Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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


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