by Hari Balasubramanian
I finished reading War and Peace recently. It took me three years but I did try to read it carefully. Tolstoy defined art “as that human activity which consists in one person's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he or she has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.” This is a wonderfully robust definition – especially because it does not impose which types of “human activity” or “external signs” qualify. And I was certainly infected by the themes of War and Peace: I felt on many occasions that the book was speaking especially to me. I took notes and copied down everything that struck me.
War and Peace operates in two distinct parts. There's the story of two upper class Russian families and individuals – the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the inimitable Pierre Bezukhov – whose lives are directly affected by the Napoleonic wars from 1805-1812, including the French invasion of and subsequent retreat from Moscow. Here the narrative flows so seamlessly from one character to another, from one high society intrigue to the next, and so clear is the psychological detailing that it never feels like anything is being overdone. This despite the fact that Tolstoy likes to intervene constantly. His style goes against the “show but don't tell” advice that is nowadays given to writers. He takes great pains to tell us what's going on in each character's mind, how things have changed since we last met this or that person. Everything, internal or external – estates, battlegrounds, soirees, dinners, military offices, forests – is described with great precision. Sudden twists are not Tolstoy's style; the suspense instead comes from how a character will respond to changes in her circumstances.
The other part of War and Peace consists of what can only be called the author's own essays. Tolstoy inserts them throughout the book at regular intervals, having put the story on pause. The essays, though long-winded and difficult to get through, are nevertheless an integral part of the book. Tolstoy uses them to continually emphasize how difficult it is to attribute causes to events in history, how the so called “big men” such as Napoleon (whom Tolstoy particularly dislikes) do not have the kind of agency that historians like to credit them.
The gist of these essays is best illustrated by an analogy Tolstoy uses. In classical mechanics, Tolstoy notes, the continuous motion of an object or a combination of objects is accurately described and predicted by the integration of infinitesimally small quantities. The development of calculus in the 17th century made this possible. Likewise history too is continuous and can only be approached as an integral, as “the sum of all individual wills”. The historian's typical approach, however, is to isolate discrete events or periods, assume that they are independent, and assign proximate discrete causes to the events. By this method, powerful individuals such as Napoleon, are said to cause events and drive history. But are such conclusions really correct? What of the wills the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and other citizens across Europe and Russia who were involved? In Tolstoy's view “only by admitting an infinitesimal unit for observation – a differential of history, that is, the uniform strivings of people – and attaining to the art of integrating them (taking the sums of these infinitesimal quantities) can we hope to comprehend the laws of history.”
Tolstoy wrote this in the 1860s. In 2015, the laws of history are still not clear. There seems to be no way to define a “differential of history” let alone integrate “individual wills”. We still have lengthy, inconclusive debates on what exactly caused an event. We can sense, intuitively, that there are innumerable causes which we cannot fully list, all of which interact in complex ways. Nicholas Nassim Taleb described it well in The Black Swan: “History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history.”
The Inner Work of Pierre Bezukhov
There's a lot more one can say about the analytical or theoretical parts of War and Peace. But the main focus of this piece is Pierre Bezukhov.
Pierre Bezukhov and two pairs of siblings – Natasha and Nikolai Rostov; Marya and Andrei Bolkonsky – make up the five major characters of the book. Each has a different personality but they share important features. They are all extremely sincere. They introspect a lot, learn lessons from the major events in their lives and are aware of their flaws. They continuously seek happiness, the kind of happiness that does not depend on external circumstances. At least three of them – Pierre, Andrei and Marya – are engaged in some kind of religious or spiritual search or a search for meaning and wisdom.
The phrase that comes up in the book a few times is “inner work”. And I felt the inner work of Pierre Bezukhov especially crystallizes what Tolstoy is trying to convey. In what follows, I provide a compressed chronological version of Pierre's development in three parts along with key quotes. I can't claim that what I present is original. War and Peace has been endlessly analyzed and I may well be repeating what more qualified readers and critics have already noted. Also there are spoilers here, though I tried to minimize them by mainly focusing on Pierre's questions. All the quotes are from the acclaimed Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. The artistic rendition of Pierre Bezukhov by D. Shmarinov is from this website. The collage of Napoleon's invasion and retreat from Russia is from here.
