So, do people ever read another novel after they’ve read War and Peace? They must, I suppose, although having just finished it, I find myself wondering how anything else could come close to it.
This is not the first time I’ve approached the “big baggy monster” but it’s the first time I’ve completed it. It really is not a difficult book, once you overcome the fear of losing track of the names and their variations. And for someone who only vaguely remembers seeing Anthony Hopkins in the BBC version many, many years ago, it surprised me in many ways.
The first surprise, but one that I was prepared for, was Tolstoy’s sheer virtuosity in assembling such a range of all-too-human characters: blustering and self-centred old patriarchs, twitty young gentlemen, loving mothers and daughters, earnest searchers after truth, militarized young soldiers. He doesn’t just assemble them: he peels them bare, exposing selfishness, pride, confusion and insecurity. He goes to the heart of the myriad petty concerns that make up our consciousness- our pride in hospitality in throwing a function just like everyone else’s; the act of falling in love with your baby; the flush of hero-worship, the cold stripping-down of betrayal. If we ever needed to be reminded, this is what it is to be human.
The second surprise for me was the striding onto this stage of real historical figures. I knew that the book was “about” Napoleon, but I didn’t expect to see him there- or Tsar Alexander, or Kutuzov.
And a third, related surprise was how much this book was about the writing of history. Throughout the novel, again and again, Tolstoy struggles against the concept of the “great man” and causality in history- indeed this is how the book finishes, which I found unsettling. It’s as if, after lowering his microscope down to examine the individual, he leans back in his chair and scans the heavens with a telescope. What’s he saying here? I don’t know if even he knows: that events don’t lie with great individuals; there is no great plan or immutable set of laws ; there is no causality. There is just the innate goodness of simple man, with all the rest stripped away.
So, it was with interest that I picked up Isaiah Berlin’s 80-page essay The Fox and the Hedgehog (PDF full-text). He takes up a fragment of text from the Greek poet Archilochus: ” the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. With some trepidation (and ignoring the dire necessity for a full stop), Berlin divides the big thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes:
…there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of what they understand, think and feel- a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all they they are and say has significance- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes: and without insisting on a rigid classification, we many, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are all, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are all foxes. (p. 2)
But what about Tolstoy? Berlin hesistates. He suggests that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog, and that the long sections where Tolstoy grapples with issues of the writing of history are where his own inner conflict between what he was and what he believed emerges. Based on evidence of Tolstoy’s own reading during the writing of War and Peace, he draws a counterintuitive link between the reactionary, aristocratic and arch-conservative views of Joseph de Maistre and Tolstoy’s own scepticism of intellectualism and empiricism. Both de Maistre and Tolstoy lash out at the intellectual and political props that fail to explain how things are as they are. But while Maistre turns back to the Catholic Church and the monarchy to provide certainty, Tolstoy turns to the “immemorial wisdom” of peasants and the simple folk, who alone have the knowledge of how to live.
Although unable to express it with the same elegance as Berlin, I found myself thinking much the same thing about Tolstoy on history. He tells us that the ‘great man’ is a nationalist myth; that our selecting one from a multiplicity of so-called causes is only confirmed by later events; that power lies not in the ‘strong’ individual but the collective acquiescence of the mass; that the closer we are to events the more determined they seem and yet we cling vainly to the chimera of ‘free will’. He slashes at these fallacies, and then, when they all lie lopped at his feet, he steps away from them into an almost-mystical embrace of the simple peasant and the truly good life.
And how does this fit in with the intimate, rawly psychological drama of Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrei, Princess Marie that Tolstoy lays out before us? How does the fug of domesticity fit in with the grand sweep of Napoleon, Moscow, Bordolino? This, Berlin writes,
is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces- these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths- side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life- the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individauls- with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. (p.19)
But, Berlin argues, Tolstoy was unable to reconcile the two, either through logic or through emotion and will, and this was his own intellectual and existential tragedy. By nature a sharp eyed fox, he looked for a harmonious universe but found only disorder.
Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistably beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below… Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. (p.81)