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Tolstoy Journal, March 3, 2017, “The conviction that things must be as they are”

I remembered to read some Tolstoy last night and am up to page 30, that is, Chapter III of “Part Eleventh.” I’m not sure if I’ve noted this before but one of Tolstoy’s masterstrokes is that the chapters in War and Peace are fairly short. In this volume there are thirty-four chapters in Part Eleven and nineteen chapters of Part Twelve; that’s fifty-three chapters in a book of 322 pages, which means each chapter is an average of six pages.

Today’s featured image is of my “travel book” A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, which Wilson says got Tolstoy to writing. To be precise, I note, on pulling the book off the shelf, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. It has beguiling back cover copy I want to share, not to fill space (well, maybe, a little) but because it is some of the best back cover copy I’ve ever read.

“Owing, perhaps, to his Irish blood, Laurence Sterne is one of the most engaging buttonholers in literature. He launches into conversation with no story to tell, little plan of narration, and a habit of slipping down every side-turning . . . but there is no getting away from him. A Sentimental Journey began as an account of a tour by coach through France and Italy: it ends as a treasury of dramatic sketches, pathetic and ironic incidents, philosophical musings, reminiscences, and anecdotes. ‘It is perhaps the most bodiless novel ever written’, as Mr Alvarez remarks in his introduction. Nevertheless the studied artlessness of a work which was written by the dying author of Tristram Shandy forestalled by nearly two centuries those modern writers who is some ways resemble him–Joyce, Beckett, and Virginia Woolf.”

Okay, now for some Tolstoy. He begins Part Eleven with one of his discourses on history, the gist of which, as much as I understand it, is that humans finally figured out a way to do science and math using incremental units, but in history they still rely on the study of influential figures, such as Napoleon. What we need to do, Tolstoy argues, is to study history as if it were a science, focusing on incremental units: the weather, culture, geography, language, all the things that go into being human.

“For, studying the laws of history, we must absolutely change the objects of our observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals out of the account, and select for study the homogeneous, infinitesimal elements that regulate the masses. No one can say how far it is given to man to attain by this path an understanding of the laws of history; but evidently on this path only is there any possibility of grasping the laws of history, and the human intellect has not, so far, devoted to this method the one-millionth part of the energies that have been expended by historians in the description of the deeds of individual tsars, colonels, and ministers, and in the elucidation of their combinations, resulting from these deeds.”

I’m not sure I agree with Tolstoy here, but he makes me think about history. I have always tended to think history was the story of individuals who are free to make decisions. But he maintains the leaders are the least free of all. That they are driven by events into making decisions they can’t help but make. Kutuzof wants to order an attack on the French the day after the Battle of Borodino because he knows the Russians have the momentum, but he can’t because of a teeming multitude of factors: half his army has been killed, all his generals disagree about whether and how to fight, etc. The Russian army retreats and then retreats again beyond Moscow, letting the city be burned, and Kutuzof keeps asking himself, “When did I decide this? It makes no sense.” And yet this abandonment and burning of Moscow is what saves Russia.

In the meanwhile, the narrator turns back to Pierre’s wife, Ellen, who has fallen in love with two different men, (well, they have fallen in love with her; she seems capable not of love but only of lust and being admired by men) and wants to divorce Pierre. The Jesuits are called in to convert her, get a few contributions on the way, and dissolve her marriage to Pierre, so she can marry one of her beaus. Catholic Church, of which I am a member, a convert, you are not looking so good here. Tolstoy shows the Orthodox Church as being a more faithful upholder of Christ’s teachings than the Catholic Church. Because the Orthodox priests say, no, it says in Scripture you may not marry another man until your husband dies. Whereas those slippery Catholics say, your marriage doesn’t count since you weren’t married in the true church.

Interesting from a narrative point of view is how this brings the narrator back to Pierre. The last time we saw him was on the field in the Battle of Borodino, but now Tolstoy writes that Ellen’s letter asking him for divorce was delivered to his residence while he was at the battle. So now we’ve been taken back to Pierre. Seamless, seemingly natural, flow of narrative.

Tolstoy says something that is very important in his description of how the Russians abandoned Moscow, and I think it helps understand the Russia of today: “The conviction that things must be as they are has always been and still is inherent in the Russian mind.” They had been convinced Napoleon would come, that the army might be defeated, but the worse thing would have been to live in subjugation to the French, “that was worse than aught else,” although the aristocrats adored France and spoke French better than Russian!

“They fled [Moscow] and gave never a thought to the majestic significance of this splendid and rich capital abandoned by its inhabitants, and unquestionably doomed to be burned (for it is not in the nature of the Russian populace not to sack, not to set fire to empty houses); they fled each for himself; but, at the same time, merely as a consequence of their fleeing, was accomplished that majestic event which will forever remain the crowning glory of the Russian people.”

That is, there is a fatalism in the Russian psyche that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.


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