“What for? Why? What's going on in the world?”
When War and Peace begins in 1805, Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a wealthy count, has just
returned from Europe. He is a good-natured but bumbling, absent-minded and somewhat naïve. He admires Napoleon. He is not particularly interested in wealth but loves the good life. Physically, he is big and fat; he eats and drinks a lot. His father's exceptional wealth, which he accidentally inherits, brings him naturally into the orbit of Russian high society. He is introduced to Elena, the daughter of the well connected Prince Kuragin. Infatuated with Elena's beauty, he marries her. But quickly it becomes clear there is no real connection. When Elena flirts with a Russian officer, Dolokhov, Pierre nonetheless becomes jealous and challenges Dolokhov to a duel. He injures Dolokhov in the leg but the matter is hushed up. Pierre gets away with the implications. Afterwards Pierre has a quarrel with Elena who taunts him, and they separate.
This is exactly the point at which Pierre's inner work begins. While traveling, he has a chance meeting with a man who belongs to the “brotherhood of Freemasons“. Pierre has no belief in God or religious abstractions. In the past he even made fun of Masonic beliefs. But Pierre is fascinated by this stranger who argues convincingly that “the supreme wisdom is not based on reason alone” and can only be obtained by purifying oneself inwardly. With his life in disarray, Pierre is eager to embrace something that will give him purpose. He becomes a Mason, putting himself through the cultish initiation rituals of the brotherhood. Despite the strangeness of these rituals, Pierre is rejuvenated by the message of the Masons that “the source of blessedness is not outside, but inside us.”
Moments like this, however, are always fleeting in Tolstoy's world. Like life itself everything moves and changes. Just when you think there is some kind of stability, it begins to disappear. So it is with Pierre's Masonic moment. Even as he becomes an advocate of his new beliefs, Pierre notices that his excesses in food, wine and the amusements of “bachelor parties” (Tolstoy's phrase for the company of women) continue as before.
As he participates in events of the society around him and leads a dissipated life, a doubt keeps nagging him:
“What for? Why? What's going on in the world?”
He also notices that everyone around him seems to be doing something to distract themselves so as to fill the gaps in their life:
“Sometimes Pierre remembered stories he had heard about how soldiers at war, taking cover under enemy fire, when there is nothing to do, try to find some occupation for themselves so as to endure the danger more easily. And to Pierre all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life; some with ambition, some with cards, some with drafting laws, some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with politics, some with hunting, some with wine, some with affairs of the state. “Nothing is trivial or important, it's all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!” thought Pierre. “Only not to see it, that dreadful it.” [Tolstoy's italics.]
How relevant these observations are even today! As if the activities of our “physical self” aren't enough – all the occupations and hobbies Pierre mentions above – we now have the innumerable pleasures and distractions of a life online! I was also struck by the claim: “Nothing is trivial or important; it's all the same.”
“A limit to suffering and a limit to freedom…”
In 1811 and 1812 – the years the Great Comet could be seen in the night sky – Pierre is caught up in the Russian resistance to the looming French advance. It endows Pierre, whose life had been drifting aimlessly, with a new purpose. He is not capable of serving as a soldier. But he attends meetings where funds are being raised for the militia; he cooks up occult theories that suggest that he himself will somehow obstruct Napoleon's apocalyptic advance. He feels a need to “undertake something and sacrifice something” though he cannot articulate “what he wanted to sacrifice it for”.
This begins a fascinating phase where the clumsy and militarily clueless Pierre walks straight into the war when all other citizens are trying to escape. We see the great Battle of Borodino through Pierre who, in good humor, blunders on to the most dangerous parts of the battlefield. Initially considered a nuisance, the soldiers slowly take a liking to this strangely dressed Russian count unexpectedly in their midst. We see him on the retreat along with soldiers. We see the burning of Moscow after the city has emptied out and Napoleon's army occupies it. Pierre stays on in Moscow, has comical plans of assassinating Napoleon with a pistol he possesses, ends up rescuing those trapped in fires, gets arrested for arson (something he was never guilty of), observes the harrowing public execution of fellow prisoners and himself narrowly escapes from being executed. Finally, he travels as a prisoner along with others under the harshest physical conditions as Napoleon's army begins to retreat from Moscow.
