War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com.

Consistently within people’s choices of the top five novels ever written, War and Peace follows the impetus and results of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, presenting events through their impact on the book’s characters and reinterpreting them according to the unnamed narrator’s metaphysics. Its breadth of cast, scale of scenes, and consistently near-perfect choice of analogy for the moment show Tolstoy as among the best at his craft, and the book rightly belongs on any list of necessary 19th-century reads.

Part of the Russian Naturalist-Realist school, Tolstoy eschewed the selectivity, emotion, and idealization of early 19th-century Romanticism for a presentation of life as it is. As such, Tolstoy’s depiction of life is brutally, even cynically, accurate: his presentation of his characters—with faults and all—undercuts their values and desires in a way that shows even the best characters as all too human. His multi-faceted depiction is not a painting that omits the accidents and highlights the essentials of the subject but a photograph that presents the subject as-is, depicting the warts as being as essential as any other quality. Thus, his style of representation conflicts with one of the central premises of the novelistic form, as such, and at several moments the book comes off more as a piece of journalistic history than a plot-based novel.

Nonetheless, the selectivity of the novelistic form breaks through: though the narrator’s external focus and refusal to speculate into the deeper psychology of his characters make it take a while, he does layer his characters through the book. However, because of the book’s core thesis—that human action is impotent in the face of a people’s collective history—War and Peace depicts less a “conflict-climax-resolution” plot than a “things happen to characters and they concede to change” progression. The fact that the climax of one of his main characters (only implicitly presented as the protagonist, though his being such is debatable), Pierre, involves conceding the impossibility of achieving one’s values is indicative of the work as a whole.

As a metaphysical novel, which seeks to give a complete understanding of human life, War and Peace moves between specific scenes of the lives of the characters and broad discourses on the philosophy of history. The latter explains the presentation of the former: because Tolstoy’s narrator sees human life not as a result of individual choice, values, and will, but of historical determinism, the individual values, desires, and choices of his characters do not influence where their lives lead. He more often presents his characters as passively reacting to things that happen to them, rather than actively achieving their values through consistent choice and integrity amidst unforeseen obstacles.

War and Peace was worth reading, though I wouldn’t include it in my top ten novels. Personally, I wouldn’t want to confuse length for profundity. While a broad view of life and a humble view of one’s own self and presumptions are good and worth fostering, Tolstoy’s didactic elaborations on historical philosophy are not only patronizing (all historians got it wrong, guys), but implicitly nihilistic, in that they argue that the characters, values, and choices he spends 1300+ pages describing (and, implicitly, the reader and their own values and choices) are ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.

The effect this has is not one of wisdom in the fact of historical determinism (which the narrator at several points calls God) but of nihilism. His characters cannot achieve their ideals because such a thing is not possible according to the book’s metaphysical assumptions. When a character does choose a value, the narrator presents them as implicitly naive—as if reality will teach them better. Frankly, I’ll never forgive him for how he treats his implicitly Romantic heroine, Natasha—not in how her life changes (notably because of a FAILURE to pull off a chosen course of action, itself a result of misplaced Romantic idealism on her part), but because of how he undercuts her even in her character’s climax. The narrator can allow no character to have a moment of aspiration that is not in some way tainted by some failing. Because of the book’s consistent assumption of determinism, the implicit capacity of humans to achieve virtue despite their natural deficiencies or vices—the central premise of the novelistic form—is not only absent but argued as being impossible.

Thus, for all its wonderful breadth, description, and narrative quality, War and Peace eschews the previous Romantic conception of mankind (that mankind’s essential nature inheres in our highest ideals and virtues, with deficiencies and mundanities being mere accidents) and presents the opposite view: that that which is low, imperfect, and impotent is the essential in man, with greatness being at best an anomalous illusion, at worst a pretext for and enabler of evil. Rather than being wisely accurate, the book’s perspective comes off as cynical and degrading, if not deeply vicious, in that the prescribed passivity before the impulses of collective history would, later in the century and early in the next, enable worse depredations than those Tolstoy depicts in his lampooning of Napoleon.

(*Of course, my review should not be taken as an implicit endorsement of Napoleon, though I think Dostoevsky does a better job debunking the value of his legacy than does Tolstoy; to Tolstoy’s credit, the central conflict of War and Peace is contained in its first lines, with Napoleon being an antichrist figure and symbol of the European movements threatening to upend the values and social structure of Russia—which, nonetheless, are presented in collectively deterministic, not individual, terms).


