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This is a very straightforward question. I've been thinking a lot lately about the 1869 novel and I was wondering what Ayn Rand thought of it, if she ever wrote a review of some kind. Also, is War and Peace a work of Romanticism? Tolstoy did a gargantuan amount of research on real events, particularly with the Napoleonic Era, to a point where some argue that War and Peace could hardly be called a novel. It might not be as Romantic as some other novels, such as Frankenstein, or even Atlas Shrugged for that matter.

asked Feb 07 '15 at 19:00

Collin1's gravatar image

Collin1
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edited Feb 07 '15 at 19:01


Asking what Ayn Rand thought of War and Peace is too narrow. It is far more productive to ask how she evaluated and classified Leo Tolstoy. I found only one very brief mention of Tolstoy's War and Peace in Ayn Rand's works that would indicate where it resides in relation to Romanticism, and that one reference is not particularly helpful unless one already knows Ayn Rand's evaluation of Tolstoy and her views on literary Romanticism and it's main alternative in serious literature.

The question asks: "... is War and Peace a work of Romanticism?" As evidence for why the questioner wonders, the question explains:

Tolstoy did a gargantuan amount of research on real events, particularly with the Napoleonic Era, to a point where some argue that War and Peace could hardly be called a novel.

This is not a description of Romanticism in literature, but of Romanticism's exact opposite: classical Naturalism. Ayn Rand discusses the nature of Romanticism and Naturalism (and Tolstoy) in considerable depth in her book, The Romantic Manifesto (RM). Exact page references regarding Tolstoy can be found by looking up the following topics in the Index in RM:

  • Tolstoy, Leo
  • Anna Karenina
  • War and Peace

(My edition of RM is the Second Revised Edition, 1975, paperback by Signet, which includes "Art and Cognition" as Chapter 4; Chapters 1 through 12 span pp. 15-185.) The first two of these topics also have numerous references in Ayn Rand's later book, The Art of Fiction. Refer to the book's Index. For a good overview of Romanticism and Naturalism, refer to those topics in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, as well as the more extensive discussions in RM and The Art of Fiction (FW). For still more comments on Tolstoy by Ayn Rand, refer to the Index in Letters of Ayn Rand.

In fundamental terms, Ayn Rand classifies Tolstoy as a literary Naturalist, like Shakespeare (RM pp. 115-116):

Although Naturalism is a product of the nineteenth century, its spiritual father, in modern history, was Shakespeare. The premise that man does not possess volition, that his destiny is determined by an innate "tragic flaw," is fundamental in Shakespeare's work. But, granted this false premise, his approach is metaphysical, not journalistic. His characters are not drawn from "real life," they are not copies of observed concretes nor statistical averages: they are grand-scale abstractions of the character traits which a determinist would regard as inherent in human nature: ambition, power-lust, jealousy, greed, etc.

Some of the famous Naturalists attempted to maintain Shakespeare's abstract level, i.e., to present their views of human nature in metaphysical terms (for example, Balzac, Tolstoy). But the majority, following the lead of Emile Zola, rejected metaphysics, as they rejected values, and adopted the method of journalism: the recording of observed concretes.

In RM Chap. 3, Ayn Rand discusses subject and style in art, and compares Naturalism to Romanticism. She mentions several writers (of both schools), including Tolstoy (RM p. 40):

The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important—as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature—or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre—or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola). He may present monsters as objects of moral denunciation (Dostoevsky), or as objects of terror (Goya)—or he may demand sympathy for his monsters, and thus crawl outside the limits of the realm of values, including esthetic ones.

RM p. 43 compares esthetic judgments to personal value-judgments:

Since art is a philosophical composite, it is not a contradiction to say: "This is a great work of art, but I don't like it,"—provided one defines the exact meaning of that statement: the first part refers to a purely esthetic appraisal, the second to a deeper philosophical level which includes more than esthetic values....

For instance: I love the work of Victor Hugo, in a deeper sense than admiration for his superlative literary genius, and I find many similarities between his sense of life and mine, although I disagree with virtually all of his explicit philosophy—I like Dostoevsky, for his superb mastery of plot structure and for his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil, even though his philosophy and his sense of life are almost diametrically opposed to mine—I like the early novels of Mickey Spillane, for his plot ingenuity and moralistic style, even though his sense of life clashes with mine, and no explicit philosophical element is involved in his work—I cannot stand Tolstoy, and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer.

... in sense-of-life terms: Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral—Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide—Spillane gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park—Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.

RM p. 117 describes the historical deterioration of Naturalism:

At first, having rejected the element of plot and even of story, the Naturalists concentrated on the element of characterization—and psychological perceptiveness was the chief value that the best of them had to offer. With the growth of the statistical method, however, that value shrank and vanished: characterization was replaced by indiscriminate recording and buried under a catalogue of trivia, such as minute inventories of a character's apartment, clothing and meals. Naturalism lost the attempted universality of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, descending from metaphysics to photography with a rapidly shrinking lens directed at the range of the immediate moment—until the final remnants of Naturalism became a superficial, meaningless, "unserious" school that had nothing to say about human existence.

Ayn Rand discusses Naturalism's emphasis on characterization (and the journalistic approach to it) in The Art of Fiction (FW), Chap. 7, citing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as a specific example (FW pp. 72-73). She explains that Tolstoy concretizes "sexual passion" as the motivator for Anna Karenina, but does not delve deeper psychologically:

The subtler details of the psychological relationships, such as who says what at which moment, are very skillfully presented; Tolstoy's characterizations are full of the kind of minute details one would observe if one watched a family tragedy through a transparent wall. But such details merely give one the first layer of motivation in the persons involved—which is all that Tolstoy presents. The deeper meaning of the motives is never given.

She goes on to compare this to Hugo's characterization of the priest in Notre-Dame de Paris.

Chapter 9 on style (FW p. 138) concludes:

A Naturalistic writer may sometimes have a good description [of observable concretes]. Tolstoy, the archetype of a Naturalist, often has very eloquent ones. But to the extent to which they are good, they are done by the Romantic method—i.e., by means of carefully selected, well-observed concretes that capture the essentials of a scene.

She is observing here that even a Naturalistic writer, especially a top-rank writer, cannot escape certain premises inherent in writing fiction or creating art of any kind -- premises about why anyone else would be interested in it -- and what kind of artistic approach best satisfies a volitionally rational viewer's reasons for interest in art. For example (RM p. 117):

No matter how concrete-bound their theories forced them to be, the writers of the Naturalist school still had to exercise their power of abstraction to a significant extent: in order to reproduce "real-life" characters, they had to select the characteristics they regarded as essential, differentiating them from the non-essential or accidental. Thus they [especially the later Naturalists] were led to substitute statistics for values as a criterion of selectivity: that which is statistically prevalent among men, they held, is metaphysically significant and representative of man's nature; that which is rare or exceptional, is not. (See Chapter 7 [in RM].)

answered Feb 08 '15 at 15:14

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Asked: Feb 07 '15 at 19:00

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Last updated: Feb 08 '15 at 15:14