Tolstoy on Domestic Bliss

tolstoy-family

Leo Tolstoy with his wife and eight of their 13 children

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

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Seven Things Tolstoy and Mormon Have In Common

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.

  1. Each narrator–Tolstoy in War and Peace, and Mormon in the Book of Mormon–is relating an epic historical tale about the history of his own nation, with its great successes and failures.
  2. Each book cites from older historical records in the course of its narrative, and makes references and allusions to countless others (see, for example, Part 10, chapter 27 or Part 13, chapter 2 in War and Peace, and Mosiah chapter 29 or Alma chapter 54 in the Book of Mormon).
  3. The further along each book goes, the more pronounced the narrator’s voice becomes; neither is neutral, but is intimately and passionately invested in their story. Indeed, each narrator breaks into the story with increasing frequency to openly editorialize about the narrative’s themes (see, for example, Part 11, chapter 1 in War and Peace, or Helaman chapter 12 in the Book of Mormon).
  4. Each narrator grounds his story in alternating tales of domestic conflict and military war.
  5. The military episodes largely focus on the patriotic exploits of one chief leader (Kutuzov in War and Peace, Moroni in the Book of Mormon).
  6. Each narrator uses these stories to comment on human nature and illustrate his themes about the meaning of life.
  7. Each narrator ultimately wants his story to show the readers that acknowledging Christ as God and patterning our lives after his is the way we should live. Each narrator openly testifies of this near the end of his story. In fact, each narrator, shortly before the climactic episode of his story, even recounts the interactions of protagonists with an idealized, morally perfect person who inspires others by his example (Platon Karataev in War and Peace, Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon).

How Leo Tolstoy Exposed Donald Trump in War and Peace

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.

UntitledTolstoy 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?

Leo Tolstoy on Naive Liberals

Today I read chapter 10 in Part V of War and Peace.  Our hero, Pierre, having recently become enlightened, has set out to reform his estates accordingly.  He enacts some progressive ideas and then tours the area to see the results:

 

The southern spring, the comfortable rapid traveling in a Vienna carriage, and the solitude of the road, all had a gladdening effect on Pierre. The estates he had not before visited were each more picturesque than the other; the serfs everywhere seemed thriving and touchingly grateful for the benefits conferred on them. Everywhere were receptions, which though they embarrassed Pierre awakened a joyful feeling in the depth of his heart. In one place the peasants presented him with bread and salt and an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, asking permission, as a mark of their gratitude for the benefits he had conferred on them, to build a new chantry to the church at their own expense in honor of Peter and Paul, his patron saints. In another place the women with infants in arms met him to thank him for releasing them from hard work. On a third estate the priest, bearing a cross, came to meet him surrounded by children whom, by the count’s generosity, he was instructing in reading, writing, and religion. On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was that the place where they presented him with bread and salt and wished to build a chantry in honor of Peter and Paul was a market village where a fair was held on St. Peter’s day, and that the richest peasants (who formed the deputation) had begun the chantry long before, but that nine tenths of the peasants in that villages were in a state of the greatest poverty. He did not know that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg, and wrote enthusiastic letters to his “brother-instructor” as he called the Grand Master.

“How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre, “and how little attention we pay to it!”

He was pleased at the gratitude he received, but felt abashed at receiving it. This gratitude reminded him of how much more he might do for these simple, kindly people.

Heh.  And thus we see that human nature will conspire to constipate civic charity.  I also like Tolstoy’s clear message that one of the monkey wrenches in Pierre’s plan is the corruption of bureaucratic middle managers, who exist to perpetuate their own comfort.  It was ever thus, and thus always shall be.

Yet again, the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.  Truly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Quotes, Pics, and Clips VI

I’m resurrecting an installment I used to do, a bite-sized anthology of things I had recently seen or been thinking about in the various areas that interest me.  Here are the first five parts of this series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.

ARTS

Like him or not, it’s fun watching Jackson Pollock work:

EDUCATION

“The more computers we have, the more we need shared fairy tales, Greek myths, historical images, and so on….The more specialized and technical our civilization becomes, the harder it is for nonspecialists to participate in the decisions that deeply affect our lives.”  –E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, 1987.  (I highly recommend this great article about Hirsch’s new book.)

