Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tolstoy as Oracle

This morning, over coffee, I opened my copy of Garnett's translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I have been slowly re-reading for the hundredth time, and immediately fell face-first into the following paragraph:
And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it. Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance. He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.
Tolstoy does not include a proper noun in the paragraph, and thus he allows it to function as a generalization in which "that man" could be any number of men, any number of humans. If I substitute "Donald J. Trump" for "that man," the paragraph assumes an ominous topicality . . . ominous because, even in his delineation of evil, Tolstoy allows us to pity this person "on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it." And when we pity someone, we make allowances for his evil.

This paragraph disturbs me, in great part, because I naturally want to believe that pity is a humane reaction, an altruism. Yet it, too, is a blinder, and that is a painful truth to face.

If you're familiar with War and Peace, you've probably already guessed that Tolstoy's "that man" is Napoleon. That knowledge adds another level of distaste to my reading of the paragraph. If I can easily substitute the words "Donald J. Trump" for "Napoleon Bonaparte," what does that indicate about the way in which the passage of time and the constructions of history twist our conceptions of hero and leader and nobility and just cause and intelligence and bravery--not to mention our aptitude for pity? I have no love for Napoleon as a historical figure, but neither have I focused on the fact that his behavior was not so different from Trump's.

As advertisement, the label Napoleon bears some equivalence to the neon lights of Trump Tower. Both names continue to blare. And it's terrible to even begin to count the similarities in the urge toward empire.

The amazing part of all this angst and ambiguity is, of course, Tolstoy. How did he know? And how does he manage to keep telling us?


Maureen said...

In this week's NY Review, in his review of Volker Urich's 'Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939", Christopher Browning draws out but also ably and persuasively refutes the parallels of Hitler and Trump, while also noting how both "claimed their countries to be 'losers', offered themselves as the sole solution to these crises, and pledged a return to the glories of an imagined golden past....'

Browning points out, too, how unlike were the two men's historical circumstances, and I think we can find the same is true if we assess the cases of Napoleon and Trump, and give particular attention to how each came to power. I have to agree with Browning that here in America, democracy remains its own best defense against our current government, though, as Browning also stresses, "there is a high price to pay for consistently underestimating a charismatic political outsider....'

All that said, Tolstoy manages to show us to ourselves, and isn't that, perhaps more than anything else, what makes his writing so remarkably prescient and deserving of reading?

Dawn Potter said...

I agree with you and Browning: I don't think there's a one-to-one correspondence between the men; the circumstances are far too complex to claim such a historical mirror. Nonetheless, I do think that Tolstoy shows us that there is a pattern, among many leaders, to see themselves as ordained for greatness in ways that work to cancel out the values that, in my view, define a civilized culture. And it amazes me that Tolstoy had the breadth of sympathy and acuity to not only recognize this but to express it in ways that essentially predicted the future.