Monday, March 18, 2013

“War and Peace”: From Literature to Subaltern History


“War and Peace”, both in terms of its scope and message is an extraordinary novel. It has a special significance in Tolstoy’s literary oeuvre.    It brings out a great artist’s strengths and peculiarities, and also discontinuities, contradictions and ironies.  With all these, it stands out as an original work of great beauty and substance. But what is generally not acknowledged is that it is also   an important commentary on history and makes outstanding contribution to the discipline of historiography. The dominant view of history in the nineteenth century, until the coming of Hegel and Marx, was that the political leaders, emperors and the aristocracy were the makers of glorious history and the common man was merely a consumer of this history and someone who draws inspiration from it.    “War and Peace” was the first major literary experiment that tried to demolish this view and made serious attempt to place the common man and his life at the core of history. It was a unique literary attempt that tried to reclaim for the common man the central place in historiography that is always largely expropriated by dominant classes, powerful political interests and those who claim to run the powerful business of peddling history.  

It was almost about 150 years ago, in 1863, that the first draft of the novel was completed, though it was not until 1865 that it started getting serialized in a magazine. Some sources doubt these dates and indicate that Tolstoy may have started writing the novel in 1865.    Not satisfied with these earlier drafts, and having made many changes, Tolstoy almost rewrote the entire novel to bring it to the text that we today know as “War and Peace”.  Whatever it is,   reading this novel of over twelve hundred pages   is a difficult project.   In addition to the 1200 pages, there is a 60-70 pages long   chapter, known as Part II of the novel, where Tolstoy somewhat gratuitously and often to the increasing annoyance of the tired readers, unleashes his own ramblings on what, according to him,   history is.  

  I could read this mega- novel, somehow, only because I was on a longish leave and was convalescing from a long drawn fever. But not all Tolstoy lovers are so happily lucky.  I feel that   sheer size of the novel could be problematic to many book lovers who approach “War and Peace” with enthusiasm. It is likely that book lovers who   decide to read this classic and leave it unfinished at various stages may constitute a goodly number. It was  tenacity born of  passion for Tolstoy’s works that sustained me through, for I read the novel again after 15 years when I was on my sabbatical. But luckily this time  I was guided to “War and Peace” by no less a person than the great Isaiah Berlin, whose famous classic  essay “The Fox and The Hedgehog” even today continues to provide deep insights into works of Tolstoy, especially his “War and Peace”.

Tolstoy’s Views of History and Historiography

During the 1850s Tolstoy was increasingly being drawn to historical writing. But he did not want to write historical romance and was certainly not interested in fictionalizing history. Like all intellectuals of the nineteenth century Tolstoy was influenced by various strands of historicism. If history is a clue to understanding everything about human beings, he certainly, especially as an artist, wanted to understand how history is made, created, recorded, and its myths perpetuated. He was   interested in showing discrepancies between the actual unfolding of the history and it’s often   deliberate and one-sided recording and writing by the political establishment. And this he wanted to demonstrate through work of art, through a novel.  

 Tolstoy was not merely   critical of the manner in which historians write political history selectively. He denounced   the practice of traditional history writing and described it as selective chronicling of political and military events from the view point of   political establishments. He came heavily   on such great historians as   Gibbon and Buckle and dismissed their histories as empty and devoid of all meaning. According to him they were sweeping and rambling narratives from which were removed all that was human. He was also not very happy with Hegel’s view of history. He had read Hegel, but was not impressed by his idea of Directional History where flow of history moves relentlessly irrespective of the human beings that participate in it. He  despised the idea of   movement towards a predetermined and preordained goal or objective.  He felt that such an idea would preempt human beings and would leave no volition to them in their   universe. As an artist he viewed freedom of human beings in different situations as central to life and human drama, and hence he was not enthused by   Hegel’s project. And yet like Hegel and Marx he too believed in some arcane law that governed unfolding of history irrespective of historical players; but he could not precisely articulate it.

Tolstoy believed that the existing practice and art of writing history missed many dimensions of human motivation and creative activity. An ideal history to him was a larger history of Man who negotiates his universe in all its creative aspects, social, economic, aesthetic, artistic, and literary.   Tolstoy was looking for a much larger, grander and livelier narrative. He wanted a history,   kicking and bustling with innate human activity, of which war and political maneuvering was merely an outer, if rabid, manifestation. 

 More than heroes and emperors he was fascinated by the common man who continues his life in all its complexity.  He believed that history was not made by emperors and the so called great heroes. It was made, according to him, by common man who lives his life courageously despite all the turbulence he finds himself in.   The common man, the ordinary man at work and in his own home, was thus the hero of Tolstoy’s history. He rejected all versions of history in which this ordinary man, who is evolving spiritually, is absent.

The Art, Vision and Aesthetics of “The War and Peace”

“War and Peace” happens on the background of the Napoleonic Wars that were fought between 1800 and 1812, especially Napoleon’s Russia war. It is the story of four Russian aristocratic families, Bolkonsky, Bezhuhov, Kuragin and Rostov. It is the story of their private relationships and public responsibilities and important off-war happenings in these families. The three heroes, young aristocrats from these families---- Andrei, Pierre, and Nikolai--- experience war in all its gruesome and absurd reality. Although nations avowedly wage war in the name of such lofty concepts as nationalism and patriotism, in reality in the theater of war and on the actual battlefield, there reigns confusion, crassness, cowardice, madness and a great cloud of meaninglessness. Still more frightening is the prospect of these events being presented by   historians to the posterity as great heroic events unfolding from the brilliant strategies and grandiose plans of the military leaders, generals and others who   stand tall and appear to  dwarf all that is around them. 

