Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What if.. Nahhh, Better Not Go There.

I recently found myself mourning the loss of Prince Andrew. In my depressed state of mind I thought of an irrational and just as bad alternative I wish would have happened instead: what if Pierre would have died instead of Andrew? When this idea popped into my mind I was at the bargaining stage of grief, and as soon as it passed I realized that was a stupid idea. As much as I feel emotionally attached to Andrew, I love Pierre too and the novel would not be the same without him. I realized my "what if" would never work because Andrew has completed his journey while Pierre has not. What do I mean by this? Andrew led good life. While he and Natasha never ended up married (insert sobbing), he had a pretty fulfilled life, and in the end he figured out where his place was (i.e. actually on the battlefield instead of in a high-ranking position and discovering a divine love over the worldly love he previously experienced). If one of the main characters had to rip our hearts out, it is better Andrew dies than Pierre because the latter has so much to learn still. Pierre has yet to discover what his purpose in life is or even to hold a single purpose for longer than a few weeks. I think his own foolishness might save Pierre from being killed off in the novel because he has yet to discover what the heck he is doing, and it certainly would not be a fulfilling ending if he died without discovering so! What do you think?

Why is War and Peace so long?

Tolstoy had A LOT to say and concise writing was not the dominant form of the time.

Well, okay, while I don't refute that those two reasons are pretty valid, I've been thinking about this question for some time and I'd like to offer another response.

When people ask me about War and Peace, the only somewhat suitable phrase I can come up with to describe War and Peace is "a slice of life." Tolstoy isn't telling us a 1200 page story or writing a purely philosophical discourse. What stands out about War and Peace to me from other books is that we, the readers, get to know the character's and their world similar to how we get to know people and our world in real life. To meaningfully accomplish that method of writing Tolstoy certainly needs 1200 pages. For many details in War and Peace you could argue that they are unimportant, which is in part a valid argument. If Tolstoy was writing in a style where he wished to explicitly describe each character and drive the story forward without "distraction," then I'm sure many details would be unnecessary. I think, however, that Tolstoy is attempting to draw us into the book slowly but surely by revealing characters to us the way we meet people in our own life. We get to know people around us simply by the sum of all their little actions and their conversations with us and those around them. That is how we begin to get to know characters in War and Peace; however, as we are accustomed to reading a different style of writing, we desperately want to know exactly how old the character's are, exactly where Pierre studied abroad, and what drives a character to act a certain way at a soiree. Much as in real life, we are left to just continue observing a character's actions and thoughts. One example that struck me is when Andrew has an epiphany, that something has changed in him is obvious, but we are not told what this epiphany is. This seems reflective of in real life when we can tell that something in someone has changed, but rarely would we be told in an all too explicit sentence what their "epiphany" was. While one could probably write a quite sufficient 15 page essay on Prince Andrew's character, the effect would not be the same as getting to know him the way we do in War and Peace. Those seemingly unimportant snippets of character's lives are important simply because of their "unimportance;" we get to know people by endlessly sifting through thousands of minute interactions.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Locked Up & in Need of HOPE

Pierre is going through a major identity crisis. He was uncertain of who he was from the beginning of the novel when he was introduced as the “awkward” and “illegitimate child.” He is an outcast from his physically awkward attributes to his sincerity that distinguishes him from the fake Russian aristocracy. He’s simply an outsider.

Furthermore, when he’s taken as a prisoner, he is traumatized by the unjustified executions and even more depressed then before. He then refuses to tell the French officers his true identity and it can be inferred that he is still uncertain of who he is. Pierre is need of hope!

Enter Platon Karataev, the saintliest peasant ever! Platon Karataev makes an important appearance in Book Twelve. Tolstoy presents him as an optimistic, kind Russian peasant who lives in the moment, forgetful of the past (he cannot even remember what he said a few minutes earlier!), and oblivious of the future. He quotes Russian proverbs at key moments, talks to the dog, and is pretty cheery. Pierre likes Platon's sincerity and enjoys his company.

What is your opinion of Platon Karataev? Knowing of Pierre’s sudden urges to pursue new ideas, do you think he will be influenced by Platon and have some kind of epiphany? 

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Sudden Burst of Feminism

When Natasha is finally reunited with Andrew as they leave Moscow, the narrator tells us that, "Natasha never left the wounded Bolkonsky, and the doctor had to admit that he had not expected from a young girl either such firmness or such skill in nursing a wounded man" (819). This passage struck me in particular because it didn't match the usual way Tolstoy depicted women. In the past, we have seen the women of the story as completely separate from the war, and unable to be of use during it. However, we now have a description of Natasha that says she is not only willing but effective at nursing Andrew. As late as this change is, do you think it betokens a new role for the women of the story as not merely ornamental, but also useful? The sudden burst of feminism seems out of place for Tolstoy, and I wonder if it will continue throughout the novel, or disappear when Andrew regains his health.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

People are animals too!

