Wednesday, July 31, 2019

War and Fate

As I did last year, once more I’ve found myself behind on blogging. Only this year, I’ve fallen behind on reading as well. There’s some bad (death in the family) and some good (moving to a beautiful new house) in the cause of it, but still I’m behind. It’s actually December as I write, although I’m dating the post in July (because I want to talk about a couple of books I read in July), and I’ve had to double or even triple up my reading some days in the last few weeks in order to get my list for the year finished. And then that extra reading kept me from keeping up with the blog. But how can I not say something about Tolstoy?

If a million men had not wanted to march across Europe toward Russia, says the philosophical author (loosely), Napoleon could not have made them do it. Great leaders do not shape history, or else the exception would be the law. (Napoleon wasn’t all that great anyway, the Russian patriot assures us.) And yet, we find in a deeper layer of the mystery, the varied wishes of the individual soldiers don’t have any causative effect, either. They only appear to each person the reasons for the great army’s migration. Of course you can choose to raise your arm or to think through a mathematical proof, but as soon as your will comes into contact with the will of another person, you are no longer free. You don’t decide to go. Napoleon doesn’t decide to go. Why do you go to Russia? Because it is inevitable.

Now sometimes Tolstoy seems to say that “the inevitable” is an impersonal fate, and sometimes he seems to say it is the will of God. I think he ultimately thought God directed the events, although, as Tolstoy’s fellow countryman famously asked, who would want to think that God directed the torture of a young girl? On the other hand, a brighter side of Tolstoy’s coin says that if we understood how little freedom that annoying fellow in the office had, we would more readily forgive him. But then, I want to ask, am I free to forgive the other guy if he isn’t free to stop harassing me? What good would understanding him do? Determinism is so very circular, even if it does attempt to step outside the circle in order to point out that nothing but the circle exists.

I don’t know if Napoleon moved la Grande Armée, but I know that Tolstoy moves me, even when he leads me into circular conundrums of snakes eating themselves. The story of young people in love and full of promise getting caught up in a tremendous war and trying to keep their individualities and free wills within the seemingly predetermined cataclysm brings me to the edge of all meaning. It shows me the infinite and the infinitesimal within us: the head that is large enough to encompass the globe and the heart that is too small to entertain a neighbor’s needs for a moment. He convinces me that, even if the great General Kutuzov was too insignificant to affect the battles he seemed to lead, the humble Marya is worth all of Josephine’s jewels and more. At the end of the book, she is, her author tells us, so happy she feels sad “as though she felt, through her happiness, that there is another sort of happiness unattainable in this life.” Behind the noise of battle stands Marya. Behind her stand her feelings. Behind her happiness stands a blessedness of another world. The battle plans and marches and bungled orders and meetings between emperors and childhood marriage vows and houses being sold and humanitarian societies and all the rest – these are only line drawings on a curtain behind which the real drama takes place just outside our total comprehension.

If history is predetermined, can it be foreseen by human eyes? Some people, Tolstoy points out, seem to understand great movements, to have the ability to pinpoint key influences and to predict battles. But, he explains, there are always plenty of people predicting one thing or another, so that eventually every outcome is predicted. As a result, when the actual outcome happens, there's always someone to say, “I told you so.” At the same time I was finishing up War and Peace, I also read the central part of the central book in Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War, which naturally told about the central battle of the War, and I couldn’t help finding Tolstoy’s view critiquing Foote’s. One could read this account of the events in Pennsylvania and come away with a Great Man theory of history. The U.S. won the war because it won Gettysburg, and it won the battle of Gettysburg because it held Little Round Top, and it held Little Round Top because Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge when his troops were out of bullets. Thank you, Joshua Chamberlain.

But Foote also tells about James Longstreet, who, while Pickett charged the center of the bluecoats’ line on the third day, sat on a rail and watched the disaster, which he had forecast to Lee. But did Longstreet really know what would happen? He was right, as it turned out. But I could say that it’s raining in Kyoto just this minute and be accidentally right without knowing whether it’s raining in Kyoto. Tolstoy would say that the only reason a story as boring as that of a man sitting on a fence rail for a day survives is that Longstreet merely proved in the end to have guessed correctly. Everybody predicted something that day, and if Pickett had made it through the lines – which doesn’t seem an impossibility to me even though I don’t think he personally would have had much to do with the changed outcome – some other general (Pickett himself, perhaps) would have said to Lee, “See? I told you so.”

Which did Foote believe? Did he believe that Chamberlain was the great man because he established history? Or did he believe that great men only recognize the futility of will and the inevitability of events? The title of his Gettysburg section, “The Stars in the Courses,” suggests the latter, even if the view is adopted only to make the reading as compelling as the fate behind the events.