Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, March 31, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 4

When young people get ready to head out into the world to try and make it on their own, the question they should be asking themselves is: how’s the best way to live? What they actually do is more like this: now that I’m no longer living under my parent’s roof what kind of exciting lifestyle can I follow? Usually after a few years of hard knocks their lives become more prosaic. Then it’s no longer a philosophic decision: what’s the best way to live? Or a hedonistic choice: what lifestyle do I want to adopt this week? The most important questions now become dull questions like how can I pay for my kid’s braces or how to get those new gutters installed.

Nikolay is in the early stages of manhood. He’s a soldier and likes being in the army. There’s not a war going on right now and a soldier’s life seems pleasant enough. But he’s achieved this peace of mind only because “by fencing himself off from all the complexities of existence, he was living so quietly and peacefully.” What Nikolay has been doing is shutting himself off from the “whirlpool of life, with many difficulties and business to attend to, with the steward’s accounts, with quarrels and intrigues, and ties, with society…” In other words, he doesn’t have to fool around with mundane tasks like paying the bills or looking after gutters or attending to social responsibilities. He can hang around the barracks and drink beer with his buddies. That way he can avoid taking on the real burdens of manhood for a few more years.

Normally this wouldn’t be a good idea. In Nikolay’s case maybe it may not be so bad. Back home the Rostovs have made a mess of their finances. Unless something is done soon they’ll go broke. What the parents want is for Nikolay to come back home and help get the family back on its feet. Nikolay is being asked to clean up a mess he didn’t make by marrying a rich girl he doesn’t love. Nikolay had hoped to avoid shouldering the burdens of adulthood for a little while longer but instead faces a dilemma: should he marry a rich woman, Julie Karagin, to save his family, or should he marry Sonya, the poor woman he really loves? He bluntly asks his mother: “What, if I loved a girl with no fortune would you really desire me, mamma, to sacrifice my feeling and my honor for the sake of money?” He doesn’t think his parents should place him in this position. It’s even more painful for the Count and Countess to be in a position which forces them to ask Nikolay to compromise his principles, not to mention his heart.

Meanwhile life goes on. People grow up and find their own lifestyles. Some aren’t as successful as the Rostovs and some are more successful, though maybe not in material terms. Has the old uncle/Rostov acquaintance found the key to happiness by his simple lifestyle in the country? Here’s a description of the Uncle: “Through the whole district the uncle had the reputation of being a most generous and disinterested eccentric…he had always persisted in refusing all public appointments, spending the autumn and spring in the fields on his bay horse, the winter sitting at home, and the summer lying in his overgrown garden.” This lifestyle seems to work for him. It would be hard to imagine Vera and Berg could find happiness sharing a house with a hunting dog. The Count and Countess certainly wouldn’t feel at home there.

But Natasha and Nikolay are content to be there for one evening. They have supper after a long, cold day hunting outdoors. Everything seems charming to them. Part of the charm is that they can get back to their estates or fancy home in Petersburg whenever they choose. They don’t have to live like peasants. There’s a long tradition of praising the rustic life: Rousseau, Thoreau, Whitman on down modern back-to-nature movements. These people are a lot like Natasha and Nikolay, mostly city dwellers and dreamers trying to avoid those annoying adult problems.

-- RDP

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace – Book 2, Part 3

After reading a few hundred pages in War and Peace a reader can identify at least half a dozen main themes. Some of these themes are identified in the “Great Ideas” essays. These can be found in the Great Books of the Western World series. WAR AND PEACE is one of those great ideas, but WEALTH, LOVE, and RELIGION are also great themes in this story. War is a major theme of the book but war can’t cover all that Tolstoy wants to say about the human condition. There are times of peace too. Tolstoy points out that even in times of war the best stories take place in “the actual life of men with their real interests of health and sickness, labour and rest…apart from the political amity or enmity…” What people are really interested in are their own affairs. Some people don’t want anything to do with the war. However, for most people that’s not an option. Another famous Russian, Trotsky, is reported to have said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

One way or another people of all ages and both sexes get infected by this grand clash of civilizations called war. For Prince Andrey it’s a call to glory but for his wife it’s a sentence to go through her first pregnancy with her husband gone. For old prince Bolkonsky it’s a chance to relive his martial memories through his son but for Marya it means the loneliness of having a brother away for months on end. For Berg it’s a chance for quicker military advancement up the ranks and for Vera that means they can get married sooner. For Nikolay it provides an opportunity to get away from home for awhile but for the Rostovs it means having a household without its favorite (and only) son around. For Boris it’s an opportunity to make contacts that can assist his climb up the social ladder and for Anna Mikhaylovna that means her son will be provided for and he won’t have to live in abject poverty. For almost everyone in Russia it means some sort of discomfort or separation. For a few it means death and grief.

