27 May 2010

War & Peace 2: Tolstoy & Homer


In a post earlier this month announcing his intention to reread War & Peace in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Matthew Reed quotes from and links to a post he had written a few years ago on a previous blog comparing Tolstoy’s novel with Homer’s Iliad. I’m glad to see this, because this is the very subject I had chosen for this post. Indeed, Matthew notes ‘I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new’, and in fact the comparisons seem to have begun with Tolstoy himself. Harold Bloom insists, ‘When Tolstoy compares himself to Homer we are persuaded, as no other post-Homeric writer could persuade us. Whether as prophet or as moralist, Tolstoy remains both an epic figure and a creator of epic.’ [1] Such comparisons continue, according to Richard Pevear, with a book I’d very much like to get my hands on—Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad, a ‘comparison of Homer and Tolstoy’. Pevear quotes Bespaloff’s words, ‘Tolstoy’s universe, like Homer’s, is what our own is from moment to moment. We don’t step into it; we are there.’ [2]

But while I believe there certainly is something to the points of commonality that Matthew notes in his old post, it seems to me that the fact that we are dealing with two lengthy and unflinching looks at the horror of war can mask what I believe are some important differences. They are differences which do not seem so important to many modern readers, but which are necessitated by the distance between circa 9th-c. BC Greece and 19th-c. AD Russia. I’d like to consider these difference in two closely related areas: first, in terms of distinctly generic characteristics, and second, in terms of the specific portrayal of the common epic theme of war, which links the two together whilst simultaneously highlighting their distance from each other. I should point out, however, that these observations are based solely on my reading of the first volume, as well as my reading of a few critics on the subject of Tolstoy. Some of them are general enough to be safely stated at the outset, while others are not. We shall see whether they are borne out as the novel progresses.

Bloom refers to Tolstoy as ‘both an epic figure and a creator of epic’, and most of us feel we know and accept what he means by this. But our familiarity with this use of the term ‘epic’ can cause us to forget that it is a very broad and, I believe, recent one. Consider, by contrast, the seminal definition of ‘epic’ in Aristotle’s Poetics:

But as for the imitative art that is narrative [in manner] and employs metrical language [as its medium], it is evident that, just as in tragedies, its plots should be dramatic in structure—that is, should involve a single action, whole and complete in itself, having a beginning, a middle, and an end, so that like one whole living creature it may produce its appropriate pleasure—and that its structure should not resemble histories, which necessarily present not a single action but a single period of time with all that happened therein to one or more persons, no matter how little relation one event may have had with another. [3]

Of the features named here, I find that the Iliad and War & Peace have only the narrative manner in common. Tolstoy certainly doesn’t use metrical language. Indeed, Prince Mirsky has observed, ‘His style is deliberately prosaic—purged to chemical purity of all “poetry” and rhetoric—sternly puritanical prose.’ [4] As for singleness of action, Richard Freeborn observes in his contribution to The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, ‘The greatness of War & Peace lies in the very multiplicity of its many locales, characters and viewpoints’, [5] and Prince Mirsky notes the ‘vast proportions, the numerous personages, [and] the frequent changes of scene’. [6]

