"War and Peace across the Disciplines" International Tolstoy Conference, 7-11 April, 2010. West Point, New York

By Aulen, Amber | Tolstoy Studies Journal, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

"War and Peace across the Disciplines" International Tolstoy Conference, 7-11 April, 2010. West Point, New York


Aulen, Amber, Tolstoy Studies Journal


On April 7-11, 2010 a group of scholars from a variety of disciplines gathered for a conference on War and Peace that was as unique and stimulating as the grounds on which the event was held--West Point Military Academy. It was not only the engaging presentations or the lively conversations, which carried over from the sessions into lunch and dinner and even further into the night, that made this conference so remarkable, but also its geographical locale, which acted as both a complement and a challenge to the ideas about the novel and the concepts of war that were examined. Conference participants did not simply attend sessions that happened to be held on this historic campus; instead, we were invited to participate in the life of the campus as we ate lunch in the mess hall, cheered on teams in displays of physical strength and agility as a part of the annual Sandhurst Competition, and were provided multiple opportunities to interact with cadets who provided us with the real story of life "on the ground." These experiences formed a backdrop against which the academic presentations and discussions occurred.

The intersection of history and fiction formed a recurrent thematic refrain that was sounded in different registers throughout the presentations. Engaging this theme on a theoretical level Caryl Emerson cautioned us as readers not to become too 'Hayden Whitized,' that we miss Tolstoy's own understanding of Truth as a vision of transformative power that is able to motivate a subject towards moral action and as a concept that exists outside of White's dialectical model of history. Weighing in on the sometimes contentious debate regarding Tolstoy's fidelity to historical facts, Dan Ungurianu examined the types of historical sources that Tolstoy consulted when writing War and Peace as well as the accuracy with which he used these sources, arguing that Tolstoy was convinced that he had done sufficient historical preparation to adequately support the work of art that he created.

In considering the reasons for the lack of correspondence between Tolstoy's portrayal of Moscow during the events of 1812 and eyewitness accounts, Alexander Martin's talk provided an element of particularity to this general theme. In his paper Martin demonstrated that by representing the city of Moscow from the perspective of the aristocracy Tolstoy was better able to use the city for his own symbolic purposes, portraying it as a space where the classes acted harmoniously and collaboratively. Furthermore, Alan Forrest encouraged us to broaden our scope of what constitutes historical texts as he argued for the use of 'ego' documents as a means of reconstructing the inner lives and subjective experience of people throughout history, a concern that also occupied Tolstoy.

Gary Saul Morson's examination of the concept of open time and the attendant radical uncertainties of war in his keynote address took on an added layer of meaning as he addressed a lecture hall overflowing with over 2,000 cadets, many of whom would soon be graduating and facing the realities of life on the battlefield. In his talk, peppered with an admixture of humor and provocation, Morson encouraged the cadets to consider the likelihood that heroic actions arise from the way that a soldier has trained himself to think and act in ordinary moments and he left them to ponder the possibility that War and Peace demonstrates that what really matters in the course of history are unhistoric acts.

Other scholars illuminated the text by examining familiar topics from a new angle, as was the case with David Welch's talk on the tension between free will and determinism in Tolstoy's work as seen from the perspective of international relations theory. While both Tolstoy and international relations theorists are concerned with identifying the force that moves the nations, Welch argued that Tolstoy is both more honest and more conflicted about the problematic contradictions that arise when engaging with the concepts of free will and determinism. …

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