On War & Peace and the Dread of Living Right Now

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to be That Person, and announce to fellow literary people in my class that War & Peace is pretty much my favorite book now. I passed it up, of course. I’ve been That Person in other contexts, and I didn’t want to be That Person again—not about Tolstoy. Not about thick, dweeby-looking books that everyone claims to have read but that I, Nellie, have actually read and will tell you all about over this middle-grade gin.

But honestly: I did read the book this summer and I did adore it. That’s the nerdy truth. And, despite my rants and raves to my partner, TR, re: the never-ending bits about war and carnage—I mean, was all of this really necessary, Lev?—by the time I made it the final pages of the book, the Count and I were pretty chummy. I even forgave him for the constant ranting about Napoleon. I even named my snail after him mid-book. (Tolstoy the Snail is dead now but, hey, the book is finished.)

Let me tell you, though: War and Peace was a comfort to read. While enduring the mad swirl of 2019, sitting in the sweltering breath of the Monster of Everything Going Wrong This Summer, reading Tolstoy’s philosophy about the arch and sweep of history was downright reassuring. People die, and people dance, and cities burn down, and families are separated and sometimes reunited, and food is plentiful and then not plentiful again, and some act and some weep and some stay silent, and the pages of history turn. Leaders rise and fall. Countries are created and destroyed. Worlds are created and destroyed. And why does all this happen?

To sum up about 300 of the ~1300 pages:

"So why did things happen this way and not otherwise? Because this is how they happened."
Apologize for the censorship. This image started as a speedy text to a person whom Your Friend was quite eager not to confuse with excess words.

War & Peace, in brief: History is utterly out of the hands of the individual. Great men are do not enact history; rather, they are acted upon. The story tells itself and we—we tiny ones—are instruments and not agents.

In other words, cough up that free will, buddy, and no one gets hurt. There’s a force which drives history, and it ain’t you.

It’s weird to feel comforted by this idea. In many ways, it feels like a cop out. Tolstoy himself changed his mind about a lot before he wrote Anna Karenina, and that makes me wonder if blithely surrendering to this kind of philosophy is a young person’s game. But it’s hard not to emerge at the end of the book and suspect, with main character Pierre, that history’s web of cause and effect—the web of why—is far too vast and intricate for any human to point the finger of blame at another human, even themselves.

And, dammit, in 2019 this is a relief to think. We mortals flagellate each other for current events with the moral authority of gods who comprehend the cosmos, but Tolstoy’s book is a good reminder that humans don’t understand much and never have. We almost never understand what we’re doing, individually or collectively. Even taking God or the “force of history” out of the picture, the events we see around us are enormously complex, with complex causes, and roots that go far, far into the past—farther than we could possibly reach. Stop giving yourself so much credit, says Tolstoy. War & Peace is a 1300-page dose of humility.

And what are we to do with all this humility, should we choose it? The book only gives us one option. When Pierre has finally suffered enough to grasp his own smallness, he asks himself what he’s going to do next. And then it occurs to him: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

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