Friday, February 24, 2006


I've reached it. Page 1000. It's all downhill from here.

But I really won't want it to end! And I've even found myself holding back this week: I have slowed my reading pace, because I feel like War and Peace is a little world I'm inhabiting and I'm not ready to move.

As mentioned in my main blog I read a chunk of The Book, specifically the Borodino battle scenes, while sitting in the back row of the random sweat-smelling auditorium where we will hold preschool graduation this weekend and where on Thursday we had a rehearsal that purported to be a run-through but was more like a disaster. Needless to say, it was a strange juxtaposition of the mess of 5-year-old children delivering speeches, poems, songs and dances and the mess of soldiers delivering cannon fire, messages to their commanders, prayers. One was a chaotic battle gone awry but nonetheless destined to go down in history, and the other was great literature!

I'm definitely worried that Prince Andrei is going to die. He's spending a lot of pages feeling that he's about to die. And it's interesting to see how it makes him grapple with life, including the reminiscence about Natasha delightedly telling him a story one evening and him truly understanding her. It made me wonder--again--why did their relationship have to be doomed? Or, was it not, and she just sucks for screwing it up? I really related to Natasha and saw so many echoes of my falling for a twit in their falling for each other.

You may recall that while I've meant to read this book forever, part of what has re-sparked my interest of late is what I can gain from it vis-a-vis the current political situation in the U.S.A. Specifically, Napoleon=Dubya. Well that was ringing true in this week's reading! Things fall apart for Monsieur l'empereur and he just sits there atop his horse kind of shocked: Wait, I can't lose a war! Everyone's supposed to be admiring me! What's going on!

"This man, predestined by Providence for the deplorable, ineluctable role of executioner of peoples, persuaded himself that the motive of his acts had been the welfare of peoples, and that he could control the destinies of millions and do good by the exercise of his power!" - p. 981

In fact, that quote would be perfect, except I don't give Bush as much credit on that score as many analysts do. I think he's far more insidious than misguided. (And he's plenty misguided.)

"He boldly assumed full responsibility for what had happened, and his beclouded mind found justification in the belief that among the hundreds of thousands of men who lost their lives, there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians." --p. 982

Tolstoy grappled with war, I know. It brought a lot of things to his life, not the least of which was wisdom that influenced this very masterpiece. But in this turning point scene, he reiterates how very senseless it is, how absurd to slaughter our fellow men, and how it is still more folly to think we actually understand history.

His mathematical-philosophical-historical motion musings at the start of Book Three Part Three are utterly brilliant. In fact, I hereby urge all of you, absolutely regardless of whether you're reading this book now or ever will, to go directly to your nearest bookstore, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and pick up the Signet Classic paperback ISBN 0451-52326-1 edition and read pages 985-991. Mr. T. is brilliant.

Friday, February 17, 2006

"Ah, with head all mazed, Living in a foreign land..."

I have definitely, officially got into a routine, which can be remarkably similar to a rut. A mere o-i-n-e away, in fact. I realized this today when I went, as usual, to the IKEA cafe (remember, it's just a cafe, no furniture store) in the shopping plaza across from my work. After the woman greeted me and I ordered my cappuccino, I turned and decided to sit at the second table from the counter instead of at the first table, and in the big comfy couch facing the door instead of the big comfy couch facing the kitchen and espresso machine area. I don't know why; I used to bounce around the tables in there but in the last couple weeks have sort of taken a liking to "my" spot on that particular couch. Well, I went for a new one today and I realized there are decorations on the wall that was in my new line of sight that I have literally never observed were there, including a very amusing one of the back of a witch and dangling broom that look like she has flown into the wall.

Isn't that pathetic? That I've been that unobservant? I've gone there two, three, four, sometimes five days a week for more than a month. I'd observed the other three walls, notably the one with the quote (in English) from Frost's "The Road Not Taken" along it. It was weird.

I must say that I like having this comforting little ritual for my reading of The Book, though. I do occasionally read bits of it elsewhere -- the subway, my bed. But my subway rides in Daegu tend to be short, so we're talking a page here and there, and lately I've taken to reading other things on the weekends and goodness knows that late at night I read about three sentences before fading off to sleep.

So, Rostov and Princess Marya, huh? I like this, but I really hope Mr. T's got something lovely in store for Sonya. I feel sorry for her. She's been so loyal and true while Natasha falls in love with someone new every five seconds and swears it's for life.

And hey! Borodino! Remember when I was babbling about "the" War and Peace battlefield in Nelson DeMille's The Charm School and swore soon enough I'd know what I was talking about, when I got to it in W&P? Well, it was Borodino (I think!) And the battle is about to happen! I've just finished the chapter where Tolstoy delineates how entirely NOT according to plan the whole thing was, despite historians' assurances to the contrary, assurances designed to make Napoleon and or Russian military commanders look brilliant.

