Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, January 30, 2017

Well, I had planned on reading all of Volume II yesterday but this refugee order blew up and I spent the rest of the day on Twitter. But I did get to page 108 and am in the battle of Austerlitz and I’ve got a bad feeling.

I very much feel discouraged at going on, though; of doing any writing in the face of what is a fascist movement within the executive branch. I never thought I would say that because I was a Buckley type conservative in the 70s and 80s, but this is just too much. But my political views are both written of in my archives in links to the Dublin Review of Books: here they are Becoming a Conservative and After. And here: The Bully

But as I have felt this helplessness, I have also remembered C. S. Lewis’s argument in “Learning in War-Time,” which I cannot find right now, but in which he writes (if memory serves) that we should, if it’s our calling, go on learning in the midst of war time–and that is what it feels like now–because we are fighting for civilization, for the right to seek truth no matter where it leads us, for culture.

And so I will go on writing about and reading Tolstoy and reading and reviewing books and working on a memoir.

What I remember most from the passages I read yesterday is how Tolstoy conveys the sense of clockwork movement that takes over the armies as they prepare for battle, which, in a way, reminds me of the same kind of movement of Pierre toward a marriage he dreads and knows won’t work. That sense that fate has taken over and we are helpless and must go along with what’s going on. I’m just speculating here but I know Pierre is partly a self-portrayal on Tolstoy’s part and that makes me wonder if the helplessness Pierre feels is something Tolstoy often felt and that that translates or shows up in his theory of history in which people are the pawns of fate.

Here is the passage about the clockwork movements of war. From page 89 of Volume II:

“As in the mechanism of the clock, so in the mechanism of this military movement; no less irresistible they move even to the last resultant, when once the impulse is given and just as impassively immovable, up to the moment when the movement is started, are the parts of the mechanisms as yet unstirred by their work. The wheels whizz on their axles, the cogs catch, the revolving sheaves hiss in their rapid motion, but the next wheel is as yet as calm and immovable as if it had before it a century to remain in immobility; and then its moment comes, the cog has caught, and becoming subject to the motion the wheel begins to whir as it revolves and takes part in an activity, the results and aim of which are incomprehensible to it.

“Just as in the clock, the result of the complicated motions of numberless and different wheels and pulleys is merely to move the hands slowly and in measured rhythm so as to tell the time, so the result of all the complicated human motions of these one hundred and sixty thousand Russians and French–all the passions, desires, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, transports of pride, panic, enthusiasm of all these men was merely the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, called the Battle of the Three Emperors,–in other words, the measured forward motion of the hand of universal history on the dial of humanity.”

I feel sometimes this same helplessness in the face of Trump and Company, as if there is nothing we can do, that we are caught up in some kind of current or swing of the pendulum. But yet, I have to do what I can do. We all have to. Individuals do matter, contrary to what Tolstoy says here. If Donald Trump had been stood up to by Paul Ryan and others at the right time, he might have been nipped in the bud and his not being president would make an incredible difference. Tolstoy seems to say no one person makes the difference, but I have not read his entire theory so I will wait and see.


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