Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Still here!

Updates, more posts, dancing bears, etc., coming soon. Vote for our next book in the sidebar poll.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The History of Emotions

From group member Tom:
A few more thoughts on why the characters’ inner thoughts might leave you cold. I wonder if your reaction is related to historically-specific notions of feeling and emotion. I’ve been thinking about this on and off, since so much of the book deals with romantic and platonic love, the responses of soldiers to fear, and (especially with Old Prince Bolkonsky) eruptions of anger. Emotional expression is historical, of course, like any other sorts of expression, and unsurprisingly there is a historiography of the subject.

I found a few points from a 2002 article by Barbara Rosenwein that could perhaps situate the discussion. She describes Lucien Febvre’s call for a history of emotions in 1941 and the response to that call in the 1980s, led by Peter and Carol Stearns’ establishment of “emotionology.” They built on literature from the 1970s, including “the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, for example, [who] was arguing that society could and did control emotions and their expression, thatthere were ‘feeling rules,’ or ‘emotion rules’ that told people, in essence, how to feel and how to express those utterly socially mandated feelings. Hochschild argued that airline stewardesses learned at training schools not only to smile but to feel pleasant when travelers yelled at them. She called this the ‘managed heart.’” (By the way, Rosenwein doesn’t say it, but neuroscientists have argued since the 1990s at least that smiling does make you feel happier.)

According to the Stearns, it was between 1800 and 1920 that emotions began to be reined in, controlled so as to conform to evolving socialnorms. Norbert Elias (one of the Stearns’ influences) argues that this process had deep roots, dating to the 12th century, when powerful lords established courts and began to set norms of behavior, especially toward important ladies. “Only at the absolutist court of the modern state, however,” Rosenwein glosses, “did this new behavior and emotional style become obligatory and generalized.” The absolutist court, “dominated the many complex institutions of society. To participate in this all-inclusive structure, people were forced to ‘attune their conduct [including emotional expression] to that of others.’” The elaborate social etiquette of the ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting gives us a hint about the ways emotion was to be managed in the orbit around Alexander. We can also think about young Rostov’s reaction to him and, later on, the Moscow nobility’s response to his call for a troop levy.

Rosenwein criticizes the “grand narrative” of emotions, which she summarizes thus: “the history of the West is the history of increasing emotional restraint.” As she observes, a huge historical literature examines the increasing emotional restraint of the 19th century. Countless novels (including those written at the time) and films have solidified profound repression as part of our perception of the
Victorian Age. I don’t feel equipped to judge whether War and Peace more accurately reflects the emotional norms of the 1860s, when Tolstoy was writing it, or of the period from 1805-1812. That’s an interesting question, I think.

Rosenwein sees some historians edging away from the grand narrative. There are those following some psychological literature and cast emotions as cognitive responses by subjects to evaluations of how circumstances will affect them. And there are those, like William Reddy (with whom I took a fantastic seminar, but not on emotions), who
investigate emotions through the vocabulary used to describe them, “for only as people articulate their feelings can they ‘know’ what they feel and, reflecting on their newfound knowledge, feel yet more.” (Reddy’s approach fits squarely within the historical methodology following on the so-called “linguistic turn” from the 1980s onward.)

Rosenwein herself proposes the study of “emotional communities,” which are characterized by a shared “systems of feeling: what these communities (and the individuals within them) define and assess as valuable or harmful to them; the evaluations that they make about others' emotions; the nature of the affective bonds between people that they recognize; and the modes of emotional expression that they
expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore.” This is a pretty wide-open theory, since you can always pull a new “emotional community” out of your pocket if some source doesn’t square with the emotional norms you are outlining for a particular time or context. But we could also imagine the emotional community of Petersburg society as opposed to the emotional community of Bald Hills, say, or another country estate
with serfs and a local merchant class, etc. And in Volume III there’s a nice contrast drawn between the prevailing opinions, expression, and even emotions in the circles headed respectively by Helene and Anna Pavlovna.

Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Worrying About Emotions in History,” American
Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002).

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Voting is now open for our next selection. Vote in the poll (see the sidebar to the right). Write-in votes are also welcome. Leave your write-in vote as a comment to this post. Voting closes in a month.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Week 6 Recap


St. Ives, patron saint of lawyers, Charles Bridge, Prague

As previously noted, I was struck by how much of this week's reading had to do with legal issues, legal proceedings, statutory compilations, etc. And as I mentioned earlier today, I thought Denisov's pathetic and obsessive attempts to have his petition heard held a particularly Dickensian and/or Kafkaesque flavor. Hopefully many of the lawyers involved in our summer reading group (and it's now officially summer!), enjoyed the Bleak House-type bits of this week's reading.

