Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

 Important stories, told poorly.

I think novels are a perfect vehicle for transmission of our history and for education. For this reason, I was excited to pick up a book about survivors of the residential school system. However, crucially, novels also require a degree of craftsmanship and character development that I think was sorely missing here.

I had the sense that the author had a dozen beats that she was trying to work into the novel: the mother questioned for her ability to take care of her child just because she was indigenous; the son learning that the mother from whom he was taken had written a letter every single day to find out when she could see him again, rather than abandoning him as he had assumed; the daughter of a survivor learning about the abuses her father suffered, and reassessing her judgement of her mother and of her father because of this; the young woman kicked out of the residential school without guidance or resources upon turning sixteen. A narrative of dry, lifeless prose, and one-dimensional stock characters are thrown together to link these moments.

Here's an example of the prose we are working with in this book:

The agent prepared a list of modest homes within a ten-block radius of Frances Street for Lucy to consider. After a week and a half, Lucy made an offer on a neat postwar bungalow with three bedrooms, a fenced-in yard and a kitchen laid out much like the one at the Frances Street house but bigger, with new appliances and cabinets. She signed the papers and she and Clara went home and waited.

Kendra arrived that evening as the nervous women thought for sure they wouldn’t get it at their low offer even though the agent had been confident. By half past eight, they’d still heard nothing.

Lucy shrugged and wrapped her sweater around herself. “Well, I guess that’s that. Too bad, I liked that place. Good for grandchildren. Close to the elementary school.”

Clara winked at Kendra. “Better get busy, Grandma here’s making plans.”

Kendra laughed. “Oh no. I can’t even imagine being a mom.”

The phone interrupted their laughter. Lucy took the receiver off the hook while Clara crossed her fingers and Kendra wiggled in her chair with anticipation.

“Okay. Okay. Yes. Sure. Okay. Yes, that would be fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Well?” Kendra was bursting.

Lucy threw her hands in the air. “We got it!”

“That is so fantastic.” Clara lifted her teacup in a toast. “To Kenny.”
We have several paragraphs of mechanically presented details that provide little insight into the characters or their world (this passage is told through Lucy's eyes, could you guess?). There's an exchange of a mother hoping for grandchildren that is so trite it almost reads like satire (but is presented without irony). Then, finally, we have a moment of intense emotion but it's presented with overused phrases and imagery like "bursting" and "threw her hands in the air." It feels a little amateur, the type of writing I used to encounter when I regularly read fanfiction. What I'd hoped would be an emotional but educational read was rather frustratingly boring.

A welcome exception was the Maisie chapter, which works as a standalone short story. I liked how the author slowly revealed what Maisie meant by the phrase "Jimmy's girl." At it's face, a nervous young woman's attempt to try to please her boyfriend. Jimmy likes minimal make-up, simple hair barrettes. Jimmy cares about her. Jimmy is a little pushy about her boundaries. Jimmy doesn't understand the residential school system. "Jimmy's girl" is someone that hasn't been chewed up and spat out by the residential school system. "Jimmy's girl" is something Maisie wants to be, but can't be, because years of sexual abuse have made it so that she can't see herself as someone lovable.

I imagine that it has long been difficult to get this type of writing published. With increasing recognition of the horror of the residential school systems, I hope we will get to see more of this sort of perspective. I loved the 2013 collection of shorts Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories & Songs. I'll not read too much into why this novel won so much recognition from Canadian literature institutions, and will instead view it as a stumbling learning step in a growing body of literature.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

I love Nghi Vo's writing enough to have pre-ordered this one, even though I don't find studio-era Hollywood (or Hollywood in general) all that interesting. And while I was correct that the plot, the setting and the character's motivations inspired little excitement in me, I still delighted in reading this novel. 

I enjoy how Vo writes narratives about being a queer asian woman in unusual settings (for example, The Chosen And The Beautiful featured a queer asian woman as Daisy's best friend in a re-telling of The Great Gatsby). Her characters' experiences with their identities are sometimes at the forefront of the narrative, and sometimes they fade to be barely perceptible yet ever-present. In this novel, an aspiring actress and second generation chinese immigrant negotiates a studio contract that excludes roles for maids or with "funny accents." We see her struggles to make it in Hollywood with this narrow path forward, hiring directors completely at a loss for what to do with her. Eventually, she is cast as a monster. Her relationship with her race and others' assumptions about accents shapes her life, and colours her internal voice:

I steamrolled my native accent as flat as a sheet of gold leaf. I had told Oberlin Wolfe no funny accents, and I meant to hold up my end of the deal. That was where I lost the very last of my Cantonese, and it died with a soft aspirate, a consonant rhotic.