Tolstoy has compared his characters to animals many times throughout War and Peace. Lise's upper lip is described as having a "squirrel-like expression" (Tolstoy 22), and Sonya is frequently alluded to as a kitten or cat. Though it could be argued Tolstoy gives these ridiculous descriptions to make characters more memorable, I would argue that Tolstoy truly sees humans as having characteristics of animals. Animals can also be seen as spontaneous and thoughtless at times (not to bash on animal rights activists), and Tolstoy seems to promote the belief that although humans are capable of complex thinking, we still have animal instincts. Don't get me wrong, we're not savage wild beasts all the time; however, in many of the war scenes in the novel, men are portrayed as making rash and savage decisions.

I did not make the connection between Tolstoy's portrayal of large groups of people and animals until Book Eleven when Tolstoy compares Moscow to a dying bee hive. He describes in great detail what the bees do in the dying hive, "languidly fighting, or cleaning themselves, or feeding one another" (Tolstoy 778), and then goes on to describe the men in Moscow doing the same. Many men are fighting for stupid reasons, and stealing food.

Tolstoy's parallel between animals and humans aligns with his belief in each individual's incomprehensible motives. As I have mentioned before, a major theme in War and Peace is irrational decisions such as Andrew's decision to marry Natasha based on her approaching her cousin before Mademoiselle Bourienne, or Pierre playing a game of patience to decide his future in the army. Tolstoy might explain these irrational decisions by the animal side of the human psyche. Humans and animals are all subject to innate desires that cannot be controlled. Although humans have advanced far enough to understand mathematics and plan wars, we still have internal desires similar to our furry friends.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Great men don't exist?

    Tolstoy is the God in War and Peace.  He has opinions on everything and always finds strong evidence to his opinions. But those evidences aren't always true or effective.

    For example, in chapter one of book eleven, Tolstoy argues that great men don't exist, because "the sum of human wills produced the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them"(Tolstoy 732). Tolstoy thinks that Napoleon is not influential, for he alone can never cause the war. According to Tolstoy, Napoleon appeared as a conqueror when the war happened, just like cold wind blows coincidentally when oaks are budding. Cold wind does not influence the budding of oaks, so Napoleon was not influential to the war.

    However, a conqueror was very essential for the war to occur. Tolstoy came up with a untenable argument because his example of cold wind and oaks does not have the same nature as Napoleon with respect to the war. Oaks are budding in late spring; during that period of time, cold wind happens to blow. Cold wind is neither necessary nor sufficient for the oak to bud. Yet a war couldn't happen if there wasn't a conqueror. No one can imagine a war without a conqueror who makes decisions and leads the army. That is, the existence of  a conqueror, in this case Napoleon, was necessary for the war to happen despite the fact that Napoleon as an individual didn't guarantee the occurrence of the war. DOESN'T IT MAKE A GREAT MAN IMPORTANT?

   And at last, I have a few points to clarify. First, I'm not denying the influence of "the sum of human wills"(Tolstoy 732). Napoleon became powerful not only because of his abilities and luck: all the objective condition, such as social environment and public opinions favored his revolution. Second, I'm not focusing on Napoleon's importance as an individual. The existence of great men, not the great man himself, is important. He could be Napoleon, or anyone else with similar "greatness"in him. There is a mutual relationship between history and great men-- the development of history awaits great men to rise; great men plays a important role in almost every turning points of history.

* I didn't have a chance to have someone proofread this, so please don't mind my wording and grammar problems. And feel free to comment below if there's certain phrasing that you don't understand.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tolstoy, the hypocrite?

Well, we all know how much I love it when Tolstoy decides to talk about history. His monologues are interesting, but quite frankly, I agree with Adam, that many of his arguments are misplaced. However, opinions are opinions, and I suppose that Tolstoy is allowed to have his.

The issue of hypocrisy in Tolstoy's work arises in the midst of Book 10. We all know he mixes up ages every now and then, but who wouldn't, it's a long book! However, Tolstoy's opinions are often and clearly stated throughout the novel, especially in these later parts. So, you can imagine my confusion and frustration when Tolstoy's language in the narration on page 716 leads us to believe that Napoleon is in complete control of his destiny, contrary to Tolstoy's oft stated belief that great men don't exist, blah blah blah. Tolstoy's narrator says, "But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of battle not gained by attacking the side in eight hours, after all the efforts had been expanded. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now -- with the fight balanced on such a strained center -- destroy HIM and his army." (Keep in mind that Tolstoy often expresses his own opinions through his narrator (eg pg 664), but never seems to go against himself until this subtle moment)

Now I realize this isn't a full blown contradiction of Tolstoy's formerly stated opinions, however the language used suggests that Napoleon was in control of the situation, that fate did not play a role. It may be an innocent slip of the fingers to give a good narration, but why is he giving up his strong opinions simply for a quick narrative that is seemingly unnecessary?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is love a redemption or destruction for Sonya?

