Before the museum and before the printing press, works of art were meant not to represent, but to perform, evoke, render something or someone mysteriously present—as if summoned from the beyond. Philosopher Owen Barfield and literary critic Northrop Frye both wondered whether all poetry has its deep roots in magic, and if rhymes, for our ancestors, were hard to distinguish from spells and enchantments. To confirm that insight, all you have to do is open up your Shakespeare and read until you come across rhyming verse: It’s almost inevitably recited by a witch, a mage, or a fairy: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear.”
In the visual arts, the icon—both medieval West and Byzantine East—is a wonder-working image, not a work of art, intended to make the holy present. We know that peasants cut off pieces of icons and swallowed them to be protected from plague; that emperors marched with them into battle, as if to cast an enveloping sacred field of power about their army.
And so it is with some astonishment that we read the claims of that author of the modern novel par excellence, Leo Tolstoy, who said, after the publication of War and Peace, that his books were not “novels” in the European sense, but icons. War and Peace, and indeed other Russian prose works, should be read as “huge poetic structures for symbolic contemplation, not unlike icons, laboratories in which to test ideas; and, like a science or religion, they were animated by the search for truth” (Natasha’s Dance, Orlando Figes).
The reason this is such an extraordinary claim is that the novel fits modernity like glove fits hand and hat fits head. The novel was born in the heyday of the Newtonian, mechanistic worldview; you can feel its affinity with a great physics experiment, or even an anatomy dissection, more than with a liturgy. Students of physics, then as now, were taught to trace the transfer of energy among interacting “particles.” Indeed, early-nineteenth-century physicist Laplace boasted that if a demon could know the location of every atom and its present velocity, it could tell the future and past of the world, given the immutable laws of physics.
From this perspective, we feel that the great nineteenth-century novelists treat their societies as energy “systems,” wherein the individual psyches of that society are something like atoms: They collide and interact with other psyches, like billiard balls, transferring energy and redirecting one another’s lives. The novel is a gigantic collision of individual hopes, desires, schemes, dreams, and ideas. The novel, as literary critic Terry Eagleton suggests, is what happens to literature after the “mechanization of the world picture.”
This is very much what we feel when reading War and Peace. Tolstoy’s psychological accounts of the interactions of his many characters are scientifically punctilious; they brilliantly depict how a person is shaped through interactions within the “energy” system of his or her society. How does young, pure-hearted Boris, who makes promises of fidelity to Natasha, become the loathsome man who marries a wealthy heiress, even though he finds her empty and unattractive? Each step in each character’s life not only follows logically from internal motivation but is worked out within a field of external impulses.
Tolstoy himself ubiquitously borrows metaphors from classical mechanics. His favorite metaphor for the interactions of administrative society and the bureaucratic army is the clock, the standard metaphor for the Newtonian universe. Elsewhere, Tolstoy refers to the vis inertiae of an army; he calls others “blind tools of the most melancholy law of necessity,” determined by “forces” working in history; and he wonders to what extent history is a “science” in search of its own laws, analogous to the “laws of Kepler and Newton.”
This might have been what Tolstoy meant by treating his novel as a “laboratory.” But at the same time, Tolstoy allows his characters, so to speak, to live independently of his personal whim. He observes them under the pressures of betrayal, love, grief, promotion, childbirth. Within this articulate web of mutual interactions, some characters become worse, while others experience unexpected bursts of joy, moments in which they feel a deep desire for the fullness of being. In other words, Tolstoy’s laboratory stages the world, but in doing so, he can’t help discovering, as if by accident, moments beyond the clock—what we might call “iconic moments.” Something outside of the web of time and space “accidentally” irrupts into the novel. Tolstoy seems as surprised at his “discovery” as we are, like a chemist who mixed chemicals at random until something turned purple or exploded.
There are many such unpredictable “iconic moments” throughout War and Peace, moments that make up the pulse of the book. Toward the end of the story, the once-young, dashing, impulsive, life-loving Nicholas Rostov inherits his ne’er-do-well father’s debts. For a moment, it would seem like the particles are going to continue along the predictable course: Nicholas, with resentment, settles down to a life of drudgery, as his father’s debt collectors swarm about him.
But then, something happens. Princess Mary, a woman Nicholas once loved, catches a glimpse of his “inner man”: “[Nicholas’s] face resumed its former stiff and cold expression. But the princess had caught a glimpse of the man she had known and loved, and it was to him that she now spoke.” She sees the real essence “behind” the face, as in a Russian icon. An iconic moment irrupts: “For a few seconds they gazed silently into one another’s eyes—and what had seemed impossible and remote suddenly became possible, inevitable, and very near.” Against all expectation, they get married.
Two enemies, who had prepared to kill one another in battle, accidentally lock eyes and hesitate; a father on his deathbed finally sees his daughter and asks forgiveness. These moments, when characters look “behind” the face and glimpse the immortal soul, break into the world of physics, disrupting the chain of causality that usually controls our affairs. We are not clocks, and the future is not set. War and Peace is iconic insofar as it allows us and its characters to peer beyond the machinations of modernity, to look at and be looked at by something magical—something eternal, beyond the Newtonian universe.
Jason M. Baxter teaches Great Books at Notre Dame and is a curriculum consultant for St. Thomas More Academy in South Bend, Indiana. He is the author, most recently, of The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis.
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