Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I am still quite certain that I also remember forgetfulness

Frank Kermode's 1965 collection of essays on fiction and time, The Sense of an Ending, begins with a lie:
It is not expected as critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.
I call this a lie because Kermode is in fact doing what most (if not all) art critics do: he is lecturing the reader about his view of the world, not about art. Possibly I'm always surprised when art criticism reveals itself to be a version of the personal essay; I picked up The Sense of an Ending because I thought Kermode was going to write about narrative form, about a writer's structural concerns with a well-shaped story that reinforce or defeat the impression of closure and finality at the end of a book. Kermode glances in that direction once or twice, but his concern is mostly with man's conception of time, and how we rely upon end-driven fiction (that is, stories where the action--the beginning and the middle--is explained and resolved by the ending) to placate ourselves as we live through disconnected eventful lives which will end in our personal deaths, meaningless random time ending in a meaningless nonexistence.

We tell organized stories with explanatory final acts so that we can tell ourselves that our lives are such stories, with meaning and internal connectedness and significance, which can all be charted and understood when we are no more. What is more, we tell ourselves these tales the whole lengths of our lives, rewriting the metastory as our personal events unfold; wherever we are now, it has been prefigured and determined by wherever we have been, and this now--the present, that is, at whatever point along our timeline you pick--becomes the endpoint (because we know of nothing beyond it, the future being impenetrable except through actual experience) by which our life must be explained. We are the authors of our personal narratives, and we are constantly rewriting those narratives to explain not the past, but the present.

Kermode sees, in the Apocalypse of John the Divine's Revelation, a story of the world, of mankind's complete history, that is end-directed and explains every moment of elapsed time, and claims the Apocalypse as a sort of backdrop to human thought (at least Western thought) from, I don't know, the Middle Ages to the present. Kermode seems to claim the Apocalypse as the form which "the modern novel" uses as a pattern, the beginning-middle-explanatory end of all stories, of all human awareness of the self existing in time. The organizing of our lives done by death, to the tick-tock of our clocks.

I'm not sure if Kermode really sees the Revelation as preceding the way we think about narrative, and the way he thinks writers are breaking away from a sort of predictable story structure. One of his ideas is that, because the End of All Things has been predicted over and over and over for centuries, and this prediction is always falsified (after all, here we still are and the world did not end in 1000, or 1033, or 1600, or 1666, or 1700, or etc up to the last time a millenial cult thought the aliens or God were coming to rapture them up), humanity no longer trusts the idea of a tidy end to a story, no longer believes that the end will explain and impose order upon the middle. We no longer believe life itself has a meaning at all, because we no longer believe in the orderly ending of things where God will come along and tie up all the loose ends for us. And so fiction has changed to reflect the indeterminate nature of resolution, of endings, and hence of middles and beginnings and all experience.

These are interesting arguments, and I find them more compelling as I write this than I did as I read Kermode's book. Kermode puts out a lot of moonshine as well, though, and as I read over my marginalia I see that I was having a running argument with old Frank. I do not believe, for example, that the Apocalypse precedes mankind's obsession with personal death (and I strongly doubt the universality of death fixation). Nor do I believe that it is an ur-form of the end-determined story: look at folktales, for example, look at all the stories written and told before the Revelation began to be widely known. For my part, I think John the Divine's Revelation is a metaphor for the life of a single man, the Christian life of temptation, battles against sin, and final redemption with life everlasting, a pre-Pilgrim's Progress that has been misunderstood as an end-of-times prophecy because the inner battle against evil followed by a promise of paradise rings true with many people, or at least it would be a beautiful story if it were true. And people tend to project upon the universe their dearly-held views of themselves, so the personal story becomes the story of the whole world. Somehow John's dream got stuck at the end of the New Testament and appears to bookend the story of humanity as told in the Bible, Genesis and Apocalypse bracketing all of time, giving a fixed shape to everything.

I also do not believe, as I said above, that obsession with death is as universal as Kermode seems to believe it is (I of course disagree here with Freud as well). I wondered how old Kermode was when he wrote The Sense of an Ending, and after I did a little math I saw that he was in his early 40s. He had, then, lived through the second World War, the origins of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War, and all sorts of rising crises. Kermode's concern, or at least one of his larger concerns in the mid-1960s when he was writing the lectures that became this book, was that he lived in "an age of crisis," where every moment was pre-apocalyptic, where the End could come at any time and nobody believed that the End had any meaning. Kermode was writing about his own existential angst, and using literary fiction as a stand in for his own way of thinking. I haven't really gotten into the details of how Kermode, like all critics, lies when he says he's talking about art rather than talking about himself and how he views the world. I guess I no longer see that fight as worth having. This is not the post I thought I was writing, but I think this is a better post, so well done me.

Last year, I think, I read The Classic, Kermode's book about why some art seems to resist the forces of time and cultural change that push other art into irrelevance. The Classic is much easier to understand than The Sense of an Ending, which is my way of saying that The Sense of an Ending is hard going sometimes, and I may be misunderstanding (and therefore misstating) Kermode's meaning.

