One-Year War and Peace 10.19 – Fact from Fiction

Reading for Friday, 23 January

I haven’t done much background research on this (actually, I haven’t done any), but chapters like these make me wonder whether there were specific historians that Tolstoy was taking a sledgehammer to when he wrote this.

I found it a little bit hard to grasp the details of this chapter (especially when the text refers to a map that I presume was in the originally published version but is nowhere to be seen in my translation), but either way the point is made that this particular battle caught everyone by surprise and that the Russians weren’t expecting it.

The only thing is, I’m a bit confused because at the beginning of the chapter, Tolstoy says that it was obvious to everyone that if the French attacked, they would move closer to losing their army, and if the Russians fought, they would move closer to losing Moscow.  So from there, he reasons that Kutuzov and Napoleon fought with no rational plan.

Really?  I’m sure they must have had something run through their mind.  Oh well . . . we’ll see how it all pans out, I guess.

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One-Year War and Peace 10.18 – Stay or Go?

Reading for Thursday, 22 January

And in this chapter we see Pierre facing the decision to stay or leave Moscow.  This chapter has some incredible writing from Tolstoy, as he conjures up more images of the impending invasion.  On the one hand, it’s a bit funny how we’ve been reading about the posters, designed to give false hope – and the beautiful tongue-in-cheek dialogue between Pierre and his cousin.  “Hey, look, it’s not dangerous here!  The poster said so!”

But, war brings to the surface not just ridiculous impulses of man – darker ones emerge as well.  Interspersed with the humour is the rather disturbing image of the two men being beaten, purely because they are French.  It reminds us that racial profiling is hardly a new invention . . .

In fact, this constant whirl of details, ridiculous and dark, is what makes this so amazing.  In most war films, the focus is on the dark and dangerous elements (the guns, cannons and demolished buildings).  Actually, the Bondarchuk film feel into that trap a little bit.  But when you read the book, the completely surreal nature of war emerges.  It reminds me a little bit of the film Underground by Emir Kusturica, which was made in 1995.  That film told the story of Yugoslavia from World War II through the Cold War and into the Serb-Croat war of the early 90s, and all done as if it was a massive black comedy.  Surreal sat side by side with horror in that movie, and at the time I thought it was quite innovative.

But it looks as if Tolstoy got in a lot earlier.

And the action continues as Pierre trots off to join the army.  At which stage, I now have to offer an apology, because I’m off to Byron Bay for the long weekend, so I won’t be able to post until I get back.

Sorry everybody!  I will be back soon, Ihope.

One-Year War and Peace 10.17 – Gossip

Reading for Wednesday, 21 January

And here we find ourselves back in the increasingly more crazy world of Moscow.  It’s odd how Tolstoy’s rather humorous descriptions of Moscovites ignoring the impending invasion actually makes the threat feel that more real.  It’s like disaster movies when you’re waiting for the disaster.  You know it’s coming, but it’s just a matter of when.

And so then we find ourselves in this little soirée with Julie Drubetskoya (Boris’ wife, if you can remember those details – and former penpal of Marya Bolkonsky).  I’m sure we’re all wishing we had Ian’s Pevear/Volkhonsky translation now, because it is here, as the aristocrats actually have a forfeit payable for anyone who speaks in French, that we really start to realise how useful it would be to know what proportion of the book was written in French and what in Russian.  But we get the idea, anyway.

What I liked most about this chapter is that Pierre is growing in stature in the story.  As Julie tries to bait him by mentioning Natasha, we see that sense of honour and chivalry that Pierre has, rising to the surface.  Pierre is still a bit confused and trying to find himself – but I don’t feel that he is naive any more.  He’s not at the mercy of the world around him.

More of that in the next chapter.

One-Year War and Peace 10.16 – Doing Nothing

Reading for Tuesday, 20 January

And in this chapter, we get a bit more insight into Kutuzov’s approach to war.  Coincidentally (not), it ties right in with Tolstoy’s view of history.  Kutuzov’s plan is to pretty much just let things happen, neither really stopping anything nor really pushing anything – because he realises that history is driven along by little actions and that nothing he could propose would make much difference to it.

I still think in the real world, this kind of approach would be highly incompetent – but as the history books relate (or at least as War and Peace, which is widely regarded as the best history book on the 1812 wars anyway), Kutuzov’s approach to life turned out to be the best.

We shall see how it all pans out very shortly.

One-Year War and Peace 10.15 – Denisov’s Back!

Reading for Monday, 19 January

I can’t tell you how happy this chapter made me.    I really had thought he’d died there.

