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War and Peace 2013: Entry 19--Reading Twenty

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

"'But all that is only life's setting, the real thing is love -- love! Am I not right, Monsieur Pierre?'"

The French officer whose life Pierre instinctively saved was talking about love of a fairly earthly sort when he made his comment, but it nevertheless seems to me to be the central truth of this massive, amazing, insane, crazy-making book. All that--the war, the intrigues, the money, the pride, everything--all that is only life's setting: the real thing, for Tolstoy, is love.

Of course, Princess Mary, arguably, has known this all along, but her life is so miserable in so many ways that it's easy to overlook her almost slavish devotion, or to see it as some sort of proto-Stockholm Syndrome at work. However, as he drifts in and out of consciousness, (possibly) mortally wounded, her brother, Andrew, has discovered the vast, mysterious power that has nourished her all these years. That divine love which, he claims, is the "essence of the soul" and which "requires no object"--that love is what he finally grasps. He doesn't understand it, however--but he feels it and knows it. The rational Andrew is still there, still searching out for an explanation for how the feeling he felt when he loved his dying enemy connects to what traditional theology has taught him, but he no longer questions its existence. Much like the over-arching sky which comforted him and made him feel something larger than himself when he was wounded earlier, this love is now, for Andrew, an all-encompassing fact of existence.

In addition to changing his feelings about Anatole, this divine love allows Andrew to forgive Natasha and bear her no ill will. As Tolstoy writes, Andrew had never loved and hated anyone as much as Natasha, but the love which he bore her now did not find its opposite in hatred. It was not conditional on behavior, and it in now way would lead to romance. Andrew knows this, and Natasha seems implicitly to be aware that the nature of her relationship to Prince Andrew had fundamentally changed, as neither she nor he ever speak of the possibility of resuming their engagement should be recover. Her family, however, seem to hope that Andrew, should he recover, would once again be willing to marry Natasha. What Natasha and Andrew share now, however, is not the passion they shared earlier--and Andrew's liminal state does raise the question of whether this "divine love" is compatible with romantic attachment. Certainly for Princess Mary, the two have tended not to co-exist. So far...

It is not merely members of the Bolkonsky family who experience this feeling, however. The divine love, I'd argue, manifests itself several times during Pierre's mad quest to assassinate Napoleon. While it is arguable that he saves the little girl from the fire out of some sense of noblesse oblige or fellow feeling, his earlier efforts to save the French officer cannot be so easily explained away. This man is Pierre's enemy, essentially. Indeed, this man has not only invaded Russia, along with several hundred thousand of his countrymen, but he's invaded the country's most sacred city--Mother Moscow--and he is now invading the house of Pierre's mentor and spiritual guide. Pierre would, by most moral and ethical standards, be perfectly justified in allowing the drunken relative to shoot him. However, Pierre, acting on impulse because of a recognition of shared humanity, despite the current state of war existing between them, saves the Frenchman's life.

Throughout his life, Tolstoy moved slowly and inexorably toward a state of pure and absolute pacifism, and spread a sort of new Gospel which influenced the 20th century thinkers and statesmen who followed him in profound ways. Of course, he wrote at great length in his later years about his philosophy, its connection to religion, its political applications, etc. However, at risk of oversimplifying, I would argue that, at its core, his entire thought, his most fundamental message is the one expressed above: "[A]ll that is only life's setting, the real thing is love -- love!"

Only six more readings remain! There's still time to follow the Twitter feed @WandP2013 #WandP2013. And yes, it will regenerate come the new year. (Perhaps @HistofDrama2014?)

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