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war and peace

A "loose baggy monster" Henry James once called Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'. At over 1300 pages, with no clearly defined plot and featuring some 500 characters, it certainly takes a while to figure out what holds this monster together and makes it one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature.

'War and Peace' starts in 1805 in St. Petersburg's high society, where the talk (mostly in French) among the aristocratic families is of Napoleon's conquests in Europe. Of much more imminent importance, however, are the soirées and balls they attend, and the endless gossip of who is marrying who and what promotion so-and-so's son is making. While their behavior becomes increasingly escapist as Napoleon marches eastwards, Tolstoy observes the soap opera goings-on in these social circles with great irony and psychological insight. To quote just one example, from a description of a soirée and the social skills of its hostess, which also illustrates Tolstoy's mastery of the art of long sentences:

Just as the foreman of a spinningmill settles the workers down and then strolls about the place on the lookout for a breakdown or any funny noise from a spindle, the slightest squeak or knock that would bring him rushing over to ease the machinery or make an adjustment, so Anna Pavlovna patrolled her drawing-room, walking over to any group where the talk was too little or too loud, and easing the machinery of conversation back into its proper, steady hum with a single word here or a tiny manoeuvre there.

Among the host of characters that are introduced, a few of the young people stand out. Count Pierre Bezukhov, illegitimate son of the old count who has just died, finds himself inheriting his fortune but has no idea what to do with his new wealth and status. Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, meanwhile, has just married but flees family life, leaving his pregnant wife to join the army in its campaign against Napoleon in Austria and Prussia. These two, the dreamer Pierre and the cynical Andrey, are the closest the book gets to any main characters. They become great friends in spite of their opposite world views, as both in their own way wrestle with the same philosophical questions of how to live a moral and worthy life while being fortunate enough to be able to ignore the wrongs and unjustness of the world.

Another central character is Countess Natasha Rostova, only thirteen when she is introduced, brimming with life and hopes for the future and already promising to become the talk of the town as a debutante. (And indeed, with her naive charm she will determine the fate of both Andrey and Pierre.) There are several memorable scenes of Natasha dancing, one of which at her first ball, but the most typical of her character is when she and her brother Nikolay after a hunt in the country stay at a neighboring estate and their host, referred to merely as 'Uncle', starts playing the guitar.

Here was a young countess, educated by a French émigrée governess - where, when and how had she imbibed the spirit of that peasant dance along with the Russian air she breathed, and these movements which the pas de châle [a French shawl dance] ought to have squeezed out of her long ago? But her movements and the spirit of them were truly Russian, inimitable, unteachable, just what 'Uncle' had been hoping for. The moment she took up her stance with such a confident smile, so proud of herself and full of mischievous fun, any misgivings that may have momentarily affected Nikolay and all the onlookers - would she get it all wrong? - were dispelled. Everyone was admiring her.

However, all these personal stories start acquiring real depth only when war reaches the Russian border in 1812, and Napoleon, having conquered most of Europe, invades Russia in what still stands as one of the largest military campaigns in European history. By this time many of the book's characters are in the army, but Tolstoy also presents many historical characters - Russian and French generals as well as Napoleon himself - in order to describe events 'firsthand'. Though still retaining his ironic tone in depicting the political intrigues in the Russian army, the story now becomes much more historical, zooming out to discuss a single, still baffling question: Why was Napoleon's army, almost 700.000 men strong and proceeding unstoppably until the Russians had to yield even their capital, Moscow - why was this army forced to retreat and reduced to a fraction of its former strength, without any decisive victory for the Russians?

To answer this question, Tolstoy offers a theory of history that ends up encompassing all his characters' fates, their soap opera lives now illustrating an overarching and unescapable philosophy of life. The best way to explain this, as Tolstoy does, is by taking war as an example and asking: How is a battle decided? History shows that numerical strength is not always decisive, nor is the genius of generals. What Tolstoy shows is that battles are not even directed by generals, their outcome is completely unpredictable, dependent on thousands of smaller events and decisions made in the spur of the moment by the soldiers and officers amid the chaos of the battlefield.

Therefore, to say "Napoleon won the battle of X" is at most a figure of speech (taking Napoleon as a pars pro toto for the French army), but even that has little bearing on the reality of the battlefield. Historians, however, usually present one cause for a given event, which they find by studying not the battle itself but the surviving documents about the battle drawn up by officers and generals who pretend they are directing events.