And there he was, proposing a plan to Kutuzov!  Great stuff. Also, I loved the little ironic description of how Denisov knows Andrei proposed to Natasha, and thinks back nostalgically to when he had a crush on her – not realising that it was far more traumatic for Andrei than a little crush . . .

Obviously, we find out a bit more about Kutuzov in this chapter, but I can make my comments on him in the next chapter.

One-Year War and Peace 10.14 – Dealing with the Peasants

Reading for Sunday, 18 January

And here we see Nikolai Rostov dealing with the “peasant uprising”.  This chapter really just goes to confirm what I felt about Nikolai in the last chapter.  He’s still the headstrong, crazy guy from earlier in the book.

Still, you have to hand it to him – a couple of punched noses, and tying up a couple of them, and he’s got the horse and carriage – and a rather wealthy heiress who’s free to do what she likes.

In the final section of the chapter, it’s fascinating how they both deal with their attraction for one another.  Marya stares out the window and smiles, while promising herself that she never has to speak of it to anyone (and let’s face it, she wouldn’t).

Nikolai meanwhile gets a bit ticked off with one of his officers making a joke about it, because he knows he does like her – but what about Sonya?  Can I say “Poor old Sonya” again? I think I again.

One-Year War and Peace 10.13 – Crossed Paths

Reading for Saturday, 17 January

As can only happen in long epic novels, some paths start to cross.  In this case, it’s the rather unlikely (well, I certainly wouldn’t have seen it coming) meeting of Nikolai Rostov and Princess Marya Bolkonsky.

Can you imagine it?  After the huge blowout between his sister and her brother in the last book, he happens to arrive at her farm when she needs rescuing?

I can’t remember exactly how this subplot goes, but part of me is thinking that surely Marya could end up with somebody a bit better than this . . . well, we’ll just have to keep reading to find out what happens, won’t we?

One-Year War and Peace 10.12 – Memories of Death

Reading for Friday, 16 January

Death sticks in the mind in a funny way.  Both my parents are still alive, but to this day, I remember when my grandparents passed away (not all at the same time, thank goodness).

The first one that I remember was my Dad’s father, who died when I was about six.  There’s something quite powerful and terrible about the rituals of death.  Funerals, burials – yes, for many funerals, we use the term “celebration of life” and there is a definite tendency for Christian funerals to be more pleasant to go to than others, because there’s a belief in an afterlife – but it’s still an awesome and shocking thing.

And so this chapter, describing Marya remembering all the little details of her father’s death, rings very true to life to me.

One-Year War and Peace 10.11 – Not Leaving

Reading for Thursday, 15 January

As Marya talks to the peasants, you realise that they really are on their own wavelength here.  But I think it highlights something universal that, certainly, most social workers would agree with.

You can offer help, but do people want it?  Is what you think best for somebody what they think is best for them?  In this case, even though the peasants were being offered safety and security, the idea of leaving was more obnoxious to them than being captured by the French.

Were they stupid?  Maybe – but they had a connection with the land, and that can’t be ignored.  I think it’s interesting, because it’s only now that Tolstoy is really starting to make these peasant characters emerge from the background.  Previously, they were kind of just getting the horses ready and looking after the gardens.

But they are people themselves.  As is everybody in War and Peace, really.

Book Review: Mathematics – Is God Silent? (James Nickel)

The background for this book (now in its second edition) is the whole debate which has centred around Christian education for the last few decades.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it went something like this:

A few centuries ago, most education came out of the church.  But with the increasing secularisation of society, religion was pushed to the side – it dealt with the spiritual side of life, and science dealt with the “real world”.

The upshot of that was that when education moved from being something provided by religion institutions to public schooling being provided by the government, by that stage, most people (Christians included) didn’t think this would be such a bad idea.  After all, education is education, right?  It would really just be a difference in who paid for it.

But the, out of the 60s and 70s, the Christian school music started to take off in America.  (It took a bit longer to take hold in Australia.)  And the basis of that movement was this idea: All knowledge that we can understand is ultimately God revealing Himself to us in the world.  Jesus Christ is Lord of all things.  And therefore, in every area of knowledge – whether it be science, history, music or whatever – can be and should be taught from a Christian perspective.

You would have thought most Christians would have got pretty excited about this idea.  However, old ways die hard.  To this day, there are still Christians who can’t see much difference between a Christian school and a public school, except that the Christian school might have more Bible classes or might teach the kids “good morals”.  In fact, I even heard a Christian schoolteacher say on one occasion that what Australia really needed was for all the Christian schools to shut down so that all the Christians could move into the public schools and be a “witness” to the non-Christians in the school.

