Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tolstoy and Happily Every After

written by Sara Ashbaugh

War and Peace is a novel about relationships, including romantic relationships between several of the characters. While these relationships provide important information on Russian culture, they also give insight into Tolstoy’s views on what a successful marriage looks like. None of the most successful relationships in the novel involve particularly passionate love; rather they focus on the importance of compatibility and partnership in a marriage. The surprisingly successful matches between Boris and Vera, Natasha and Pierre, and Nicholas and Mary are examples of this. In each case, the couples’ defining feature is how well they work together as a partnership. Boris and Vera, although they bicker frequently and struggle for power, ultimately help one another accomplish their goals. Although there is no struggle for power in the relationship between Natasha and Pierre, there is a power imbalance. The same power imbalance is seen in the relationship between Natasha’s parents, with the wife having more control. However, Tolstoy does not present this imbalance as a negative, on the contrary, it appears to be the reason the relationship is successful. It makes it possible for the pair to make decisions and work together effectively. Rather than treating idealized passionate love as the key to marital success, Tolstoy recognizes the power of simple compatibility. In fact, the relationships in the novel that did involve passionate love, like Nicholas and Sonya or Natasha and Andrew, were not successful. Tolstoy seems to have a realistic idea of what makes a successful partnership

Tolstory: Do you agree with his interpretation of history?

written by Devin (Ace) Austin
Throughout the book Tolstoy presents this complex idea of history being defined by smaller events that add up to larger events. Tolstoy uses this to say that the major figures of war such as the Tsar Alexander and Napoleon have had little impact on the actual impact of war. Tolstoy argues it is each soldiers decisions that decide the war rather than the planning by aristocrats. Maybe Tolstoy does have some bias against aristocrats as Tolstoy enjoyed peasantry and loved the average 19th Century proletariat. Do I agree? No. While it is true that the actual soldiers control some parts of war, it is the planning and placement of war that leads to conclusions. The people who controlled the planning and placement were aristocrats like Tsar Alexander and Napoleon. So to say that these historical figures should be disregarded because of their lack of actual fighting is nonsense. If not for these characters, would there even have been a war or just a battle between soldiers? I'm interested in you all's thoughts on this topic. 

Tolstoy and Hypocricy on History

Written by Sara Ashbaugh

            In his First Epilogue, Tolstoy discusses the process of interpreting history. In his opinion, it is impossible for historians to determine what is "useful" or “harmful” in the context of history, because the larger picture of the effects of actions cannot be known. Even if it could be known, historians’ limited understanding of what is “good” make those actions impossible to interpret. He even admits, “the action of every historic character has other more general purposes inaccessible to me” (Tolstoy, 999). However, in his interaction with and presentation of history, Tolstoy forces judgments on his reader of what actions can be considered “good” or “bad”. For example, Tolstoy condemns all historians for making judgments on the actions of Alexander I, saying “There is no one in Russian literature now, from schoolboy essayist to learned historian, who does not throw his little stone at Alexander for things he did wrong at this period of his reign” (Tolstoy, 998). Yet in Tolstoy’s presentation of Alexander I as a historical character, he paints Alexander's indecisiveness and passivity as the reason for his ineffectual leadership. In short, Tolstoy seems to believe his biased presentation of the facts is superior to other historians’ blatant judgments. Although he does not state, ‘in this instance Alexander was wrong’ or ‘in this instance Alexander helped history’, his use of language and presentation of Alexander in the context of the plot make those judgments clear to the reader without stating them outright. This holds true in Tolstoy’s presentation of all historical figures (from Speranski to Napoleon) and, more generally, in his writing on the events of the war. This bias is certainly acceptable for a novelist, and to some degree also for a historian. However, if Tolstoy considers himself in some way superior to historians attempting to make judgments on how individuals and actions have affected history, he is nothing short of hypocritical.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tolstoy, Gandhi, and the Age of Dissonance

An unexplored fact about Leo Tolstoy is that he was always fascinated with Indian culture and the Hindu religion. He even wrote “A Letter to A Hindu”, outlining his theological and philosophical perception of the Hindu vedas and responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s pleas for support in the Indian Nationalist Movement. Reading about this introduced me to the idea that Tolstoy had a wealth of knowledge about Hinduism- knowledge that inevitably must have pervaded his writing.

