The first epilogue of War and Peace is itself a long section of narrative, but one that most all other stories lack: what happens after “happily ever after?” Our heroes Pierre and Natasha have survived Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and finally, after over 1000 pages, have married.
But then Tolstoy gives us 16 more chapters about their early years of family life together (along with the lives of their friends and their marriages). In these chapters, Tolstoy unabashedly preaches what he thinks an ideal home life should be. The degree of anti-political correctness here makes me wonder that no sensitive snowflakes have demanded it banned.
Here’s the most instructive of those chapters, chapter 10, with ten headings I’ve added to illustrate Tolstoy’s points, and some highlighting of especially radical (read: old fashioned) ideas.
IN PRAISE OF THE PHYSICAL CHANGES IN YOUNG MOTHERS
Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft, and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were of all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all. All that struck the eye was a strong, handsome, and fertile woman. The old fire very rarely kindled in her face now. That happened only when, as was the case that day, her husband returned home, or a sick child was convalescent, or when she and Countess Mary spoke of Prince Andrew (she never mentioned him to her husband, who she imagined was jealous of Prince Andrew’s memory), or on the rare occasions when something happened to induce her to sing, a practice she had quite abandoned since her marriage. At the rare moments when the old fire did kindle in her handsome, fully developed body she was even more attractive than in former days.
THE CHOICES YOUNG MOTHERS MAKE WITH THEIR TIME
I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.
Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.
There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.
Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
As I read War and Peace, it occurred to me that it has a bit in common with my favorite book, the Book of Mormon.
War and Peace came out nearly 150 years ago, in 1869, but some of it–one chapter in particular–resonates with current events.
A man without convictions, without habits, without traditions, without a name, and not even a Frenchman, emerges- by what seem the strangest chances- from among all the seething French parties, and without joining any one of them is borne forward to a prominent position.
The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling and self-confident limitations of this man raise him to the head…his opponents’ reluctance to fight, and his own childish audacity and self-confidence secure him military fame. Innumerable so-called chances accompany him everywhere.
Tolstoy wrote these lines, near the end of his great book, about Napoleon, but when I read them last night, I thought of Donald Trump. Only small changes are needed–just replace “French” and “Frenchman” in the excerpts in this post with “Republican,” for example, and you pretty much have cutting-edge commentary for today’s op-ed page.
This ideal of glory and grandeur- which consists not merely in considering nothing wrong that one does but in priding oneself on every crime one commits, ascribing to it an incomprehensible supernatural significance- that ideal, destined to guide this man and his associates, had scope for its development….
He had no plan, he was afraid of everything, but the parties snatched at him and demanded his participation….his insane self-adulation, his boldness in crime and frankness in lying- he alone could justify what had to be done.
He pretends to fall into a swoon and says senseless things that should have ruined him. But the once proud and shrewd rulers of France, feeling that their part is played out, are even more bewildered than he, and do not say the words they should have said to destroy him and retain their power….One after another they hasten to display their insignificance before him.
Really, just read the whole chapter. The whole thing is basically about Trump. Not only that, but the failures of the GOP leadership are also laid bare here. Was Tolstoy a prophet? Are we doomed to see another 1812 in the not-too-distant future?
I mentioned in my notes on lesson #1 that I like to picture and even map out the structure of text, but I also find it useful to mark out who’s talking when there are multiple speakers.
Below is a PDF copy of 1 Nephi 11-14 with all the dialogue color-coded. The angel doesn’t have much to say at first, but monologues quite a bit in chapters 13 and 14.
Some of this attribution is speculative or convenient, though, so take it with a grain of salt. For example, in 13:34, I have “Behold, saith the Lamb of God” as spoken by the angel, just to make it clear that the angel is quoting the Lord there, but that phrase might very well be part of the Lord’s statement–in fact, it probably is. Ditto in 14:7.
My juniors just started reading The Scarlet Letter, that tale of the poor Puritan Hester Prynne, who has an affair, gets pregnant, and is subsequently shamed by society ever after. In chapter 2, she must mount a scaffold and spend part of the day being stared at and scorned by the entire town, in an act of public shaming meant to punish her sin.
After reading that part with them, I asked my class, “Can you imagine what that must have felt like for Hester? To be forced to stand on a stage while a thousand people stare and judge you for your human mistakes?”
They all looked a bit amused as the answer to my clumsy rhetorical question finally became clear to me.
You see, I teach at a school for the performing arts.
