This week’s reading covered Volume II, Parts III and IV, in which we jump to 1809 (then back to 1808), Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons and agrees to remarry Helene, Boris and Natasha end their courtship, Andrew (Andrei) sets his sights on Natasha despite Pierre’s protestations, and Nicholas (Nikolai) vows to marry Sonya.
In parts III and IV of Volume II, there is very little of what I would call entertainment, but this is one of the more interesting sections of the novel due to the narrative being driven by a simple, yet complex, question: “What does it mean to life a good life?”
So far, we’ve seen almost every character’s attempt at success or happiness foiled. Pierre thought he would find existential peace through the Freemasons but he’s made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Andrew has become disheartened with his forays into both the military and the government. Marya is desperate for religious belonging, but she still feels something is missing. Natasha’s impending marriage to Boris has fallen apart. Nicholas intends to marry Sonya, much to the disapproval of his family. And the list goes on.
There was an undertone of cynicism to Part III, a cynicism I was long expecting but haven’t quite seen yet. (I just assume that every big-ass Russian novel will be sad as fuck.) And maybe I’m just in a bitter place in my life, but I enjoyed it. Tolstoy seems to foreshadow that every effort to improve someone’s life will ultimately end up fizzling out. Things are doomed to failure.
Pierre is nurturing a romance between Andrew and Natasha as part of his Masonic values, even though he, himself, is starting to develop feelings for the girl. Andrew, on the other hand, is pursuing a girl who is almost half his age (I think?). He hopes that her youthful attitude will rub off on him, but this, too, seems unrealistic (because he’s a sad sack, ultimately). Marya’s decision to join the People of God seems desperate, at best.
Nothing is going well. Pierre can’t seem to shake his feelings for Natasha (this is going to get naaaaasty), Andrew’s father is quite opposed to a marriage to Natasha but Andrew doesn’t care, Marya wants this religious awakening but can’t leave her family in order to do it.
So what’s Tolstoy saying? I don’t really think he’s arguing that nothing good ever comes or that change is meaningless and/or always a bad thing. I think he’s saying that change is ultimately decided by powers much larger than ourselves. We can make plans and tough decisions and really strive for our dreams, but we’re just incredibly fallible. Often, the things we want just exceed our grasp.
In the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about this section and about our own limitations. I’m 33 going on 40, it feels. I have dreams. I have desires. I have a version of my life that I thought I’d have by now, but don’t. Sometimes that gets me down, sometimes I surrender to the vastness of it all and I’m at peace with it. Which is the right frame of mind? Is there one? Am I not doing enough? Am I doing too much?
It all comes down to fulfillment for me, and, I think, Tolstoy as well. In Part III, that fulfillment is seen more as a struggle between physical and spiritual fulfillment. Often we’re seeking both, but each of these kind of eats away at the other. Can we have both? Should we?
I’m quite interested in Natasha at this point. Before I started reading War and Peace, I was under the impression that she played a large role in the story. Thus far, Tolstoy has only doled her out in tiny drips. Now that we’ve had our first time jump, and Natasha is approaching womanhood, she is finally coming into her own as a character. Tolstoy is teasing a love triangle between her, Pierre, and Andrew, which is actually really interesting given the qualities she brings out in them both.
Natasha’s big draw is that she has this inborn ability to find joy in her life. She projects the fulfillment–the spiritual fulfillment–that other characters are looking for. But she does this by living her life, not shying away from it.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil … Because There is No Evil
As interesting as War and Peace has been, I’ve taken so much more pleasure from all of the reading I’ve been doing about Tolstoy and his personal journals. They tend to distill a lot of what he says in his novels. Much easier than reading 1500 page books.
This past week I read a wonderful piece on Brain Pickings about him, and his approach to evil and redemption.
In a journal entry five months before his death, Tolstoy wrote:
“There is no evil. Life is a blessing. If it is not, then know that you are at fault. And you have been given time to correct your error, to have the joy (the highest blessing) of correcting your fault. That is the only reason for time. If you do not correct your fault, it will be corrected against your will — by death. Yes, life is a blessing. There is no evil. There are only our faults, faults in general and our personal ones, and we have been given the joy through time of correcting them. And there is the greatest joy in correcting them.”
I love the line about the “only reason for time.” Time gives us a chance at redemption. If you’re not redeeming yourself–constantly–you’re wasting what you’ve been given. This notion of a “reason” for time feels almost otherworldly to me, godlike even. Time is linear to give us a purpose, to drive us forward. I will be chewing on that line for a while.
For Tolstoy, the faults he mentions were often attached to physical gratification. The very next day, he wrote the following:
“Our life is a quest for gratification. There is physical gratification in health, in satisfying the lusts of the body, in wealth, sexual love, fame, honor, power. All these gratifications 1) are outside our control, 2) may be taken away from us at any moment by death, and 3) are not accessible to everyone. But there is another kind of gratification, the spiritual, the love for others, which 1) is always in our control, 2) is not taken from us by death, and we can die loving, and 3) not only is accessible to all, but the more people live for it, the more joy there will be.”
It reminded me a lot about what Pierre is going through in Volume II, with his search for spiritual fulfillment. Pierre, too, is plagued by lust. I constantly see Tolstoy in Pierre, to the point where I’m trying not to see him as a straight proxy. I’m sure there are many ways in which they differ, but they’re harder to see.
Tolstoy’s lack of labeling–good or bad, right or wrong–is quite freeing. There is no evil, there are simply mistakes. And where evil is something inside you, something intrinsic, mistakes can be corrected. They can be dealt with. They can be fixed.
When I read this, I was reminded about a quote from Andrew in Volume II, when he argued with Pierre about joining the Freemasons, and spoke about this notion of right and wrong.
“It’s not given to people to judge what’s right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more so than in what they consider right and wrong.”
I’m becoming more and more aware of Andrew’s conviction that morality is a moving target and that what is considered “right” by society today may, in fact, be considered “wrong” soon after. The only thing to do, then, is to strive for what you, as an individual, think is best.
In a sense, history is something like fate. Fate is history. We are all so small that we’re simply swept up in its flow. No matter what we do, we’re inevitably heading towards the same pre-destined place.