But war may also have a meaning far beyond any human comprehension. What is this vast conflagration of war anyway? More specifically, on a personal level, what does it mean for me? After Prince Andrey gets wounded his whole outlook changes. No longer is he interested in glory. His little princess died giving birth to their son. Can glory soften that blow? Andrey realizes his true interests don’t lie out there on the battlefield or in the stately government halls of Moscow or Petersburg. When Bitsky reveals an important political announcement from the Tsar, Andrey wonders to himself: “’What is that to me and Bitsky,’ he thought, ‘what is it to us, whatever the Emperor is pleased to say in the Council? Can all that make me any happier or better?’” Good question. Can military service or government programs make any of its citizens happy or make them better people?

Prince Andrey isn’t the only one who’s disillusioned. Pierre’s initial infatuation with his secret society soon begins to fade. Pierre divided his brother Masons into four classes: (1) those occupied exclusively with the secrets of the order, (2) those (like himself) seeking and not yet finding, (3) those who followed the strict performance of the ritual, and (4) those who didn’t have any religious faith but wanted the social connections. It’s crystal clear to Pierre that the order needs a reformation and his zeal is renewed. He gives a speech to inspire his fellow brother Masons but they weren’t inspired and Pierre is stunned. How can this be? Pierre was for the first time at this meeting impressed by the endless multiplicity of men’s minds, which leads to no truth being ever seen by two persons alike.” Because we’re human, we’ll never agree about the Great Idea called RELIGION. Or WAR AND PEACE either and for the same reason.

-- RDP

Monday, March 24, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 2

If good and bad were as easy to distinguish as black and white, would people ever make bad decisions? This is not a new question. It’s been around since, oh, roughly the dawn of mankind in The Garden of Eden. God said don’t eat from that tree or you’ll die. That’s easy to understand. Eat = die. Don’t eat = live. It’s a simple black-and-white choice. But then Satan asks Eve if she understood God correctly, or maybe God really doesn’t know everything. That plants seeds of doubt in Eve’s mind. Now the equation looks more like this: Eat = ? Don’t eat = ? The rest is history, a history of humanity leaving The Garden and spreading all over the globe to grope in the darkness for a certainty that’s no longer there.

We no longer live in the black-and-white ethical world of The Garden. Things aren’t simple in a fallen world. The Russian officer Denisov finds himself caught up in a sort of gray area between necessity and military regulations. Here are two black-and-white choices facing Denisov: (1) his men are starving. Some of them are literally dying. Should he let his men starve? This isn’t a difficult decision: no. (2) A military (Russian) caravan of food is passing close by but that food is headed to another Russian regiment, not Denisov’s men. Is it ok to steal? No, not ordinarily. However, these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Is it wrong to take food intended for another regiment and give it to your own men if they’re starving? Given this situation the decision is more difficult than a simple yes or no, so let’s examine two possibilities.

First answer: Denisov was justified in taking food that was not intended for his regiment. His men were starving. He was their commanding officer. It is his responsibility to take care of them to the best of his ability and that’s what he was doing. Denisov himself put it best when he asks the simple question “am I to let the men die of hunger?” Who among us is so callous to sacrifice our own men for the sake of formalities? This food was intended for soldiers at the front. Your soldiers need food. The quartermasters at the rear don’t have a clear grasp of what’s going on, or who needs what. Therefore, you did what you had to do: you took the food.

Second answer: Denisov violated military regulations by stealing supplies. The question isn’t what condition his men were in. Many Russian troops were in bad condition. Many were starving. The Russian command center was trying to relieve their condition in an orderly manner. Commander Denisov actually made conditions worse for the Russian army by circumventing the plan established by the quartermasters to get as much food out as they could, as quickly as possible. Denisov should be court-martialed for violating military regulations.

Which of these two answers is correct? Pick a hundred jurors at random to decide this case and you’ll probably get a split decision. In modern American terms, those who would defend Denisov (or find him not guilty) tend see the Constitution as a flexible document that should be adapted to conform to human needs and changing circumstances. For them the world is gray so the Constitution shouldn’t be interpreted in black and white terms. Denisov’s men needed food and Denisov did what any good commander would do under the same circumstances. Denisov bent the rules but did not act on selfish or criminal motives.