So, for some reason, the Christian vs public education debate has kind of ended up with two broad camps – one, who want to send their kids to Christian schools so they don’t have to hang around with any of the bad kids and bad behaviours at government schools (you might call this the School as Bubble approach) and those parents who want to send their Christian kids to public schools because a) it never did them any harm when they went there and b) their kids can be witnesses to those around them (you might call this the (Public School as Mission Field approach).

All of this has gotten away from the main question: is there a difference between the way a Christian should view knowledge and learning and the way a non-Christian does it?  The answer is a definite yes, but sadly, a lot of Christians don’t take the time or the effort to learn how their faith applies to various areas of life, which effectively means that they’re proving the point of the Enlightenment thinkers, who were quite happy to have religion as long as it didn’t impede into the real world in any way.

So this book, Mathematics: Is God Silent?, was written by a Christian maths teacher who several times found himself being handed this dilemma by non-Christians: well, you say that everything needs to be taught from a Christian perspective – but what about maths?  Surely, 2+2 =4 regardless of your religious persusasions, right?

So James Nickel has set about doing the Christian world a favour with this incredibly detailed treatise on Christianity and mathematics.  He traces the history of mathematics from its earliest days right up to the current dilemmas being dealt with by mathematics (well, at least up to 10 years ago, which was when the book was written).

This was all fascinating stuff, because I don’t remember being taught at any stage of my school or university career (I have a degree in mathematics, believe it or not) anything about the philosphical and religious implications of mathematics that have gone hand in hand with the study of mathematics throughout the ages.

Nickel argues quite convincingly that, in fact, people’s religious and philosophical views have had a huge part to play in their scientific endeavour and the way they use mathematics.  For instance, the Greeks made many of the original breakthroughs on mathematics, but because their view of the world really didn’t place much value on the real, physical world (to simplify it a bit), they weren’t that interested in using their mathematics.

Also, many cultures of the past believed that history moved in cycles rather than in a straight line, and so there was no real reason to put much effort into science, because the world wasn’t going to change that much.

So once the world scene settled down a bit in the first milennia after Christ, in Europe, where Christianity had taken hold, we started to see a new rise in scientific and technological advancement.  Certainly, the faith back then had many faults and nobody was perfect.

But the idea that there was a personal God who had created the universe (which meant that scientists could expect to see the order and pattern of a divine Being behind it, not a chaotic collection of stuff) and the idea that history was moving from a beginning (Creation) to an ending (the return of Christ) meant that there was a philosophical foundation for improving things, getting better at science and technology.

And by the time you get to the great scientiests of the 16th, 17th century – Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, etc. – their faith just drove them to incredible heights of discovery.  But all based on the assumption that there was a God who had made this world, and they could find out more about Him by studying the world.  And mathematics was the language that described that world.

However, once we arrive at the Enlightenment era, and man no longer believed in a personal God who had created and was keeping the world running, strange little problems and quirks start to arrive.
Mathematics could now no longer be “God’s secret language” that describes the world.

So what was it then?  Was it a logical construct that man had thought up and then managed to get the world to match up to it?  But if that was the case, why on earth did it work so well?

And so many scientists set about to prove that mathematics was just something that could be completely derived starting with your own mind and man’s logic – but none of those efforts seem to have paid off.

That said, I think the people who tried to divorce mathematics from the real world eventually won – at least as far as the educational system went.  After all, go to any school or university, and there are students being given maths problems with no real context for where we got these principles, why they work, what they’re used for or anything.  It’s just all abstract scratchings on paper.

This book is far more mind-expanding than that.  I’m sure that many non-Christians in the scientific community may disagree with the book – that’s fine.  At least it’s good to know that a Christian has bothered to think about these things.  At its height, Christianity was a religion that spoke to all areas of life and we’ve lost a lot of that.  If more Christian scholars took their faith to different fields like James Nickel has done in this book, I think we’d look a lot less silly to ordinary folks on the street.

Note to interested readers:  this book, while it claims to be written for laypeople, is kind of tough going if you’re new to mathematics or philosophy.  I’d say you’d want at least Year 12 maths down to understand everything in the book.  (Only because Nickel likes to have little mathematical interludes where he shows you fascinating mathematical insights from nature.)  But then again a book with the word “mathematics” in the title is probably going to limit itself to readers who like that sort of thing anyway, so I’m sure it’s not that big a deal.