This post, by the way, is part of Tom's Literary Criticism Readalong. Tom wrote at greater length about the Kermode, three or four posts plus bonus Sartre. Having not quite finished the book, I may have more to say in a few days. Maybe.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

a brief poem, briefly

Rewriting the Lake

A thing breaks the skin of silver water
Shadow briefly cast from deep beneath
Day behind day elapsed
No work has been done
The echoes of this movement swim outward
Ring and ring of expectation
Dying on the muddy shore
Whispering some broken promise

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

at least interesting to write

I have begun, after a quite long break from writing, to revise the manuscript of a novel I'm calling Antosha, or maybe Antosha in Prague. I go back and forth on that. Not that titles matter at this stage, and look at me, digressing already. That was quick.

I'm revising a novel, is what I'm doing these days. Actually, most of the revisions were finished last year; what I'm doing now is typing up all of those red-ink-done-by-hand revisions into the Word document on my laptop. When that's finished, I will read through the whole thing again, have Mighty Reader take it for a turn as well, and then off go a hundred query letters to literary agents, in the hope that one of these agents will represent the book and sell it to a publisher and I'll have a second novel out at long long last. We'll see how that goes.

This all means, I suppose, that I'm back to being a novelist. I have another book in draft form, something I finished earlier this year I think, that needs to be revised and shopped around to agents, but I have developed a method over the years for delaying revisions as long as I can, in order to forget as much as possible about the novel that I'll be revising. If that makes sense. Anyway, by my rules, I cannot start revising the drafted novel (Nowhere But North, for you scorekeepers) until I have another novel in draft form, which means that I need to write something. So I guess that means I'll start writing another novel this winter. Which is fine; I have a novel in mind. I actually began writing something new a year or more back, so I can just go ahead and finish that. I'm calling it, provisionally, Hilltop Stories, because it's a collection of linked stories set in a fictional Colorado town called Hilltop. There's a murder mystery of sorts that threads the stories together in a loose manner. I think it'll be pretty good. Or at least interesting to write.

Which will be good for me, that interest in writing. I confess that I have not been exactly inspired of late with this blog. My thanks to Mr Mudpuddle for playing along recently. I did think the War and Peace post would get more comments. This blogging project continues to baffle me.

Also, I seem to have stopped trying to write poems, but I keep reading poetry and books about poetry. I'm about halfway through Mary Kinzie's The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose, recommended by Marly Youmans. I don't know most of the poets Kinzie refers to, which is a) humbling, and b) a good list of pointers to future reading. One of the poems Kinzie includes in her book that I find exceptionally fine is this one, by Archie Randolph Ammons:

"Rainy Morning"

Sometimes the ridge across
the way transluminous
emerges above the mist
and squares and detached rondures
of vapory ground with
dairy barns and old trees
break out afloat
separated in high lyings.

Friday, October 12, 2018

just as awful as it sounds

The glow spread high in the western sky. The richness of the purple made him wonder if there might be a thin bank of clouds. A purple sunset was most unusual. There were subtle graduations of color from dark to light, as if blended by trailing a wide brush across wet rice paper. The softness of the purple implied the coming of spring. At one place the haze was pink. That seems to be where the sun was setting.
So far, I've read three of Yasunari Kawabata's novels: Snow Country, The Sound of the Mountain, and now Beauty and Sadness. Each of these novels features what I understand to be almost a stock character in Kawabata's work, an aging narcissist who becomes paralyzed by an awareness of his narcissism, and seeks some kind of sublime or transcendent moment in order to move beyond the sphere of his self-absorption. Usually this character engages with the fine arts in search of transcendence (western ballet, literature, and traditional theater for example). He fails, as his interest in the fine arts is primarily used as a mere ornament to his self image. These are melancholy, tragic novels of privilege, waste and ruin.

Beauty and Sadness is interesting in that the typical aging narcissist protagonist, Oki, has a sort of mirror image character in the form of a forty year-old woman named Otoko. Oki seduced Otoko twenty-four years before Kawabata's novel begins, when he was about forty and she was only fifteen. The brief relationship ended with Otoko losing Oki's child at birth and being committed for a time to a psychiatric ward, while Oki used his experience to write a novel called A Girl of Sixteen, which book launched Oki's successful career as an author. This is all just as awful as it sounds. Oki has his wife act as his amanuensis, and as she types up the manuscript of A Girl of Sixteen, she has a breakdown. Oki is vaguely aware of how awkward all of this is but sees no reason to be separated from Otoko, or from his own wife, or to change his own behavior in any way.

Still, Otoko disappears from Oki's life. He continues to write successful novels although his career is defined by and large by A Girl of Sixteen. Otoko goes to art school and in her late thirties--not long before Beauty and Sadness begins--her career as a painter takes off and she's able to move from Tokyo to Kyoto to set up a studio, into which she takes Keiko, a young painter, as an apprentice. Otoko is (not quite) to Keiko what Oki had been to Otoko twenty-four years earlier. Keiko is devotedly in love with Otoko, and is also quite mad. Her madness begins to intensify when Oki, who has longed for Otoko (or, rather, has longed for the imaginary version of Otoko he's carried in his memory for two decades) despite many other extramarital affairs, visits Otoko in Kyoto on New Year's Eve. Keiko is inflamed with jealousy, certain that Oki and Otoko remain deeply in love. Keiko begins to talk of revenge, of ruining Oki's marriage, of seducing and murdering Oki's adult son, of ruining the marriage of Oki's adult daughter. Otoko attempts to talk Keiko out of these plans, after learning that Keiko has visited Oki's home, leaving presents of artwork, and has spent a night with Oki at a hotel.