Those who would prosecute Denisov (or find him guilty) tend to see the Constitution, and the world, in different terms. They believe precisely because the world is gray that we need to have some objective black and white standard to determine what is and is not acceptable. The Constitution is that standard. In this case, Denisov’s men were hungry. But so were other Russians. Did that give him the right to make up his own rules? That way only leads to anarchy.

-- RDP

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 1

Dueling is out of fashion these days. Drive-by shootings are more likely to occur now. There were times in American history when it was perfectly acceptable (if not legal) to duel. Before he became President, Andrew Jackson was shot and got shot by a man in a duel. Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. In War and Peace we find out that dueling was also a method sometimes used by the upper classes for resolving personal conflicts. Pierre is a member of the upper class but he is not the kind of man who should be dueling. Dolokov, on the other hand, is not strictly of the upper class but he’s exactly the kind of man you would expect to be involved in a duel. The question for readers is this: why does Pierre pick a duel with Dolokov?

Pierre is a complex man so the reasons he has for dueling with Dolokov are also bound to be complex. First of all, Pierre is insecure about his masculinity while Dolokov is a man’s man. Dolokov is strong, brave and reckless. Other guys seem to like him and many are drawn to him just for the adventures. I picture Dolokov as something of a Russian Hemingway. Pierre is introspective and not nearly as self-assured as Dolokov. Pierre’s one of those men who are “only strong when they feel themselves perfectly pure.” And how many of us are ever perfectly pure?

This whole idea of being perfectly pure is a big part of the reason that Pierre married his wife Ellen (Heléne) in the first place. He wanted to know her, in the biblical sense, and felt guilty about lusting after her. In his eyes it was an impure marriage from the start because at heart Ellen is really a promiscuous sexpot. It’s not clear if that’s really true or if it’s just a case of Pierre projecting his own desires and insecurities onto his wife. “I never loved her,” Pierre said to himself; “I knew she was a dissolute woman…but I did not dare own it to myself.”

Ellen may or may not be a dissolute woman in reality but she has been spending a lot of time with Dolokov lately. Pierre is thinking about these things and starts drinking more and more as he sits across the table from Dolokov at a dinner party. Given these factors as a starting point it’s not that hard to see Pierre’s mind make the leap from one thing to another to another…until he’s teetering on the edge. He’s already worked up in this state of mind when Dolokov grabs a paper literally out of Pierre’s hand. That’s the last straw. Before he has time to reflect Pierre challenges Dolokov to a duel. This is amazing since Pierre has never fired a gun.

Dolokov is a complex character himself. Is he one of the bad guys, or basically a good guy who’s trying to get by in a corrupt society? From all appearances and the way he acts you would tend to think of Dolokov as a self-centered bad guy. Here’s the way he thinks of himself: “People think me a wicked man, I know…and they’re welcome to think so. I don’t care to know any one except those whom I love. But those I do love, I love in such a way that I would give my life for them, and all the rest I will crush if they get in my way.” Is that good or bad? You make the call. If you’re one of those Dolokov loves then you think it’s a good thing. If not, you may think it’s bad; in Pierre’s case, very bad. Pierre was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and things got crossed up. Dolokov is the kind of guy you want on your side in a street fight. He’s not the kind of man you want to cross, much less one you’d want to duel. Then a remarkable thing happens: Pierre wins. Not since David beat Goliath or Appalachian State beat Michigan has there been such a big upset. Meanwhile at the Rostov house there’s a general feeling of “Seize the moment of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only thing real in the world; the rest is all nonsense.” Is it true that the only real thing in the world is to love and be loved? After what Pierre’s been through, can’t love also be nonsense sometimes…or worse?

-- RDP

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace, Part 3

Courage under pressure and good decision-making skills are two timeless virtues that never go out of style. Whether it’s pressure on the battlefield or in a peaceful social setting, the way a man responds in adverse circumstances reveals the content of his character. Tolstoy’s knowledge of human psychology is vast and he has an uncanny ability to reveal a person’s character by how well they respond under pressure. Pierre flunks the character test in the early going. His inability to choose a career may just be a reflection of his immaturity. But Tolstoy hints at a deeper flaw in Pierre’s soul through the sheer panic, almost paralysis, which infects Pierre when he’s trying to do something as basic as choosing a wife.

