Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

TOLSTOY: After the Ball

There’s a line from Plato’s Phaedrus lifted for the modern novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” That’s a good question. Do we need someone to tell us what “good” is? Can anyone, in fact, tell us what is good? In Tolstoy’s After the Ball the narrator starts his story this way: you say that a man cannot, by himself, understand what is good and evil… What a way to begin a story. We’re knee-deep in philosophy right out of the gate. Ordinary people don’t normally think about good and evil, much less whether we’re able to know it on our own. We just navigate our way through life picking up a little philosophy here and there along the way. But real philosophers ask questions. Sometimes they even try to answer them too. The novelist’s job isn’t the same as the philosopher’s job. Novelists try to show us new worlds and take us places we’ve never been before. This might include some physical geographical place we’ve never been, such as Russia. Or a story may just take us some place where we’ve never been within our own minds. After the Ball does both. The story is set in nineteenth-century Russia; upper class, militaristic Russia. Except for the details the story could have been set most anywhere. The general theme is about a young man named Ivan and how his boyish innocence becomes infected because of exposure to the darker side of life. The sub-theme is: a man cannot, by himself, understand what is good and evil… But a man might understand what evil is if it’s right in front of his nose. In this case, a soldier is being badly beaten by his comrades because he attempted to desert from the army. The punishment in Russia at that time was to “run the gauntlet” by letting fellow soldiers line up on both sides and then beat the deserter into a bloody pulp. Ivan sees this happening. The question in his mind becomes: isn’t it evil to beat your brother soldier senseless? How can this happen? Ivan wonders if the soldiers all know something that he doesn’t know. It must somehow be ok to punish deserters this way. Why else would the authorities let it happen? On the other hand, brutally beating another human being for any reason seems downright evil. The military commander might say: no, it’s not evil; firm discipline is necessary in a military unit. Tolerating deserters would be a worse evil than the punishment. Corporal punishment preserves the greater good of law and order within the army. So how does a sensitive young man like Ivan come to terms with the competing claims of good and evil? Some people believe that it is all environment, the environment swamps the man. Our cultural environment is our primary teacher and ultimately determines how we classify some things as good and other things as bad. The way to make young people good is to change their social conditions and educate them to appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful. In Ivan’s Russia desertion was bad, very bad. The way to make good soldiers is to enforce military rules with harsh discipline. Ivan understands this viewpoint but still says I believe it is all chance. (Thus spoke our excellent friend, Ivan Vasilievich, after a conversation between us on the impossibility of improving individual character without a change of the conditions under which men live…) Ivan’s whole life wasn’t changed by a government-sponsored program. It was changed because he just happened to witness one incident of harsh military discipline; purely by accident. Is it possible that one little incident can change a man’s whole life? Ivan himself says Yes; such chances arise, and they alter and direct a man's whole life… This attitude sounds a little bit like the ancient Greek concept of Fate, but with a twist: Fate is written in stone and can’t be altered, even by Zeus. Chance is arbitrary; a whole life can be changed in the blink of an eye. For Tolstoy good and evil never change. Ivan found this out when he heard the soldier crying: 'Brothers, have mercy on me! Brothers, have mercy on me!' But the brothers had no mercy… Tolstoy asks the reader: do we really need anyone to tell us that this is not good?


Post a Comment

<< Home