To be honest, when Sonya first came into my sight, I liked this kitten-like girl who passionately believed in her love with her cousin Nicholas. However, when I kept reading on, I found that Sonya was firmly convinced that her love would save her from the plain life rather than giving her an overwhelming destruction. I feel like that in the progress of the plot line, I see the girl I like at the beginning is gradually stepping into her ruin.

Sonya’s love for Nicholas is so blind that she eagerly sacrifices everything for the man she loves and even for his family. When Nicholas wanted to put his career first instead of his love with Sonya, she could sacrifice her thought of marriage for Nicholas. When the countess opposed the growing attachment between her and Nicholas, she could sacrifice her dignity for Nicholas and bear all the acrimony and vexation from the countess. When Sonya found out Natasha’s elopement with Anatole, she could sacrifice her three nights’ sleep for Nicholas. Sonya’s total world is centered in one man—Nicholas. She has sacrificed so much and I don’t know what else can she sacrifice next?

Love makes Sonya live for others instead of herself.  I just read that Nicholas grew affection for Princess Mary. I’m afraid that when the love—the only support in Sonya’s life—breaks down, will she want to kill herself like Natasha?

Monday, November 4, 2013

War and Peace as a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

     The title of War and Peace seems pretty straightforward and simple, which for the most part it is, however, I have still been pondering Tolstoy's choice. (After writing such a massive book, I imagine thinking of an adequate title would be quite trying.)
     In class, we often remark as to how we are about to read a "war section" (groans abound) and then we go back to a "peace section." I'm not sure I see the distinction quite that way though. As I was trying to think of a way to try to express my ideas in writing I kept saying to myself: I don't see the title as "War...  and ....Peace" but more like "WarandPeace." The first metaphor that came to mind was that of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most people don't eat one piece of bread with peanut butter and then proceed to eat another piece of bread with jelly. The sandwich itself is indeed made up of two separate things jelly and peanut butter, but in my mind the result is a new mental object/association — the "peanut butter and jelly sandwich." The peanut butter and the jelly become inseparable. To me, when I read War and Peace I feel as though whether I am reading of a battle or of a Russian dance, both the peace scenario and war scenario are ever-present in my mind. I feel that this feeling is also true for many characters as well. While the men are at war, their mental state is still influenced by their family at home. Based on my observations, it seems that in many character's minds, such as Andrew, Nicholas, and the Old Prince, the events of peace time and war time must mix together in this mushy mess of chaos in their minds.
      Thus, it seems to me that one way to interpret War and Peace would be rather than comparing the state of characters in the peace time to the war time, to instead observe how characters' lives are shaped by this ever-present mind of "mushy war peace mess of chaos."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Criticizing Tolstoy's Views of History

Tolstoy's views of history are, for their time, revolutionary and extremely strange, but they seem reactionary and over the top. While I agree that ordinary individuals, as an aggregate, have a profound impact on history, Tolstoy seems a bit hasty to dismiss free will. Tolstoy writes that man acts for his own interest but also subconsciously out of his "hive life", serving the general will of the human race to fulfill the "aims of humanity". He deduces this by writing that, because choices compose history, history must guide choices. Therefore, kings and rulers are less free than ordinary men, as kings and rulers have the most power and are in the spotlight of history, making them the most guided by this hive life (Tolstoy 537)

This is both extremely counter-intuitive and, as far as I can tell, illogical. It seems to hinge upon faith that the genesis of the human race had some purpose that is slowly being revealed through history, although this seems somewhat contrary to Christianity (in which everything people must know is already in catechisms and the bible and individuals must act upon it to receive eternal life). As long as we believe people have free will, or at least do not assume we are forced to action by the underlying motive of the human race, then most of his arguments don't apply. Still, he has two more practical arguments where he stresses the importance of ordinary individual's choices and highlights the importance of uncertainty. He provides an example where every soldier in the war of 1812 had to choose to fight for it to happen (537), but this does not seem very compelling. Rulers can obviously do things to compel their subjects (financial incentives and punishments for deserting), and Kings still seem to have much more control over the shape of history than subjects. While it is true that, as a group, commoners have an extremely important role, they are very powerless individuals compared to a Czar. His discussion of randomness, on the other hand, seems very true, as droughts or even mistakes delivering information can have massive impacts on history. However, this does not deny that, as a group, rulers have far more capacity to shape the future than anybody else.

One more thing; Tolstoy says every action is "predestined from eternity" (538). I'm guessing this means either, one: There is no free will because at some time at the end of history you can look back and see everything that happened before (this presumes that our actions do not create the future but discover it, and seems unknowable). Or, it means that God, having created the universe from outside of time, is omniscient and invented the universe knowing every human action, therefore proving that people don't have free will. However, I don't feel like dealing with that right now and this is far too long already (if that is what Tolstoy intended then he is probably insane for slipping it as three words at the very end).

tl;dr: I think Tolstoy is generally wrong when he discusses history. What do you think? Did I miss anything important?