The human intellect cannot grasp the full range of causes that lie behind any phenomenon. But the need to discover causes is deeply ingrained in the spirit of man. And so the human intellect ignores the infinite permutations and sheer complexity of all the circumstances surrounding a phenomenon, any one of which could be individually construed as the thing that caused it, latches on to the first and easiest approximation, and says 'This is the cause!'
(...)
There are no single causes behind historical events, and there never can be, other than the one grand cause behind all causes. But there are laws controlling events, some of them beyond our ken, some of them within our groping grasp. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we stop looking for causes in the will of individual men, just as the discovery of the laws of planetary motion became possible only when men stopped believing in the earth as a fixed entity.

Thus Tolstoy shows history to be infinitely more messy than historians make it seem. The French army didn't march on Russia because Napoleon ordered them. Rather, his order to march on Russia happened to coincide with the thousands of private and shared reasons of all the soldiers to march eastwards. And by the same token the French army was defeated, not by the Russian army or by the Russian winter, but by an infinite number of circumstances which almost randomly came together to drive the French army out of Russia.

Extrapolating from this, Tolstoy goes into a lengthy argument on free will versus necessity, which drives home his point that people aren't at all free to choose their destiny because their lives are governed by an infinite number of causes, only a few of which are knowable or influentiable. This is the historical determinism that will lead Andrey to die from war wounds and Pierre to marry Natasha, and all the other characters to end as they do. But while the novel concludes on such a philosophical note, perhaps Tolstoy's greatest genius is that within his own rather fatalistic theory his characters still manage to be heroes.

Surviving all history's puppeteering, Pierre finds what is probably the best strategy within Tolstoy's worldview:

Outwardly Pierre had changed hardly at all. To look at he was the same as before. He was just as absent-minded as he had always been, and he seemed to be permanently preoccupied with something that wasn't there, something that was all his own. The difference between his former state and the one he was now in was that in the old days, when he was oblivious to everything that was going on around him and what was being said to him, he would wince and furrow his brow in an apparently vain effort to see something that was a long way away. Nowadays he could still be oblivious to everything that was going on around him and what was being said, but at least he looked at what was going on around him with the ghost of a smile, however ironical, and he also listened to what was being said, though he was obviously seeing and hearing something very different. In the old days he had seemed like a nice man who had seemed unhappy, which inevitably kept people at arm's length. Nowadays a smile of joy de vivre played constantly about his mouth, his eyes shone with sympathy for others, wondering whether they were as happy as he was, and people enjoyed his company.

Quotes are from the recent translation by Anthony Briggs. An older translation by Aylmer Maude is available online.

See also Orlando Figes' essay 'Birth, death, balls and battles' and the Guardian review 'A masterpiece in miniature'.

god is in the details

The absolute highlight of the Persia exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam was its collection of medieval manuscripts and miniatures. Unfortunately, due to their fragility only half of them were on display, but this still included some awesome illustrations and manuscript pages from classic Persian poets like Nezami, Rumi, Hafez and Jami.

The image below (which doesn't do justice at all to the delicacy and detail of the original) is by Reza Abbasi, part of a two-page composition called 'Feast' (1587).

Reza Abbasi - 'Feast'

In Orhan Pamuk's novel 'My Name is Red', which is set among miniaturists in 16th century Istanbul, it is a kind of status symbol for master painters to go blind. Not only is blindness regarded as proof of a long and devoted career, slowly ruining one's eyes by pouring over pages for years on end; it is also "the farthest one can go in illustrating; it is seeing what appears out of Allah's own blackness." As one miniaturist explains it:

...illustrating was the miniaturist's search for Allah's vision of the earthly realm, and this unique perspective could only be attained through recollection after blindness descended, only after a lifetime of hard work and only after the miniaturist's eyes tired and he had expended himself. Thus, Allah's vision of His world only becomes manifest through the memory of blind miniaturists. When this image comes to the aging miniaturist, that is, when he sees the world as Allah sees it through the darkness of memory and blindness, the illustrator will have spent his lifetime training his hand so it might transfer this splendid revelation to the page.

Which, in a roundabout way, may help convey some of the divinely inspired craftsmanship and mind-boggling detail of these miniatures.

See also: Discover Islamic Art, an online museum with interesting exhibitions on calligraphy and figurative art (containing several miniatures).

good copy bad copy

An interesting Danish documentary on the friction between copyright and creativity, 'Good Copy Bad Copy' cites free culture movements ranging from Sweden's Pirate Bay to Brazilian Tecno Brega and Nigeria's Nollywood, along with experts like Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. Counterweight comes from spokespeople from MPAA and IFPI, who plea for stricter copyright enforcement ("In the world of crime that involves prison sentences") but seem unable to grasp they are working with an outdated business model.

