Monday, July 25, 2011

Our Second Meeting

We had our second group meeting on Sunday. We met at the Bottleworks again, and we discussed up to page 820 in the novel.

Among the topics discussed: Natasha's age when she attends her coming-out ball; a comparison of the character arcs of Andrei and Pierre; the wolf hunt; War and Peace as an epic; its possible similarities to Moby-Dick in that regard; whether it's still true, if indeed it ever was, that leaders have no real control over large-scale human events, as Tolstoy asserts; and various other topics that slip my mind at the moment (perhaps my fellow group members could chime in if I missed something noteworthy).

I think my favorite turn in the discussion was when we looked at this wonderful passage in which Tolstoy, describing the various generals who comprise the war council, identifies them by their national characters, which he distinguishes on the basis of why each is self-assured:

...only Germans can be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea—science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth. A Frenchman is self-assured becasue he considers himself personally, in mind as well as in body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is an citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows that everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it possible to know anything fully. (639)

Tolstoy is almost entirely uninterested in Americans, but of course we had to ask the question: Why are Americans self-assured?

At first we thought maybe it had to do with military might, but then we decided that wasn't it. Americans are self-assured, we decided, because they believe that anything is possible (even when it manifestly isn't). It's why, according to the Swedish coach of the women's World Cup soccer team, the Americans persisted in the face of seemingly fated defeat and ended up winning against Brazil. It's also why many Americans resist more progressive taxation on the wealthy, because they believe that someday they may be wealthy, too.

In any case, it was a great afternoon and a very enjoyable discussion. Although the end of the summer vacation is always a bittersweet time, our final discussion, re-scheduled for August 28th, gives me something to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary, Frank. As usual, you make a chaotic, but fun talk sound heady and coherent! I press on toward the final pages. Barbara