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War and Peace 2013: Entry 14--Reading Fourteen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book III, Part 1, Chapter 15. 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.

"A king is history's slave."

A month late, but finally, here we are, at the point in War and Peace where chapters go by on end without any of our main characters appearing, or without even the broader historical context being moved forward. Instead, we have Tolstoy the philosopher of history, espousing his theory that, as mentioned above, we are all bound to history, none moreso than the king.

In a way, it's a pity that he presents the abstract formulation of his ideas so clunkily--he is not at his best when writing philosophical essays, it must be said--as, when he presents his ideas in the context of the story he is telling, his ideas have a great power. It's not an overstatement to say that the French Invasion of 1812, which takes up much of the rest of the narrative, was the defining event of the 19th century for Russia, and, to a lesser extent, for Europe as a whole. Tolstoy is clearly fascinated by it, and I think War and Peace is his attempt at explaining it--not just the what or the when, but the why. Why did Napoleon lead the largest and arguably most successful military force ever assembled--his Grand Armee--on what is, from the viewpoint of history, a doomed excursion?

Tolstoy's answer is simple--essentially, Napoleon didn't lead anyone anywhere. Neither did Emperor Alexander rally his nation to repel the invading army. Rather, as Tolstoy argues in the philosophical digression chapters that begin here and only become more central as the book continues, history is composed of the infinite choices of infinite people, stretching back to eternity. A direction comparison can be made to the Newtonian revolution in physics where, through the power of a new mathematics--the calculus (a word we'll come back to)--Newton, for the first time, could make the claim that, understanding the component forces, he could predict the motions of every object in the universe until the end of time itself. In Tolstoy's postulation, we are just like a cannonball being sent along a trajectory, acted up by forces and acting upon things in ways that we'll never understand. Rather, only a third person observer, such as Tolstoy himself, can trace our trajectories and begin to explain them, but even he is unable to take into account all of the various factors for all of the people who took part in the war.

If you made it through that last paragraph, good for you, as I barely made it through writing it. What Tolstoy is getting at is much clearer when illustrated with examples, which, as a novelist, he is uniquely qualified to present. Both Price Andrew and Count Nicholas essentially act out Tolstoy's theories, albeit it from different ends of the spectrum, as they have before.

First, we have Prince Andrew who, returned to his post-Austerlitz despondency following the collapse of his engagement, has returned to military service. Due to his previous service, especially his time at court as a reformer, Andrew is immediately attached to the highest circles, which gives Tolstoy, via Andrew, a chance to look at the important players and, one by one, expose them for being foolish, naive, and generally ignorant. This is most acutely done regarding Pfuel, who, like the Prussian generals we saw earlier, wishes to reduce military decisions to a simple matter of science. Tolstoy even accuses him of ignoring inconvenient details if they don't fit his theory--the theory is all. However, he is not the only one condemned. In turn, Andrew assesses them all and determines that none of them understand what battle and war and fighting are really like. The generals and theorists here are analogous to the historians, who think they can understand history by their theories; Andrew, however, understands that a million tiny actions create what we call history and that anyone who tries to interpret it from the top down, as these generals are doing, is doomed to failure. As such, he asks to serve at the front--better to live history, it seems, than to argue about it.

Nicholas, on the other hand, represents history as it's truly lived--from the battlefield and the individual upwards. His charge against the dragoons, leading his squad of men in a sortie that leads to the defeat of the dragoons and the capture of several of their officers--one of whom, memorably and heartbreakingly, pleads with his young face and blue eyes and dimple, telling Nicholas that he surrenders--is triggered by the thought of a moment, and takes but a few minutes from start to finish. Even before it's completed, Nicholas has already begun to wonder what drove him to it, what set of forces brought him and the young French dragoon to that place and time where Nicholas held a complete strangers life in his hands--to what end?

These ideas will come back again and again, and Tolstoy will expound on his ideas at more length as we proceed. It's roughly at this point that the book ceases to become the novel and becomes, well, War and Peace, a frustrating, brilliant, absurd, heartbreaking, challenging, and profound book, essentially unique in the history of the world. Up next--the war comes home.

Don't forget, you can follow updates and ask questions on @WandP2013 on Twitter. #WandP2013

   

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