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War and Peace 2013: Entry 11--Reading Nine

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end 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.

"Though outwardly he continued to live in the same old way, inwardly he began a new life."

What first strikes me about this reading--one of the shorter we'll have this year--is the way that Tolstoy continues to weave thematically linked narrative events together, allowing us to see how his different characters change and evolve with regard to particular qualities. In this case, after a reading largely spent on Pierre's acceptance of Freemasonry, we see several other characters struggling with, displaying, and losing their faith.

We open with a long philosophical exchange between Pierre and Prince Andrew. Andrew, shaken by the death of his wife, is espousing a sort of minimalist, Stoic philosophy. Pierre, full of the zeal of a convert, tries to show him that there is a God and an afterlife and a duty to help one's fellow man. Andrew resists; however, he is struck, as he was at Austerlitz, by the wide, blue, eternal sky that girds the world, and something in him changes. It's impossible to see what it means at this stage, but, unbeknownst even to his friend Pierre, the Andrew who got off the boat isn't the same Andrew who got on the boat. (The fact that they have the discussion while on a raft crossing the river is just a nice bit of symbolism.) We shan't have long to wait to see what sort of changes this epiphany engenders in Andrew, but to say anything would be to spoil those who haven't finished the next reading you. (Due by Sunday!)

Princess Mary, however, is very unlike her brother and doesn't share his cold, rational, minimalist philosophy. For that matter, she is very unlike Pierre, who only found his faith via the Freemasons, who add a rationalist man-centric tinge to Christian teaching. Mary, simply, is a true believer. The "God's folk" that Mary takes in and gives refreshment and rest--itinerant pilgrims who criss-cross the nation visiting various holy sites and reported miracles--they are the people with whom, it seems, Mary truly belongs. If her family obligations were not standing in her way, Mary almost certainly would be wandering the countryside in a monk's cassock, visiting statues of the Blessed Virgin who reportedly were weeping oil. Russia was, before the 1917 Revolution, a deeply religious nation (indeed, the Orthodox Church under Putin has had a resurgence both in popularity and in centrality to governmental life); Princess Mary gives us a window into the sort of Orthodox religion common at the time; of all the main characters, she seems the only one who is not merely religious because it is expected of her, or spiritual in a philosophical sort of way. She is devout because she, at her core, fundamentally believe the Church's teachings offer Truth. Because her faith is so deep, all the travails she has experienced so far have done nothing to dislodge it from her heart.

Nicholas Rostov, on the other hand, has a crisis of faith in this section when he encounters both the ridiculous bureaucracy of the Russian military, and the deplorable conditions in the military hospital. Nicholas' faith, however, is not in some abstract God, or even the God of Princess Mary and her icons; rather, Nicholas has, as we've seen previously, deified the Emperor Alexander. The armistice reached between the two emperors, however, throws Nicholas' whole world into confusion. How could the French be our enemy on Monday and our friends on Tuesday? How can Napoleon be the Antichrist, and then be pinning the Legion of Honor on a random Russian solider? The Emperor Alexander evens walks hand in hand with Napoleon, an act which Nicholas fails to understand. Because he never saw the Emepror's actions in terms of political expediency or external pressures or any of those other hundred things that influence the decisions princes make--essentially, because Nicholas implicitly believed in the Emperor, he finds himself unable to understand how the current alliance could be. In the end, he emerges loudly proclaiming that the Emperor can do no wrong and that, if the Emperor does something, it must, de facto, be correct. Tolstoy very slyly notes, however, that Nicholas' long drunken outburst at the end of the section wasn't really triggered by anything and it reads, to me at least, like someone trying to desperately cling to a belief that the evidence no longer supports because abandoning it would simply be too painful. And so, instead, he calls for "another bottle."

The next reading will find us fast-forwarding roughly two years, into one of the few "peace" sections of this crazy epic, where the fates of the unmarried characters start taking center stage...

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