On to the recap:
-Pierre visits Andrei at his country estate. Pierre and Andrei debate the meaning of good and evil, love of one's neighbors, etc. Pierre blathers on about his new mission to save humanity; Andrei responds with his cynical and jaundiced worldview. Still, Pierre's talk of God and truth and virtue touch a chord with Andrei: "[H]e looked at the sky Pierre had pointed to, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, eternal sky he had seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young in his soul." (389)

- Denisov, out in the field in the army with Rostov, commandeers a convoy without authority, to feed his troops. This is apparently some terrible breach of regulations, and proceedings are initiated: "Denisov spoke disdainfully of the whole affair; but Rostov knew him too well not to notice that, in his soul (concealing it from others), he was afraid of the trial and suffered over the affair, which was obviously going to have bad consequences. Every day papers of inquiry came, summonses from the court, and on the first of May, Denisov was ordered to turn over command of the squadron to the next in seniority to report to the division staff for explanations of the case of violence in the provisions commission." (401) Denisov is then wounded, and ends up in a gruesome army hospital, a place filled "by the stench of rotting flesh ...." (402) When Rostov finds Denisov, he sees that Denisov is changed, a fearful, obsessed man:
Rostov even noticed that Denisov found it unpleasant to be reminded of the regiment and generally of that other, free life that went on outside the hospital. It seemed he was trying to forget that former life and was interested only in his case with the provision officials. To Rostov's question about how the case stood, he immediately pulled from under the pillow a paper he had received from the commission and the draft of his reply to it. When he started reading his paper, he became animated and particularly drew Rostov's attention to the biting remarks in it directed at his enemies.
(405) The monomaniacal obsession, the hopeless nature of the case, the sudden animation in reading the doomed petition-- these are all classic tropes one finds in BLEAK HOUSE, and in many of Kafka's stories, such as "Before the Law". The law's delay (which is, of course, one of life's negative factors Hamlet itemized in determining whether to shuffle off the mortal coil) has two aspects: there is of course, the deadening plod of process, but there is also the dim but ever-tantalizing prospect that while the law may be slow to react, it may, one day, pick up one's petition and redress the wrongs enumerated. This is all nicely set out in the bit about Denisov's petition, which does eventually, and most improbably, reach Alexander himself, via Rostov, and then a general. The sovereign refuses to personally intervene in Denisov's case, saying, in a line that could have been lifted from "In the Penal Colony": "I cannot, General, and the reason why I cannot is that the law is stronger than I ...." (413)

- Rostov is disenchanted and confused after watching Alexander and Napoleon trade courtesies, present medals to each others' troops, seeing Alexander dismiss Denisov's petition, etc. What was the point of all the death and destruction he had witnessed, Rostov thinks? "Why, then, those torn-off arms and legs, those dead people?" (416) In a drunken fit, he goes into a Dostoevskyian rage of logical extremes and overstatement: "We're told to die -- and we die. If we're punished, it means we're guilty; it's not for us to judge. If it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him--it means it has to be so. And if we start judging and reasoning about everything, then there'll be nothing sacred left. Next we'll be saying there's no God, no anything...." (417) These kinds of speeches always make me want to stomp out onto a field of fresh snow under a bright winter moon somewhere in Russia, drinking from a giant bottle of vodka.

- Andrei, newly filled with spirit to do good works for Russia, heads to Petersburg, where he meets Speransky, whose clarity of mind and reason attracts Andrei. Together, they begin work on a commission on military regulations. Andrei begins revising or drafting part of the civil code, drawing on the Code Napoleon and the Justiani. (433) (Footnote 9 has some interesting background.)

- A series of Dear Diary entries from Pierre, who is amazed and disbelieving that his wife Helene has somehow become a respected intellectual figure in Petersburg, holding soirees where poetry, philosophy, and literature are discussed. In his entries, Pierre reveals that he tries to read scripture with the proper mindset and tries to rouse himself out of bed at a respectable hour. Surprisingly, he doesn't seem to keep a daily log of his weight.

- Berg proposes to Vera Rostov. Vera's father, deeply in debt, hems and haws about her dowry. Berg demands at least "thirty thousand in cash" or he will call off the wedding. Desperate to save face, Count Rostov makes promises for a large dowry that he will be hard pressed to keep.