Last week I was browsing in a thrift shop for used books. I spotted this old edition of Tess of the D’urbervilles, which is marked with a sticker for the low, low price of 75¢. Of course, that discount is actually a fifteen cent increase over the original cover price, which is clearly visible next to the sticker. Yes, folks, apparently this old book is worth more used than it was when it was new. That’s the economy for you.
Last week my school district had semester exams–we’re halfway through the year! The week before, my classes spent a day doing this review of the semester’s units.
I put up six poster-sized sheets of butcher paper around the room, one for each of the major units we’ve done so far. In the center of each, I wrote the theme (Romanticism, logical fallacies, Revolutionary rhetoric, literary analysis, etc.).
I broke the students into groups of 4 or 5, assigned them to a poster, and gave them ten minutes to create a mind map on the poster, using markers I’d asked them to bring. They could use our textbook, online notes, whatever.
After ten minutes, I spot checked each poster, gave some quick editing advice as needed, and checked off that they were all contributing seriously (I’d told them that relevant illustrations were fine, but random nonsense like “buy my mix tape” was not).
Then they rotated to the next station, where they could edit what was there and add on more. Each team cycled to each station accordingly. Each student in each group had to contribute to at least one poster as a “scribe.”
By the end of class, they had produced mind maps like these below. I also posted these to our class web pages to help them study for the test.
This video has the Babylon segments of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent film epic Intolerance. The entire 3-hour film rotates between four stories in different historical periods, and while each of the four has its charms, the Babylonian story is by far the best. As this classic of cinema celebrates its 100th anniversary, here is that story, complete and by itself.
My favorite scene from the 2002 documentary Stone Reader. The combination here of the elemental score, the slow and colorful visuals, and the simultaneously awakening and valedictory narration make this a truly beautiful bit of the filmmaking art.
I copied and posted this clip online because nobody has much from this great movie anywhere, and I want to spread awareness of it. I encourage anyone seeing this to appreciate this celebration of literacy and to purchase the complete documentary–it’s really a wonderful film.
I had the chance to teach from this lesson at church today. It’s really an excellent chapter of the new book–I highly recommend it to anybody. I made the chart attached below to prepare for teaching it, and for personal use.
In case anyone else might benefit from it, the discipleship worksheet is here: Teachings of Presidents of the Church ch1.
My suggested personal study aids for this week. (I’ll try to post earlier in the week from now on.)
Lesson objective: “To help class members see, through the examples of Lehi and Nephi, that safety and salvation come through obedience to the Lord.”
When my family studied 1 Nephi 1 together this week, we stopped in verse 4 to check out the references in footnote d. Two of them go to Jeremiah.
With that in mind, I first want to recommend this movie:
From a post about it four years ago:
Checked this out from the library a while back and really enjoyed it. This drama not only has better production values than most small, Biblical movies, but it even stars future Grey’s Anatomylead Patrick Dempsey, to boot.
Jeremiah tells a vivid story of the Old Testament prophet’s reluctant, melancholy rebellion against a corrupt and complacent status quo, and keeps the major narrative very faithful to the Biblical text. Dempsey shines in this role; his acting strong suit has always been an uncanny ability to convey betrayed surprise–the hurt look on the face of a lost puppy dog. That woeful innocence comes in handy a lot as he portrays the saddest prophet in Israel’s history.
Latter-day Saints have a special soft spot for Jeremiah, I think, as the Book of Mormon suggests that he was a contemporary of the first patriarch in that sacred text, a man named Lehi, who likewise foretold doom in Jerusalem and was violently rejected for it. One can easily imagine Lehi preaching just around the corner in most scenes of this film.
The few shots of violence are tasteful and true to the source material, but perhaps a little too intense for the youngest viewers. Other than that, anyone with an interest in Biblical literature, history, or belief would be better off for seeing Jeremiah.
Speaking of 1 Nephi 1, I like to picture the structure of things I read, as it helps illuminate for me the author’s intended messages more clearly. The following arrangement of verse 1 shows just how much information is packed into that first sentence: six factual statements about Nephi–three paired clauses describing who he is and how he got to be that way, and all meant to explain why he’s making this record; only that last of the six statements shows an active choice on Nephi’s part:
Also, these two posts about the Book of Mormon come highly recommended:
2016 Gospel Doctrine- Recommended Resources on the Book of Mormon. I endorse all the titles shared there, most especially Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon.
And, of course, I must urge you to keep up with the development of Book of Mormon Central this year. If it lives up to its potential, it’ll be a fantastic resource.
I took these pictures with my phone’s camera during a spontaneous family vacation this last weekend.