It is also worth noting that the epic metre—the heroic hexametre—is entirely discrete. Aristotle writes, ‘Indeed, it would seem out of keeping if anyone were to compose a narrative imitation in some other meter or in a combination of meters, since in comparison with the other verse forms the heroic [hexametre] is the most deliberate and weighty.’ [7] Now, this might seem to be a moot point, since, as I’ve emphasised, Tolstoy doesn’t use metre at all, and doesn’t even quote poetry the way Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov frequently does, for instance. [8] But the equivalent in Tolstoy of the mixing of the ancient genres, so foreign to epic, is the mixing of ‘genres’ in its more modern sense. War & Peace is hardly a straightforward narrative. As Prince Mirsky notes, Tolstoy ‘carried further than anyone (except Aksakov) the deliberate neglect of narrative interest and the deliberate avoidance of artificial construction.’ [9] Pevear refers to ‘the sudden leaps from fiction to history, from narration to philosophizing’, [10] but even this does not quite go far enough. For the ‘realism’ of prose leaves all of the various examples of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘primary speech genres’ on the level of their own style, rather than sublimating them in the monologism of a novelistic equivalent of the heroic hexametre. [11] Though all is controlled by Tolstoy (and indeed, Bakhtin insists that he is more monologic than Dostoevsky), to a great degree we still find that the charactres have their own voices, expressed in dialogue, letters, commands, ejaculations, etc., and even the narrator shifts from simply telling us or describing to us the action of the narrative to expounding a philosophy of history. Though we do not find different metres, the variety of prose ‘genres’ is perhaps even more striking.

Of course, there are other characteristics of the epic of which Aristotle is not quite consciously aware, because he takes them for granted. In the brief paper I posted here, I summarised some of Bakhtin’s comparisons of the epic with the novel: the epic is monoglot (that is, scarcely even aware of other languages or voices than its own, much less reflecting or incorporating them), its subject matter is of an elevated and uniformly serious type, its meaning is straight-forward and non-ironic. Tolstoy’s novel is permeated with French and sometimes German, even when the prose itself is actually written in Russian, he is prone to deal with earthy and comic situations, and his work is replete with irony, ambivalence, and implication.

In fact, while I am initially tempted to say that War & Peace, like the epic poetry of old, is an example of ‘the literature of ruling social groups’, [12] it certainly does not belong to the ‘ruling social group’ of its day in the same way as the epics. What Prince Mirsky calls Tolstoy’s ‘satirical representation of society and of diplomacy’ [13] could have no place in The Iliad. In Bakhtin’s view, satire is an example of a ‘parodic-travestying literature’, which ‘introduces the permanent corrective of laughter, of a critique on the one-sided seriousness of the lofty direct word, the corrective of reality that is always richer, more fundamental amd most importantly too contradictory and heteroglot to be fit into a high and straightforward genre.’ [14] Indeed, such forms are linked with the very pre-history of the novel itself—

These parodic-travestying forms . . . destroyed the homogenizing power of myth over language; they freed consciousness from the power of the direct word, destroyed the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness within its own discourse, within its own language. A distance arose between language and reality that was to prove an indispensable condition for authentically realistic forms of discourse. [15]

But these generic differences may perhaps seem too obvious. Of course Tolstoy’s novel is not an epic poem, one may say! Tolstoy himself denies that it fits any genre at all: ‘It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War & Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.’ [16] But let’s consider at least one point of definite contact with epic as it is usually conceived—its preoccupation with war. Superficially, this is one of the novel’s most characteristically ‘epic’ features. The Iliad is the consummate poem of war, and the Aeneid begins with the famous words Arma virumque cano, which Robert Fitzgerald has gone so far as to render, ‘I sing of warfare and a man at war.’ [17]

But while war in the Iliad is inevitably terrible, there is never any surprise that this should be so. It is worth quoting C.S. Lewis at length:

It is all the more terrible because the poet takes it all for granted, makes no complaint. It comes out casually, in similes.

As when the smoke ascends to the sky from a city afar
Set in an isle, which foes have compassed round in war,
And all day long they struggle as hateful Ares bids.
(Il. XVIII, 207.)

Or again,

As when a woman upon the body falls
Of her husband, killed in battle before the city walls. . . .
She sees him down and listens how he gasps his life away,
And clings to the body, crying, amid the foes; but they
Beating her back and shoulders with butts of spears amain
Pull her away to slavery to learn of toil and pain.
(Od. VIII, 523.)

. . . This is a mere simile—the sort of thing that happens every day. . . . For Homer it is all in the day’s work. . . .