The book, though quite spare in terms of prose, is full of ideas, many of which I am sure I do not understand. A lot of Japanese literature is opaque to me because I don't recognize many of the cultural references. Beauty and Sadness is full of metaphor, and one of the few I think I recognize is that of the moss garden at the Saihō-ji Zen Buddhist temple, whose arrangement of stones was designed in the 14th century by a monk named Musō Soseki. Keiko and Otoko observe that the stones, the work of a man, are hard and enduring and have existed for centuries just as Musō Soseki placed them, while the artworks they themselves create are fragile and easily destroyed (indeed, Keiko expects that Oki's wife has already destroyed the three paintings she left at Oki's house). That's a metaphor I can understand. Keiko and Otoko are moved to react to life, to Oki and his actions, while Oki merely repeats one pattern and wonders how it will be to his advantage, though he is aware that something about the relationships he forms is not satisfying to the women in his life. Oki's novel A Girl of Sixteen is a permanent fixture in Otoko's life, a past that will not fade away, a stone monolith in a public place.
"You're more than I deserve. It's a love I never dreamed I'd find. Happiness like this is worth dying for..." Even now Oki's words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadness, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. 
 Otoko's art, on the other hand, means nothing to Oki, mere proof that his past lives on.
The Otoko of his memories was the most passionate woman he had ever known. And did not the vividness even now of those memories mean that she was not separated from him?
 His memories control her reality. The pleasant fantasy of a novelist.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

the figure upon the road

She said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.

And what sort of crisis might not this be in three lives whose contact with hers laid an obligation on her as if they had been suppliants bearing the sacred branch? The objects of her rescue were not to be sought out by her fancy: they were chosen for her. She yearned towards the perfect Right, that it might make a throne within her, and rule her errant will. "What should I do--how should I act now, this very day, if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three?"

It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving--perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

That is from Middlemarch, in the middle of Chapter 80, quite close to the end of the novel. Here Dorothea, the saint figure at the center of the story, tells herself to look beyond herself and help those whom she can see are in need (specifically Lydgate, Rosamund, and Ladislaw). Dorothea has spent the length of the novel planning to do good works, to have projects for building up people's lives. Most of these projects have been capital works projects like building new cottages for tenant farmers, or draining a meadow and constructing a brand new village and school. All good ideas, probably, but none of them are actually carried out.

One aspect of these public works is that they are aimed at helping an abstraction, "the needy," whoever they are. Dorothea doesn't actually know, personally, any needy people aside from Lydgate and Ladislaw, neither of whom is actually poor (Doctor Lydgate is deep in debt but he can manage a middle class lifestyle if need be, as could Ladislaw if he were only willing to work for money rather than to make a mark on history or whatever his hangup is). Dorothea does much better at being charitable when she steps into the lives of these neighbors, talking them through difficulties, giving them money, and of course marrying Ladislaw.

I'm not sure if it's Eliot's design to cast all of Dorothea's good intentions in the light of selfishness. But Dorothea certainly is motivated primarily by her image of herself, and that image remains the central point of her charity all through the novel. How she feels about her acts of charity, how that doing good will affect her, is more important than how it will make a difference to the recipient of the charity. I draw your attention to the passage quoted above. Perhaps I misunderstand the image, but as Dorothea opens her curtains and looks out on the morning landscape, she sees "a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby". I assume that this is a homeless family.* Dorothea is not the least moved by this tableau, and continues absolutely to "look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator". Here is immediate good you can do, I wish to say to her, to reach into the book and give old Dodo a hard shake. This family on the road is not an abstraction, is not part of the backdrop to your wealthy waffling in search of a charitable project worthy of you. Those are real people out there, Dodo. Alas, Dorothea's response to the problem of the poor is a typical one of her class, where she will give money to something she'd like to see built as long as she doesn't have to actually contact a poor person. Dorothea sits at Stone Court among the property and wealth of the late Edward Casaubon, wondering what to do. And then, of course, she gives it all up to marry Ladislaw, who she will support out of her own money, because she would much rather be happy than be good. Dodo, you could well have given all of Casaubon's property to charity before running off to London with Ladislaw. Though at the end, Dodo and Ladislaw are rewarded when their son inherits Mr Brooke's estate, allowing Dorothea to repudiate wealth but come into it again through no devices of her own.

As I say, I'm not sure of Eliot's intention, but I am not at all convinced that Dorothea Brooke is a reasonable parallel to St Theresa of Avila. Still, despite the muddled philosophy and ethics, Middlemarch is a pretty good book. Eliot was a sharp social critic and she knew how to create dramatic irony, setting up and then defeating the expectations of her characters and her readers, page after page.

