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War and Peace 2013: Entry 21--Readings Twenty-One & Twenty-Two

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book IV, Part 2. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers.

"Man's cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man's soul."

By the time Tolstoy has reached Book IV of his sprawling epic, it's hard not to detect a sense that old Leo has given up on writing anything resembling a "novel" and is instead concerned almost solely with writing a philosophical tract about...well...everything. War, history, theology, love, death, etc.--everything that constitutes life as it has been experienced since the dawn of time interests Tolstoy. Except, by and large, his own characters. Part 1 of Book IV is Tolstoy trying to rush as many plots toward their eventual conclusion as he possibly can, while Part 2 is largely composed of either dispatches about the state of the war or Tolstoy's 20-20 hindsight and philosophical musings. Indeed, only Pierre and Andrew's stories really seem to be interesting Tolstoy. Since I've already written at length about Andrew, I'm going to focus on Pierre's experiences in occupied Moscow.

Through Pierre's experiences as a prisoner, Tolstoy is able to explore the terrifying ability humans have to mentally dehumanize the "other." He's addressed this notion earlier in some of the battle scenes, but here, removed from any threat of harm from one party, he's able to show it at its most pernicious and damaging. On a battlefield, orchestrated by those in power, stirred by feelings of national pride, and under fear of attack by the opposing army, the ability to turn one's opponent from a fellow human being into an "other" whose life is, fundamentally, worth less than one's own is, if not a pure good, at least an understandable reaction--and perhaps even a necessary one. Pierre and his fellow prisoners, however, are completely and totally powerless. Still, they are marched to an empty field by men with whom they had been joking just a few hours before. There, with no explanation of what is to happen and almost no thought given for their basic human dignity, many of them are shot, while the others are made to watch.

After this, Pierre establishes for himself something resembling a comfortable life, free from those concerns which had previously bothered him. Having faced death, both in battle and by firing squad, and aided by a fellow prisoner, Platon Karataev, Pierre values his own life and comfort very cheaply. He still shows great concern, however, for his fellow prisoners, and uses his special position with the guards to try to benefit them rather than himself. Very much like Prince Andrew near the end of his life, Pierre is living a liminal existence, wherein he can, it seems, catch glimpses of larger truths and find the comfort that has eluded him until now. Even the forced march he endures as the French abandon Moscow doesn't disturb his newfound state of tranquility and acceptance.

Four readings left--only four and then we'll have completed this most famous of books. I'm already looking toward 2014 and toying with a few ideas as to what will take its place. If you have any ideas, let me know, either on Twitter (@WandP2013) or in the comments.

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