- Natasha is reunited with Boris, who knows he should not get involved, as he has bigger plans, but can't help being drawn back to Natasha. (449) Natasha's mother realizes that nothing good will come of this and puts it to an end. (452)
We're very close to midway now. I'll be posting the poll for our next book shortly. Page 532 by Sunday.

Week 6 Recap Coming Soon



A little bogged down over the weekend, but working on the Week 6 Recap. This week's reading featured a bit more Masonic jibber-jabber, and some Dickensian/Kafkaesque scenes from the Russian army hospital and Denisov's doomed petition. Update soon!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nearing Midway: Is There Anybody Out There?



As we barrel along towards midway, a couple things that will (probably) be happening, and a couple of questions.

First, everyone still reading the book? As you can imagine, I have only a rough idea of how many people are included in that "everyone." There's no way to track it, but I'm guessing that our group is somewhere between 20-50 people. I'm not exactly sure. And I'm sure we've had some attrition by now. If you're out there, comment more often!

Second, I will be dropping off the radar for a week or so at the end of the month. But not to fear, the other blog team members will be taking control and guiding the blog through the midway point.

Third, I will be putting together a quiz for just after the midway point. I'll post it here. People will answer by leaving comments. It will be strictly closed-book, closed-internet, on the honor system. There will be a prize. Everyone will enjoy it.

Fourth, I am leaning towards doubling the pace after the midway point. 76 pages per a week is a bit of a crawl, I'm finding. Cast your vote yea or nay in a comment below.

Fifth, comment more often on the blog! Part of the relative quiet may be my fault: perhaps I don't pose enough questions in my posts, the posts tend to be recaps, etc. Comments are always appreciated, and are a good way for your blog authors to get a sense of who (if anyone) is still reading the book.

Sixth, there appears to be some interest in continuing this online group-reading project in the fall, so I'll post the sidebar poll on the blog for our next reading selection. The current suggestions are in this previous post. If you have other suggestions, leave them in a comment below.

Onwards and upwards!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 5 Recap



What didn't happen during this week's reading? Damn. After my complaints about long, tedious battle scenes during last week's reading, this week's reading was like something out of TMZ. Adultery! Duels! Gambling! Spurned marriage proposals! Birth! Death! Freemasonry!

Here is the recap, which I will try to keep brief this week:
- Pierre's issues this week could be summed up as "mo money, mo problems." He suspects Dolokhov is getting it on with his wife Helene. It comes as no surprise that Helene is not happy with Pierre, as their marriage was so cynically conceived. Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel, where, surprisingly, Pierre is unscathed, and succeeds in injuring Dolokhov, though not mortally.

- Pierre realizes Helene is a "depraved woman," recalling how when he "'asked her once whether she felt any signs of pregnancy ... she laughed scornfully and said she was not such a fool as to want to have children, and that she would not have children from me.'" (318) This leads to a very ugly scene where Pierre loses his mind, starts screaming at Helene, who is upset with Pierre for having made her into "the laughing stock of all Moscow"; during their fight Pierre "seiz[es a] marble slab from a table" and swings the slab at her. (320) Helene flees, and later, ends up taking "power of attorney for the management of all [Pierre's] estates in Great Russia, which formed the major part of his fortune ...." (Ibid.)

- Back at Bald Hills, everyone is deeply depressed, believing Andrei to have been killed in Austria. Marya is unable to tell Andrei's wife the news. Marie goes into labor, and dies in childbirth, just as Andrei arrives. (327.)

- Dolokhov recovers from his injury and starts spending time at the Rostov's, where he becomes fixated on Sonya, the cousin adopted into the Rostov family. Dolokhov proposes to Sonya, who rejects him, because she's in love with Nikolai Rostov. (333)

- Natasha enjoys herself at a soiree, where she dances with Denisov, who does some kind of crazy (Polish?) dance, impressing everyone at the soiree. (335)

- Dolokhov, jealous of Nikolai Rostov's hold over Sonya, lures Nikolai to his hotel, where Dolokhov is running a card game. Somehow, Nikolai ends the night owing Dolokhov forty-three thousand rubles. (340)

- Denisov proposes to young Natasha, but is told by her mother that she is too young. (345)

- During a trip to Petersburg, Pierre meets a Freemason, Bazdeev, who tells Pierre that his "way of thinking is a lamentable error," and gives Pierre a reference for Count Willarski in Petersburg. (352-53) In Petersburg, Willarski takes Pierre to the local Mason lodge, where Pierre goes through some bizarre, cryptic Freemason induction ceremony. (360)

- Boris sees Helene at a soiree and the two hit it off. Boris, like Helene, is a natural climber. Helene apparently sees potential, and orders him to come to see her: "Il faut absolument que vous veniez me voir ...." (366) During his stay in Petersburg, we learn, "Boris became an intimate of Countess Bezukohv's house." (368)

- Back at Bald Hills, Andrei is fully devoted to taking care of his son, while his father becomes part of the war effort, at the Emperor's behest.