She also frequently remarks upon the accents of others ("Ukrainians who came to Hollywood to make their money on the silver screen before their accents excluded them from the talkies", "a restrained Mid-Atlantic accent called for me to come in", "an Indian girl with a Brooklyn accent"). 

We never learn the main character's name. We see several names that are given to her, each marking her as foreign in some way:

Of course I had a name. I still do. It's mine, and now I keep it in a carnelian box, hinged and clasped with gold, carved to look like a creamsicle egg. It's Chinese with an ugly American cognate. I take it out and look at it sometimes. It fits like something made for me, though the maker didn't quite know my measurements and guessed at the colors that might suit me.
Jacko called me the Chinese Kid, or CK when he was being whimsical. I thought it was affection or plain American disinterest, but a caterer explained it to me one hot June day.
"That man doesn't do anything by accident," he snorted. "He's making sure that you don't belong to the studio, not yet, not until he can get a good fee for bringing you in."

Like accents, names also become a recurring background beat. Names mark who you are by the accident of your birth, who Hollywood wants you to be, who people see you as. Names are marketing gimmicks, and they're personal, and they're how you become immortalized forever. 

I could go on and on about little motifs carried throughout the narrative. It really is so beautifully woven.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Review: To Kill A Nation by Michael Parenti

I loved Slovenia when I visited. It's a beautiful country, with an interesting geography and a resulting interesting history. Spanning an opening in the alps, it forms a passage between western Europe and eastern Europe. As a result, it has historically been a strategic territory to hold, and was part of empires ranging from Rome’s to Byzantine’s to Napoleon’s to Austro-Hungary’s to the Nazi’s. The territory was liberated from this latter empire by socialist Partisans, and became part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. 

Slovenia's relationship with its past was fascinating. In the half dozen museums I visited while I was there, the country spoke positively of its socialist era, but similarly it was proud of being part of the European Union and of NATO. I wanted to learn a little more about its fascinating 20th century history, so I was happy to see Parenti wrote a book on the final years of Yugoslavia. As Parenti lays out, Yugoslavia was a particularly multi-cultural country that showed strong economic success:

Between 1960 and 1980 it had one of the most vigorous growth rates, along with free medical care and education, a guaranteed right to an income, one-month vacation with pay, a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, and a life expectancy of seventy-two years. Yugoslavia also offered its multi-ethnic citizenry affordable public transportation, housing, and utilities, in a mostly publicly owned, market-socialist economy.

In the late 1960s-1970s, Yugoslavia took out loans from the West to invest in its industrial capacity, however when a recession hit western economies, Yugoslavia found their export market dried up, and had challenges servicing their debt. In response, the IMF demanded an economic restructuring: wage freezes, elimination of worker-owned enterprises, cuts to social spending. These cuts led to an economic depression that “helped fuel the ensuing ethnic conflicts and secessionist movements.” 

These conflicts, or rather, the aggressions of the Serbs against the Albanians specifically, formed the basis of NATO’s justification to violently intervene in Yugoslavia. Parenti investigates the claims of NATO and the West, looking for evidence that (a) mass murder and mass rape was committed on a “genocidal” scale and that (b) these acts formed part of a government-sanctioned policy. Citing sources like The New York Times, Amnesty International and the UN, he finds that the oft-repeated allegations that 100,000-500,000 people were unaccounted for and presumed dead are based on poor evidence, that detailed investigation of grave sites by French, British and other Western sources found evidence of about 2,000 dead — just a fraction. Nor could the UN War Crimes Commission nor Amnesty International find evidence of mass-rape campaigns, nor survivors of rape in any substantial numbers.

No doubt there also were despicable grudge killings and executions of prisoners and innocent civilians as in any war, but not on a scale that would warrant the label of genocide or justify the death, destruction and misery inflicted upon Yugoslavia by bombings and sanctions.