* In retrospect, I can see that these figures can be interpreted in a number of ways, and there is no reason to think the man and woman are together, and the woman with her child could simply be a mother and child. But when I read the scene last night, I saw the figures as one group. In any case, I am inclined at this point to think of Middlemarch as a novel about selfishness and self-delusion, of people who mistake what it means to be good, who mistake the intentions of others, and who mistake the meaning of much human interaction. It's an oppressive little world in Eliot's novel. The only truly good person seems to be Farebrother, who has an appropriately Bunyanesque name.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Chapter 42

Mr. Casaubon was now brooding over something through which the question of his health and life haunted his silence with a more harassing importunity even than through the autumnal unripeness of his authorship. It is true that this last might be called his central ambition; but there are some kinds of authorship in which by far the largest result is the uneasy susceptibility accumulated in the consciousness of the author--one knows of the river by a few streaks amid a long-gathered deposit of uncomfortable mud. That was the way with Mr. Casaubon's hard intellectual labors. Their most characteristic result was not the Key to all Mythologies, but a morbid consciousness that others did not give him the place which he had not demonstrably merited--a perpetual suspicious conjecture that the views entertained of him were not to his advantage--a melancholy absence of passion in his efforts at achievement, and a passionate resistance to the confession that he had achieved nothing.

From Middlemarch, by George Eliot. That "autumnal unripeness of his authorship" is very good. I suspect Eliot knew people who labored long over research but never turned that research into anything, all the time imagining themselves the successful author of the book that never gets written.

A Count of many heads

My readers may not be aware of this, but Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace is pretty long. The edition I read (the Oxford World's Classics updated Aylmer translation in trade paperback) is about 1,350 pages including the end notes. A novel this long is bound to be baggy, to enclose within itself myriads, to be more than one thing. There's a lot of stuff in War and Peace, is what I'm saying. Every few hundred pages it can feel like a different book, and in fact my experience of reading War and Peace this time around has been one of periodically switching between many related novels written by different authors. War in Pieces, maybe. (I will warn you now that the excerpts below are quite long, because even the pieces of this novel contain myriads.)

The first part of War and Peace focuses mostly on the hatefully Frenchified nobility in Moscow, and I think of this writing as the work of an author I call Count Leo Tolstoy. Much of the action here takes place in drawing rooms, dining rooms, and ball rooms. I was reminded quite strongly of Proust during a lot of these party and dinner scenes. I think Marcel Proust was a fan of Count Leo Tolstoy.

“What a pity you weren’t at the Arkharovs’ on Thursday. It was so dull without you,” said she, giving him a tender smile.
The young man, flattered, sat down nearer to her with a coquettish smile, and engaged the smiling Julie in a confidential conversation without at all noticing that his involuntary smile had stabbed the heart of Sonya, who blushed and smiled unnaturally. In the midst of his talk he glanced round at her. She gave him a passionately angry glance, and hardly able to restrain her tears and maintain the artificial smile on her lips, she got up and left the room. All Nicholas’ animation vanished. He waited for the first pause in the conversation, and then with a distressed face left the room to find Sonya.
“How plainly all these young people wear their hearts on their sleeves!” said Anna Mikhaylovna, pointing to Nicholas as he went out. “Cousinage — dangereux voisinage;” she added.
“Yes,” said the countess when the brightness these young people had brought into the room had vanished; and as if answering a question no one had put but which was always in her mind, “and how much suffering, how much anxiety one has had to go through that we might rejoice in them now! And yet really the anxiety is greater now than the joy. One is always, always anxious! Especially just at this age, so dangerous both for girls and boys.”
“It all depends on the bringing up,” remarked the visitor.
“Yes, you’re quite right,” continued the countess. “Till now I have always, thank God, been my children’s friend and had their full confidence,” said she, repeating the mistake of so many parents who imagine that their children have no secrets from them. “I know I shall always be my daughters’ first confidante, and that if Nicholas, with his impulsive nature, does get into mischief (a boy can’t help it), he will all the same never be like those Petersburg young men.”
“Yes, they are splendid, splendid youngsters,” chimed in the count, who always solved questions that seemed to him perplexing by deciding that everything was splendid. “Just fancy: wants to be an hussar. What’s one to do, my dear?”
“What a charming creature your younger girl is,” said the visitor; “a little volcano!”
“Yes, a regular volcano,” said the count. “Takes after me! And what a voice she has; though she’s my daughter, I tell the truth when I say she’ll be a singer, a second Salomoni! We have engaged an Italian to give her lessons.”
“Isn’t she too young? I have heard that it harms the voice to train it at that age.”
“Oh no, not at all too young!” replied the count. “Why, our mothers used to be married at twelve or thirteen.”
“And she’s in love with Boris already. Just fancy!” said the countess with a gentle smile, looking at Boris’ and went on, evidently concerned with a thought that always occupied her: “Now you see if I were to be severe with her and to forbid it . . . goodness knows what they might be up to on the sly” (she meant that they would be kissing), “but as it is, I know every word she utters. She will come running to me of her own accord in the evening and tell me everything. Perhaps I spoil her, but really that seems the best plan. With her elder sister I was stricter.”
“Yes, I was brought up quite differently,” remarked the handsome elder daughter, Countess Vera, with a smile.

