War and Peace, a 21st century review

“The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” -Leo Tolstoy


War and Peace was written in a time when Romanticism or the high-placed individual had lost his former glory. Napoleon, the symbol of the Romantic hero had perished in a distant island, lonely and depressed. Along with him most of the lofty ideals of Romanticism was quickly fading away. As a strong reaction and substitute to Romanticism, Realism came to the fore in France which rapidly spread all across Europe by the middle of 19th century. No matter how big genius a Man is, he is still affected and subjugated to the biological, cultural, political forces around him. Man’s free will, which was celebrated by the Romanticists as the ultimate manifestation of individual power came under the scrutiny of critical philosophy like never before. Though every Man’s action seemed to stem from his “free will”, he is also a link in the infinite chain of human activity (causality) which had begun from the unrecorded time. How free is Man? How far is he bound to other forces? These were the questions that occupied the “Realists”. Like any other artist, Tolstoy also was influenced by his contemporary movements. War and Peace hence could be called as the epitome of “Realism”.

The setting:

The invasion of Russia by the French, the massive historic event gave Tolstoy the perfect canvas to expound his views about life through one subject he knew very well, War. Russia as a country was never before pushed to its limits, both morally and physically. Until then the Russians looked up to the French as the culturally superior friend. But the war shook the core values of Russia. The epic Indian narrative Mahabharata, culminating in the Kurukshetra war is a defining moment for Indian philosophy, culture, history and spirit. Similarly, Napoleon’s invasion was a defining moment in the culture, history and spirit of Russia. During the World War II when the invading Germans pushed Russians back, the Russian army retreated just like during the French invasion. This time it was more of a strategic move as the temporary retreat had become part of their plan. Like a pressed iron spring, the Russian army waited for the right moment to bounce back. By building up various major and minor incidents resulting from human judgement and natural conditions, Tolstoy gives us a realistic picture of war, unlike any other. Pierre disputes with the old Prince Bolkonski that a time would come when there would be no more wars and the old prince replies, “Drain the blood from men’s veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war!” Tolstoy knew the inevitability of war.

Philosophy behind the work:

Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy had an influence in Tolstoy’s vision. The Will to live, the force behind all manifestations of life as described by Schopenhauer, is the same power driving Tolstoy’s world. When Schopenhauer looked coldly at “the will” with a pessimistic view that it cares only about survival and procreation, Tolstoy embraced life and inspired others to love life. While the philosophers of his time struggled to provide one solid reason to love life, Tolstoy through his art gave a hundred reasons to care about life. When Pierre meets the old Freemason, his future mentor for the first time, the old Mason says, “God is not to be apprehended by reason, but by life”. This conviction of Tolstoy that God or the innate force can be understood only through life is reflected throughout his fiction. Age old idea that the creator is present in the creation finds it’s ultimate teacher in Tolstoy. By fully accepting, participating in life and at the same time observing it in a detached way, life could be understood. In that sense, Tolstoy’s philosophy is closer to that of the Hindu God, Krishna. The ever cheerful, dancing God who accepts and celebrates the duality of life as the one and the whole. A ¬†painful longing/desire also has a certain sweetness to it, which enables us to live on. Western philosophy’s most potent tool, deductive reasoning soon reaches its own limitations, the infinite loop of causality. And perhaps at this point, Tolstoy feels pinned down and unknowingly becomes the follower of Krishna. Two folds of the one and the same force can be seen here. The tenacity of “the will to live”, to survive and to overcome the death of the species through procreation. The individual trying to surpass his finite existence through glory, genius and imagination (myths, religious beliefs about the afterlife). From Napoleon to the lowest foot soldier, it is this restless energy, the insatiable force of life, the collective and the individual will play out its unknown plans.

The appeal of life is in its peculiarities. When someone we care passes away, it is those unique, idiosyncratic details we recall and cherish about that person. When Petya Rostov gets killed during a raid by the Cossack’s into the French camp, we mourn him. Suddenly we are awakened by the consciousness of a great loss because we have known him too close to not care about him. Tolstoy creates his world with defined laws and undefined spirit working through it. The DNA of a plant or any life can be seen as it’s natural code, defining its basic structure. But the code is an open-ended one and the life running through it is above all rules. When Pierre meets Prince Andrew after the battle of Austerlitz, both had changed inside out. Pierre having met his mentor in the old Freemason was full of hope and abstract notions about life. Prince Andrew, on the other hand, was contemplating about life with the empirical knowledge of being at the frontier of a war and the close to death experience. When they meet, these two worlds collide and both gain from their opposing views. The horror of war had left deep scars and hopelessness in Prince Andrew’s mind, which found a glimmer of hope in Pierre’s “God and the hope of future”. When accidentally Pierre remarks about the evening sky, Prince Andrew recalls the moment when he was dying on the battlefield, looking up at the heavens at Austerlitz. The lofty sky and the revelation about life that everything is meaningless and short-lived except the vast, infinite sky, had given Prince Andrew momentary peace. The infinite sky seemed like God who provides hope to the finite being, Man. Natasha grows from a little teenager to a fully grown woman right in front of our eyes with all the contradictions, musings and the zest of life. Though a noble woman, the excited shriek Natasha gives out during the wolf hunt lead by her brother Nicholas, shows us the untamed, innocent side of her nature. From an extroverted person, Natasha turns inward during her struggles and contrary to her earlier wish chooses an introverted husband like Pierre in the end. Natasha is quite typical for a lively, passionate woman and yet she is unique. Natasha could easily be called as one of the most skillfully portrayed female characters in the whole of literary work this writer has come across.

Today’s relevance:

Every great novel or a true work of art gifts us brief moments of emotional contentment, true happiness in solitude, a leap above the tedious force of “the will” or the striving of everyday life. Perhaps this is the highest blessing of art. Moist eyes, a deep sigh, a scarcely visible smile or a silent laughter, all result in the same effect of contentment. For me, no single work of art could possibly produce as many moments of emotional contentment as War and Peace. It is a vast landscape full of diverse fruits, which could possibly satisfy any Man’s appetite. In the fragmented, heterogeneous and disconnected postmodern world of ours, War and Peace can be a pleasant breeze from the past reminding us that human life is connected in many different ways. To view life as a whole like Tolstoy, we need historical, socio-political understanding and a wider, all-encompassing vision.