These allegations of violence are put into context of the devastation wrecked by NATO. The US itself estimated NATO killed 500 (Belgrade puts the number at 2,500 dead), and displaced 100,000 civilians hoping to flee the destruction. (This refugee crisis was then pointed to by NATO as post hoc justification for NATO’s intervention.) NATO’s bombing surgically eliminated waterworks, power plants, bridges, hospitals, schools, churches — marvelously sparing all foreign-owned firms while destroying 164 state-owned factories. These strikes constituted illegal war crimes, and were committed by an institution without elections: “the first major war declared by a body that has no constituency or geography as would be found in a nation-state.” 

So if the alleged humanitarian crisis shows no strong basis in reality, why did NATO invade? Parenti lays out a more compelling explanation: (1) the Balkans form a strategic territory from which to exert power towards the east, (2) prior to IMF interference, Yugoslavia was an admirable socialist success story (despite Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that There Is No Alternative [to capitalism]), (3) the financial and US hegemonic benefit of “Third Worldizing” a non-allied country, that is, converting Yugoslavia to a smattering of small, right-wing nations that are (a) incapable of charting an independent course, (b) open to transnational corporations to extract labour and natural resources, (c) populated with literate but impoverished workers who labour at subsistence wages, depressing wages in Europe and elsewhere, and (d) no longer possess competitive mining, automotive, pharmaceutical, etc industries of their own. 

While this text is two decades old, and Yugoslavia has generally faded from pop culture memory, and even from current criticism of NATO, this book felt highly relevant. In it, we see the same media patterns used to allege genocide of minority groups by socialist nations and the humanitarian justification of Western atrocities. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches its first anniversary, I also see hints of how negotiation talks might unwind. Yugoslavia proposed peace conditions that included “guaranteed human rights for all citizens and promotion of the cultural and linguistic identity of each national community” as well as granting legislative assemblies with representation specifically designated for national communities. NATO instead put forth the Rambouillet Peace Agreement, which “demanded complete autonomy for Kosovo, the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from the province, and occupation by NATO forces”, with Yugoslavia barred from legislation over Kosovo’s affairs while Kosovo would be able to exercise influence within Yugoslavia’s parliament and receive funds from Yugoslavia’s budget. The Serbian delegation was told they had two choices: sign the agreement as written or face NATO bombing. Russia is in a little better of a negotiating position than Yugoslavia was, with its tiny population and GDP. However, I think we can expect to see very one-sided reporting, little good-faith effort on NATO’s behalf, and we are unlikely to arrive at a solution involving an unaligned, thriving, multi-ethnic state. 

This book, out of all of Parenti’s, is particularly controversial, with his critics charging him of minimizing or denying the genocide of Albanians. However, I haven’t seen a critique that lays out what evidence Parenti leaves out or misconstrues, and the sources Parenti cites (such as UN tribunals or New York Times retractions) are likely trustworthy on this line of messaging. (Parenti notes, “Generally, mainstream information that goes against the mainstream’s own dominant paradigm is likely to be reliable. It certainly cannot be dismissed as self-serving.”) These criticisms of Parenti often come from avowed fans of Parenti — those who like him but insist that while his other books are great, in this one he takes an uncharacteristic mistep. To those critics, I ask what part of Parenti’s philosophy or research methods could lead him to come to the correct conclusion in his much-beloved Blackshirts and Reds, but to the wrong conclusion when aimed at Yugoslavia.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Review: Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Human chauvinism drives a never-ending search to identify What Makes Us Different From Animals. Frans De Waal takes us through the history of the field of animal cognition and shows how each hypothesis (empathy, speech, forward planning, use of tools, etc) has been experimentally falsified, requiring changes to our understanding of cognition. Louis Leakey perhaps put it best, describing the failure of the tool hypothesis to distinguish man and beast:
I feel that scientists holding to this definition are faced with three choices: They must accept chimpanzees are man, they must redefine man, or they must redefine tools.

In some ways, this history reminded me a little of the search to identify the fundamental differences between human races. White scientists and philosophers posited explanations like climate or skull shape to explain why their race was cognitively superior, turning from explanation to explanation as their former hypotheses proved inadequate. 

