War and Peace Readalong, Part 5: Comets Always Fuck Shit Up

Thanks to a bit of illness last week, I had to double up this week’s reading and cover Volume II, Part V, and Volume II, Parts I and II. If you’re interested in the domestic parts of these sections, please refer to my fellow #warandpeacenewbies‘ articles. For my purposes this week, I’m sticking to Pierre, the Great Comet, and the War that is now in full swing.


Pierre Finds His Morality

Up until this point, Pierre’s new lifestyle hasn’t allowed him many opportunities to claim the moral high ground. For the most part, it’s afforded him the chance to drink his face off, get into all sorts of high jinks, and fuck a bunch of people. Despite his Masonic leanings, he hasn’t exactly been virtuous up until this point. But when he refused to take advantage of a vulnerable, confused Natasha, he put virtue ahead of his own carnal desires for the first time in … well … ever?

Given that Pierre is essentially a simulacrum of Tolstoy, this moment felt more important than Natasha’s brush with disaster. Despite the fact that Pierre is only the focus of the section’s first and last chapters, his journey felt the most significant. In a way, Natasha’s challenges felt like a necessary interlude in Pierre’s story, a bridge that would take Pierre from one position to another. Her circumstance simply provides Pierre with the opportunity to be a moral man.

(I’m not sure if that’s sexist of me, or sexist of Tolstoy, but it’s probably sexist of one of us.)

The significance of this moment is further evidenced by Pierre’s experience with the Great Comet at the conclusion of Volume II.

This was an actual event back in 1811 (and part of 1812). The comet appeared in the sky and remained extremely bright for an incredible 260 days. At the time it happened, most Russians saw the comet as an ill omen, a sign of imminent invasion by Napoleon. Tolstoy plays with this fact, though, by turning it into a symbol of transformation, of happiness, of peace within Pierre.

Right after dedicating himself to a selfless kind of love for Natasha–rather than just relegating her to a citizen of “bone city“–Pierre sees the Great Comet. What greater sign of approval could there be? His new selfless worldview seems anointed by God, in a sense.

Tolstoy loves to relate the grand and the small, the heavenly and the earthly. As a metaphor, I loved the inclusion of the comet. Tolstoy is connecting the workings of God (the comet) with the inner workings of simple individuals. Everything is connected.

Like Stones in a River

Notice how Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are used in this story. For all the drama that surrounds these characters, for all the larger-than-life qualities they represent as real world figures who played massive roles in this conflict, Tolstoy keeps them largely at arm’s length. We rarely seem them make any maneuvers. We never get to see them as intimately as Andrew or Pierre or Nicholas. They are always at a distance. And I don’t think this is accidental. What it creates is a sense that these men weren’t meaningful because of specific battle plans or double-crosses, they were symbols of their movements, representations of entire peoples.

Much of Volume III, Part II was about fate. The first chapter was largely a history lesson–albeit, an important one. But the chapters afterward all concerned themselves with a thread I’ve noticed throughout War and Peace: that the decisions of individuals have little to no effect on the greater course of history. We’re like stones in a river. We can make ripples, but we can’t change its course.

Despite being a war hero, Nicholas is disgusted by fighting and his actions haven’t won or lost anything; the nobility make grand gestures to support the war even though it seems inevitable that Moscow will be destroyed; Pierre makes desperate overtures toward a new life and feels validated by the presence of the comet, even though it has nothing to do with him at all. One might take Tolstoy to be a cynic at this point. Anyone who argues that the actions of the individual are meaningless has to be a fatalist. But I think Tolstoy is more making a point about civilization. The grand scheme is more powerful than any of us. We all have our parts to play but no one is bigger than the whole.

The Limits of Language

When it comes to Pierre’s short and not-so-sweet military career, I’m at odds deciding whether it’s a hilarious or just plain sad.

There are examples on both sides. Like a Russian Jar Jar Binks, he comically wanders around the battlefield and happens to fall into the war’s most violent situations. But at the same time he watches men being killed and comes to understand the true horrors of war. Like Andrew and Nicholas before him, Pierre’s opinion of war dramatically changes after being in one.