The amusing part of today's reading was Julie -- she rather reminds me of a homecoming queen -- finding it so hard not to speak French and her guest the militia officer crying "Forfeit! Forfeit!" each time she slipped. It seems that with the newfound loathing of all things French the Russians in the rich nobility circles pay a little fine to the "Committee for Voluntary Contributions" whenever they slip up or utter a Gallicism. That in particular kind of reminds me of the "Voldemoort Swear Cup" at Cambridgeside Borders. The whole thing actually reminded me of my students, especially my pre-schoolers, who are just so delighted with themselves all the time that even though they know they're supposed to be speaking English and not Korean in my class, they can't help bursting forth sometimes. It was great fun, that chapter.

I guess Pierre's off to ride with the regiment now, for real. Maybe he finds meaning in his life at Borodino; I'll know soon. He's got to be the thinly veiled "fictional" representation of Tolstoy, with all his seeking and being an outcast with a healthy dose of dumb luck, religious inquiring and genuine good will, and so on. I think Tolstoy writes about him with a more disdainful tone earlier on in the book and then grows to like him because he probably did the same thing with himself.

As I sat in my couch facing a different direction today, getting a much needed new perspective, I received a bit of inspiration from The Book. Cosmic sign? Perhaps. I was stressing -- crying, even (good thing I'd sat facing away from coffee girl, you see) -- about a personal emotional decision, and then Kutuzov gives his sort of pep talk to Andrei about patience and time being the answer.

"'I'll tell you what to do, and what I do. When in doubt, my dear fellow--' he paused, 'do nothing.' He spoke with deliberate emphasis." -- p. 896

I needed that.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lovin' the Tsar

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

"Pfuhl was one of those inordinately, unshakably self-assured men -- self-assured to the point of martyrdom, as only a German can be, because only a German bases his self-assurance on an abstract idea: science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absoute truth. A Frenchman's self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman's self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organized state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully. But a German's self-assurance is the worst of all, more inflexible and repellent than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which is his own invention, but which for him is absolute truth." - pp. 770-771

I wonder what, if anything, Tolstoy might have added if he had written 100 years later, or 50, about the a U.S. citizen's self-assurance? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps something. How would Mr. T's world view have been different even thirty years later? He was so observant. If he had written 50 years later, it would have been a time when the U.S. had become a major player in European war (namely, World War I). Man, I'd like to hear from him today.

I like the way he wryly analyzes the German's self-assurance. I frankly like the way he questions just about everything. I love his scene of the generals and important people who influence the tsar trying to outdo each other with their brilliant strategies; people latch on to their opinions creating factions, but most people just shift their allegiance to the trendiest theory, the guy who's got everyone's support at the time.

Rostov has come of age, and Pierre, despite the passage of time, is still just a bit lost, but he means so well. Natasha saw that really early on, too, so she must be destined to be with him! The latest freemason nonsense to take hold in his brain is the numerology assigning the number 666 to L'empereur Napoleon and Pierre's subsequent desperate attempt to make the numbers work for his name to assign himself a pivotal role in the Apocalypse revelation. Oh, Pierre. Le pauvre! He has to find meaning somewhere, in something, and why shouldn't it be Natasha, you know?

So I failed. I did not even come close to writing daily this week as I aimed to. Maybe next week. But Napoleon is pushing deep into Russia, and things are getting intense! When the Tsar blows back into town and gives his speech, throngs pack the square; they hang on his every word, or even pounce upon a scrap of food dropped by him from the balcony. And the people of the rich nobility party circuit are now rejecting France, the French language, etc., and anti-French fervor is sweeping Russia where French was the thing to know a few years earlier.

And so it goes, and so it goes...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

"A king is the slave of history."

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The war is on again as Book Three begins. I love the first chapter of Book Three, Part One, which is entirely a philosophical musing on whether historical events, and any events, are fated to be. No act, no politician's idea, no emperor's mistake, no general's accomplishment is the cause, that elusive "cause" of a war, something that the historians nevertheless seek, Tolstoy suggests.

"We inevitably resort to fatalism to explain the irrational phenomena of history (that is to say, phenomena the reasonableness of which we do not understand)." -- p. 731

And isn't the temptation to fatalism a great one? I have been indulging in it a lot lately as I try to puzzle about my life and why I came to Korea, and why now, and why I stayed working for Borders as long as I did, and how I wouldn't have met the people I met and had the experiences I had if it had been any other way. So many decisions that I couldn't explain to myself at the time I made them led me to the place where I am. Who could blame a person for sometimes thinking it must have been meant to be this way? It just must have! Logically I should have done so many other things so many different ways!

Synchronicity is a very appealing doctrine, of which I have become more and more fond of late. When I was working in Chestnut Hill I turned around one night after picking up all of the books to be reshelved that had been strewn around the psych & social sciences sections, and suddenly another book had appeared in the middle of the floor. I swear no one had come by, no customer, not even an employee who could have dropped it. It quite literally came across my path and I picked it up. It was Deepak Chopra's then-new-in-hardcover The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire. I read the inside flap and the mild irritation of "where did this book come from?" fast became curiosity as I noted the book was about finding the meaning in the coincidences in one's life. I clearly had to take the book home and read it that night!