Of course, while there are no cognitive differences between races, there are cognitive differences between bats and humans and octopuses. As De Waal points out, we have to study the way animals use their cognitive abilities to solve the types of problems they encounter in their typical habitats, and stop thinking of cognition as something that can be mapped along a single axis, or that all types of learning follow similar mechanisms. Instead, a better question to ask is, what are the cognitive strengths of an animal, and how does it relate to their survival? 

I liked the example of the kittiwake birds. This species of gull nests in remote, difficult to reach locations. Because of these locations, their nests are rarely under attack nor otherwise visited by other birds. In experiments, kittiwake birds were found to not be able to distinguish between their own young, and chicks from other nests. This absence of individual recognition makes sense given the challenges kittiwakes face in their habitats: fledglings stay in their original nests, so why would a kittiwake need to tell the difference between strange chicks and their own? Similarly, humans largely operate in locations with light, are visual creatures, and thus have no need for echolocation.

I also liked the example of the rats that learned to avoid a substance from a single incident of induced vomiting, when the vomiting occurred long after the substance was eaten seemingly in defiance of the theory that stimulus/reward cycles needed to be closely associated in time to result in learning. This, too, makes sense in the evolutionary context: while physical manipulation of ones environment (either a lever, or some more naturally occurring obstruction) to obtain food typically occurs with minimal delay, indigestion has a lag.

As a former experimental biologist, I also appreciated the emphasis on study design. The field's (mis-) selection of controls, metrics, and other experimental conditions have often produced inaccurate pictures of animal cognition. For example, chimp/toddler comparisons are often executed in settings where chimpanzees are isolated from members of their species, interacting with straight-faced scientists, while toddlers are held by their parents and in the presence of other humans, and receive encouraging words, etc, from those who study them. Under which conditions do you think you'd perform better?

I thought there could have been a little more structure to the book, or perhaps it could have been a little shorter. By the end, it felt rather repetitive: the same themes I've highlighted above, over and over but with different animals. Still it was an enjoyable read (there are worse ways to pad a book than with interesting stories about dolphins and elephants), and the material covered strongly supports a dialectical materialist approach to biology.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

It's difficult to step outside your own worldview and see what parts of your thoughts or behaviors or relationships are universal to the human experience, and in what ways they are shaped by the general philosophy and economic system around you. I think Braiding Sweetgrass does a good job at introducing you to indigenous philosophy, and highlighting how the relationships between humans and the Earth differ in this worldview from the liberal capitalist worldview dominant in settler countries. 

An example of this that I found particularly poignant is that of the creation myth. In the story of Turtle Island, the first human, Skywoman, falls to earth and she is supported and kept alive by the animals of earth. In turn, she brings seeds to fill the earth with grasses and flowers and medicines, which nourish the animals. This creation myth is one of community and reciprocity. In contrast, in the Christian myth, humans are created with dominion over animals and plants, then exiled from Eden when they consume the fruit of knowledge. This creation myth is one of humans elevated in status and power over plants and animals, rootlessly separated from their homes, burdened by sin. The stories we tell shape our views of our responsibilities to the earth and to each other. Our philosophy, in turn, shapes our practice. 

However, Kimmerer speaks with a foot in each philosophy, seemingly not realizing the ways in which her view of her responsibility to the world is still shaped by that of Eve. For example, in Collateral Damage, she describes her helping of salamanders migrate across the road as an act of repentance of sin (emphasis mine):

I can't stop bombs from falling and I can't stop cars from speeding down this road. It is beyond my power. But I can pick up salamanders. For one night, I want to clear my name. What is it that draws us to this lonely hollow? Maybe it is love, the same thing that draws the salamanders from under their logs. Or maybe we walked this road tonight in search of absolution.

The idea of addressing the wounds humans have made and continue to inflict on the world is repeatedly described in individualistic terms, and the solutions proposed are limited to measures that fit within liberalism and capitalism. "[I]t can be too easy to shift the burden of responsibility to the coal company or the land developers. What about me, the one who buys what they sell, who is complicit in the dishonorable harvest?" Kimmerer asks. She further suggests that the solution to the horrors caused by the market economy can be solved using the instruments of the market economy: "We can use our dollars as the indirect currency of reciprocity." In "Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide", which discusses how legislative progress is hampered by people complaining about paying too many taxes, the sole solution proposed to address climate change is a carbon tax. She has a tendency to sneer at her students or neighbours who do not have a reciprocal or sacred relationship with the earth, without asking why (other than ignorance) they might not have adopted a better worldview. 

