Wednesday, May 18, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published in the spring. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Tolstoy's War and Peace:
Years ago, when writers were serious, and editors knew what they were doing, Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, would give a copy of War and Peace to every new author he agreed to take on. It was, he would tell them, the greatest novel ever written, the measure of the perfection they should try to achieve. Tolstoy might have been amused. War and Peace, he insisted, “is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

This is not as strange as it may seem.

“The history of Russian literature since Pushkin’s time not only provides many examples of such departure from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary. From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.”

Far from a question of literary classification, this points to the very essence of what Tolstoy was trying to do. While Europe, while the West, believed in modern science, progress, and the equal right of everyone to acquire as much wealth as they could, Tolstoy had a different, and a deeper, understanding of what life was meant to be. There are two stories in War and Peace, stories that intertwine with each other: the story of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, and the story of how the ungainly, and often confused, Pierre and the lovely young girl Natasha, draw closer until, after engagements and marriages, broken hearts and tragic deaths, they understand that everything has been a prologue to their own marriage, and then, for the first time, understand what marriage means. Everything that happens to them seems a chance occurrence, yet somehow pre-ordained; everything a step necessary in a chain of circumstances leading to a conclusion that no one could have foreseen, and nearly everyone at the time thought the wrong thing to have done.

It begins at the beginning, almost on the very first page, the first page of the more than twelve hundred pages of War and Peace. After wandering around Europe, Pierre has returned to Russia where he offends nearly everyone by his slovenly appearance and drunken bad manners. The bastard son of one of the richest men in the country, he inherits everything and, suddenly the object of everyone’s affection, marries Helene, a woman he does not love, and does so for reasons he cannot explain. His wife is beautiful and stupid, but, to Pierre’s astonishment, all the wealthy and powerful people who attend her lavish parties think her one of the most intelligent women in Petersburg. She is like a glass mirror, reflecting back everything that goes on around her.

Helene’s ignorance is the ignorance of the age. Everyone thinks they know everything; no one knows anything. It is a kind of mass delusion, “the popularization of knowledge,” caused by “that most powerful tool of ignorance - the spread of printing.” Russian society has become enlightened, which means for Tolstoy, corrupt. Russia has followed Europe and, like Europe, has lost its soul; it has become addicted to wealth and power. Instead of real knowledge, the understanding of the place of human beings in an ordered universe, it seeks only the knowledge of how things work, the immediate material causes of whatever one might happen to desire.

The attempt to replace human understanding with the principles of modern science is nowhere more clear than in the history of the war. Nothing happens the way that, according to those principles, it should have happened. Napoleon invades Russia. There is a tremendous battle at Borodino, not far from Moscow. The French appear to win, but Kutuzov, the Russian general in charge, is certain that Napoleon has lost. Everyone wants Kutuzov to attack; Kutuzov retreats. Everyone knows that Moscow has to be defended; Kutuzov abandons it. Moscow is destroyed by fire, and Napoleon, who could have stayed, leaves. He could have attacked, and almost certainly taken, Petersburg, but he decides against it. There is no good reason for what Napoleon does; there is no good reason for what anyone does. Kutuzov did not reason about things; his Russian soul decided. Things happened the way they did because they had to happen that way.

The lesson, a lesson Tolstoy repeats over and over again, is that nothing was done according to any plan; soldiers fought and soldiers died, and even when they thought they were following orders, the orders they received were almost never the orders that were given. Everything that happened in the smoke and haze, the shock and violence, of battle was a reaction to what was going on directly in front of those who were fighting, or what they could see, or thought they saw, in front of them. What happens in war is accidental, irrational, and unknown.

How does Tolstoy know this? What makes him so certain that Pierre, wandering around a battlefield, has as good a sense of what is going on as the commanding general, or an officer on the spot? He knows it from his own observations, and from reading through the official Russian documents, the military reports written at the time. But he learned it first from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had insisted, long before Tolstoy, that the spread of printing was a danger to civilization. In Emile, Rousseau had written that “the facts described by history are far from being the exact portrayal of the same facts as they happened. They change form in the historian’s head; they are molded according to his instincts; they take on the complexion of his prejudices. Who knows how to put the reader exactly on the spot of the action to see an event as it took place? Ignorance or partiality disguises everything.”

Rousseau goes on in a way that reminds you immediately of what Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “How many times did a tree more or less, a stone to the right or the left, a cloud of dust raised by the wind determine the result of a combat without anyone having noticed it? Does this prevent the historian from telling you the cause of the defeat or the victory with as much assurance as if he had been everywhere?”

Tolstoy thought it impossible to know the causes of events. Those who say that the causes of what happened in Russia “are the conquering spirit of Napoleon and the patriotic firmness of the emperor Alexander Pavlovich, is as meaningless as to say that the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are that such-and-such barbarian led his people to the west, and such-and-such Roman emperor ruled his people badly, or that an immense mountain that was being leveled came down because the last workman drove his spade into it.”

What then are the causes? History itself, history as Rousseau understands it; history which, after Rousseau, will take the place of God; history as the movement of the human race toward its own improvement, history as progress.

“History in general is defective in that it records only palpable and distinct facts which can be fixed by names, places, and dates while the slow and progressive causes of these facts, which cannot be similarly assigned, always remain unknown. One often finds in a battle won or lost the reason for a revolution which even before the battle had already become inevitable. War hardly does anything other than make manifest outcomes already determined by moral causes which historians rarely know how to see.”

For Tolstoy, all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, had, as it were, been pre-determined, part of history’s plan. The proof is simple, straightforward, easy to grasp: all the battles, all the decisions, everything that happened, happened only after all the battles, and all the decisions, of the past. When we look back, what do we see? That everything that has happened has led to this, the present moment. Everything that happens is necessary. This same necessity drives men and women, drives them without their conscious knowledge. It drives Pierre and Natasha to their marriage.

In Emile, Rousseau arranges everything in a way that after Emile and Sophie have fallen in love, they are forced to live apart for two years. This necessity deepened their love by delaying what they both desired. For Rousseau, and for Tolstoy as well, the sexes are each imperfect; only their union makes them into what they are, by nature, meant to be: together one being, together one whole. There is only one reason for marriage, but that reason is fundamental: to give birth and raise the next generation. Pierre and Natasha live their lives, their histories, if you will, guided toward each other, united in what they both instinctively understand. History, their history, has an end. After her marriage to Pierre, Natasha changes; she becomes what, quite unknowing, she has always wanted to be - a mother.

The two stories, the war with Napoleon, the happy solitude of marriage, the two stories, War and Peace, both driven forward by a common necessity that gives direction, and which explains, all the strange and seemingly inexplicable events of the lives of Pierre and Natasha - and not just their lives, but all the others - the desire, the need, to live, both as individuals and together as a country, beyond their own, too temporary existence. For Natasha that meant motherhood; for Natasha and Pierre and their children, that meant Mother Russia.

Maxwell Perkins was right. War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

--Marshal Zeringue