It was a good book. I've given the idea of trusting in so-called coincidences a lot of thought since then. It's not supernatural, per se, but it just strikes me as too metaphysical for the agnostic foundation I have laid for myself. But I find myself going with the flow so often in life, and that flow guides me and does not seem to come from any idea I generate within myself.

"Consciously man lives for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of the historical, social ends of mankind." - p.732

Now, this is much like the Lewis Thomas - Noam Chomsky sort of notion that humans are working toward some greater end we can't see or possibly conceive of. When you watch the ants build the anthill, isn't each ant carrying its weight, pursuing its own individual struggle, although we from above see it as clearly a group effort producing an end result? If you haven't read Thomas' The Lives of a Cell, do so. It's brilliant. So the anthill functions like an organism, he says. And Chomsky, who is obviously just brilliant beyond brilliant at all times, has theorized about this with regards to humans' development and use of language, that we are furthering some end we don't, we can't know about.

"History, that is, the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as an instrument for its own ends." - p. 732

I'm rather fond of this philosophy. It's hard to resist its pull. I had no idea I was going to come across it in Tolstoy. Yet, it seems that I'm not sure how much I agree with Tolstoy here. It's hard to wrap my mind around the inevitability of historical events; don't you want to think things like, say, September 11th could have been avoided?

He does say that, though. If Napoleon hadn't taken offense at Russia's demand of withdrawal, there'd have been no war. If there hadn't been a French Revolution, this war wouldn't have happened. If the sergeants had refused to serve a second term, no war.

"And so there was no single cause for the war, but it happened simply because it had to happen. Millions of men, renouncing human feelings and reason, had to move from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries earlier hordes of men had moved from east to west slaying their fellows." - p. 731

Isn't it also inevitable, then, that we wonder why?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Enabling (the good kind)

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

All right, so I still haven't exactly figured out why Tolstoy was a revolutionary and Dostoevsky wasn't, and it's been how long since Michael's comment? (I've been pretty crappy about posting to this blog.) But I offer you this:

1. Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan have died. What icons! What amazing pillars of womanly strength! or strong womanhood! or something. What made them revolutionary?

2. This weekend I attended a workshop with Amnesty International Korea (I have joined the "foreigners chapter"). At one point we discussed "activism." I should say that they discussed, and I followed along through the help of my able interpreter, Eun Mi/Joanne, who is the leader of my foreigners' group and my new favorite friend. Anyway, it was hard for them to come up with an exact translation in Korean, so they were talking about the meaning of the word. It was summarized to me thus: "Not activity itself but the power to enable activity."

And so it is, I think, with the revolutionaries. I haven't actually bought into the Dostoevsky-wasn't-a-revolutionary thing, but I'm just putting that out there in general. And you know, Mr. T really did have a lot to say about Christianity and he never relegated women to some random 'other' status, that I can see. I would love to have beers with the guy.

Pierre is so random. He just crops up in the book every once in a while and we get to check in and see if he's feeling depressed, and if so what he will do about it: tie a policeman to a bear, or join the freemasons? In the mid-600s (pages) depression seems to set in thanks to his buddy Andrei falling in love with Natasha. Now, I had been relating to Natasha's and Andrei's strong pull toward each other, until I started getting a sense of foreboding and began delighting in Sonya and Nikolai's love instead. And sure enough, Natasha has gone and locked her eyes on yet another man, just when you thought Andrei was supposed to be her one and only. He still might be, for all I know, but she has sent the letter to his sister so she may have done herself in. I wanted to shout Girlfriend! ALWAYS reread your letter/e-mail and see if you really want to send it at this time! I, the passionate letter-writer, stand by that statement.

And now I'm on page 706 and Anatol and his friends are about to whisk her off into god-knows-what fate.

So, this is the thing about War and Peace. Or perhaps A, not THE thing. Tolstoy has brought these people into my life. I've been reading approximately 700 pages for approximately eight weeks and I do feel like I have spent that time getting to know these people. And you know, you can get to find out rather a lot about a person in eight weeks or so.

This seems to be Tolstoy's magic, as so many have pointed out: his realism, his understanding of the human condition. I don't really recall this dawning on me when I read Anna K years ago but I should have, especially when Patty had us writing essays analyzing it through the prism of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled. I kind of miss my little BGHS maverick new-age English department. It was so very Arizona.

Mr. T just peppers his book with these surprisingly astute analyses of people's thoughts, like: "'I'm at work, you see,' he added, pointing to the manuscript with the air of those unhappy people who regard their work as a means of salvation from the adversities of life." - p. 573 I also love it when he has an eccentric character repeat a phrase, as "Uncle" does during and after the hunt with "a fair field and a clear course," and Mr. T writes, "'I knew you wouldn't be able to resist--good thing you came out! Fair field, clear course!" (This was his favorite expression.)" - p. 600

Tolstoy really has the uncanny ability to make you think life is great and that we're all in it together, and also he kind of makes you wish you were alive at the time/place he's writing about.

Then again, I am in the 'peace' stretch...