There is in the very last chapter, however, a hint of a bigger picture for how a healthier society could be organized, and I wish she had developed it in more detail:

What is the alternative? And how do we get there? I don't know for certain, but I believe the answer is contained within our teachings of "One Bowl and One Spoon", which holds that the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon. This is the vision of the economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. (...) These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous worldview in which the earth exists not as private property but as a commons, to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.
And yet, while creating an alternative to destruction economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policies that we need but also changes to the heart.

Braiding Sweetgrass particularly examines the relationship between the accumulation of knowledge, i.e., science, in indigenous cultures versus that of settler cultures. The recurring theme is one of western science rejecting the methods and findings of indigenous science until the data has been collected and presented according to western norms and shoved in the face of western scientists until the truths can no longer be denied. I think it's an important point to communicate: our ability to understand our world and develop technology is hindered by limited views of science, and by our prejudice. However, I would have liked to see a little more synthesis. Indigenous philosophies are presented as static, unchanging over the last few centuries despite seismic shifts in society and technology in that time frame. We have seen how settler science should have listened to indigenous science and revised itself given this information. How do indigenous philosophies change and update themselves in response to new scientific discoveries, or social changes? 

There's a lot of looking backwards in this book. What does indigenous science and indigenous philosophy see in the road ahead?

Monday, December 12, 2022

Review: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science by Helena Sheehan

It’s possible to study deeply in biology, to get a doctorate of philosophy in biology, without taking a single class in philosophy, let alone the philosophy of science. (The one philosophy class I took in my eleven years of post-secondary education, I took purely electively!) Concepts like evolution and genetics are (rightly) taught from a young age. Phenomena like the wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle you learn a little later. All these concepts are taught in a “and here’s what this means for biology/physics” sense, and not connected to a broader picture of how this impacted our understanding of knowledge and our relation to the world. For the most part, scientists approach their craft with an unexamined and eclectic form of positivism. It’s a worldview that doesn’t lend itself well to moving from genes to organisms to societies to history. Or, as Marx puts it:

The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (Capital, Vol 1)

Perhaps because of an awareness of these failings, many scientists shrug their shoulders and remain narrowly focused in their domain. We then continue to teach our craft as distinct threads of development. Sure, maybe advances in physics help advance our understanding, like using X-ray crystallography to deduce the structure of the basic macromolecules of life, but we don’t integrate these discoveries into a unified understanding. And so the next generation of unexamining eclectic positivists is born.

The stakes for failing to come up with a cohesive grand narrative of the world are high. We become materialists within the bounds of our own specialties, but stray into idealism, postmodernism, nihilism in our politics. Such a scientist might say “we tested fifty undergraduate students in a lab, and they all tried to maximize the amount of money they were rewarded in a game. From this, we can conclude that capitalism is the natural state of humanity, and any fight for a better system is futile.” A scientist with a unified theory of the world, one that recognizes we are shaped by our environments and that we shape our environments, and that the world is constantly changing, would conclude instead that this experiment demonstrates nothing more that in capitalism, our current economic mode, individuals are incentivized to maximize their capital.

Like fish might not remark on the water they swim through (I am not a fish psychologist), it’s difficult to step outside the philosophy you hold of the world (however eclectic it might be). One way to do so is to understand the history of philosophy of science, particularly the cataclysmic effect discoveries like evolution and quantum physics had on thinking in the nineteenth century. Rather than keeping these concepts in tidy separate boxes of thought labeled “biology” and “physics”, thinkers of the time reeled as they tried to fit these revelations of the earth as constantly changing and limited in its determinism with their prior conceptions of the world being composed of objects with unchanging essences requiring external impulses to bring them into movement.

To understand these debates, and the many philosophical pitfalls scientists and philosophers fell into (and continue to fall into!) when trying to deal with these contradictions, Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science is a worthwhile read. She starts with how Marx and Engels translated Hegel’s dialectics into a unified understanding of the world, examining how dialectics describes not only history but also the natural sciences, as laid out in Engels' Dialectics of Nature. She traces the philosophy of science through the idealism versus materialism debates in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century as philosophers responded to the crises of science (Heisenberg uncertainty principle, relativity, evolution, sub-atomic particles), ending in the mid-twentieth century at the end of the Comintern and start of the Khrushchev era of the USSR. It's a sweeping survey of perhaps a hundred different thinkers, covering the origins, strengths and muddled parts of their theories. 

