Course Proposal

When reading War and Peace, background material by Tolstoy, and the secondary literature, this course seeks to expand students’ recognition of the diversity of cultures by exploring the culturally unique (undetermined) and historically distinct experience of Russia as expressed by that culture’s foundational epic, War and Peace. Our readings and assignments will elaborate on the profound social and mental differences between Russian and contemporary American cultures.

Through our readings and discussions, we will explore how, though deeply affected by its commercial, cultural and military interactions with European and Asian powers, Russia has never succumbed to either. In place of Western and Eastern civilization, Russia spent the long nineteenth century articulating its cultural identity as an anti-history, an anti-tradition, an anti-culture: Russian culture is the only culture that has arisen in self-conscious opposition to both Western and Eastern influence, and therefore offers a particularly advantageous perspective from which to examine categories like class, ethnicity, gender and high/low culture.

Unlike Western cultures, Russia arose in a part of the world where there was no preexisting culture; it was cut off from other contemporaneous civilizations by language, alphabet, religion and geography. In 1829, the Russian philosopher Chaadayev, summed it up (in French, of course), in his Philosophical Letters. Expressing the views of many educated Russians in the post-Napoleonic world of Russia, he wrote that Russia had

never walked hand and hand with other nations; we belong to none of the great families of mankind; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we possess the traditions of neither. Somehow divorced from time and space, the universal education of mankind has not touched us. […] Cast a look upon the many centuries in our past, upon the expanse of soil we inhabit, and you will find no endearing reminiscence, no venerable memorial, to speak to you powerfully of the past and to reproduce it for you in a vivid manner.

Russians spent the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confronting this lack of a cultural heritage and history. “Divorced from time and space,” Russia crafted its own cultural identity—the perennially damned “Russian Idea” or “Russian Question.” Since philosophical, economic and political expressions were repressed in Russia, Russian thinkers did their thinking mostly cultural artifacts; repressive autocracy explains the centrality of literature, music and the visual arts in Russia throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a centrality that strikes us Americans as odd.

War and Peace takes part in this self-conscious and carefully-articulated Russian anti-tradition. We will read the novel as an effect of this anti-tradition. The radical ideas Tolstoy had about narrative are a rejection of Western expectations for art. But these radical ideas about literature are in fact a manifestation of Tolstoy’s dismantling of broader categories about history, causation, and the formation of a workable moral self. To read War and Peace well means understanding it as a thoroughgoing rejection of culture per se.

We will also read War and Peace as a cause of this anti-tradition, seeking to locate the importance of War and Peace as the central work of Russian literature, a work that that promoted and expanded the anti-tradition (and was, in Modernist literature, co-opted and synthesized, à la Hegel).

In addition to War and Peace, we’ll examine the “dynamics of human difference” on the Russian canvas mainly through two secondary works: We’ll start with an outré book, Marshall Poe’s The Russian Moment in World History, which has a thesis pretty much identical to the one that I have advanced in this proposal: People are ignorant about Russia’s distinct culture and history, and therefore they say all sorts of stupid rubbish. In a hundred pages, he makes the case that Russian has had a unique path through history and that this difference explains its present state, and offers a compelling and alternative vision of culture.

Orlando Figes’ cultural history Natasha’s Dance takes its title from the dance performed by one of the characters in War and Peace. In the description of Natasha’s dance, Figes finds the scene to offer a “record of belief” that unites the diverse threads of Russian culture.

The writing assignments will apply the historical and theoretical insights of these books to exploring Russian cultural traditions through War and Peace. Here are a few of the short writing assignments I plan that will illustrate the ways in which assignments reflect the Human Diversity designation:
1. Why is War and Peace so often considered a rejection of Western European narrative and novel? Why do you think its initial European readers found it so barbaric and mystifying—i.e., what rules did it break? How is a rejection of Western literary norms also a rejection of cultural norms? In other words, how do artistic expectations hypostasize implicit cultural norms?
2. How does Tolstoy’s rejection of Western history and attempt to reconstruct an alternative view of the mechanisms of history challenge our assumptions about human agency?
3. Given Tolstoy’s “aggregate model” of human psychology and development, what role do Western categories like gender and class play in identity? Are they real, “natural” categories or are social accretions? Does it matter?
4. Tolstoy is skeptical when it comes to the real extent of individual agency (“the swarm life” versus Napoleon’s commands); if he’s right, what does this mean for morality as expressed in traditional Western and Eastern spiritual traditions?
5. Compare the Russian and European reactions to war and violence. Why is the Russian reaction “natural” according to Tolstoy?
6. What does Tolstoy find so reprehensible about Western ideas of art? What is the “real” function of art in society, and how does is this function realized in and by the novel? In other words, what qualifies as bad and good art within the world of War and Peace, and in what ways does War and Peace align with Tolstoy’s writings on “good art”?

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