Music and Dance can been seen prevalently throughout Tolstoy’s novel- in the scene with the ballroom dance, in Natasha’s dance at uncle’s, and in Nicholas and Sonya’s dance. In Indian culture, dance or ‘tandav’ is often used to express anger, or war. So could the recurring theme of music and dance be an allegorical reference to the novel’s title, “War and Peace”? Music and dance have a long history in Indian culture in depicting emotions and stories. Classical Indian dances like the Odissi and Bharatnatyam use expressions and body language to highlight peaceful and angry emotions. Is it intentional then that the book’s many emotionally charged scenes unfold at dances and parties? In my opinion, the scene where Natasha decides that she loves Anatole is one of the most emotionally charged, and also takes place at a dance. Perhaps this was a subconscious effort to introduce dramatic flair to her dilemma.

Tolstoy’s own experiences have clearly painted a lot of his writings, and his interest in Hindu culture is not exempt from that. Dance and Music, War and Peace, Lust and Love- all merge into a single metaphor by the end of the novel, and culminate in what is a testament to all of Tolstoy’s life experiences.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Baby Pétya

I was really interested in Pétya's death. First of all, I think that it was definitely necessary for a number of reasons. Aminata, I think it was you who was so fond of Pétya and who said in class that you still saw him as a baby. I'm positive that Tolstoy was manipulating us to think that way. I mean, Nicholas was 16 when he first went into battle and he wasn't portrayed that way to nearly the same extent. Here we have Pétya literally submerged in his own "fairy kingdom," conducting orchestras in his head and being not physically able to contain his feelings of love for men not that much older than him. He is completely a rosy-cheeked baby, who is meant to tug on the readers' heart strings. So why did he have to die? I think that Tolstoy wants to show us that war can be the worst. All throughout the book he's been making it out to be terribly exciting with all the battles and adrenaline rushes. Pierre wants to become a soldier because he wants to be part of something big and Nicholas and Andrew both wanted glory. The best way obviously to obtain these things is through killing each other on a battle field. So now the truth comes out and a young, innocent boy gets too excited to be part of something/prove himself and he dies. I think that this shows that war can be cruel and that it can hurt everyone, not just men. Now we're about to read about the Rostov's grief and (unless I'm mistaken) this will be the first time we see a family grieve for a loss sustained during battle. Already we've seen Denisov bury Pétya in a flower patch. I'm not going to lie, that almost evoked some tears.
What do you guys think? Is Tolstoy about to give us another perspective on war?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Was Napoleon Stupid?

I am extremely curious about Tolstoy's explanation of Napoleon's decisions once he reached Moscow.  In book 13, Tolstoy discusses Napoleon’s horrible decision making after the French arrive in Moscow. He does not prepare winter clothing, he sets the troops free in the city, and does not attempt to engage Kutuzov in any more battle.
Tolstoy states, “The most skillful strategist could hardly have devised an series of actions that would so completely have accomplished that purpose, independently of anything the Russian army might do” (Tolstoy 886). This quote is powerful, for Tolstoy is implying that Napoleon’s influence on his troops caused their retreat back to France. He is saying that, despite all of his genius, he failed his troops in Moscow. Tolstoy goes on to defend Napoleon though, talking about how he wasn’t stupid nor was he trying to fail his troops. I feel that Tolstoy contradicts himself somewhat there, for he says that Napoleon did the stupidest thing he possibly could do but he is not stupid.
So, why do you think that Napoleon made these decisions? Do you think he was not the genius Tolstoy and most people make him out to be? Or do you think he made some bad decisions at the wrong times? Or could he not have influenced their success because the winter would have defeated them anyways? I have so many questions about the portrayal of Napoleon during this time period as well as what Tolstoy believes influenced the retreat of the French.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Death of Prince Andrew Bolkónski.

It is no secret that Prince Andrew Bolkónski is my favorite character in the novel and so his death definitely saddens me but I am very happy and impressed by the way Tolstoy depicts the event as Andrew in my opinion is given the most dignified sendoff so far in the novel, and he is well deserving of one. As true as ever to Andrew's nature, he dies contemplating the meaning of life and death and putting things in perspective for himself. To be honest, that is what I admire the most about him. Andrew is surrounded by those who love him and these people bond over their love and grief for him. The fact that Natasha is a source of comfort for Princess Mary and little Nicholas I find very heartwarming and as a positive reflection on Natasha's character, showing her to be genuine and caring. Princess Mary finds Natasha a "comrade in grief" and begins to "cry on her shoulder" when they first see each other. There is a beautiful but sorrowful moment when little Nicholas stays strong when he sees his father but after he leaves the room " leaning against her (Natasha) he began to cry." Through Prince Andrew's death, Princess Mary and Natasha get to see the "consciousness of the simple and solemn mystery of death." As Prince Andrew is in the dividing line between life and death for the final time,  he sees "death as an awakening" and the unknown is "lifted from his spiritual vision." Prince Andrew as a man always seeking truth and answers to life's hardest questions I feel can now rest with all the answers.  Prince Andrew gets to understand the mysteries of life as his life is ending and realizes that love removes the "dreadful barrier" between life and death. He is rewarded by Tolstoy for his virtues.

