Reading for Monday 29/09 – 5.10

Another brief chapter, but one that actually made my blood boil.  Pierre, now driven by his new Masonic principles, decides that he wants to free his serfs, but gets taken for a ride by his head steward.  I think what got me so fired up about this chapter is that I can’t remember if Pierre ever sorts this matter out later on in the book, or what happens.

If so, I’ve been given a glimpse into the Russian serf world (a world that Tolstoy largely avoids for most of the book), and it’s not pretty.  And the fact that something couldn’t be done because a) Pierre was incompetent and b) the steward was crafty, are pretty devastating.

But then again, that’s the way Tolstoy wrote it, and it’s meant to be a sad state of affairs.  So I think I’m right on his wavelength.

Actually, I will be interested to hear if this pops up again, because it certainly got cut from the Russian film, and I don’t know if it showed up in any other.  I shall watch the fate of Russian serfs with interest . . .

It makes me wonder, though.  When we send our money off to aid organisations or stick pictures of hungry children on our fridge – how much help are we actually giving them?  (Actually, that’s not quite fair.  Aid organisations have to be pretty transparent nowadays.)  But it is an interesting state of affairs.  Does it also say something about us?  We’re happy just to be seen to be trying to change something.  If we see one child getting a meal, we feel good that we’ve done something.  If we see one homeless person getting a pair of socks, we feel like we’ve done something.

All right.  Off my soap box.  Have a great day.  See you tomorrow.


4 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 5.10 – Pierre’s Serfs

  1. I think I read this chapter slightly differently – although only slightly – from how you read it, Matt.

    I found the whole thing to be a great cautionary tale about middle class philanthropy, and as much an indictment of Pierre as of anyone else. It is so easy, from a position of comfort and luxury, as was the case for Pierre, to think we are helping people by throwing this or that morsel in their direction – but what this chapter shows us, I think, is that the real issues of people’s poverty and powerlessness goes much deeper than that. I think this chapter is very cleverly written because it subtly shows us that Pierre, despite his newly acquired benevolence and concern for the poor (in this case, his peasants), is still a wealthy, very wealthy, man who can enjoy life exactly as he always did. We get this image of him riding past his struggling, suffering peasants, throwing benevolence at them from the comfort of his Viennese coach, honestly believing he is doing good, but not really stopping to understand, much less share, their lives. Isn’t that so often how charity works? And not just charity in the conventional sense, but more broadly – all of us (myself included) who seek to right the wrongs of the world from the comfort of our armchairs, with our glass of wine (or even our nicely bound copy of War and Peace, for that matter) at our sides. I think the dilemmas and challenges of how to do good in the world when you come from a position of affluence and comfort is something that was a very real issue for Tolstoy personally, and that’s what I see reflected so powerfully in this chapter.

  2. Actually, philanthropy is a funny thing. I find so often in Australia (at least in the middle class, which is where I grew up, and in the media – which is aimed at the middle class) that all talk of helping people usually seems to revolve around government promising to do things, or else middle class people donating a bit of money to a charity.

    What has opened my eyes, though, is moving into the classical music world, where a handful of seriously wealthy donors can keep, say, an artform alive by being *very* generous with their money.

    And I’m sure most of the charities can talk of a handful of people who are generous with their money that make a huge difference to the bottom line.

    So I’m a believer that wealthy people *can* change the world, but – as we’ve noticed in this chapter – it needs to be done properly. Poor old Pierre wants to be a philanthropist, but doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

    Actually, maybe that’s why donors can be so difficult to deal with? They’re just being careful how their money is spent . . .

  3. I dunno’, Matt . . . I think it’s not just ‘the way Tolstoy wrote it’ – I think it’s because that was exactly how things were. He was ‘telling it like it is’.

    You don’t have to ‘wonder’ . . . we know very well that only a pittance, if anything, ends up in the hands of people who really need it. I’ve always suspected that to be so, and am pretty sure of it.

    If it is not so, how do we account for the people being still in need, year after year after year?

    Here are my additions today . . .

    Chief Steward –

    Some of the stewards (there were semiliterate foremen among them) listened with alarm, supposing these words to mean that the young count was displeased with their management and embezzlement of money, some after their first fright were amused by Pierre’s lisp and the new words they had not heard before, others simply enjoyed hearing how the master talked, while the cleverest among them, including the chief steward, understood from this speech how they could best handle the master for their own ends.


  4. I’d like to add something else to that thought; just to illustrate the situation in a ‘closer-to-home’ way.

    You think of the welfare department handing a cheque to a couple – it’s normally made out to ‘his’ name.

    He might be one who hustles the cheque right to the bank and spends it on drink . . . his wife and family see very little of the money.

    That actually happens!

    And, in some cases, the welfare workers have had the cheque made out to the woman, for that very reason . . . which would work as long as she was able to cash it, pay the rent and buy some money for groceries. That is if her man didn’t ‘bully’ her out of it, and take it for herself.

    Sad, but often true.

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