Of course this situation causes panic in many young men. Perhaps with good reason; this is a big step in any man’s life. He should be nervous about it. But when Pierre inherits a fortune his problems grow exponentially. His poor self-image can be exploited by others and Prince Vassily is a man made for exploitation. Like all fathers, Vassily wants his children to succeed in life. Unlike all fathers, he makes money virtually the only definition of success. Vassily has an unmarried daughter, Pierre has lots of money, so…

The truth of the matter is Pierre doesn’t love Ellen Vassily but he marries her anyway. Why? Who knows? Pierre himself sure doesn’t. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. If he had just told the truth Pierre could have saved himself a lot of heartache. But he didn’t. Tolstoy points out that “To tell the truth is a very difficult thing; and young people are rarely capable of it.” Why does he think it’s difficult to tell the truth? Does Tolstoy believe it’s because we don’t know what the truth is, or that we do know but just don’t want to face reality? These are the kinds of questions a good artist can ask and yet not have to answer. That’s the purpose of philosophy, not of art. A philosopher might say A=B and B=C, therefore Pierre should not marry Ellen. End of story. An artist like Tolstoy says Pierre doesn’t love Ellen but he marries her anyway. Even Pierre doesn’t know why. Life’s messy that way. End of story.

A second way to approach truth artistically is for the novelist to shatter the illusions of a major character, especially of a strong character like Prince Andrey. Many readers think Andrey is arrogant. He may be, depending on one’s definition of arrogance. But regardless of definitions Andrey is a Bolkonsky through and through. He’s not as stern as his father, the old prince, but Andrey is almost painfully aware of his heritage. To shame the Bolkonsky name would be disgraceful. To win glory on the battlefield is Andrey’s one passionate goal in life. Glory is his most cherished truth and that truth is shattered in one crashing encounter with reality.

Andrey does, in fact, achieve a certain amount of glory. By grabbing his regiment’s flag and leading his faltering troops Andrey shows a courage and tenacity truly worthy of a Bolkonsky. The only problem is, once he’s wounded and sees the clouds floating in the sky, far above the fray of battle, Andrey’s whole perspective changes. What’s the use of all this fighting? When you get right down to it, what good is glory anyway? It’s at that point that Andrey realizes that he was happiest when he was back home on his estate in the country. His whole conception of happiness had been based on attaining some abstract reward called glory. The truth of the matter is we may be happier with the simple everyday rewards: clouds, the sky, gardens, other people, going home to dinner. A person’s whole life can get off track by following the wrong star. But how do you know if it’s the wrong star? Only time will tell and by then it may be too late. Sometimes life’s messy that way.

-- RDP

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace, Part 2

Jonathan Swift once wrote a scathing rebuke of the human race in his masterpiece novel, Gulliver’s Travels. In the mythical country of the Houyhnhnms, human beings are called “Yahoos” and that’s a perfect name for these despicable creatures. The stranded narrator is trying to describe soldiers to his horse-hosts, who have never seen a soldier before: “the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others; because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.” That sounds a little strange but technically it’s true. How did things get this way?

Tolstoy doesn’t try to answer that question. He’s a novelist, not a philosopher. In the first chapter, Tolstoy begins with what we might almost call Chick Lit. It’s a woman’s world. In the second chapter the book looks more like something out of Rambo’s world. The first time, Tolstoy drops us into the middle of a drawing-room soiree. This time he drops us into the middle of an army regimental camp. The world looks quite different here. There’s lots of gambling and drinking and, whenever possible, chasing women. Occasionally they fight battles. That’s not to say that these are all bad guys. They are pretty much like men everywhere, some good, some bad and most somewhere in between, just trying to get along as best they can.

What makes this novel different from a Rambo movie is the depth of personality Tolstoy gives to each character. Each man has personal strengths and weaknesses. Each man carries around his own bias and has his own uniquely prejudicial way of approaching life. Sometimes these men and their values come into conflict with one another. For example, one soldier stealing from a fellow soldier is an abomination to young Nikolay Rostov. He knows who did it. He wants to report it. It shouldn’t be tolerated, and he’s right. But what Rostov doesn’t count on is that his fellow officers, who are more experienced, have another agenda. Stealing may be bad, but it’s even worse for word to get out that an officer stole from a fellow officer in Rostov’s own regiment. That would harm the reputation of the entire regiment. Rostov hasn’t been around long enough to grasp why reputation is so important to the rest of the officers. He’s too young to see the bigger picture. Even older and more experienced readers grapple with the ethics of this situation: is it a kind of soldier’s wisdom to just let the whole thing slide, or is it corruption?