After Part II (Volume III), I was left wondering about the limitations of literature, or language, even. These things can never really portray horror in any accurate sense. No book is going to prepare you for murder, or sex, or betrayal, or happiness for that matter.

Or victory.

After the win at Borodino, Tolstoy writes that, “It was not the sort of victory that is determined by captured pieces of cloth on sticks, known as standards, and by the amount of ground the troops stood and stand on, but a moral victory, the sort that convinces the adversary of the moral superiority of his enemy and of his own impotence.”

There are cliches about what war is really about: patriotism, heroism, bravery, independence, even love. But Tolstoy kind of tears those cliches away a little bit, and suggests that the usual terms used to describe war–at least to the masses–aren’t of any use when it comes down to it. When you’re in the mud and muck of it, there’s a lot more nuance to the thing.

8 thoughts on “War and Peace Readalong, Part 5: Comets Always Fuck Shit Up

  1. My knowledge of history of this time period in particular is pretty shoddy, so in this section I was mostly like Pierre, wandering around and accidentally finding myself in the middle of (reading about) a battle, so I greatly enjoy your comparison of Pierre to Jar-Jar Binks. The apparent randomness with which he wanders into the war is very telling, especially as he seems to be as surprised as readers are that he has ended up in the thick of a proper, real-life, blood-and-guts-everywhere battle. Perhaps it comes as something of a reality check for the two worlds of ‘war’ and ‘peace’ which now even characters such as Pierre are crossing. I think it also speaks to the passages where the salon life in the city was carrying on regardless of the impending march of the Napoleonic forces, and the way that the Bolkonskys stayed in the Bald Hills until they absolutely had to leave and, even then, there were problems in doing so. I’m only just warming up to Andrey as a character but I was strangely moved by the scene where he visits the estate when his battalion is nearby and he finds it ghostly and empty. I’m sure there’s a social class element to this too, given that any of the peasant classes on the estate don’t have the luxury of abandoning it for Moscow once war rolls into town.

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  2. So, a half second before I got to you parentheses, I went through the following:
    -Ugh, Rick, that is so sexist.
    -But, he’s just reflecting on Tolstoy’s perspective, which was obviously sexist
    -Well, Tolstoy was portraying a highly patriarchal society. Like, it’s not even to have your father’s last name, you have to have his first name too, lol

    So yeah. I’m not calling you sexist. Though I see Natasha’s arc very differently. (Minor spoiler) I was so damn excited to see a young female character who experiences sexual desire, and acts on it, and *isn’t* punished for it relentlessly until her death. See: Madame Bovary, Therese Raquin, Tess of the DUbervilles etc etc etc.

    And yes, thank you for the Bone City gif. I miss Scrubs.

    Pierre stumbling around in the war is so hilarious. I think in the adaptation, they sort of make it more reasonable, like, they give him a half-assed reason to be there, and he spends most of his time with Andrei. In the book I love how everyone is like “who is this asshole?”

    Are you going to comment on how it is to read this book as an atheist? I assume you are not experiencing a religious awakening a la Pierre? 🙂 It’s something I’m thinking about. My children are engaged in an ongoing debate about whether or not god exists (Ben says “no one’s seen him, so he’s not real”, Henry says “OF COURSE he’s real, my friend told me”) and they are seriously reminding me of Andrei and Pierre. I keep telling them they have to respect each other’s beliefs. It’s weird.

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    1. I’m glad you got the joke with the sexist comment. I was clearly reading into Tolstoy’s perspective (or what I perceive it to be, based on what I know about him). It would be pretty ghoulish of me to think that Natasha is just a tool for Pierre. She actually has a nice arc in that section. Easily the best of any female character in the book.

      You know, it’s a bit surprising that I haven’t written anything about the religion of War and Peace. That’s my jam, most of the time. It really hasn’t hit me all that hard, though. There are a few great quotes about the subject throughout, but in terms of the text as a whole I definitely don’t think this is a particularly interesting examination of faith. Personally, at least.

      Your kids’ conversation is hilarious, though. That’s some heavy stuff for kids your age to be thinking about. For the record, Ben’s comment is commendable and pretty smart and I loved it.

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