Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A few thoughts on War and Peace

I recently finished reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. And yes, I am bragging! OK, well maybe not really but I do feel a major sense of accomplishment. This is true mostly because I've been reading it for so long that I'm not even sure when I started it. I think it was at the end of the summer but it honestly feels like it was even longer than that. Never before has it taken me so long to finish reading a book, especially a work of fiction. Obviously, being a pastor and a father makes it difficult to find large chunks of time for reading anything but aside from that this book was just an absolute beast.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the long journey. This was actually the second time I had started reading this book. The first time I got through about 200 pages and realized I had no idea what was going on and needed to start over. That was a few years ago. But I decided to take it up again as a portion of a larger effort on my part to read more fiction. I am more or less convinced that there has to be some correlation between reading/watching/hearing good stories and being able to tell a good story. And since a considerable part of what I do in preaching is to tell stories, I would like to be as good at it as I can be.

With the disclaimer that I am by no means an educated critic of great works of literature (although I do spend considerable amount of time in one particular collection of literature) and am completely certain that there were all kinds of things in this book that were completely lost on me, I thought that such a long read was worthy of at least a few disjointed observations.

1. The worldview exhibited in Tolstoy's story gives high priority to the individual responsibility of average men and women while also allowing sheer chance to play a significant role in the story. In contrast to this interplay between chance and the lives of average people, the "movers" and "shakers", the people who should be the real brokers of power in Tolstoy's story seem to have little impact on its actual outcome. More than once, Tolstoy talks about how generals discuss maneuvers and military tactics at length without ever realizing that it is the courage or cowardice of each man on the field that wins or loses the battles which they so carefully plot. A military advantage provided by greater numbers and superior position seem to melt away in the face of a group of men who set aside their fear of death and refuse to give up their position.

2. Tolstoy's story seems to be a critique of the system of honor and recognition that exists in Russia at the time (and perhaps of all societies?). Repeatedly, soilders or commanding officers are given medals for acts of no real significance while individuals who perform truly heroic acts go unnoticed by those in power. One of the main characters in the story even ends up being imprisoned on false accusations after rescuing a baby from a fire. The climax of this reality is when the general of the Russian army, who defeats Napolean essentially by just outlasting him, is repeatedly chastized for not pursuing Napolean's retreat so as to destroy his army and make victory complete. Even though this general saves all of Russia from utter destruction, he is considered imcompetent and unpatriotic by the commanding officers beneath him simply because he refuses to risk the lives of Russian soilders in pursuing a French army that is already defeated.

3. Tolstoy spends a considerable amount of space reminding us of the reality of death. I think this is characteristic of most of Tolstoy's writings. It is, at least, of the one other work of his that I have read; The Death of Ivan Illyich. Tolstoy demonstrates some of his most profound skills as a writer when he narrates the thoughts of a character who is dying or thinks they are on the verge of death. Everything seems to suddenly fall into perspective for these characters in their final moments. They suddenly realize that so many of the things they have pursued in life are nothing but vanity. It seems that for Tolstoy somehow understanding death is the real key to understanding life.

Of course, there is much more to a classic like this one but those were a few of the major themes that stood out to me. I'd be interested in hearing anyone else thoughts.

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