Tolstoy: How history differs, for historians and for artists

pevearFrom “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace” (1868)

(5) The divergence between my description of historical events and the accounts of historians. It is not accidental, but inevitable. A historian and an artist, describing a historical epoch, have two completely different objects. As a historian would be wrong if he should try to present a historical figure in all his entirety, in all the complexity of his relations to all sides of life, so an artist would not fulfill his task by always presenting a figure in his historical significance. Kutuzov did not always ride a white horse, holding a field glass and pointing at enemies. Rastopchin did not always take torch in hand and set fire to his Voronovo house (in fact he never did it at all), and the empress Maria Feodorovna did not always stand in an ermine mantle, her hand resting on the code of law; but that is how they are pictured in the popular imagination.

For a historian, considering the contribution rendered by some person towards a certain goal, there are heroes; for the artist, considering the correspondence of this person to all sides of life, there cannot and should not be any heroes, but there should be people.

The historian is sometimes obliged, by bending the truth, to bring all the actions of a historical figure under the one idea he has put into that figure. The artist, on the contrary, sees the very singularity of that idea as incompatible with his task, and only tries to understand and show not the famous figure but the human being.

The distinction is still sharper and more substantial in the description of events themselves.

A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event. A historian, describing a battle, says: the left flank of such-and-such army was moved against such-and-such village, cut down the enemy, but was forced to retreat; then the cavalry, going into the attack, overthrew … and so on. The historian cannot speak otherwise. And yet these words have no meaning for an artist and do not even touch upon the event itself. The artist, using his own experience, or letters, memoirs, and accounts, derives for himself an image of the event that took place, and quite often (in a battle for example) the conclusion which the historian allows himself to draw about the activity of such-and-such army turns out to be the opposite of the artist’s conclusion. The difference between the results obtained is explained by the sources from which the two draw their information. For the historian (we continue the example of a battle), the main source is the reports of individual commanders and the commander in chief. The artist can draw nothing from such sources, they tell him nothing, explain nothing. Moreover, the artist turns away from them, finding in them a necessary falsehood. To say nothing of the fact that with every battle the two enemies almost always describe it in a totally opposite way from each other, in every description of a battle there is a necessity for falsehood which comes from the need to describe in a few words the actions of thousands of men, scattered over several miles, who are in the most intense moral agitation under the influence of fear, shame, and death.

In descriptions of battles it is usually written that such-and-such army was sent to attack such-and-such point and was then ordered to retreat, and so on, as if supposing that the discipline that makes tens of thousands of men obey the will of one man on the drill ground will have the same effect where it is a matter of life and death. Anyone who has been to war knows how incorrect that is; and yet official reports are based on this supposition, and military descriptions on them. Make the rounds of a whole army right after a battle, even on the second or third day, before the reports have been written, and ask all the soldiers, the senior and junior officers, how it went; they will tell you what all these men experienced and saw, and you will form a majestic, complex, infinitely diverse, oppressive, and vague impression; and from no one, least of all the commander in chief, will you learn how it all went. But after two or three days, the reports begin to be submitted, talkers begin telling how what they did not see happened; finally, a general account is put together, and the general opinion of the army is put together from this account. It is a relief to everyone to exchange his doubts and questions for this false but clear and always flattering picture.

After a month or two, question a man who took part in the battle– you no longer feel in his story that raw material of life which had been there before; his account follows the report. So I was told about the battle of Borodino by many living, intelligent participants in that affair. They all told me the same thing, and all following the incorrect descriptions of Mihailovsky-Danilevsk, Glinka, and others; even the details they recounted were the same, though the narrators had been several miles from each other.

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After the loss of Sevastopol [1855], the artillery commander Kryzhanovsky sent me the reports of the artillery officer from all the bastions and asked me to put those more than twenty accounts together into one. I am sorry I did not make copies of these reports. It was the best example of that naïve and necessary military falsehood from which descriptions are put together. I suppose that many of my comrades who put together those accounts then will laugh, having read these lines, at the recollection of how, on orders from their superiors, they wrote something they could not have known. Everyone who has had the experience of war knows how capable Russians are of doing their duty in war and how little capable they are of describing it with the boastful falsity necessary to the task. Everyone knows that, in our armies, this duty of writing reports and accounts is for the most part carried out by our non-Russians.

I say all this in order to show the inevitability of falsehood in the military descriptions which serve as material for military historians, and therefore to show the inevitability of frequent disagreements between artists and historians in understanding historical events. But, besides the inevitability of untruths in their setting forth of historical events, I encountered in the historians of the epoch that interested me (probably as a result of the habit of grouping events, expressing them briefly, and conforming to the tragic tone of the events) a particular inclination to high-flown speech, in which falsehood and distortion often touch not only the events, but also the understanding of the meaning of an event. Often, in studying the two main historical productions of that epoch, Thiers and Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, I would become perplexed at how these books could be printed and read. Not to speak of the setting forth of the same events in the most serious, significant tone, with references to the materials, and yet diametrically opposed to each other, I encountered in these historians such descriptions that I did not know whether to laugh or weep when I remembered that these two books are the sole memorials of that epoch and have millions of readers. I will give only one example from the book of the famous historian Thiers. Having told how Napoleon brought counterfeit money with him, he says: [French quote translated to English] “Augmenting the use of these means by an act of charity worthy of himself and of the French army, he had aid distributed to the victims of the fire. But food supplies being too precious to be given for long to foreigners, most of them enemies, Napoleon preferred to furnish them with money, and he had paper roubles distributed to them.”

This passage, taken separately, strikes one by its deafening, one cannot say immorality, but sheer meaninglessness; but within the book as a whole it does not strike one, because it corresponds perfectly to the high-flown, solemn tone, lacking in any direct meaning, of its overall style.

And so the tasks of the artist and the historian are completely different, and the disagreements with historians in the description of events and figures in my book should not strike the reader.< But the artist should not forget that the notion of historical figures and events formed among people is based not on fantasy, but on historical documents, insofar as historians have been able to amass them; and therefore, while understanding and presenting these figures and events differently, the artist ought to be guided, like the historian, by historical materials. Wherever in my novel historical figures speak and act, I have not invented, but have made use of the materials, of which, during my work, I have formed a whole library, the titles of which I find it unnecessary to set down here, but for which I can always give the reference.

—From War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, transl. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf, 2007), pp 1219-1222. [Italics in original]

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