It is in these challenging external circumstances – the three week walk in captivity, away from Moscow – that Pierre gains his deepest insights.
He learns “not with his mind, but with his whole being”. He notices, to his own surprise, his ability to adapt to the difficulties very well. Depleted French reserves mean that Pierre is fed horsemeat, which he finds “tasty and nutritious” and “the saltpeter bouquet of gunpowder they used instead of salt was even agreeable”. It is fall, the weather is cold, but walking keeps him warm and even “the lice that ate him warmed his body pleasantly”. His feet are full of sores and are frightful to look at, but Pierre simply and very naturally thinks of other things. This teaches him “the saving power of the shifting of attention that has been put in man, similar to the safety valve in steam engines, which releases the extra steam as soon as the pressure exceeds a certain norm”.
A fellow prisoner, a peasant foot-soldier named Platon Karataev, inspires Pierre with his genuine simplicity and cheer.
Pierre realizes that “as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, so there is no situation in which he can be perfectly unhappy and unfree.” Further:
“He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are very close; that a man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up; that when he used to put on his tight ballroom shoes, he suffered just as much as now, when he walked quite barefoot (his shoes had long since worn out) and his feet were covered with sores. He learned that when, by his own will, as it had seemed to him, he had married his wife, he had been no more free than now, when he was locked in a stable for the night.”
What really elevates these sentences is the quality of the examples and the contrasts they set up. The claims are simple yet striking. They are those truths that we perhaps know intuitively but have not articulated yet.
“People must join hands…”
Pierre is eventually rescued, and with the war finally reaching its end, he returns to normal life. Even though he falls ill, he is filled joy and recovers. When, “by old habit”, he asks himself: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” immediately the answer comes to him: “Nothing. I'll live. Ah, how nice!”
The search for a purpose, Pierre has realized, is precisely that which keeps one unhappy. The purpose seems simply to live, to get on with things cheerfully if possible, rather than looking for abstractions. Pierre has emerged a renewed man.
But just because we've gained some wisdom does not necessarily mean that we will adhere to it all the time. We see this again and again in War and Peace. (It also works the other way: a lack of enthusiasm for life never lasts either and a person finds himself revived one way or another.) Prince Andrei, Pierre's friend, keeps experiencing blissful moments when he feels that the world has been transcended. Such as when, lying injured at the Battle of Austerlitz, he glimpses something indescribably special in the “lofty sky”, something that renders everything else insignificant. But however profound such moments may be, they always fade. Prince Andrei's sister, Marya Bolkonsky, who unlike her atheist brother and father, is devout, has an unshakeable faith, and tries very hard to elevate her character through religion – Marya discovers again and again that despite her best efforts and sincere intentions all kinds of irritations and jealousies torment her.
Pierre changes at the end too, but it's a lot more subtle. The Epilogue is set a few years after the war. Pierre is happily married and has children. He retains much of his newfound joy in life; people still love to be around him. You would think this would be a good way to finish, literally a “happily ever after” ending. But somehow, inexplicably, Pierre now decides to participate in political intrigue. He has just returned from an important meeting in Petersburg. He feels the current administration in Petersburg is not doing the right things, there's “thievery in the courts”, “what is young and honest, they destroy”. So “people must join hands, in order to avoid the general catastrophe”.
War and Peace ends with Pierre hinting at the creation of a rebel group – something's cooking, and it will eventually lead to the Decembrists revolt of 1825. So Pierre, who had learned from his experiences in war a few years back that there is no need for abstract purposes, now ends up again arguing for and participating in one.
To the very end, Tolstoy remains faithful to the fact that not even the most profound realizations withstand the dynamism and change that is life.