Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our First Meeting

We had our first discussion this past Saturday at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood. We had a great time talking about the first 417 pages while drinking beer and eating elk chili. No photos were taken (an oversight on my part), and we didn't appoint anyone to take minutes. But I did want to record some impressions of the conversation. This post is by no means a transcript, but instead a riff on our discussion and two essays on Tolstoy by Isaiah Berlin that I read in the days following the discussion.

Early on, Jim R. made reference to the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs, a dichotomy that has been associated with Tolstoy ever since the publication in 1953 of Isaiah Berlin's celebrated essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (which you can read here, and which is also available in book form and in this volume).

Berlin begins by quoting from the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin uses this fragment to classify writers. The foxes pursue many interests and present a multifarious world without needing to bend their observations to a single unitary vision. The hedgehogs, on the other hand, do seek that type of unitary vision, at times even fanatically. Berlin offers Dante, Plato, Ibsen, and Dostoevsky as examples of hedgehogs; and Shakespeare, Montaigne, Balzac, and Joyce as examples of foxes.

Berlin offers the hypothesis that "Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog."

Our group marveled at Tolstoy's foxlike ability to go seemingly anywhere—from the battlefield to the drawing room to the highest realms of political and court life, as well as the most domestic scenes of family life. Despite his panoramic view of the world and the wide-angle scenes of battle he's able to provide, he is also able to zoom in on the most microscopic detail. For example, Chuck H. pointed out a great detail on page 121, when Zherkov prepares to leave on his horse and "it shifted its footing three times excitedly, not knowing which leg to start with, worked it out, and galloped off."

Details like that one that must have led Berlin to describe Tolstoy as "a creator of a world more real than life itself":

The celebrated life-likeness of every object and every person in his world derives from this astonishing capacity of presenting every ingredient of it in its fullest essence, in all its many dimensions, as it were ... always as a solid object, seen simultaneously from near and far, in natural, unaltering daylight, from all possible angles of vision, set in an absolutely specific context in time and space—an event fully present to the senses or the imagination in all its facets, with every nuance sharply and firmly articulated.

Yet Tolstoy the fox, Berlin argues, wanted to be a hedgehog. He "longed for a universal explanatory principle," and in some sense disdained his own writerly gifts which others so admired (as did Flaubert and Turgenev, for instance, both of whom disdained Tolstoy's flights into philosophical abstraction).

One feels Tolstoy's attraction to this universal, profound explanation in Andrei's near-death experience on the battlefield at Austerlitz (see the final chapter of Volume I), which, as Barbara O. noted, constitutes a remarkable epiphany. It's Andrei's abandonment of his previous search for personal glory in battle; his acceptance of his insignificance (as well as that of even the "great" Napoleon) before the infinity of the sky; his admission that "I knew nothing, nothing till now." And yet, in the end, what does he know now? Barbara wondered.

One thing seemed clear to me as a result of our discussion: that one of Tolstoy's greatest attributes as a writer is love. He loves the details of the world—for example, the horse that doesn't know in its excitement which foot it will start off with. He loves so many of the people that he's writing about, imperfect and human as they are: Pierre, Andrei, Marya, Natasha, Rostov, Denisov, and others. So I was gratified to read the following in another of Berlin's essays on Tolstoy ("Tolstoy and Enlightenment"), in which Berlin describes the "conditions of excellence in art" that Tolstoy laid out in an introduction to a Russion edition of the stories of Maupassant:

...he demanded of all writers, in the first place the possession of sufficient talent; in the second that the subject itself must be morally important; and finally that they must truly love (what was worthy of love) and hate (what was worthy of hate) in what they describe.

War and Peace, I think we all agreed after this first meeting, amply fulfills all three conditions. Tolstoy's talent seems so multifaceted and deep—and modern as well. This epic tale treats so many issues of moral importance—indeed, everything from war to peace—suggesting, for one thing, that in wartime as well as peacetime human beings do not really understand why they do what they do, cannot make sense of all the confusing and chaotic events taking place all around them, but only later fashion these experiences into narratives that, though incomplete or even false, are believed to be true. Lastly, though, I think it's Tolstoy's depth of writerly judgment that we find so enjoyable and engrossing: how much we trust that he does indeed hate what is worthy of hate and love what is worthy of love.

I'm really looking forward to the second meeting, scheduled for Saturday, July 16, at which we'll discuss pages 417-820. I hope to see you there.

1 comment:

  1. Frank's final comment on narrative was for me one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Andrei's understanding that he could not tell the truth because people would not accept it, that their pre-conceived notions of what a battle was like would get in the way of any true report he gave. Thus he was swayed into telling a cliche of battle by the social necessity of being believed. That idea is essential for anyone who wants not only to see the true nature of things (to whatever extent that is possible, given the conusing chatoic nature of both reality and our understanding of it) but also want to report or comment truthfully on that true nature as far as we can know it. I had a wonderful professor who said, "If you're not confused, you're not paying attention." Tolstoy is definitely paying attention--as are his characters. And his love affair is not just with the characters and with life in all of its inflections and manifestations, but also with that very chaotic, confusing aspect of our perceptions. He is willing to be confused and so show that in this multiplicity of perspectives that the novel presents. However, his desire to be a hedgehog creates Pierre's Masonic adventure and other attempts (like Andrei's lovely vision of the sky)to get a grip on the whole. However, it seems to me that the hedgehog is always wrong. There is not overriding principle or vision or meaning; nonetheless, without the hedgehog to paint a picture of wholeness, we are lost at sea, forever swimming in the details with no compass or sanity. As in most things, as Menelaus reminds us, balance is best and we must be both hedgehog and fox to be fully human, knowing that we achieve that only in rare moments of insight and selflessness. Barbara