Saturday, March 5, 2011

War and Peace

Some time ago, I wrote in this blog about my thoughts on the book "Moby Dick" and I mentioned, too, that I had planned to tackle "War and Peace" next. In fact, I'm still reading it. I'm about half way through. I could have finished it by now, in spite of its notorious length but, like many substantial literary works, it starts out slowly, setting the stage and establishing the characters, and it can take a while before it really begins to capture the reader's interest. Consequently, I had set it aside for a while after starting it and, even now, I read only a chapter each day, and the chapters are short, though numerous.

Even so, I must say that I'm enjoying the book considerably more than I did "Moby Dick". Leo Tolstoy, the author, has woven a fascinating tapestry of aristocratic families made up of interesting characters whose lives and fates are interwoven against the backdrop of Imperial Russia's war with Napoleon. Tolstoy also displays a keen understanding of the human condition, as evidenced by the following paragraph.

At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second.

A most astute observation, and I paused to think about why this is. I think that it's because our individual problems are our own. Since they affect only ourselves, we know that it's up to us to solve them. When a larger problem threatens society as a whole, everyone hopes that someone else will solve it. I think that's what's happening with the issue of global warming. If the climate is really changing, we may be witnessing the genesis of an unprecedented disaster; one that threatens not only all of mankind, but every living thing on this planet. At the very least, it would mean starvation, famine, war and death on a scale never before seen. So some choose to deny that the problem exists, and even the majority of those who do accept that there is a threat leave it to others to deal with the problem. I would argue that this was at the heart of the failure of the Kyoto and Copenhagen conferences on climate change. Every participating nation felt that the problem was the responsibility of the others. None were willing to stand up and declare "The buck stops here!". Meanwhile, the problem continues and no meaningful action is taken. I can almost hear Tolstoy muttering "Я сказал вас так!" (or, since French was apparently very much in vogue in Imperial Russia, at least among the aristocracy, "Je vous ai dit ainsi!"

Tolstoy also presents us with this second insightful bit of analysis:

On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: "My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg"- and there would have been no war.

We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England's intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon's ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England's policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

I wonder what this world will be like 100 years hence, and what the historians of that time, if indeed there still be any historians, will have to say about the actions and motives of those who steer the course of history today?


Tubes said...

I think I'll wait for the movie.

Better yet, is there a Coles Notes version?

Halmanator said...

You don't have to wait. In fact, you have your choice. Would you prefer the abridged version, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, which runs for over just under 3½ hours, or the 8-hour epic Russian mini-series (which I believe is available with English subtitles)? If you want the version that's most faithful to the book, I recommend the latter.