. . . In Homer, [epic] greatness lies in the human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux. It is all the more tragic because there hangs over the heroic world a certain futility. ‘And here I sit in Troy,’ says Achilles to Priam, ‘afflicting you and your children.’ Not ‘protecting Greece’, not even ‘winning glory’, not called by any vocation to afflict Priam, but just doing it because that is the way things come about. . . . Here there is just the suffering. Perhaps this was in Goethe’s mind when he said, ‘The lesson of the Iliad is that on this earth we must enact Hell.’ Only the style—the unwearying, unmoved, angelic speech of Homer—makes it endurable. Without that the Iliad would be a poem beside which the grimmest modern realism is child’s play. [18]

Thus, we can see that War & Peace is not even among ‘the grimmest modern realism’. As Prince Mirsky notes, ‘The philosophy of the novel is . . . profoundly optimistic . . . The optimistic nature of the philosophy is reflected in the idyllic tone of the narrative. In spite of the horror—by no means veiled—of war, . . . the general message of War & Peace is one of beauty and satisfaction that the world should be so beautiful.’ [19] It is for this reason that Tolstoy’s charactres are so surprised by the horror of war—it fits ill with the beauty of the world, which must exist in ‘spite’ of it. Think of Part 2 of Volume I of War when, superficially wounded, Nikolai Rostov thinks to himself of the approaching French, ‘Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?’ [20] Then, recall by contrast the resignation of young Patroclus in Il. XVI, ll. 988-97, struggling for breath when Hector has speared him through the bowels:

‘. . .
A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus—Apollo too—
they brought me down with all their deathless ease,
they are the ones who tore the armor off my back.
Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me—
they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear.
No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me.
From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third,
and all you could do was finish off my life . . .
One more thing—take it to heart, I urge you—
you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
. . .’ [21]

Another difference lies in Tolstoy’s use of war as what Freeborn calls a ‘catalyst’ for the moral transformation of his charactres. [22] While Freeborn finds that in Tolstoy’s depiction of war ‘no guiding hand, let alone any providence, seems capable of bringing order out of chaos’, in the same paragraph he observes that ‘on those of his characters who experience it intimately’ the effect of war ‘is morally transforming’. We see when Nikolai Rostov is wounded and, in Freeborn’s words, ‘suddenly realizes . . . that he is no longer a little boy protected by the love and loyalty of his family.’ [23] In fact, according to Bakhtin, the whole notion of a hero changing is profoundly alien to epic, and was already identified in the 18th c. as one of the unique characteristics of the novelistic hero: ‘the hero should not be portrayed as an already completed and unchanging person but as one who is evolving and developing, a person who learns from life’. [24] It is ironic that it is precisely the ‘epic’ preoccupation with war that constitutes a catalyst for the charactres’ moral transformation.

There are, of course, other possible avenues for exploration when we place these two great works side by side. Just as Homer’s epic taught the ancient Greeks the nature of and means of acquiring arete, Freeborn sees Tolstoy as teaching a kind of—perhaps uniquely modern—heroism, ‘the “active virtue” animating the best men in Russian society’. [25] There is also the question of similarity or dissimilarity between what Bakhtin calls the ‘epic past’ in Homer, and the evocation of ‘the historical scene’ in Tolstoy. [26] But this is already a long post, and my family is anxiously awaiting use of the computer. I’d love to hear any comments on these points, as well as the various points I have discussed.

Finally, Andrea Elizabeth has notified me that she already has a few War & Peace posts as well. They can be found here.


[1] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 312.

[2] Qtd. in Richard Pevear, ‘Introduction’, War & Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 2008), p. xiv.

[3] Aristotle, Poetics, tr. James Hutton (NY: Norton, 1982), pp. 71-2.

[4] Prince Dmitri Svyatopolk Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature: From its Beginnings to 1900, ed. Francis J. Whitfield (NY: Vintage, 1958), p. 264.

[5] Richard Freeborn, ‘The nineteenth century: the age of realism, 1855-80’, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, rev. ed., ed. Charles A. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1995), p. 303.