HUMOR

I’ve used this clip in Forensics and English 102 classes to make a point about the nature of debate and persuasion:

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE

Something I’ve been impressed by as I pick my way through this masterpiece is how Tolstoy dwells at intervals on both the honor and heroics of conflict as well as the strain and loss.  His vision is truly majestic.

“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,” thought he, and

fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of

the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had

been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved.

But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky–the

lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds

gliding slowly across it. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all

as I ran,” thought Prince Andrew–“not as we ran, shouting and fighting,

not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry

faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide

across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky

before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity,

all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but

that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace.

Thank God!…”

–Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Part III, chapter XVI

LIVING WELL

The older I get, the more I enjoy sports.  I’ve watched a lot of clips like this:

POLITICS AND SOCIETY

 “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If `Thou shalt not covet’ and `Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”

–John Adams, “A Defense of the American Constitutions,” 1787

RELIGION

I love this story, which I call “the parable of the kite.”  I’ve used it in teaching struggling disciples and my own children:

The second thing that has helped me receive these blessings is the principle of courageous obedience. I am so grateful for God’s gift of laws and commandments. Peace, hope, and direction are outcomes of striving to live the teachings of Jesus and obeying His laws and commandments. The scriptures teach, “Great peace have they which love thy law” (Ps. 119:165). They also teach that “he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23).

While Brother Pinegar served as president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, as you can imagine, we often talked to the missionaries about the feelings of happiness and peace that accompany courageous obedience to true principles. We talked of the influence of the Holy Ghost that comes to those who are obedient. We encouraged the missionaries to make obedience their quest. I enjoyed telling them the story of the little boy who went to the park with his father to fly a kite.

The boy was very young. It was his first experience with kite flying. His father helped him, and after several attempts the kite was in the air. The boy ran and let out more string, and soon the kite was flying high. The little boy was so excited; the kite was beautiful. Eventually there was no more string left to allow the kite to go higher. The boy said to his father, “Daddy, let’s cut the string and let the kite go; I want to see it go higher and higher.”

His father said, “Son, the kite won’t go higher if we cut the string.”

“Yes, it will,” responded the little boy. “The string is holding the kite down; I can feel it.” The father handed a pocketknife to his son. The boy cut the string. In a matter of seconds the kite was out of control. It darted here and there and finally landed in a broken heap. That was difficult for the boy to understand. He felt certain the string was holding the kite down.

The commandments and laws of God are like the kite string. They lead us and guide us upward. Obedience to these laws gives us peace, hope, and direction.

–Patricia P. Pinegar, “Peace, Hope, and Direction,” October 1999 General Conference

Recommended Listening: “Tolstoy”

So I’m flipping through folk music CDs at the library one day and I see this compilation called Songs Inspired By Literature.  I check it out and give it a listen, but it’s mostly forgettable.

Except for Bob Hillman’s song “Tolstoy.”  In fact, I saw this CD again last week and checked it out just for this song.  The next time I teach Tolstoy in World Lit, I need to bring this in.

It merits all the usual superlatives: fresh, original, and (especially for folk music) fun.  The music is a resonating punch of running guitar chords, set to a brashly declarative lyric that shifts from appreciation of the author to brief plot summaries to bracingly apt images that serve as metaphors for the Russian giant’s achievement.

At one point, Hillman praises Tolstoy’s work for its “gargantuan themes” and for being “impossibly long,” and offers this modern example of something that could illustrate what he means: “Down to the quivering lip and the look in your eye / When your father died / And you couldn’t quite say what you wanted to say / But you touched his hand and he knew you were there.”  It’s not random, it’s an uncanny impersonation of exactly the kind of subtle psychological insight Tolstoy crafted out of simple glimpses of ordinary life, seen as a panoramic tapestry. 

And, ironically, he delivers this paean to epics in about two and a half minutes.  Listen to it free at Rhapsody.