The truth is, presidents are small potatoes in history’s larder. —Andrea Long Chu
All his life he had been peering into the distance over the heads of those around him when all he had to do was stop straining his eyes and look down right in front of him. — War and Peace, Volume IV, Part IV, Chapter 12
War and Peace, despite the epic, expansive title, its reputation for weight that renders it a punchline of jokes, is an intimate novel. Despite the setpieces of the three battles in the campaigns of Napoleon against Russia around which the plot is structured, the novel’s focus is on the intimate lives, routines, personalities and relationships of the characters whose paths cross Napoleon’s and Alexander’s. Tolstoy’s work is highly skeptical of “events,” and theories of history that see the world through the lens of “events,” that tell the story of the world through cataclysms and aberrations rather than through the texture of the lives you and I live every day.
As I see one New York Times “Breaking News” headline after the other, as I see our conversations limping behind the onslaught of “events” happening, I can’t help but think that Tolstoy would have much to say about our current understanding of the world stage. Repeatedly, even as he narrates the movements of the battles, Tolstoy begs the readers not to consider to the judgement or genius, the wills or powers of the men in charge, but to consider the actions of the soldiers running ammunition up and down the battery stairs. He asks us to look at Napoleon’s character, at the motivations of Alexander’s advisors. Look inside, he asks us. Look into the habits that shape these men. And women.
Our news cycle, the historians Tolstoy is constantly berating, often exists to speak to our anxious existentz which seeks answers. We want simply answers for why things happen, for what is important, for how the world is moving and how we can respond to it. There is, perhaps, a “why” for the course of history, Tolstoy argues, but we will not find it in idols. We find it in a will so high above us to be inscrutable and we find it in our neighbor, the ones who block our view of the Emperor, over whose heads we crane to see.
To think of history in terms of events is to deprive ourselves, like Pierre, of the joy of living. To think of greatness or purpose as one numerologically devised mad action is to miss out on the real source of purpose and meaning. History is not happening outside of us, out there, in the world of politics, or money, or armies moving, but here, in the house, in the chitter-chatter of family, in the heart that decides to love even when she might hate. History is nothing but a story, and the first rule of story is that character drives plot. History, too, is a reflection of the many characters who populate it, it is made up of our characters, and it is built by who and what we are. History is made up not of events, but routines, the interior decisions of who and what we are.
Character is destiny, Heraclitus posited, and Tolstoy would agree. Character is made up of nothing more than routine, habits, what we do and think about each day.
Thus, Tolstoy make his new historical project just that—a novel—the genre of literature that explores a human being’s interiority. It is also a genre that includes a narrator who spins the plot inside and outside and above and beyond the characters themselves. But it is a genre that is first and foremost concerned with our inner lives.
We might think (and we do!) that our inner lives are private, our interiorities have no effect on the wheel of history, that what happens in our heart is of no concern to the rest of the world, but our interior lives are the stuff that actually determines history. History is not made of great men, but of humanity—the religion, the worldviews, the anxieties, the determinations, the search for self and destiny and fate that is the course of a human life—that is what determines history.
If Tolstoy would a journalist, I wonder what he would choose to write about. Certainly there are watersheds (we live in one) and there are movements of the spirit, and there are awakenings from childhood to adulthood of people, states, and nations (as Russia lumbers into itself), but what make those of interest is how they change the horizons in which a human soul will live. They are the backdrop, the enviornment of which we are a part, that feed into the human person the conditions that they then transform into a life.
Not just a life lived exteriorly, but a life lived interiorly, in private, immense beauty that, like each cog in a clock, as Tolstoy would say, pushes the whole machine forward one second, one heartbeat at a time.