The emptiness and meaninglessness of designs and the plans of the   emperors and generals and their irrelevance to the common man who conducts his affairs courageously even under such dispensation of madness and disaster is the theme of the “War and Peace”. The heroes of the “War and Peace” carry with them this dark vision of   meaninglessness   in their life as they strut back home with dull heavy feet: a false history written on the basis of events that were a disgrace to humanity, as great meaninglessness descends on such   concepts as nationalism, patriotism, valor, glorious national history and so on.   And from this dung of activities rise grand heroes of the history, the Napoleons and the Alexanders whose contrived images and   reputations distort the vision and the values of the generations to come. 

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains several pages of moving descriptions of   events that occur on battlefields. There are passages and pages that do not merely make scenes alive in the minds of the readers but radiate pure light of human wisdom. Tolstoy works with words and phrases to carve out rare   sculptures   that shall live as long as human race lasts.    Many critics, however, detested Tolstoy’s commentaries on history that are sprinkled throughout the novel.  Turgenev and Flaubert, Tolstoy’s contemporaries, adored “War and Peace” but felt that serious references to history and commentaries jarred on the literary achievements. It is this dazzling vision and great aesthetics that made readers, especially historians and social scientists neglect Tolstoy's philosophy of history! They regarded Tolstoy as an amateur and a dabbler and dismissed his views of history as his passing views in literature.

  Tolstoy’s Fragmented Vision: Aesthetics of art and Ascetics of Spiritualism

 Despite his great literary talent and ability, Tolstoy is more known as a philosopher of divinity, simplicity and ascetics. And hence perhaps, when it comes to his views on history he is, unfortunately, simply dismissed.   This is mainly because Tolstoy’s enduring reputation was founded more on his later   works such as “What is Art?”, “Confessions” and his later literary works such as “Resurrection” etc. Not that his better works such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are not acknowledged.   They are regarded as his masterpieces; however, rarely is an attempt made to reconcile the earlier masterpieces with the later day literature that is written in the language of a high priest, a teacher of humanity   and a quaint spiritual leader. When it comes to Tolstoy's art, his earlier works such as "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina are often cited without referring ever to his philosophy of history! And when it comes to Tolstoy's philosophy or thought, it is generally his later works that are cited.    Unless, therefore, one understands evolution of Tolstoy from an aesthete and a philosopher of history to a saintly preacher of humanity, it is difficult to understand the continuing presence of the two opposite movements in his mind. In absence of such an attempt of tracing his thought and philosophy, his musings and critique of history and history writing went largely unnoticed; and when it was noticed it was dismissed as jarring on novel's aesthetics and natural flow. 

 Isaiah Berlin wrote a beautiful essay on Tolstoy with a catchy title “The Fox and the Hedgehog” where he brilliantly brings out Tolstoy's philosophy of history.  He discusses many strands of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and concludes that Tolstoy’s literary vision was fragmented and that it had much to do with two very strong internal currents that moved in opposite directions. One was a great artist of humanity recording aesthetically everything that went with Man with all contradictions there are. The other was the spiritual nihilist that was set to negate and even destroy everything that fell short of his own spiritual ideals. With increasing age this opposition in his mind increased; and in his later days (especially after publication of “Anna Karenina”, which immediately followed “War and Peace”) the spiritual nihilist got the better of the aesthetic and artistic Tolstoy. But these opposite traits in his vision become   louder and more pronounced   in “War and Peace” where his art and his spiritual nihilism manifest through the long and yet fairly cohesive narrative of over 1200 pages. In understanding this drama and the aesthetics, readers have often not paid much attention to his important views on history in which he tried to place the common man at the very center of the history.  He stands for a Meta narrative of the history where the Man is the centerpiece and is depicted in his entirety, with all his contradictions and achievements.  

Tolstoy’s Contribution to Subaltern History

Subaltern History is a fairly new trend in history writing. It is writing of history from the point of view of the common man, from the point of view of those who have been the victims of an unjust order. We do not acknowledge it but   Tolstoy’s attempt of reclaiming for the common man the center of the history writing   was one of the greatest things that happened in literature. This was Tolstoy’s contribution to the history of ideas and to the history writing. He sought to give dignity to the common man by trying to put him at the center of the universe.

 Most of the historians and thinkers did not look at the “War and Peace” from the point of view of any serious historical discourse. As pointed out above this may have to do with the size and complexity of the “War and Peace”. Moreover, many serious readers get enamored of the pure aesthetics and the literary vision and   pay little attention to the discourse on history that runs throughout the novel.

 History of ideas is a strange discipline; it is difficult to say when and how an idea becomes popular, powerful and then perpetuates its dominance.  It is significant too, that while Karl Marx was busy explaining   how history unfolds, Tolstoy too was revealing great insights in history and history writing and was trying to place the common man at the center of history and history writing. Marx’s project claimed to be more scientific and was written in the language of science that was becoming a norm in the nineteenth century. Tolstoy’s project was equally ambitious, one may say. However, its language and medium was different; it was literature.

 We often regard literature as something that is unsubstantial and peripheral to our hard disciplines such as science, technology, economics and sociology. There are, however, powerful works of art and literature that affect us in great measure.   We often fight shy of acknowledging such influences. But literature is one great way of evaluating and criticizing and representing our very life that is shaped by these hard disciplines. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is such a work that reminds us of the power of literature.




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Anonymous said...

Sir I must say this is a very important and informative topic regarding modern historiography. We must change our traditional methods of History writing like no document no History and find the new way to interpret the facts.
THANKS sir for sharing this wonderful article with me.
Dr. Atul Ohal