Something small but wonderful happened this week. I was grabbing lunch from a little restaurant at the local mall, and look what I saw atop the drinks fridge! I have always dreamed that poetry would become more central to our culture, and that our poets would more and more be seen as guides. Amidst all our current strife, this does in fact seem to be happening. You can view this performance of “Fugue” by Amanda Gorman here.
Three Notes on War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is a book of such immense breadth and of so many wonders. It seems audacious yet at the same time imperative to set down a few thoughts upon finishing it. I realize that applying an environmental lens to this book is by definition reductive, but since the novel offers such an extended treatment of the relationship between human nature and history, my inquiry feels generative, at least to me. Let us suppose that our war is the war on the biosphere.
One: Skewering the Terrestrial Globe with a Stick
Just before the horrific battle at Borodino, there comes a moment when Napoleon’s fawning courtiers prepare a surprise gift for him, while his valets are rubbing his back with brushes and squirting him with eau de cologne. The present is a portrait of his young son that has been brought by couriers from Paris. With a flourish, the portrait is presented to the freshly coiffed emperor.
A quite handsome curly-headed boy with a gaze remembering the gaze of Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing bilboquet. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand, a scepter.
It was not entirely clear what the painter meant to express by presenting the so-called King of Rome [the young prince’s nickname] skewering the terrestrial globe with a stick, but the allegory, to all those who had seen the picture in Paris, and to Napoleon himself, obviously seemed clear and quite pleasing
. . . With a typically Italian capacity for changing facial expression at will, he went up to the portrait and assumed a look of thoughtful tenderness. He felt that what he said and did now—was history. And it seemed to him that the best thing he could do now—he with his grandeur, owing to which his son played bilboquet with the terrestrial globe—was to show, in contrast to that grandeur, the most simple fatherly tenderness. [N.B. This and all quoted text is from the Peavear & Volokhonsky translation.]
The irony of Napoleon taking a special pause to commune with this lavish portrait of his son, at the very moment when thousands of soldiers are praying for their own children on the eve of their deaths, is one thing. The monstrosity of faking his emotion and turning it into a performance, such that some courtier will recall it for an imperial historian—that is, as the kids say, next level.
By fitting War and Peace so closely to the specific historical events of 1805-1820 (Napoleon did have such a portrait with him in Russia, see above), Tolstoy exposes the general gearworks of history to readers of every era. Those with great power treat the earth as a toy, treat people and animals as tools, and treat power as a game, a delight. Exceptions to this rule are not nearly as common as they should be. In our time, I think of Jimmy Carter and Angela Merkel. Tolstoy reserves special scorn for the courtly historians who make excuses for the powerful and paper over their fatal blunders for posterity.
I also think of Greta Thunberg and her “blah blah blah” speech from earlier this year. Just as the powdered toffs in the salons of St. Petersburg lap up the patriotic blather of the Tsar (“Quelle force! Quel style!” they remark in their court language of French!) while the Russian troops suffer a mass slaughter, so are we subjected to low-urgency, rationalizing bromides such as this gem from TitanofFinance™️ Jamie Dimon.
Another figure we might encounter in today’s society is Pierre, the well-meaning but clueless billionaire, whose ham-handed efforts to find purpose within his privilege are by turns comic, sweet and unbearably sad. A Pierre of today might build an ecolodge in Tanzania, catering to guests who arrive from other continents on private jets. In no small part, the story of War and Peace is the story of Pierre’s rebirth through misfortune and privation.
The spectacular philosophical epilogue that concludes War and Peace dilates on the theme of individual choice versus structural forces, what Tolstoy calls “necessity.” This question seems to me to encompass the whole ball game (bilboquet game?) of our time—and perhaps every time. As we think about decarbonizing the global economy and blaming individuals for their actions, consider this from Tolstoy:
My action seems free to me; but asking myself if I could raise my arm in any direction, I see that I raised my arm in the direction in which there were fewest obstacles to that action either from bodies around me or from the structure of my own body. If, out of all possible directions, I chose one, I did so because there were fewer obstacles in that direction. For any action to be free, it is necessary that it not meet with any obstacles. To imagine man as free, we must imagine him outside space, which is obviously impossible.
Tolstoy’s observation helps to explain a lot of things to me, not limited to but including: why we use little single-use plastic shampoo bottles in hotels, why we spray oceans of poison on our fields and fruit trees to keep yields up and pay the bank, why people toss beer cans to the side of the road when they hate their jobs, why we click the box OK to accept the terms of service for the policies we haven’t read and which can’t possibly be OK, why we abhor wolves as we are overrun with deer . . . and so on. Indeed, the wolf hunt in War and Peace is its own essay. Habits of tradition, legal systems, conventions of bond indentures, dynastic wealth and power, lobbyists, loopholes, histories of trauma and oppression . . . these are structural forces that determine so many actions and patterns.
Two: Summons to life
What happens when an unfathomable loss is followed by another? Miracles can and do occur. After a long deathbed vigil with her beloved Andrei—the only real time they ever get to spend together—Natasha has lost him to wounds of war. In the process she has also gained a sister in Andrei’s sister Marya, with whom she shared the experience.
