Reading War & Peace #3: One Woman’s Journey to Healing a Broken Leg

Another week! I think I’m going to stick to this sort-of-Tuesday-technically-Wednesday routine. It’s consistent, yet still allows me to cover enough ground to provide some interesting content here for you all. Let me know what you think. More frequently? Less? Random, short little musings in between?

Well, we’ve finally hit some battle. I remember being very confused during my previous attempt at what the heck was going on in these kinds of scenes. The positioning was hard to understand and the military terms were waaaay beyond my league. I decided to take my own advice and not gloss over this time. Needless to say, my phone Chrome tabs are all open on various definitions of military terms and weapons and I’m sure my Internet history makes me out to be either an extreme history geek or just sort of crazy. It definitely slowed me down, but gosh, it’s so much nicer to actually understand what I’m reading!

So, a bit of information before I touch on my main point for this week. My copy includes a two-part introduction: 1) Historical Background to W&P and 2) The Genesis and Composition of W&P, both written by Henry Claridge (University of Kent at Canterbury). (The introduction also comes with an introduction recommending reading the background first and leaving the critical point of view till after finishing the book. Unlike my usual self, I decided to ignore the instructions and read everything beforehand.) Most of it was confusing and just freaked me out about this whole project even more (and should probably be re-read now that I feel on stable ground), but one piece stuck:

Claridge writes of Tolstoy’s “sense that historical events are not shaped by the individual will, no matter how much that will sees itself as the shaping force. According to Tolstoy, Napoleon, for example, could have acted in no other way than the way he did. Thus at Borodino Napoleon deludes himself into thinking that the battle, to all intents and purposes, follows his premeditated design. Instead, by concentrating his attention on the actions of the ordinary soldier and the seemingly insignificant details of a host of minor actions, Tolstoy seeks to persuade us of the ineffectualness of Napoleon’s instructions and of the entirely unpredictable nature of human combat. As many commentators have noticed, however, Tolstoy writes with the benefit of hindsight and thus contrives to make the orders of military commanders seem more irrational, and illogical, than they might have seemed to those who participated in the events themselves. The individual deeds of many thousands of soldiers, which once commited are irrevocable, combine together in essentially unanalysable ways to form historical actions.”

Let me digress for a minute and explain something. Over the years, I have formed this fear of reading classics. I feel like I can’t enjoy them, coming in with such expectations. I worry about not understanding the big, important point. I mean, classics are considered such for a reason, and if I can’t see it then what does that mean about me? With a fear like that, reading War and Peace is, well, sort of like dropping a spider on the face of an arachnophobe. I mean, if after 587,287 words I’ve missed Tolstoy’s “philosphical understanding of the nature of history itself” (Claridge), I’m in deep shit.

Turns out though that I’m not such an idiot after all. Claridge’s very reader-friendly explanation hung around in my brain, and as I struggled through our very first battle (of Schon Grabern) I felt my first major puzzle piece of Tolstoy’s “philosophical understanding” hit me (and hopefully fall into place. We’ll have to wait and see).

As the battle starts, we find ourselves following Prince Andrew Bolkonski as he accompanies Prince Bagration (Russian general) in the field. Tolstoy writes: “Prince Andrew listened attentively to Bagration’s colliquies with the commanding officers and  the orders he gave them, and to his surprise found that no orders were really given but that Prince Bagration tried to make it appear that everything done by neccessity, by accident, or by the will of subordinate commanders, was done, if not by his direct command at least in accord with his intentions.” Prince Andrew notes that although “what happened was due to chance”, Bagration’s presence cheered up his commanders, and they were all “anxious to display their courage before him”. The rest of the battle is told through various scenes detailing the many individual decisions made by commanders on the field, who with no real leadership let the developing circumstances guide them. One order is never delivered because its messenger is scared to go into battle, an artillery battery is almost forgotten in the orders to retire and thus continues on in its own little war , and so on. Nevertheless, the battle is won. Bagration’s vanguard wins. Yet here, us novice Tolstoy philisophers start to understand that Bagration’s instructions really had almost nothing to do with that. As Claridge explained to me, and I so painstakingly typed out for you, since this book just refuses to stay open, it was really just the small folks, seperately yet simultaneously, each shaping their own little piece of history.

And so, my first significant step has been taken. (As for the “Broken Leg” part, this might be a good time to mention that although my first literal, crutch-less step will not be taken for another five weeks, I may be getting my plaster cast replaced with a plastic one tomorrow!)

Passing the one-fifth mark makes me smile, but this… this leaves me with a warm feeling inside. I’m starting to truly understand something, and that feeling is so much greater than I expected. Maybe that spider isn’t so terrifying after all.


previous entry here



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