history’s scribe

“Isaac Babel put it, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” The New Yorker, November 2007

I am currently nearing the end (which means I have a full novel’s length to go!) of War and Peace and, after lifelong indifference towards the author of Anna Karenina, I have slowly fallen in love with the political great-grandfather of my favorite American radical, Dorothy Day (tracing this geneology through Prince Kropotkin and Peter Maurin to Day).

His disdain for the putative power of great men in the face of the absolute enormity of humanity acting to make history happen is outmatched by his love for the intricacies of the human wills that make up the teeming mass of history.

Novels are always scientific examinations of manners. Manners, unlike chemical reactions, are captured not by formulae but by stories. But, just like chemical reactions, human manners reveal the makeup of the human elements at play. Tolstoy’s delightfully astute observations of human interactions have both the precision of a botanist and the imagination of a creator.

Science has long claimed exactitude for itself. Particularly as modern scientific method marched into dominance, painting wandered into impressionism and abstraction (I am weidling a very broad brush here). As if impresisonism were not itself a sort of exactitude. Painting itself is a laborious process of chemical reactions, technical as well as imaginative. As if there were a distinction between imagination and technology. As if they are not permutations of one creative instinct.

Tolstoy’s novel reminds me of learning Monet. Monet, like Tolstoy is an artist who can be a punchline, whose most famous and emblematic artwork is often reduced to cliché. But Monet, like Tolstoy, is an artist of exact observation. The precision with which Monet captures the consistencies and discrepancies of Waterloo Bridge in the many lights that hit London in a day is exactly the precision with which Tolstoy paints the contorted responses of Nikolay to Sonya’s simple, constant love. As Monet captures the colors and shadows of the Rouen facade, so Tolstoy

Both men were pedantic artists, fanatical, idealistic, and precise. Yet their maniacal method did not preclude but rather supported an unstintingly expansive vision, they have painted for us romantic worlds, because there is romance in a cosmic viewfinder. They did not want to leave us flights of fancy or sentiment, they wanted to leave us what they say: reality. In response, we sentimentalize them, but the beauty of what they have seen defies our sentimentality. They have left us a mosaic of what is. Of humanity’s deepest loves, the crippling anxieties and moral failings, the idiosyncrasies of the light and shadow that make nature its daringly beautiful self, that make history the bewilderingly unpredictable tale it is.

Tolstoy’s musings about history have been strikingly apropos for this spring, a moment in time all of our plans and ideas have fallen prey to the contingency of a virus. Something that defies anyone’s plans, wills, or expectations.

Tolstoy might say that history is predetermined by a God whose will has already writte in our faces the loves we seek, who has already determind the light that strikes the haystacks on a winter morning, who has designed London sunrise in the fog. He might. Providence is a serious artist who also operates with exactitude.

And yet the mystery of science, art, and time is grace. The contingent accidents that make a world. Were these planned? Did some artist map out the impossibilities neatly on a novelists’ chart? Does history already have the unintended baked within it? The joy of history, unlike stories, as Tolstoy points out again and again, is that the end is always open, as is the beginning. We know neither bookend, but make our way in the midst of it, in its unfolding we can neither see the origin or end of.

To see that, to see our lives unfolding in a horizon of grace, in a milieu of uncertain possibility, is to wake up each day and take our tools out into the town square, the fields, or cliff faces. Because each day has something infinitely new in it, and we alone can capture it.

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