A further reflection on NN’s Efimov

Belief in intoxication—Owing to the contrasts other states of consciousness present and to the wasteful squandering of their nervous energy, people who live for sublime and enraptured moments are usually wretched and disconsolate; they view those moments as their true self and the misery and despair as the effect of everything ‘outside the self’, [because they teach dissatisfaction and disdain for the world along with the obfuscation of the genius cult. Who will, then, have to suffer from these immoderates? Their entire surroundings into the farthest future, especially the children]; thus the thought of their environment, their age, their entire world fills them with vengeful emotions…Humanity has these rapturous drunkards to thank for a great deal of evil: for they are the insatiable sowers of the weeds of dissatisfaction with self and neighbor, of disdain for this world and their time, and especially of world-weariness. Perhaps a whole hell of criminals could not muster and impact as sinister and uncanny…[as] people of genius who cannot control themselves and who take all possible pleasure in themselves only at the point where they have completely lost themselves… “—F. Nietzsche, Dawn I.50 (italics in trans.; brackets from prelim draft)

Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova was published in 1849, Nietzsche’s Dawn in 1881, the year of the former writer’s death. It is known that Nietzsche did not discover Dostoevsky, whom he famously calls in his 1888 The Twilight of the Idols “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn” (IX.45), until around 1886-87; he almost certainly did not read NN. Yet, in a not-uncommon serendipity, Nietzsche articulates clearly an idea previously concretized in the work of Dostoevsky.

This type of seeming coincidence between the two has more and more made me take both writers’ work seriously as correct diagnoses of 19th century Europe, their respectively different prescriptions to the diagnoses notwithstanding. They both understood that the souring of early 19th-century Romanticism, the ideological and aesthetic effects of the French revolution and Napoleon (that such events and such a man should be possible, etc), the scientism of which Darwin was only a part (albeit a major one), and the metaphysical and ethical questions posed by all of these and other issues had led to a deeply unstable decadence. Ultimately bringing home Falstaff’s almost prophetic pronouncement upon finding Sir Walter Blunt’s body on the battlefield that “there’s honour for you” (1HIV 5.2), it would take the Great War for Europe to realize they no longer believed in the values their the culture was built on (is not reading modern history often a game of “Shakespeare, et al, were right”?).

Nietzsche’s and Dostoevsky’s respective responses to the problem—the emptying of the values at the source of the culture, what N would declare in The Gay Science as the death of God—are as different as they are nuanced. Acknowledging (with a bravery one still rarely sees in such topics) that if one removes the root they have no right to the tree, Nietzsche would eventually call for a wholesale replacement of the Platonic-Christian metaphysic, with the godlike ubermensch as its standard of value. Meanwhile, against (though not really) Nietzsche’s ubermensch Dostoevsky had already presented his answer to decadence in the young, diffident, unprepossessing erstwhile monk, the Christlike Alyosha. Whereas, in laying out the power of the ubermensch, Nietzsche keeps before his reader’s awareness the fact that such an existence will be beyond the vast majority of humans, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha is characterized by his ability to lift up and redeem even the worst of characters. Of course, Alyosha stands as Dostoevsky’s larger answer to the empty decadence of Europe: a return to Orthodox Christianity, which, because of its sacramental worldview whereby all the world can have a divine significance, stands as a reliable source of the Romantic outlook the early Dostoevsky was, to use a Nietzschean image, pushing into the fire to discover whether it was a god or an idol.

Dostoevsky’s most nuanced critical investigation into Romanticism is NN‘s Efimov, whom I describe elsewhere. Again, that Nietzsche’s Dawn should sound like a commentary on Efimov speaks to the prescience of both works. To treat the above passage as if it were such a commentary:

The Romantic vision as Intoxication

To say that Efimov’s primary vice is alcohol would be wrong; it is not until his pretensions of his own greatness cause him to accuse his landowning employer of misuse of authority that, against said beneficient employer’s advice, he becomes a drunk. Efimov’s dissolution with alcohol is merely an effect of his deeper disconnect from reality, though it certainly reinforces the latter—not only with the perception distortion of the drink but also the subsequent wasting of money which, to Efimov’s implicit savor, keeps Efimov in a dejected, put-upon state.

The man’s character is highlighted by the presence of fellow violinist, B., who more than once interprets how the, from the Romantic perspective, best aspects of Efimov’s character lead to the increase of the worst. However, Nietzsche might argue that the problem is not just in Efimov, but in B.: the enshrining of the Romantic impulse, of the seeming passion for art, of instinct for music, etc, are all themselves intoxications. It is a cultural drunkenness that produces an Efimov, as can be seen in the contrast between him and B., the book’s more pragmatic musician and Efimov’s one-time roommate and several-time benefactor. Describing Efimov’s psychology, B. says:

“[A]ll his impetuosity, impatience and feverish haste amounted to nothing more than an unconscious despair at the memory of his squandered talent and that it was more than likely that this talent had never been anything very special, not even in the beginning, that there had been a great deal of blindness, of vain complacency and premature self-satisfaction and of dreaming and fantasizing about his genius.”