Of course there’s also conflict between men on a large scale, a truly large scale. The French army has a hundred thousand men under the command of Bonaparte; the Russian army has thirty-five thousand men under their commander, Kutuzov. With that many men clustered together things can get confusing sometimes. For example, General Kutuzov knows the Russian army should retreat because it’s only about a third of the size of the French army. Kutuzov knew what was going on and could take actions that would save his army. On the other hand, the Austrian commander, General Mack, knew pretty much what was going on too but he still lost almost his entire army at the Battle of Ulm.

Soldiers farther down the pecking order don’t usually have a clear notion of what’s going on. The Russian lieutenant of the cannons, Tushin, didn’t have a clue that he and his men were pretty much defenseless and fighting alone on top of a hill. Yet they fought like maniacs and almost single-handedly turned the tide of the battle. It’s one of the ironies of war that few people fully appreciate the efforts of men like Tushin and his crew. In the confusion and savagery of battle it’s either kill or be killed. There’s no time to sort through the ethics of killing unknown strangers who have never offended you. Then men do truly start acting like Yahoos.

-- RDP

Monday, March 10, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

Opening up a novel like War and Peace isn’t so much like reading a book as starting out on a quest. To read almost 1,400 pages of any book requires a great deal of commitment and perseverance. Especially for a novel set two hundred years ago in a culture that in many ways is quite different from our own. So it’s only fair for the reader to ask at the outset: What kind of world or society are we entering in this novel? What values do these characters have? What motivates them? How are they like us? How are they different from us?

Those are fair enough questions but the answers may vary depending on the reader. Tolstoy is a writer of vast knowledge and skill. It should be no surprise that readers can’t always agree on the meaning behind the epic story Tolstoy lays out before us. And make no mistake, there’s no doubt from page one that this will be an epic novel. In the background, just over the horizon, is the omnipresent threat of war. Specifically, there’s the threat of war with Napoleon.

With no preliminaries Tolstoy drops us into the midst of an upper-class Russian soiree. It’s polite society but war is obviously on everyone’s mind. One princess proclaims: “I can’t understand, I simply can’t understand why men can’t get on without war. Why is it we women want nothing of the sort?” This is an age old question: Would there still be wars if women ran the world? It’s as valid a question today as it was in Russia in 1805, maybe even more so. In 1805 it would have been unthinkable for a woman to serve as Secretary of State. It is possible in modern American society. So there’s at least one big difference in our respective cultures.

Another age-old question isn’t quite so clear: For men is marriage more a blessing or a curse? One of the main characters, Prince Andrey, is fairly recently married and is talking to one of his male friends: “tie yourself up with a woman, and, like a chained convict, you lose all freedom…Drawing-rooms, gossip, balls, vanity, frivolity – that’s the enchanted circle I can’t get out of. I am setting off now to the war, the greatest war there has ever been…” Is Prince Andrey complaining about being married or about having to attend all those soirees listening to gossip or is it something else entirely? Prince Andrey is married to one of the most charming and beautiful women in Russia. What’s he complaining about? Why is he gladly going off to war and leaving such a beautiful, loving wife behind?

It appears that Andrey is going off to war mainly to get away from his wife, or at least to get away from these god-awful soirees. Like most men he’s seeking adventure and like many men he isn’t finding it in marriage. Young men have a natural impulse to test themselves out in the real world – preferably against other young men if they get the chance. The best chance of all is a chance for glory in war. According to the princess who spoke at the soiree, “women want nothing of the sort.” Women mainly just want their men to settle down, marry them, love them and help them raise a family of their own. At least that seems to be the case in Russian society at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Whether it’s still true in modern America probably depends on the woman you talk to. There are more opportunities for young men these days and there are certainly more opportunities for young women. But there are still wars going on and there are still marriages taking place. The names and the places have changed. Life has not. Wars still take lives; marriages still produce babies. The human impulse to kill is still alive. The human impulse to love is still alive. And much to men’s chagrin, there are still soirees and parties and assorted social gatherings. Life goes on. Tolstoy reminds us of this fact in his great epic novel covering both war and peace.

-- RDP