Natasha and Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.
Now Natasha has a secret power. She is consumed and nearly catatonic with sadness, and she isn’t even aware that she has this power. But then a second cataclysmic blow is dealt to the family, and her mother is at risk of dying from grief.
She did not sleep and did not leave her mother’s side. It was as if Natasha’s love, persistent, patient, not as an explanation, not as a consolation, but as a summons to life, enveloped the countess on all sides every second.
Fortified in the crucible of grief, Natasha saves her mother’s life. As more of us become climate refugees, bear witness to extinctions, lose the weather we used to love (looking at you, winter pond skating in Manchester), how will we help each other? Will we from grief forge power?
The opposite could happen, or course. One of the risks of suffering is that it can turn afflicted communities inward, and there is some suggestion of this at the end of War and Peace as the surviving characters rebuild their lives. Nathaniel Rich addresses this matter in the context of the catastrophic CO2 leak at Porter Ranch near Los Angeles, which was not immediately treated as a climate event but rather as a local environmental accident. But please indulge me as I imagine Natasha and Marya in their elder years, marching to the Kremlin to fight for peace with silvery braids pinned neatly around their heads.
Three: Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon
“So you’ve seen a lot of misery, master, Eh?” . . . And in the man’s melodious voice there was such an expression of tenderness and simplicity that Pierre wanted to reply but his jaw trembled, and he felt tears rising . . . “Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon.”
I can’t be the only softie who loves Platon Karataev more than any other character in War and Peace. In the POW camp, Platon is, as far as I can tell, sent by God to help everyone get through the hellish ordeal, including the French captors and the stray dogs. When he sees Pierre suffering from hunger, he brings him a potato and some salt. He is a storyteller who binds everyone together.
He liked to speak, and spoke well, adorning his speech with endearments and sayings, which, it seemed to Pierre, he made up himself; but the main charm of his stories was that, in what he said, the simplest events . . . acquired a character of solemn seemliness.
Platon, who in another realm would definitely be counted among the bodhisattvas, is both storyteller and listener. He also sews, cooks, and gives all manner of help to captives and captors alike. It seems perfect that Platon fondly calls others by his own nickname. Differences dissolve in his aura.
. . .[H]is life, as he looked at it, had no meaning as a separate life. It had meaning only as a part of the whole, which he constantly sensed.
Pierre’s nighttime campfire sessions with Platon and their comrades put me in mind of the group reading experience of War and Peace that I have just had during the pandemic. Which wave(s)? I’ve lost count. While the comparison may be a bit of a stretch, and while I’m very grateful that I am not clinging to life on a forced march as the Russian winter approaches, finding a community of readers with whom to share one of the world’s great stories during the pandemic has come as a genuine gift.
The literary journal and publisher A Public Space sponsored its second slow reading of Tolstoy’s masterpiece this fall, with discussions taking place daily on Twitter and led by the great writer Yiyun Li. At the suggested pace of 12 to 15 pages a day, every moment of the book could be held up to the light and considered from multiple angles. Li provided a few thoughts each day to start us off, and I also had the benefit of the book Tolstoy Together, which A Public Space recently published. This volume summarizes the commentary that Li and others shared during the first group read, which took place during the initial wave of Covid.
Reading the novel slowly, along with a self-organizing, big-hearted collective, was a real joy: no stressful obligations, and something I could depend on. It was like being a bee in a hive. I may have contributed a little honey to the comb, and it was loaded with sweet stuff created by others. Yiyun Li presided with wry, oracular grace. Platon’s spirit was in the air.
As the climate crisis continues to unfold, we are going to need more than ever our campfires and our stories, adorned with endearments and full of solemn seemliness. We are going to need these gatherings: to remember and let go of what we’ve lost, to find some comfort, to find some rest, and to find the strength to answer the summons to life.
Other Voices, Other Forms
I love Sergei Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. At the most memorable performance I have heard, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the supernumeraries slipped and fell from the set’s elaborate and controversial dome and landed in the orchestra pit. He was unharmed, and the show went on.
This performance conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich is full of heart and beautiful singing.
Poem of the Week
Pushkin on winter! As translated by Andrey Kellner, I think this version has a typo: should read sleigh, not sleight.
If you just want to dip into War and Peace, try the Christmas scene at the Rostov’s country estate, especially the moonlit sleigh race to the neighbors’ for a costume party.
For Your Reading Radar
For the climber or snow bunny in your life, mountaineer Jimmy Chin’s new photographic memoir There and Back might be a great last-minute add to the gift list.
For Your Calendar
Bookstore of the Week
Please join me in loving on this very bookish Russian cat, courtesy of Mitra Bookshop in St. Petersburg. This noble feline would fit right in at one of Anna Pavlovna’s elegant soirées.
Keep those whiskers fluffed for the festive season, my friends, and I will be back to your mailbox again on New Year’s Day. xo Nicie