Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, February 27, 2017, “some inner disaster”

The above illustration is entitled, “The Cossack Charge,” and is by E.H. Garrett. It is the frontispiece of Volume V of the Works of Lyof Tolstoi, the twenty-four volumes of which I will read this year, God willing.

Which means I have finished Volume IV two days early. I was wrong about Borodino, of course; the Russians won the battle by holding their ground despite losing half of their forces. It was a loss from which the French could not recover. Tolstoy’s description of the battle is, as always incredibly moving and graphic. He has Pierre roaming about from curiosity in the most important place of the battle (which struck this reader as a little farfetched but yet I didn’t care), shows Napoleon trying to digest the bitter loss, and has Prince Andrei wounded and taken to the infirmary where the wounded fill five acres.

Tolstoy writes in his usual Olympian philosophical vein of how this is all preordained, etc., how history is written in hindsight, so that the historians write that Napoleon lost the battle because he had a cold. But Tolstoy insists the causes are so web-like and intricate that there is no one single cause. Everything causes everything.

As I read about the battle I thought of football, how what seems to matter most is the spirit of the team. How, for instance, in the last Super Bowl–but really this is true in any game–when the Patriots got the fumble from Matt Ryan, this, as they say, turned the tide. Momentum swings to the other team. Tolstoy describes the battle of Borodino in the same way.

“He [Kutuzof, the Russian general] listened to the reports brought to him, gave his commands when this was considered necessary by his subordinates; but even while he was listening to what was said to him, he was apparently not interested in the sense of the words so much as in the expression of the faces, in the tone of voice, of those who brought the reports. Long experience in war had taught him, and his years of discretion had made him realize, that it is impossible for one man to direct a hundred thousand men engaged in a death struggle, and he knew that the issue of a battle is determined, not by the plans of the commander-in-chief, not by the place where the troops are stationed, not by the number of the cannon or the multitude of the slain, but by that imponderable force called the spirit of the army; and he made use of this force, and directed it, as far as it was in his power.”

Then a bit later, after examining Napoleon’s dejection and later his written self-justifications–he never wanted war, he wanted to take over Europe to introduce everlasting peace!–the narrator says, “Victory is not that which is signalized by the fastening of certain strips of cloth called flags to poles, nor by the space on which troops have stood or are standing; but victory is moral, when the one side has been persuaded as to the moral superiority of the other and of its own weakness; and such a victory was won by the Russians over the French at Borodino.”

Tolstoy also shows the exhilaration the soldiers feel during battle but also the terror, the confusion, the utter waste of human life. He describes the blood-soaked ground, the groans of the wounded, the man yelling, “Show it to me, show it to me!” and Tolstoy has not said a limb was cut off, but you know from what the soldier screams that that is what has happened. And the irony, especially in the morning, is that it is a beautiful morning, fresh and filled with birdsong and rising mist.

I am feeling very good about having finished Volume IV and can’t wait to tackle Volume V. Looking over the books yesterday, I did wonder how I would feel in the fall when I’ll be reading his didactic work, the religious and aesthetic screeds. I wondered if I would grow rebellious against Tolstoy. I remembered Chesterton writing that to turn from the wonders of Tolstoy’s fiction to the boring sermons was distressing. Well, I guess I’ll have to be distressed, or maybe I won’t be, we’ll see.

Here are some more quotes from A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy.

“Gorky was right to stress that Tolstoy is a ‘whole world’, his bigness stemming partly from the fact that his family had been helping to shape the national destiny since the time of Prince Ryurik, and partly stemming from his own enforced remoteness from his immediate ancestors. For him the process of discovering who he was, and who they were, and what Russia was, were all intimately linked. The ‘world’ which is Tolstoy is, as Gorky said, intensely national, intensely Russian, and yet–to Lenin’s infuriation–supremely individualistic. Too late for one revolution and too soon for the next, his existence is both one of detachment from the fabric of his national history, and a challenge to the society which, all around him, pursued a course so much at variance with the direction which he wanted to take. ‘I could hardly imagine Russia, or my relationship with her, without my Yasnaya Polyana.’ Viewed in some lights, Tolstoy seems like the archetypal Romantic egotist, the ardent reader of Rousseau, whose mind was sufficiently big to enable him to sit out the nineteenth century, unaffected by its changes and chances. In another aspect, however, Tolstoy seems more caught up in the movements of history than any other imaginative artist. The involvement and the detachment were, like everything about him, in a perpetual state of contradiction and struggle.”

“Novelists are frequently men and women who have been compelled, by some inner disaster, to rewrite the past, to refashion their memories to make their existence more interesting or more explicable to themselves. This self-mythologising process had begun in Tolstoy before conscious memory, which is why we can only guess at the truth of what he tells us about his childhood.”

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