Count Leo Tolstoy's satirical comic novel of the Moscow parties is frequently broken into by Historian Leo, who gives us detailed and gripping battle scenes, all high drama, horses and blood.

Amid the smoke, deafened by the incessant reports which always made him jump, Tushin not taking his pipe from his mouth ran from gun to gun, now aiming, now counting the charges, now giving orders about replacing dead or wounded horses and harnessing fresh ones, and shouting in his feeble voice, so high pitched and irresolute. His face grew more and more animated. Only when a man was killed or wounded did he frown and turn away from the sight, shouting angrily at the men who, as is always the case, hesitated about lifting the injured or dead. The soldiers, for the most part handsome fellows and, as is always the case in an artillery company, a head and shoulders taller and twice as broad as their officer — all looked at their commander like children in an embarrassing situation, and the expression on his face was invariably reflected on theirs.
Owing to the terrible uproar and the necessity for concentration and activity, Tushin did not experience the slightest unpleasant sense of fear, and the thought that he might be killed or badly wounded never occurred to him. On the contrary, he became more and more elated. It seemed to him that it was a very long time ago, almost a day, since he had first seen the enemy and fired the first shot, and that the corner of the field he stood on was well-known and familiar ground. Though he thought of everything, considered everything, and did everything the best of officers could do in his position, he was in a state akin to feverish delirium or drunkenness.
From the deafening sounds of his own guns around him, the whistle and thud of the enemy’s cannon balls, from the flushed and perspiring faces of the crew bustling round the guns, from the sight of the blood of men and horses, from the little puffs of smoke on the enemy’s side (always followed by a ball flying past and striking the earth, a man, a gun, a horse), from the sight of all these things a fantastic world of his own had taken possession of his brain and at that moment afforded him pleasure. The enemy’s guns were in his fancy not guns but pipes from which occasional puffs were blown by an invisible smoker.
“There . . . he’s puffing again,” muttered Tushin to himself, as a small cloud rose from the hill and was borne in a streak to the left by the wind.
“Now look out for the ball . . . we’ll throw it back.”
“What do you want, your honor?” asked an artilleryman, standing close by, who heard him muttering.
“Nothing . . . only a shell . . . ” he answered.
“Come along, our Matvevna!” he said to himself. “Matvevna” was the name his fancy gave to the farthest gun of the battery, which was large and of an old pattern. The French swarming round their guns seemed to him like ants. In that world, the handsome drunkard Number One of the second gun’s crew was “uncle”; Tushin looked at him more often than at anyone else and took delight in his every movement. The sound of musketry at the foot of the hill, now diminishing, now increasing, seemed like someone’s breathing. He listened intently to the ebb and flow of these sounds.
“Ah! Breathing again, breathing!” he muttered to himself.
He imagined himself as an enormously tall, powerful man who was throwing cannon balls at the French with both hands.
“Now then, Matvevna, dear old lady, don’t let me down!” he was saying as he moved from the gun, when a strange, unfamiliar voice called above his head: “Captain Tushin! Captain!”
Tushin turned round in dismay. It was the staff officer who had turned him out of the booth at Grunth. He was shouting in a gasping voice:
“Are you mad? You have twice been ordered to retreat, and you . . . ”
“Why are they down on me?” thought Tushin, looking in alarm at his superior.
“I . . . don’t . . . ” he muttered, holding up two fingers to his cap. “I . . . ”
But the staff officer did not finish what he wanted to say. A cannon ball, flying close to him, caused him to duck and bend over his horse. He paused, and just as he was about to say something more, another ball stopped him. He turned his horse and galloped off.
“Retire! All to retire!” he shouted from a distance.
The soldiers laughed. A moment later, an adjutant arrived with the same order.

Historian Leo gives way to Philosopher Tolstoy, who will interject, every 200 pages or so, his theory that history is essentially unfathomable, that events have neither beginning nor ending, that famous men merely ride the waves of social forces and only believe themselves to be leading those waves because they are the most visible faces on the crest.

It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the way was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.
To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence — apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes — to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes — myriads of causes — coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.
The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power — the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns — should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.
We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.
Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.
There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.
Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.
“The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.”
A king is history’s slave.
History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.
Though Napoleon at that time, in 1812, was more convinced than ever that it depended on him, verser (ou ne pas verser) le sang de ses peuples — as Alexander expressed it in the last letter he wrote him — he had never been so much in the grip of inevitable laws, which compelled him, while thinking that he was acting on his own volition, to perform for the hive life — that is to say, for history — whatever had to be performed.

Philosopher Tolstoy passes the mic, as the kids say, to his brother Lev, who has read history and has axes to grind, particularly with a guy named Bonaparte. Lev doesn't seemed to have accepted Philosopher Tolstoy's claim that famous men are no more responsible for history than the most lowly of serfs, and is compelled to ridicule l'Empereur des Français.