As a parting note, Prince Andrew Bolkónski's character has been an enjoyable one for me to follow and watch grow and has been a learning experience as I see traits portrayed by Tolstoy in him that I greatly admire and find amiable. The genuine, honest and responsible thinker plays a great part in the novel as being the one to bring calamity to the plot when all the other characters are in mayhem. Prince Andrew's practicality and rationale is not something to be disliked, it does not make him bland and boring, it is Tolstoy portraying a human being who seeks self-betterment and luckily for him always finds it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Save the "Shallow" Women of War and Peace 2k14

Yet another woman has been killed off in War and Peace!!! And yes, it was Helene, who no one liked, but still! We've now seen both Lise and Helene get killed because of their inabilities to be good wives. While Lise's death was framed as the product of childbirth and Helene's as sickness and then drugs, we have to look beyond that to Tolstoy's purpose to really understand these characters and their ends. Lise had to die in order for Andrew to move on and have his story arch with Natasha, a girl deemed more worth at the time because of her innocent and energetic nature. What was Tolstoy saying by comparing these two women but putting priority on Natasha? She wasn't actually that much smarter than Lise. The thing that made her a better fit for Andrew was her ability to engage him, which Lise couldn't do no matter how hard she tried, and she did try. So, unsurprisingly, Tolstoy is sending the message that a "good" wife should be able to keep her husband entertained, while there is no mention of this going the both ways. Helene, on the other hand, did not have to die in order for Pierre to pursue whoever he's going to pursue from here on out (probably Natasha). She'd already divorced him and left him a free man. Instead, Tolstoy seems to be punishing her for pursuing her own interests instead of wanting to stay with her childish and unloving husband. Not only that, but her punishment is death, which just makes me mad! These two characters in particular are women who are framed as disposable and whose fates are driven by Tolstoy's sexism. And yes, all of this can be dismissed with the simple explanation of "he was writing War and Peace in then 1860s" but still, I think it is important to be critical of texts using contemporary lenses in order to see the story from all angles. No text is without its flaws, especially older ones, and War and Peace is no exception.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking to the Artists of the War and Peace Project

I don't know about the rest of the class but getting to hear from the creators of the War and Peace Project was one of the highlights of the tutorial.  I know we all had already looked at the pieces, and Kelly explained where most of them came from but it was just fascinating to hear how these were created and why the project was started.

I found it really interesting that they had so many rules.  Each piece had to be done in one sitting and once they left the studio they couldn't change it again.  I've done a little art and I would find that terrible.  I feel like sometimes you need perspective and space from your work to decide what you want to do or get new inspiration, but I think rather than causing these artists pressure, this constraint really allowed them to put all their effort into it once, and than move on. This struct me as a really unique way of doing art.  This along with the rule that no one got to pick which page they wanted to do I feel like would be hard to stick too (especially because all the artists had read the novel and probably have emotional attachments to certain parts).  I loved the fact that they shared materials even across the country and that no one could work alone.  I think although all these rules made the work harder and sometimes probably delayed the project it really made it a collaboration.

The pieces themselves are amazing.  But I really just thought it was so cool to hear about the whole process behind it.  What did you guys think?

Is it Love?

Why is Tolstoy so cynical about love?

Love in War and Peace so far has been an enigma- it is inexplicable, unachievable, or unreciprocated. Is this theme of unrequited love based on his own disillusionment? Tolstoy married his wife for the same reasons that Prince Andrew married Lise, and Pierre married Helene- sexual attraction. Clearly this was never foundation enough for a marriage, and he reinforces this throughout the novel. 

However, admittedly, Tolstoy and his wife were very happy while the novel was still being written. Why then is the novel riddled with the theme of love governed by passion that doesn't come to anything? Was it perhaps a foreshadowing of the future of love for him? Towards the end of his life Tolstoy and his wife were very unhappy— Perhaps his writing in War and Peace was an unconscious foreshadowing of this.