I saw my own experiences reflected in the biographies of scientists like Haldane and Bernal, who began studying Marxism as fully-trained, practicing scientists and found in dialectical materialism a better way of understanding their own field of expertise, as well as the world around them. 

On the other hand, I found the blind spots of Sheehan's narrative to be frustrating, to the point that I began to lose confidence in the areas she discussed in which I did not already feel reasonably well versed. The strength of her account was, I thought, the first three chapters, which focused on Marx, Engels, and the philosophy of science up until around 1917. Amply quoting her sources, she demonstrates the fool's errand of trying to "rescue" Marx from Engels or from Lenin. She also traces how philosophical differences (or ambiguity) towards science and materialism devolve to political differences (eg, Kautsky versus Lenin).

The fourth and fifth chapters, which made up well over half the book, were more flawed. The fourth chapter is a slow, 80-page build-up to how Lysenkoism took hold in the USSR in the late 1930s and 1940s. Sheehan approaches the political and geopolitical context of the 1920s-1940s USSR with surprisingly little historical context, positioning Stalin and Lysenko both as leaders who know how to dazzle people but are self-centered and power-hungry in any strategic thinking they manage to stumble into, rather than leaders dealing with high stakes decisions in low resource environments with fascists threatening to invade. Where her discussion of philosophical positions is generally very well-cited, historical occurrences are stated with few sources, complicating my efforts to learn more about the subjects at hand.

The fifth chapter, which surveyed the development of philosophical thought from 1920-1950ish, was disproportionate in both length (some 180 pages) and emphasis, which was overly focused on the works of British thinkers of the time (100+ pages, of which 40 pages were Christopher Caudwell alone). The works of French and German scholars was quickly summarized in a half dozen pages each, and a smattering of paragraphs were devoted to the US and Yugoslavia. There was a complete absence of discussion of thought in China, Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the global south. Every scientist was assessed according to their critique of Lysenkoism; those who wrote against him were correct and brave, while those who did not critique his ideas (Bernal) or who were open to some form of environmentally determined inheritance (Haldane) were naive or uninformed or, despite their perspicacity in other spheres of thinking, not able to "realize the gravity" of philosophical debates.

Despite these flaws, as a scientist, I found this to be a valuable read for better understanding Marxism, Philosophy, and Science. The footnotes often have fun anecdotes, and Sheehan's writing style is clear and often a little humorous.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review: War and Peace by Tolstoy

My most controversial book opinion might be that I actually liked the second part of the epilogue of this book.

In War & Peace, Tolstoy lays out his criticism of historians, particularly those who subscribe to great man theory, or those who take halfhearted measures and try to play both sides. Tolstoy's philosophy here has clear roots in mid-19th century thinking, in which clashes between idealism and materialism were fierce, and discoveries like evolution signalled the death of intelligent creation (of man by god, of wars by genius generals).

In many passages, Tolstoy seems on the cusp of discovering or otherwise exploring historical materialism (first laid out a couple decades earlier by Engels and Marx, but not arriving in Russia until rather after War and Peace was written). However, he fails to see (or perhaps underestimates) the material conditions that differentiate the peasants and the nobility. He also, in his efforts at countering great man theory, downplays the importance of strategic thinking and seizing opportune moments. As a result, his view of history is one where the actions are a tidy mathematical sum of interchangeable men acting as they wish, the total of their personalities clattering like dice thrown on a gambling table. This then devolves into a rather uninteresting musing on the existence or illusion of free will.

Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first real novel, and having now read War and Peace, I understand this assertion. This first work of fiction is perhaps a quarter philosophy and history, and feels not quite evenly stitched together. The blueprints of ideas that become well-developed in Anna Karenina are visible in War and Peace. Between the two, I liked the former better, but this philosophical treatise woven with angsty young people trying to find their way in the world was still a fascinating read, particularly for understanding the development of thought in the nineteenth century, and in this period of time in Russia.