Hail War And Peace

War And Peace is my favorite novel ever. In contrast to the modern style of appearing only to describe events and leaving interpretations to the reader, Tolstoy interprets openly and heavily. And oh what wonderfully insightful interpreting! He usually describe several levels, including what people say, what they think, and what they are doing without realizing. I see homo hypocritus played out in great detail. Here is a section on agency failures in charity:

[Count] Pierre … sent for all his stewards to the head office and .. told them that steps would be taken immediately to free his serfs- and that till then they were not to be overburdened with labor, women while nursing their babies were not to be sent to work, assistance was to be given to the serfs, punishments were to be admonitory and not corporal, and hospitals, asylums, and schools were to be established on all the estates. Some of the stewards … listened with alarm, supposing these words to mean that the young count was displeased with their management and embezzlement of money …

He discussed estate affairs every day with his chief steward. But he felt that this did not forward matters at all. … Pierre had none of the practical persistence that would have enabled him to attend to the business himself and so he disliked it and only tried to pretend to the steward that he was attending to it. The steward for his part tried to pretend to the count that he considered these consultations very valuable for the proprietor and troublesome to himself. …

The chief steward, who considered the young count’s attempts almost insane – unprofitable to himself, to the count, and to the serfs – made some concessions. Continuing to represent the liberation of the serfs as impracticable, he arranged for the erection of large buildings- schools, hospitals, and asylums- on all the estates before the master arrived. …

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 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. …

The steward promised to do all in his power to carry out the count’s wishes, seeing clearly that not only would the count never be able to find out whether all measures had been taken, … but would probably never even inquire and would never know that the newly erected buildings were standing empty and that the serfs continued to give in money and work all that other people’s serfs gave – that is to say, all that could be got out of them. (more)

Note that even in such a different world (1806 Russia), the three classic “good deeds” were medicine, education, and poverty assistance. This suggests modern liberal obsessions with such areas are not a local historical accident.

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  • fyreflye

    And of course Pierre is the character in the novel based on Tolstoy himself.

  • I like the part where one diplomat drops his handkerchief and haughtily signals that the other diplomat should pick it up and hand it to him.

    The other diplomat one-ups him by pulling out his handkerchief and then using it to pick up the first handkerchief.

  • Faze

    Ya gotta admit, saying that you like, or have even read “War and Peace” (or pretending that you have) certainly signals one’s seriousness as a person, in way that, say, invoking “Anna Karenina” doesn’t — not that you don’t get points for having read AK, but those two syllables, “War” and “Peace”, resound like cannon shots in a discussion, and effectively silence all non-“War and Peace” readers. I think if the book had been titled “Pink Petunias” (Tolstoy did, in fact, consider alternate titles), it wouldn’t have had nearly the totemic power. But it would have been just as brilliant and (like AK and the underappreciated “Resurrection”) deeply unsettling in its careful laying out of the strands of morality and consequences of attitudes and behaviors.

  • Do you think more novelists should try to emulate Tolstoy, or would their inability to do so make the result worse than sticking to the modal novel?

    I’ll note that I’ve never read Tolstoy and since I gave up reading fiction, I am unlikely to in the near future.

  • Douglas Knight

    medicine, education, and alms: 1806 Russia is still fairly local. I think these fashions have changed over more centuries, at least the first two. And a slight problem of fictional evidence: this tells us more about 1860 than 1806.

  • nazgulnarsil

    TGGP: deconstructing narratives rather than reinforcing the pleasant ones will always be a niche market.

  • nw3

    Is there a term, concept, or theory for the proposition all modern problems are new?

    It’s amazing War and Peace and the ancients, such as Aristotle, so completely abstracted human nature that the vanity of count Pierre is the same as a modern limousine liberal.

    I don’t think we need more interpretations, but we need more abstraction, assuming interpretation and abstraction aren’t the same thing.

    The problem with abstraction is it leads to generalization and stereotypes which moderns generally avoid. Why?

    If your life arc is predetermined, not by God but by generalizations and stereotypes, then there is nothing special and unique about the individual. This seems like a modern problem, but narcissism has always been a problem.

    • richard silliker

      Funny post. Thanks.

  • Buck Farmer

    A delightful and hilarious passage. Thank you, Robin.

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  • Tony

    I fail to see how this represents “homo hypocritus” rather than “blindness to many of the eventual end consequences of one’s actions.”

  • ad

    I see homo hypocritus played out in great detail.

    Sounds like you would enjoy Vanity Fair.

    (The novel, not the magazine.)

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  • neil bouhan

    Mr. Hanson,

    Would you mind sharing your preferred translation/edition for War and Peace?

    Many thanks!

  • saigawa

    Advice for singles from War an Peace…

    “Never, never marry, my dear fellow! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing–or all that is good and noble in you will be lost. It will all be wasted on trifles. Yes! Yes! Yes! Don’t look at me with such surprise. If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future, you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room, where you will be ranged side by side with a court lackey and an idiot!… But what’s the good?…”