All characters seem to be governed by passion and not logic. Pierre and Helene got married spontaneously, in a daze of passion. Natasha’s love for Anatole cost her the person whom she was truly in love with- Prince Andrew. These instances seem to repeatedly reinforce the stereotype of young love and rushed decisions. Perhaps this is why War and Peace has so often been called a novel for the young- it encapsulates adolescent passion like no other.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Napoleon's Cold and Butterfly Effect

Tolstoy mentions in chapter 27 that if Napoleon didn't have a cold, he could have made better decisions and so could have won the Russian Campaign. Well, while Tolstoy (and readers) doesn't necessarily think Napoleon's cold costed him his campaign, this line of logic is amusing because it has some grounds. At least in terms of weather forecasting.
Butterfly effect is first coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1981 which basically says a seemingly insignificant event such as a flap of a butterfly's wings can influence the details of a hurricane's path. in this case, the flapping of the butterfly's wings would be Napoleon's cold and the hurricane would be Napoleon losing the war. 

I don't have problem with Tolstoy scorning Napoleon's cold for bringing his demise just like a butterfly's flapping can alter the hurricane's path because I myself don't really believe in the claim either. But I do think Tolstoy is too assertive when he says the soldiers are fighting on their own accord and rulers are nothing but pawns to fate. Even if the soldiers are fighting out of free will, they are fighting for something which corresponds to Napoleon's and Alexander's wish. And who has instilled in these soldiers to act toward that certain goal? Tolstoy calls them figureheads, but they hold some power that allows them to lead history in one direction rather than another. Of course, Napoleon's decision arises from the need to secure his rule over the territories he conquered; so he decides to invade Russia. In this way Tolstoy correctly says people, not only the rulers, contribute to history as mediums of fate even when they make decisions based on their free will-- because the decisions made with free will are reactions to the situation.
 However, Tolstoy neglects that such reactionary decisions are at the same time catalysis of new events, and people are actually building history instead of fulfilling fate by making their own contributions. Since not all people can contribute to history in a significant way, there needs be a central force that directs history. The rulers are tasked with giving directions by the merit of their position (no matter how ineligibly or unfairly they acquired it). In this way Tolstoy's claim that the rulers don't do anything is untrue, because they have more power to direct people to set off a new course of history. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Women in War and Peace

I am really interested in Tolstoy's portrayal of women in War and Peace. Initially, I was pretty happy with him. I think this was primarily because of Anna Pávlovna, the very first character introduced in the book. She seemed like a cool lady! She was independent, powerful, and very well-informed about the goings on in the world. In this same opening chapter, Hélène and Lise were also both introduced. I have to say, I thought that they were bumbling idiots at the time and to be honest my opinion hasn't really changed. Lise died before she could be very deeply developed (although she does arguably represent women wronged by the structure of marriage and society in general) and Hélène, while she has become powerful, is still treated primarily by Tolstoy as a seductive, trouble-making fool. But overall, I thought, "Who cares? These are just two small examples of silly women who hide behind their beauty." Now though, I'm not so sure for several reasons.

First off, what happened to Anna Pávlovna? Why has Tolstoy stopped mentioning her? The fact that the least "feminine" woman in the book has disappeared suggests that Tolstoy just doesn't value the idea surrounding feminism at all.

I also have a problem with Mary. I was very pro-Mary initially, seeing her the same way I saw Anna but to a slightly less extent. She was educated beyond most people's dreams, but was held back by her father. This didn't bother me too much because I thought that it meant that the family was just really tightly-knit. However, recently the Old Prince has been terrible to Mary, ultimately destroying my idea. Now she's just a smart woman wasting her potential by being held back by a man. I'm hoping that Tolstoy is doing this on purpose and will develop her more later on, but I can't be sure.

Next, Natasha. Natasha was my favorite character for quite a while. She seemed like the only one of the lot who thought for herself and had any life in her. Now that life has been crumbling away before our eyes; she's a shell of her former self.

So it seems to me like Tolstoy and strong women just don't get along well. I hope this changes, but I also understand that it would be natural for this time period for him to brush most women aside.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tolstoy and Fate

Tolstoy introduces the concept of destiny earlier in the novel, but he expands on his ideas about fate and the way it intervenes with humans and their decisions during Book 9. First he talks about how nothing is the cause of the war, it’s the sum of all these little things added up.  He then talks about the characters, saying “[every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity” (538).   This quote shows that Tolstoy believes that everybody’s path is laid out for them and character’s decisions don’t impact their fate because it was already planned.

Some say that Tolstoy displays himself through his characters in his novel, but relating to his beliefs about fate I am not sure if he does. His characters do not seem to attribute many things to fate, for they become extremely upset at decisions others make and decisions they make themselves. Natasha becomes physically ill after having her heart broken by Anatole, and thinks of herself as a bad person for falling in love with him. She doesn’t seem to attribute her actions to fate, but to her own terrible soul and bad decisions. Prince Andrew is extremely upset at Anatole when he discovers the situation and searches for a duel. He doesn’t attribute Natasha’s falling in love to predestination but to Anatole’s manipulation.