Napoleon noticed Balashev’s embarrassment when uttering these last words; his face twitched and the calf of his left leg began to quiver rhythmically. Without moving from where he stood he began speaking in a louder tone and more hurriedly than before. During the speech that followed, Balashev, who more than once lowered his eyes, involuntarily noticed the quivering of Napoleon’s left leg which increased the more Napoleon raised his voice.
“I desire peace, no less than the Emperor Alexander,” he began. “Have I not for eighteen months been doing everything to obtain it? I have waited eighteen months for explanations. But in order to begin negotiations, what is demanded of me?” he said, frowning and making an energetic gesture of inquiry with his small white plump hand.
“The withdrawal of your army beyond the Niemen, sire,” replied Balashev.
“The Niemen?” repeated Napoleon. “So now you want me to retire beyond the Niemen — only the Niemen?” repeated Napoleon, looking straight at Balashev.
The latter bowed his head respectfully.
Instead of the demand of four months earlier to withdraw from Pomerania, only a withdrawal beyond the Niemen was now demanded. Napoleon turned quickly and began to pace the room.
“You say the demand now is that I am to withdraw beyond the Niemen before commencing negotiations, but in just the same way two months ago the demand was that I should withdraw beyond the Vistula and the Oder, and yet you are willing to negotiate.”
He went in silence from one corner of the room to the other and again stopped in front of Balashev. Balashev noticed that his left leg was quivering faster than before and his face seemed petrified in its stern expression. This quivering of his left leg was a thing Napoleon was conscious of. “The vibration of my left calf is a great sign with me,” he remarked at a later date.
“Such demands as to retreat beyond the Vistula and Oder may be made to a Prince of Baden, but not to me!” Napoleon almost screamed, quite to his own surprise. “If you gave me Petersburg and Moscow I could not accept such conditions. You say I have begun this war! But who first joined his army? The Emperor Alexander, not I! And you offer me negotiations when I have expended millions, when you are in alliance with England, and when your position is a bad one. You offer me negotiations! But what is the aim of your alliance with England? What has she given you?” he continued hurriedly, evidently no longer trying to show the advantages of peace and discuss its possibility, but only to prove his own rectitude and power and Alexander’s errors and duplicity.
The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words.
The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander — just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview.
“I hear you have made peace with Turkey?”
Balashev bowed his head affirmatively.
“Peace has been concluded . . . ” he began.
But Napoleon did not let him speak. He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.
“Yes, I know you have made peace with the Turks without obtaining Moldavia and Wallachia; I would have given your sovereign those provinces as I gave him Finland. Yes,” he went on, “I promised and would have given the Emperor Alexander Moldavia and Wallachia, and now he won’t have those splendid provinces. Yet he might have united them to his empire and in a single reign would have extended Russia from the Gulf of Bothnia to the mouths of the Danube. Catherine the Great could not have done more,” said Napoleon, growing more and more excited as he paced up and down the room, repeating to Balashev almost the very words he had used to Alexander himself at Tilsit. “All that, he would have owed to my friendship. Oh, what a splendid reign!” he repeated several times, then paused, drew from his pocket a gold snuffbox, lifted it to his nose, and greedily sniffed at it.
“What a splendid reign the Emperor Alexander’s might have been!”
He looked compassionately at Balashev, and as soon as the latter tried to make some rejoinder hastily interrupted him.
“What could he wish or look for that he would not have obtained through my friendship?” demanded Napoleon, shrugging his shoulders in perplexity. “But no, he has preferred to surround himself with my enemies, and with whom? With Steins, Armfeldts, Bennigsens, and Wintzingerodes! Stein, a traitor expelled from his own country; Armfeldt, a rake and an intriguer; Wintzingerode, a fugitive French subject; Bennigsen, rather more of a soldier than the others, but all the same an incompetent who was unable to do anything in 1807 and who should awaken terrible memories in the Emperor Alexander’s mind. . . . Granted that were they competent they might be made use of,” continued Napoleon — hardly able to keep pace in words with the rush of thoughts that incessantly sprang up, proving how right and strong he was (in his perception the two were one and the same)— “but they are not even that! They are neither fit for war nor peace! Barclay is said to be the most capable of them all, but I cannot say so, judging by his first movements. And what are they doing, all these courtiers? Pfuel proposes, Armfeldt disputes, Bennigsen considers, and Barclay, called on to act, does not know what to decide on, and time passes bringing no result. Bagration alone is a military man. He’s stupid, but he has experience, a quick eye, and resolution. . . . And what role is your young monarch playing in that monstrous crowd? They compromise him and throw on him the responsibility for all that happens. A sovereign should not be with the army unless he is a general!” said Napoleon, evidently uttering these words as a direct challenge to the Emperor. He knew how Alexander desired to be a military commander.

About a third of the novel is written by yet another author, the Romantic Count, who puts a lot of effort into manipulating the marriage plots, purifying the souls of couples-to-be so they are worthy of one another, and grinding inconvenient spouses/fiancees into dust beneath the wheels of narrative inevitability.

