--which did not seem to [Pierre] a virtue, but a joy. (He now felt so glad to be free from his own lawlessness and to submit his will to those who knew the indubitable truth.)"

This reading saw many moments that frequently stick out as particularly memorable to readers of War and Peace long after many other elements of the story are forgotten: Denisov's mazurka, Nicholas' disastrous gambling session with the spiteful Dolokhov, and Pierre's sudden and almost immediate acceptance of the Freemason's philosophy. Obviously, these are all disparate events with different incitements and ramifications, but they all get at, in to varying degrees, a similar notion of voluntarily relinquishing ones will to someone else.

Natasha is described as being almost completely overcome by Denisov's energy as they dance and, rather literally, just going along for the ride. (As a dancer, I can say that this is often the case in partner dancing where one partner leads and the other follows. In a quickly paced dance, in particular, two of the chief virtues for followers are lightness of step and the ability to hang on for dear life.) This is the first of the three incidents in this reading, and it's least melodramatic and the most mundane, but because of that, I think it encourages the reader to start thinking about being overcome by forces more powerful than ourselves, a theme that we've seen Tolstoy come back to repeatedly so far.

Nicholas' tragic encounter with Dolokhov is, of course, a much darker presentation of a similar impulse. Here, it's almost as if Nicholas feels unworthy of all the joy and happiness he has in his life, and so he allows Dolokhov to have his bitter revenge. As he sinks deeper and deeper into debt to Dolokhov, who is playing with him as a cat does its prey, Nicholas knows that he should just stop, that's he gone too far and that to come back is almost impossible--but he doesn't. Nicholas continues, allowing Dolokhov to completely dictate the terms of his "revenge" for being refused by Sonya out of her love for Nicholas. It's as if Nicholas needed a way to fall from grace in Sonya and his family's eyes, and when Dolokhov presented him with an opportunity, he seized upon it and submitted his will to Dolokhov's.

The last instance is, of course, of Pierre in the way station. Through sheer chance, he finds himself in the waiting area with one of the nation's foremost Freemasons, who recognizes the very famous, very wealthy, and very unhappy Count Buzukhov and sees in him a prime target for conversion to the cause. Indeed, Pierre completely allows himself to be overtaken by Bazdeev and the Freemason's message, of which, as the quotation above shows, the most attractive element is "obedience." Pierre has shown himself willing to be carried along on currents before, and here, again, he is surrendering his will to an external force. Tolstoy very intelligently undercuts the solemnity of the conversion ceremony with various asides and incorrect applications of secret rites, revealing that, at its core, the Freemasons are no more amazing and mysterious than the Moose Lodge or the Eagles. Pierre, however, allows himself to be carried away on the tide of good feeling--even if he quickly begins to run into obstacles in implementing the teachings of Freemasonry.

All of this chatter about subjection of the will and lack of control, of course, is playing into several of the book's larger themes, most notably our old friend the philosophy of history. Is history composed of great men and women making bold strokes that reverberate through the ages? Or is it more created by a world-spirit that moves through all of us, forcing us to do its will, like Natasha and Nicholas and Pierre? Or, is it something else all together? Don't worry--we'll get there in the end. Literally.

Next time--by which I mean quite shortly, as this post should be followed by a second withing a few days--we'll see how Pierre's new-found spirituality plays with his old friend Prince Andrew...

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