- Pierre begins visiting his remaining estates, and trying to set his serfs free. His intentions are good, but he doesn't understand the details of his holdings. His steward "underst[ands] the intelligent but naive count perfectly and play[s] with him as with a toy," pretending to do Pierre's bidding while lining his own pockets.
That wasn't that brief. Things are picking up as we approach the midway point in the book. I agree with something Sean mentioned in the comments, that the characters are beginning to flesh out now that we're a significant way into the book. I'm finding myself more interested in what happens to the characters, now that I can sort of keep them straight. Also, duels, adultery, gambling, and Freemasonry are a good way to get my attention.

On to Week 6!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Better-Late-Than-Never Week 4 Recap



Okay, apologies. I got wrapped up with other things (work, Lakers-Celtics, dog, new-found tennis-playing obsession, etc.) and got way behind on putting out the Week 4 recap. So, at long last, here it is.

This week involved a lot of scenes from the battlefield in Austria. I'm sorry to say that I found much of this stuff quite boring and slow. And a lot this week's reading centered on Nikolai Rostov, whom I find to be extremely boring and uninteresting. There are endless scenes of Rostov getting aroused watching the young "frisky" Emperor Alexander, fantasizing about dying in Alexander's arms, etc. It's tedious.

The endless build-up to the actual final battle scenes was also quite tedious, I thought. We get a long scene of the war council coming up with the best-laid plans that will ensure that the Russians and Austrians will be totally wiped out by the French. Once the plan is set out, most of the meeting realizes the plan is stupid, but it's late, and it can't be changed, so why not get a good night's sleep before marching off to certain doom? "'Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow, for today even (because it's already past twelve), cannot be changed,' [Kutozov] said. 'You have heard it, and we will all do our duty. And there's nothing more important before a battle ...' (he paused) 'than a good night's sleep.'" (W&P at 263-64.)

The battle scenes do come alive in the end, with a good helping of blood and gore. As they beat a hasty and messy retreat (Id. at 279), the Russian troops get smacked and splattered into oblivion by French cannonballs as the Russians beat a retreat from Austerlitz. Andrei, sickened by the scene of cowardice and disorder, "seiz[es] the staff of a standard and hearing with delight the whistle of bullets, evidently aimed precisely at him," charges towards the French. And then, "[i]t seemed to him as though one of the nearest soldiers, with the full swing of a stout stick, hit him on the head. It was slightly painful and above all unpleasant, because the pain distracted him and kept him from seeing what he was looking at [on the battlefield]." (Id. at 280.) He falls onto his back and, in his daze, contemplates the sky above: "How is it I haven't seen this lofty sky before? .... Yes! everything is empty, everything is deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility." (Id. at 281.)

The Russians continue to retreat in a panic, "crowded men disfigured by the fear of death, crushing each other, dying, stepping over the dying, and killing each other, only to go a few steps and be killed themsleves just the same," while every "ten seconds, pushing through the air, a cannonball smacked or a shell exploded in the midst of this dense crowd, killing and spattering with blood those who stood near." (Id. at 289.) A general trying to command the panicked crowd is eliminated by a cannonball with a "wet smack" and falls into a "pool of blood." (Id. at 290.)

Meanwhile, Andrei is where we left him, still "bleeding profusely" and "letting out soft, pitiful, and childlike moans." (Ibid.) Who should find him and rescue him? Why, Napoleon, of course. Andrei distantly recognizes that Napoleon is standing above him and talking about him, but it does not matter to him: "He knew that it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment, Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared to what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it." (Id. at 291.)

Later, in Napoleon's camp, under the care of Doctor Larrey, Andrei continues the philosophizing brought on by his injury and loss of blood
[E]verything seemed so useless and insignificant compared with that stern and majestic way of thinking called up in him by weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the expectation of imminent death. Looking into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain.
(Id. at 293.)

It's not clear where Andrei is going with all of this, but it appears to be toward some epiphany of faith in the former cynic: "Nothing, nothing is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important!" (Ibid.)