Natasha never remembered how she entered the drawing room. When she came in and saw him she paused. “Is it possible that this stranger has now become everything to me?” she asked herself, and immediately answered, “Yes, everything! He alone is now dearer to me than everything in the world.” Prince Andrew came up to her with downcast eyes.
“I have loved you from the very first moment I saw you. May I hope?”
He looked at her and was struck by the serious impassioned expression of her face. Her face said: “Why ask? Why doubt what you cannot but know? Why speak, when words cannot express what one feels?”
She drew near to him and stopped. He took her hand and kissed it.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, yes!” Natasha murmured as if in vexation. Then she sighed loudly and, catching her breath more and more quickly, began to sob.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I am so happy!” she replied, smiled through her tears, bent over closer to him, paused for an instant as if asking herself whether she might, and then kissed him.
Prince Andrew held her hands, looked into her eyes, and did not find in his heart his former love for her. Something in him had suddenly changed; there was no longer the former poetic and mystic charm of desire, but there was pity for her feminine and childish weakness, fear at her devotion and trustfulness, and an oppressive yet joyful sense of the duty that now bound him to her forever. The present feeling, though not so bright and poetic as the former, was stronger and more serious.
“Did your mother tell you that it cannot be for a year?” asked Prince Andrew, still looking into her eyes.
“Is it possible that I— the ‘chit of a girl,’ as everybody called me,” thought Natasha — “is it possible that I am now to be the wife and the equal of this strange, dear, clever man whom even my father looks up to? Can it be true? Can it be true that there can be no more playing with life, that now I am grown up, that on me now lies a responsibility for my every word and deed? Yes, but what did he ask me?”
“No,” she replied, but she had not understood his question.
“Forgive me!” he said. “But you are so young, and I have already been through so much in life. I am afraid for you, you do not yet know yourself.”
Natasha listened with concentrated attention, trying but failing to take in the meaning of his words.
“Hard as this year which delays my happiness will be,” continued Prince Andrew, “it will give you time to be sure of yourself. I ask you to make me happy in a year, but you are free: our engagement shall remain a secret, and should you find that you do not love me, or should you come to love . . . ” said Prince Andrew with an unnatural smile.
“Why do you say that?” Natasha interrupted him. “You know that from the very day you first came to Otradnoe I have loved you,” she cried, quite convinced that she spoke the truth.
“In a year you will learn to know yourself. . . . ”
“A whole year!” Natasha repeated suddenly, only now realizing that the marriage was to be postponed for a year. “But why a year? Why a year? . . . ”
Prince Andrew began to explain to her the reasons for this delay. Natasha did not hear him.
“And can’t it be helped?” she asked. Prince Andrew did not reply, but his face expressed the impossibility of altering that decision.
“It’s awful! Oh, it’s awful! awful!” Natasha suddenly cried, and again burst into sobs. “I shall die, waiting a year: it’s impossible, it’s awful!”

I'm not sure if Lev-with-the-axes-to-grind is also the author of the chapters that ridicule the military and it's hierarchy (in ways that reminded me a great deal of Heller's satire Catch-22), or if that was some other avatar of the Uberauthor. Those chapters of military ridiculousness, found mostly late in the middle of the book, are very good--some of my favorite bits, actually--and seem quite like precursors to a lot of antiwar novels that came in the wake of War and Peace. I was going to write a long essay about the similarities between War and Peace and Catch-22 until I realized that this would mean reading the Heller novel again, which I am unwilling to do (it's long, and frankly better in spirit than on the actual pages).

