Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Little Tolstoy

This is the beginning of Volume III (Pevear/Volokhonsky translation):

Since the end of 1811 an intense arming and concentration of western European forces had begun, and in the year 1812 those forces -- millions of men (including those who transported and fed the army) -- moved from west to east, to the borders of Russia, towards which, since the year 1811, the forces of Russia had been drawn in exactly the same way. On the twelfth of June, the forces of western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began -- that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature. Millions of people committed against each other such a countless number of villainies, deceptions, betrayals, thefts, forgeries and distributions of false banknotes, robberies, arsons, and murders as the annals of all the law courts in the world could not assemble in whole centuries, and which, at that period of time, the people who committed them did not look upon as crimes.

What produced this extraordinary event? What were its causes? Historians say with naive assurance that the causes of this event were the offense inflicted upon the duke of Oldenburg, the non-observance of the Continental System, Napoleon's love of power, Alexander's firmness, diplomatic mistakes, and so on.

Consequently, it needed only that Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between levee and rout, make a little better effort and write a more skillful dispatch, or that Napoleon wrote to Alexander: Dear sir, my brother, I agree to give the duchy back to the duke of Oldenburg* -- and there would have been no war.

Understandably, that was how the matter presented itself to contemporaries. Understandably, it seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by the intrigues of England (as he said, in fact, on the island of St. Helena); understandably, to the members of the English Parliament it seemed that the war was caused by Napoleon's love of power; to Prince Oldenburg it seemed that the war was caused by the violence done to him; to the merchants it seemed that the war was caused by the Continental System, which was ruining Europe; to the old soldiers and generals it seemed that the chief cause was the need to make use of them; to the legitimists of that time, that it was necessary to restore les bons principes [Good principles]; and to the diplomats of that time, that it had all happened because the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been concealed skillfully enough from Napoleon and because memorandum no. 178 had been clumsily worded. Understandably, these and a countless, endless number of other causes, the number of which depends on countless different points of view, presented themselves to contemporaries; but for us, the descendants, who contemplate the enormity of the event in all its scope and delve into its simple and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. For us it is not understandable that millions of Christians killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was a lover of power, Alexander was firm, English policy cunning, and the duke of Oldenburg offended. It is impossible to understand what connection there is between these circumstances and the fact of killing and violence; why, because the duke of Oldenburg was offended, thousands of men from the other end of Europe should kill and ravage the people of Smolensk and Moscow provinces and be killed by them.
I could read this over and over. (And now I have.)

[* Original in French, but I didn't feel like typing it.]


Sally said...

"war began -- that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature" -- I really liked this, although it appears to be untrue where the second part is concerned.

Tam said...

Yeah, I think I caught my breath a bit at that turn of phrase.