So Week 4's reading was a bit of a slog for much of the way, but picked up nicely with the Russian troops getting obliterated near the end of Volume I. I'm finding this week's reading to be going along at a much faster pace. (Spoiler alert: there's a duel!)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Week 4 Recap Coming Soon

Got bogged down last night after the Celtics-Lakers game. I'll try to post a quick recap of Week Four later today. In the meantime, congratulations: we are one month into this project, and a quarter of the way through the book. By July 4th, we'll be halfway through.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Creaking Bodices and Animal Feelings



As I mentioned in the recap earlier this week, Week 3's reading brought us our first glimpses of passion and sexual feeling in the book. I know, finally! I was wondering how many hundreds of pages of 19th-century Russian literature I had to turn to get to the parts that the book flips opens to. Can we get a creaking bodice? And on cue, we get the scene of Helene's deployment of her shoulders and bosom to cast a spell on Pierre as he fumbles with a snuffbox. (What is up with all the snuffboxes everywhere?)
He got up, wishing to go around, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox over Helene, behind her back. Helene leaned forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.
(W&P at 206.) Pierre apparently took Beyonce's advice: he liked it so he put a ring on it. (No, you cannot escape "All the Single Ladies", even here!)

At the Bald Hills estate of Prince Andrei's grumpy math-enthusiast father, bachelor Anatole's arrival sends the ladies of the house into a tizzy. Pious Marya dreams her "chiefest, strongest and most secret dream ... of earthly love" with Anatole, but reprimands herself for thinking "these devil's thoughts" and "evil imaginings ...." (Id. at 221.) Her friend Mlle Bourienne has her own fantasies, having been brought to "a high level of excitement" by the arrival of the eligible Anatole, and, unwitting (or wittingly), eliciting a similar reaction in him: "[H]e was beginning to experience for the pretty and provocative Bourienne that passionate, animal feeling which came over him with extraordinary quickness and urged him towards the most coarse and bold actions." (Id. at 227.) He takes such "coarse and bold action" by, first, playing footsie with Mlle Bourienne under the pianoforte. This is merely some foreplay for some hot, high-risk action in the winter garden:
[Marya] was walking straight ahead through the winter garden without seeing or hearing anything, when suddenly the familiar whispering of Mlle Bourienne roused her. She looked up and saw Anatole two steps away from her. Anatole, with a frightful expression on his handsome face, turned to look at Princess Marya, and for the first second did not let go of the waist of Mlle Bourienne, who did not see her.
(Id. at 231.)

We're only about a quarter of the way through the book, so we'll have to see how these relationships develop, but it's safe to say, with the none-too-subtle hints that Tolstoy has dropped about Pierre's marital decision, that Pierre was not thinking so much with his head when he decided to marry Helene. Of course, there's also the meddling and scheming of Prince Vassily and Anna Pavlovna in railroading Pierre into the decision and making it pretty much a fait accompli by the time he snaps out of his aroused stupor to figure out what's happening. But Pierre does not resist because he's driven by the same animal feeling that drives Anatole to shockingly play footsie under the pianoforte and get a little action in the winter garden. Pious, sacrificing Marya's decision as to Anatole's offer is made easier after the scene in the winter garden. She gives up her secret dream of earthly pleasure. The simplistic take is, of course, that acting on lust for these characters will turn out to be a bad thing, and that the more pious, who abjure, will be rewarded, or be shown to be correct, etc. We'll see if that stays true throughout.

This week's reading was mostly back to war scenes (and wet splashes of cannonballs wiping people out), so I was able to put away my hands-free reading stand.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Post-WAR & PEACE



I know that it might be slightly early to bring this up, given that by Sunday we'll still have about 900 pages left in our current book, but I'll go ahead and float my idea anyway. If you're enjoying this process of book-club-by-blog, I was thinking, after a short break, we could continue the project in the fall/winter with another book we could plow through together. Some ideas I've had circulating in my head for potential next books:
- BLEAK HOUSE, Dickens

- GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, Pynchon

- THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, James

- THE BLIND ASSASSIN, Atwood

- THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, Bolaño

- DON QUIXOTE, Cervantes

- THE UNNAMED, Ferris

- ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy

- ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES, Galchen

- WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Brontë

- CHRONIC CITY, Lethem

- THE NAMES, DeLillo
It would probably work best to try to pick a book most of us haven't read yet (or would be willing to reread), which may be tricky. Mull it over, and let me know if you're interested, and if you have other ideas for a next book. (Perhaps we should consider non-fiction as well?) If enough people seem interested, I'll set up a sidebar poll and we can pick our next book that way.

In the meantime, get to page 304 (or the end of Volume I) by Sunday!