Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reading War and Peace... Still

Well, I’m still in the midst of War and Peace. I don’t think I have ever been in the middle of a book for so long while consistently reading. I’m on page 821;  The novel has 1,215 pages. Well, to be more precise, I’ll just stick with calling it a “book,” not a novel. Tolstoy said, “it 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.” There's creative genius for you.  It is just so different than anything I’ve ever read. Isaac Babel said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” That seems to capture it.

The force of the book moves forward ponderously, inevitably, enormously, unstoppably—containing and gathering up within itself the intermittent, sporadic motions of small and great individuals. The power of it all takes your breath away and leaves you feeling quite small. And yet, simultaneously, Tolstoy highlights the strange magnificence of humanity. He turns the tables so that the great figures of history—Napoleon, specifically—are shown to be small-minded and incidental. Meanwhile, ‘mediocre’ people with their mixture of beauty and baseness experience these crazy moments of transcendence that elevate their souls, in Tolstoy’s depiction, beyond that of the great Napoleon. Within all of this, Tolstoy exposes the tragedy and absurdity of making war a game--of playing with human lives like chess, when the player is the same as the pieces.
These reflections bring to mind Lewis’ famous quotation:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods or goddesses, to remember that the dullest or most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree, helping each other to one or another of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection due them that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Native cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life to ours is as the life of a gnat. But is immortals we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

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