War and Peace (4)
Tales of war flood my consciousness this Memorial Day weekend from listening to PBS (mostly D-Day) commemorations, playing Age of Empires, and reading War and Peace during my convalescence. Firstly, in order to face oncoming bullets, successful warriors ignore the danger to their person and see the enemy as a holistic unit, not a myriad of individuals, that must be subdued. In modern terms, one must have the ‘eye of the tiger’. Here’s how Tolstoy describes how Commander Tushin saw the oncoming French,
As a result of the dreadful rumbling, the noise, the necessity for attention and activity, Tushin did not experience the slightest unpleasant feeling of fear, and the thought that he could be killed or painfully wounded did not occur to him. On the contrary, he felt ever merrier and merrier.
[…] owing to the sight of all these [horrible] things, there was established in his head a fantastic world of his own, which made up his pleasure at that moment. In his imagination, the enemy’s cannon were not cannon but pipes, from which an invisible smoker released an occasional puff of smoke.
“Look, he’s puffing away again,” Tushin said to himself in a whisper, as a puff of smoke leaped from the hillside and was borne leftwards in a strip by the wind, (p. 193)
Secondly, I have noticed several times how Tolstoy likes to present contradictory images when describing something, usually people. Matthew talks about defamiliarization in his very interesting parts one and two, though he describes it as a different technique that seeks to use words in a self-conscious, or at least uncomfortable way that makes one look at familiar things more critically, if I’m understanding the concept correctly.Where one looks past appearance and finds a deeper reality.
I’ll pick out two striking examples in the text of contradiction used to the same end to illustrate my point, then go to Aaron’s post where he speaks of the contrast between war and beauty more generally.
First is at the dance during the Rostov’s namesday feast for the Natalia’s:
The count danced well and knew it, but his partner could not and would not dance well at all. Her enormous body stood straight, her powerful arms hung down (she had given her retiule to the countess); only her stern but handsome face danced. What was expressed in the whole round figure of the count, in Marya Dmitrievna was expressed in her ever more smiling face and ever more thrust-up nose. On the other hand, if the count, who got himself going more and more, fascinated he spectators by his unexpectedly deft capers and the light leaps of his supple legs, Marya Dmitrievna, by the slightest exertion in moving her shoulderrs or rounding her arms while turning or stamping, produced no less of an impression by its merit, which everyone appreciated in view of her corpulence and perpetual severity. (p. 69)
So does she dance well or not? On deeper examination, yes! And now to a wartime description, no less dance-like:
On the left flank, closest of all to Bagration, marched a company commander, a round-faced, stately man with a stupid, happy expression on his face, the same one who had come running from the lean-to. He was obviously thinking of nothing at that moment but the fine figure he would cut as he marched past his superior.
With a parade-like self-satisfaction, he marched lightly on his muscular legs, as if floating, holding himself straight without the least effort, and distinguishing himself by this lightness from the heavy tread of the soldiers who marched in step with him. He carried by his leg an unsheathed, thin, and narrow sword (a curved little sword, not resembling a weapon), and he lithely turned his whole strong body, looking now at his superior, now behind him, without losing step. It seemed that all the forces of his soul were aimed at marching past his superior in the best possible way, and, feeling that he was doing it well, he was happy. (p.184)
Skillful perhaps, but not done well. Yet during Tolstoy’s more critical moments, I can’t help feel a bit of a lack of charity towards the less dimensional secondary characters such as this one (his descriptions of the major characters are more balanced). Maybe because I’m reading it with the critique of Tolstoy’s pride provided by Christopher’s Orrologion who also sites Aaron’s Logismoi, in the back of my head.
Which brings me to the largest, and yet most redemptive contradiction yet from Aaron’s W&P part two:
Thus, we can see that War & Peace is not even among ‘the grimmest modern realism’. As Prince Mirsky notes, ‘The philosophy of the novel is . . . profoundly optimistic . . . The optimistic nature of the philosophy is reflected in the idyllic tone of the narrative. In spite of the horror—by no means veiled—of war, . . . the general message of War & Peace is one of beauty and satisfaction that the world should be so beautiful.’  It is for this reason that Tolstoy’s charactres are so surprised by the horror of war—it fits ill with the beauty of the world, which must exist in ‘spite’ of it. Think of Part 2 of Volume I of War when, superficially wounded, Nikolai Rostov thinks to himself of the approaching French, ‘Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?’  Then, recall by contrast the resignation of young Patroclus in Il. XVI, ll. 988-97, struggling for breath when Hector has speared him through the bowels:
His scholarly post makes me very glad that I recently finished the Iliad.