[6] Mirsky, p. 272.

[7] Aristotle, p. 73.

[8] In fact, this insistence on rarely mixing poetry with his prose might actually be considered a feature that brings Tolstoy’s work closer to the spirit of the ancient genre and makes it less novelistic in the sense we shall be discussing.

[9] Mirsky, p. 264.

[10] Pevear, p. x.

[11] This is not to say that Tolstoy’s work does not contain a deeper monologism. As Bakhtin writes, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994):

Such characters as Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, Levin, and Nekhlyudov have their own well-developed fields of vision, sometimes almost coinciding with the author’s (that is, the author sometimes sees the world as if through their eyes), their voices sometimes almost merge with the author’s voice. But not a single one ends up on the same plane with the author’s word and the author’s truth, and with none of them does the author enter into dialogic relations. All of them, with their fields of vision, with their quests and their controversies, are inscribed into the monolithically monologic whole of the novel that finalizes them all and that is never, in Tolsto, the kind of ‘great dialogue’ that we find in Dostoevsky. All the clamps and finalizing moments of this monologic whole lie in the zone of authorial ‘surplus’, a zone that is fundamentally inaccessible to the consciousnesses of the characters. (p. 72)

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 4.

[13] Mirsky, p. 271.

[14] Bakhtin, Dialogic, p. 55.

[15] Ibid., p. 60.

[16] Qtd. in Pevear, p. xi. In fact, Tolstoy’s denial that his work is a novel presumes the 18th-c. (and earlier) model of the novel. ‘But,’ Bakhtin insists, ‘it is characteristic of the novel that it never enters into this whole [of literature conceived as a totality of genres], it does not participate in any harmony of the genres. In these eras [the Greek classical period, the Golden Age of Roman literature, the neoclassical period] the novel has an unofficial existence, outside “high” literature’ (Dialogic, p. 4). In other words, its lack of well-defined generic qualities is precisely what places War & Peace within the novelistic ‘genre’ as Bakhtin conceives it.

[17] Virgil, The Aeneid, tr. Robert Fitzgerald (NY: Random House, 1983), p. 3.

[18] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford U, 1965), pp. 30-1.

[19] Mirsky, pp. 272-3.

[20] Tolstoy, p. 189. The scene is an interesting parallel to Maxim Gorky’s words about Tolstoy himself:

All his life he feared and hated death, all his life there throbbed in his soul the ‘Arsamasian terror’—must he die? The whole world, all the earth looks towards him [Me, whom everybody loves so?]; from China, India, America, from everywhere living throbbing threads stretch out to him; his souls is for all and forever. Why should not nature make an exception to her law, give to one man physical immortality? (qtd. in Bloom, p. 311)

[21] Homer, The Iliad, tr. Robert Fagles (NY: Penguin, 1998), p. 440.

[22] Freeborn, p. 302.

[23] Ibid., p. 301.

[24] Bakhtin, Dialogic, p. 10.

[25] Freeborn, p. 299.

[26] Ibid., p. 299.

3 comments:

Matthew said...

Very, very interesting. The irony of epic warfare as novelist catalyst is pretty neat.

About Irony in the Illiad. I always thought that the parts set in Olympus were a bit ironic, but I guess that could be my prejudiced contemporary reading?

Also, I wonder if you could make an analogy between Homer’s cutbacks to the Gods, and Tolstoy’s use of absolute language. His philosophical essays describing history seem a bit like the view of Olympus’s capricious Gods.

By the way, I wish I had a reference, but someone wrote a book (or maybe an essay) about how 19th century Russians ‘consumed’ literature; they read them out loud. In that way, the novel had a communal and aural (am I using that word right?) aspect that we don’t associate with the novel, but which is in some ways closer to more ancient literary art. What do you think?

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry I never responded to this comment, Matthew--I got really busy. I'll try to say something in the next couple of days.

Matthew said...

No problem! I've been really busy too, and hardly touching the internet.