From Nietzsche’s perspective above, one might very well read this as applying to Romanticism (or at least the dreamlike state of mechtatelnost) as a whole. Interpreting Efimov at more than one point, B. articulates the misleading effects of the man’s perspective that would prompt Nietzsche to call Romanticism as a whole “the malignant fairy” (BGE I.11). Albeit part of Dawn‘s larger argument against Christianity and its supposedly good effect on humanity, the split between selves described by Nietzsche can be seen in Efimov, who must go to further and further lengths (only one measure of which is drunkenness) to maintain his false view of himself. Fulfilling the “suffering” of “the children” under such “immoderates,” Netochka, herself, becomes both a victim to and reinforcer of Efimov’s obfuscation. Efimov’s viciousness is so vicious because, due to Romanticism’s “sublime and enraptured moments,” it seems so not vicious; indeed, Efimov’s whole persona relies on presenting (and believing, himself) the idea of his own virtuousness, for which he is punished by reality. He is most the bad guy when he appears most like a good guy. We know to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing; what of a sheep (goat?) in wolf’s clothing? What tricks and poisons must such a being rely upon to supplement their innate lack of teeth?

Because of this element of his deception, Efimov must strive not for greatness but for degradation. Like other characters in the Dostoevsky canon—lowest of whom is Fyodor Karamazov, himself, father of Alyosha—Efimov seems to do the worst thing possible as if from a compulsion. Later in the book, after Efimov has married and lives with Netochka, B. again interprets the man, and he is much less forgiving:

“[N]owadays poverty is almost his happiness: it provides him with an excuse. He can now convince everyone that it’s only poverty that has hindered him, and that if he had been rich, free of troubles and had had plenty of free time, we would all have recognized him for the artist he is…If you were to deprive him of his wife he would be the most miserable creature in existence. It must be several years now since he has touched his violin—and do you know why? Because every time he does he’s forced to realize that he’s nothing, a nobody, not one bit of an artist.”

To Dostoevsky’s credit, in passages like this the author steel mans the worst of the Romanticism he loves and takes a hammer to it in the form of Efimov. Ironically, the very things that supposedly once gave Efimov a reason for his early egotism have been destroyed by that egotism; what art he once may have had (can he be sure he ever did, seeing from inside a dream as he does?) has been destroyed by the cache it once provided with those around him. Furthermore, his violin, the symbol of his art, fills him with frustration and, ultimately, madness.

Nietzsche, it would seem, would locate the source of the problem not in Efimov but in a culture that would entertain such a man’s delusions. Certainly the Russian Naturalists contemporary with Dostoevsky’s early years did this; indeed, early Russian socialism and revolution (for which Dostoevsky was arrested as an accessory) was a reaction against what many saw as a perspective that, en masse, incentivized ignoring the causes of things like poverty, abuse, and drunkenness. The atheistic socialism of Belinsky and Herzen, as well as later Russian socialists (indeed, many socialists, in general), arguably committed the same sin for which they accused the Romantics—that the further disproven was their dream, the more deeply and fervently they maintained it—but I’ll save that discussion for a later post on Dostoevsky’s answer to it in The Possessed. For now, let it suffice that NN‘s Efimov stands not only as Dostoevsky’s first in-depth exploration of the psychology of the antagonist who does not know he is the antagonist, but, from Nietzsche’s view, indicative of one of the major crises of the 19th century: that of a Platonism which, while not being fully believed, still encouraged a disdain, if not ressentiment, of reality as such.

Dostoevsky never fully rejected Romanticism (thank goodness!); indeed, after seeing in Siberia the strength and redemption made possible by that greater Romanticism, Orthodoxy, it would enliven and provide the narrative and moral basis for much of his later work, in which he would synthesize the best aspects of Romanticism and Naturalism. In my opinion, while he and Nietzsche may have diagnosed the same problems, he provided better answers, ones we, as a culture still dealing with the results of the 19th and 20th centuries, still have yet to learn. I don’t mean Orthodoxy, per se, (though as an Orthodox Christian I wouldn’t mind a greater interest in the higher and deeper things) but merely a larger awareness that such things as abstract, Platonic meaning are real, despite paradoxically, their reality not being felt until they are actively lived out (can’t say it enough: thank you, Aristotle). Greater than any arguments for a looking backward rather than forward to reinvigorate a culture’s dead values is the demeanor of Dostoevsky’s writing and characters; as in “The Grand Inquisitor’s” presentation of Christ’s wordless interaction with the Inquisitor, it is not with arguments or apologetics that Sonia and Alyosha redeem Raskalnikov and Kolya (among others), respectively, but with love, by showing the implicit strength and resilience of their Christian (ie. millenia-enduring) humility. In Netochka Nezvanova there are early, if pre-Siberian, signs of this humility in the form of Prince X, who despite his social height is willing to demean himself to adopt Netochka and defend her on more than one occasion, even against his own wife.

Nonetheless, besides being an early exploration of the psychology of irrationality, degradation, and masochism that would fill Dostoevsky’s later works, Efimov—even to himself!—provides a caricature of many of the aspects of the early 19th-century conceptions of the artist-hero which later writers besides Nietzsche would review with a critical eye (Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy come to mind). Because of this, Netochka Nezvanova stands as a perhaps overlooked forerunner not only of other 19th century works but of the psycho-socio-cultural investigations that would comprise much of that century’s shifts that would become apparent early in the next.