On the second of October a Cossack, Shapovalov, who was out scouting, killed one hare and wounded another. Following the wounded hare he made his way far into the forest and came upon the left flank of Murat’s army, encamped there without any precautions. The Cossack laughingly told his comrades how he had almost fallen into the hands of the French. A cornet, hearing the story, informed his commander.
The Cossack was sent for and questioned. The Cossack officers wished to take advantage of this chance to capture some horses, but one of the superior officers, who was acquainted with the higher authorities, reported the incident to a general on the staff. The state of things on the staff had of late been exceedingly strained. Ermolov had been to see Bennigsen a few days previously and had entreated him to use his influence with the commander in chief to induce him to take the offensive.
“If I did not know you I should think you did not want what you are asking for. I need only advise anything and his Highness is sure to do the opposite,” replied Bennigsen.
The Cossack’s report, confirmed by horse patrols who were sent out, was the final proof that events had matured. The tightly coiled spring was released, the clock began to whirr and the chimes to play. Despite all his supposed power, his intellect, his experience, and his knowledge of men, Kutuzov — having taken into consideration the Cossack’s report, a note from Bennigsen who sent personal reports to the Emperor, the wishes he supposed the Emperor to hold, and the fact that all the generals expressed the same wish — could no longer check the inevitable movement, and gave the order to do what he regarded as useless and harmful — gave his approval, that is, to the accomplished fact.
Bennigsen’s note and the Cossack’s information that the left flank of the French was unguarded were merely final indications that it was necessary to order an attack, and it was fixed for the fifth of October.
On the morning of the fourth of October Kutuzov signed the dispositions. Toll read them to Ermolov, asking him to attend to the further arrangements.
“All right — all right. I haven’t time just now,” replied Ermolov, and left the hut.
The dispositions drawn up by Toll were very good. As in the Austerlitz dispositions, it was written — though not in German this time:
“The First Column will march here and here,” “the Second Column will march there and there,” and so on; and on paper, all these columns arrived at their places at the appointed time and destroyed the enemy. Everything had been admirably thought out as is usual in dispositions, and as is always the case, not a single column reached its place at the appointed time.
When the necessary number of copies of the dispositions had been prepared, an officer was summoned and sent to deliver them to Ermolov to deal with. A young officer of the Horse Guards, Kutuzov’s orderly, pleased at the importance of the mission entrusted to him, went to Ermolov’s quarters.
“Gone away,” said Ermolov’s orderly.
The officer of the Horse Guards went to a general with whom Ermolov was often to be found.
“No, and the general’s out too.”
The officer, mounting his horse, rode off to someone else.
“No, he’s gone out.”
“If only they don’t make me responsible for this delay! What a nuisance it is!” thought the officer, and he rode round the whole camp. One man said he had seen Ermolov ride past with some other generals, others said he must have returned home. The officer searched till six o’clock in the evening without even stopping to eat. Ermolov was nowhere to be found and no one knew where he was. The officer snatched a little food at a comrade’s, and rode again to the vanguard to find Miloradovich. Miloradovich too was away, but here he was told that he had gone to a ball at General Kikin’s and that Ermolov was probably there too.
“But where is it?”
“Why, there, over at Echkino,” said a Cossack officer, pointing to a country house in the far distance.
“What, outside our line?”
“They’ve put two regiments as outposts, and they’re having such a spree there, it’s awful! Two bands and three sets of singers!”
The officer rode out beyond our lines to Echkino. While still at a distance he heard as he rode the merry sounds of a soldier’s dance song proceeding from the house.
“In the meadows . . . in the meadows!” he heard, accompanied by whistling and the sound of a torban, drowned every now and then by shouts. These sounds made his spirits rise, but at the same time he was afraid that he would be blamed for not having executed sooner the important order entrusted to him. It was already past eight o’clock. He dismounted and went up into the porch of a large country house which had remained intact between the Russian and French forces. In the refreshment room and the hall, footmen were bustling about with wine and viands. Groups of singers stood outside the windows. The officer was admitted and immediately saw all the chief generals of the army together, and among them Ermolov’s big imposing figure. They all had their coats unbuttoned and were standing in a semicircle with flushed and animated faces, laughing loudly. In the middle of the room a short handsome general with a red face was dancing the trepak with much spirit and agility.
“Ha, ha, ha! Bravo, Nicholas Ivanych! Ha, ha, ha!”

When I finished Tolstoy's novel, I read Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox, which is a long essay about Tolstoy's view of history as expressed in War and Peace. Berlin helped me to see that there are multiple Tolstoys authoring W&P because the novel is itself a long war--a series of bloody and confused battles--between a) Tolstoy's view that history is essentially an unknowable process too various and detailed to comprehend, and b) Tolstoy's view that the unknowable process of humanity can be understood at a personal, empathic, human level unexpressible in language. 

The romance/marriage plots of Nikolai, Marya, Alexei, Pierre and Natasha end with the characters all experiencing forms of this wordless understanding (their comprehension of humanity is bound by family and social ties--a very Russian sort of understanding of the world, as exemplified in the "war" half of the novel by Kutuzov, who rejects science and tactics and planning and feels his way through the war of 1812 by relying on his pure Russian "peasant" instincts (Tolstoy was after all heavily influenced by Rousseau's "state of nature" theory)). This instinctual and personal knowing is an idea less well thought out by Tolstoy than his rejection of history as a science, and I think Tolstoy recognized and was troubled by this. The story ends, after all, with precursors of the Decembrist revolt, which will catch Pierre in its wave, and about which Nikolai Rostov warns his friends that if there is revolution, he will stand with the Tsar and do whatever is necessary. "Peace" is an illusory temporary state, merely a gathering toward more war, who knows why. The book itself ends with Philosopher Tolstoy hammering away once again at his theory of history; he cannot shut himself up, because this theory, and the desperate but thwarted desire to personally experience the instinctive universal forces underlying humanity, are why Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in the first place.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Spouter Inn

Entering that gable-ended Spouter Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

Okay, we did not spend the last week at the Spouter Inn at Nantucket. We were however on the ocean for a few days, lodged in the very fine Herman Melville room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. The gray whales are migrating along the Pacific coast now, so we had ample opportunity to see them spout and feed and roll and dive and flip mighty tails skyward. A truly magnificent animal is the whale. The hotel room was stocked with the collected works of Melville, so I lay on the immense four-poster and read again my two favorite chapters of Moby-Dick ("Cetology" and "The Whiteness of the Whale"). We drank gin instead of rum, but I think that's probably fine. Anyway, I've been away (the Sylvia Beach Hotel has no wi-fi, no internet, and the library on the third floor is a "no cell phone" zone; a truly civilized place, I tell you) but soon I'll be hard at work commenting on other blogs and writing that threatened post about War and Peace. If, that is, I ever get over this damned cold.