Focusing on film and music, the central question is whether digital culture phenomena like remixes, mashups and sampling should be considered as stealing or as recontextualized, original artistic expressions. Current copyright laws, especially in the US, make it virtually impossible to legally use pop culture sources because it is a) too expensive, and b) too much legal hassle to get clearance, since c) it's often difficult to even find out who exactly owns the copyright.

On a more pragmatic level, as Lessig points out, the irony is that current copyright enforcement often prevents artists from making money. A good example is the 'Grey Album' by Danger Mouse, created by remixing The Beatles' 'White Album' and Jay-Z's 'Black Album'. Because of copyright infringements it was never released, but, illegally, it became a big hit online. (You can still download it via Illegal Art.) The album could have been a bestseller, but nobody (Danger Mouse nor The Beatles' estate nor Jay-Z) made a dime.

The solution, apart from an overhaul of copyright laws, seems to lie in two directions. On the one hand, consumers are by and large happy to pay for music, but they'd rather pay the artists directly than some gargantuan corporation. On the other hand, musicians need to reconsider their business model. Instead of depending only on CD sales, distributed music, whether online, p2p or on a disk, becomes a form of marketing in order to build a fan base for live performances. By definition unique and non-replicable, live shows are a much more sustainable source of income. In which case the whole piracy debate is rendered moot.

Of course, 'Good Copy Bad Copy' is freely downloadable.

the world of witte de with

Just a quick impression of last weekend's The World of Witte de With festival in Rotterdam, where the theme was heroes and all the windows were decorated with texts ranging from profound quotes to nonsensical slogans...

The World of Witte de With '07

('Eat more Freud to stay Jung' - it makes more sense in Dutch ;)

More photos @ Flickr.

shed a tear

Amid all the reconstruction chaos of Rotterdam's Central Station, you'd almost overlook a poetic tribute to the old station, designed by Sybold van Ravesteyn in 1957 and soon to be demolished. After the building was closed, the familiar letters on top of the station were rearranged. Instead of 'centraal station' they now say 'traan laten' ('shed a tear').

Rotterdam CS - Traan Laten

a scanner darkly

Faithfully adaptated from Philip K. Dick's novel, Richard Linklater's animated 'A Scanner Darkly' is a grim tale of drug-fueled paranoia. As with most P.K. Dick novels, the story is cloaked as science fiction to extrapolate trends in contemporary society and raise philosophical issues, in this case centered around identity and the loss thereof. To illustrate, the title refers to 1 Corinthians 13:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
A Scanner Darkly - 1

'A Scanner Darkly' portrays a near-future totalitarian society where large numbers of people are addicted to a drug called Substance D (D for Death). Undercover police detective Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) has been living among addicts for so long he has gotten addicted himself. Sharing a house with his equally addicted friends Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Arctor leads a slacker's existence with Donna (Winona Ryder), a local dealer, providing the only spark in his life. Mostly Arctor and his friends just sit around, have meandering, inane conversations and vent their paranoia in complex schemes.

Arctor is known to his superiors as Agent Fred and reports to them anonymously, in a so-called scramble suit which hides his identity by projecting a continuously changing appearance. When Agent Fred is ordered to spy on Arctor, i.e. on himself, and cameras are installed in the house where he lives, the schizophrenic effects of Substance D become apparent. Instead of realizing the absurdity of the situation, Fred starts observing Arctor as if he was another person.

A Scanner Darkly - 2

This is only the start of an increasingly confused and paranoid series of events - which need not be revealed here - ultimately leading to the uncovering of a vast conspiracy. By then the cynical question is whether Arctor has enough braincells left to act upon his discovery. Along the way, though, Arctor has moments of clarity where he muses on his fate:

What does a scanner see? I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner (...) see into me - into us - clearly or darkly? I hope it does (...) see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.
A Scanner Darkly - 3

However, compared to the novel, which was based on P.K. Dick's own experiences in '60s California drug culture, the film doesn't quite have the same vicious sting to it, for two reasons. One, Reeves in the lead role is just too zombie-like, and even with the occasional voice-over doesn't convey enough of his inner conflict. Reason two is form. Using the same rotoscoping animation technique Linklater pioneered in 'Waking Life' (filming real actors and 'painting' them over to produce a realistic style of animation) seems like a great idea to visualize Dick's weird futurisms and hallucinations (especially the scramble suits), but ends up being a little too cute and polished for its subject matter.

Verdict: recommended as an introduction to the novel, but for a more visceral experience go back to 'Naked Lunch'.

More info on the book and film at PhilipKDick.com.

confusing time

Curious announcement at the train station today:

Ladies and gentlemen, please note that as of today the clocks in this station will no longer display the correct time.