Backyard Brief: Influence


a poem by Carrie Tangenberg

for C & M

    hydrangea blooms 
         toss at strips of 
                 sheets of snow 
          on the terrace 
     tan under 
         crisp white crust 
Some escape
    twirl    ceaseless    swirl 
 off spring 
      from the 
         parent bush

Blended brown  
       latte foam 
         that’s cooled 
      too long        stiffened
 to firmer       spray        bound
    as paper petals or 
          bubbles stick 
       as one 
against the 
       gusting brisk

Wintered over
         snapped off
     stems at       shrub       edges
  Then sheared
near the base 
      gain new names 
         in the hands of 
  neighbor children
         like “power beam”
          and “shield of power”

They invent the
    rules of their game
          as they play it
    but never figure
            club or mace or 
       sword, even when I 
 suggest it
    They need not 
            make blunt their 
    force,     strike or     trauma, 
                      come out 
         from fragile 
 magic sprig

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?

To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:


Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

So here it is, my resolutions list for the new year, something I haven’t done in years. I do set goals for myself periodically and keep a running task list, but like many, I have found that resolutions seem to be made to be broken. I think it helps to imbue the list with a focus on one’s passions, including, in my case, Outlander.

My best advice for both of us, then: When in drought or doubt, fill your life with what matters most, forgive yourself your failings, and strive to be your best version of yourself. And if there is no doubt–or drought–for you, charge ahead with gusto!

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

1. Keep working regularly on my writing, including novel, memoir, and poetry, along with my blog, and publish something.

2. Read the backlog of Outlander STARZ entertainment news articles, and watch the backlog of Outlander STARZ videos, including panels from Emerald City Comicon and San Diego Comicon.

3. Transition from my current work for pay to a new business arrangement in a fitting niche.

4. Finally sample the bonus features of Outlander STARZ Season 2’s DVD set that I’ve been saving for a Droughtlander such as this, including deleted scenes and Diana Gabaldon’s book excerpt.

5. Spend more time with loved ones: Visit some friends up north I’ve been neglecting, have more lunches with Dad, contact my nieces and nephews more often, and support my husband as we work on our goals together.

6. Wear and enjoy the Outlander- and Scotland-related gear I got for Christmas, including thistle pendant necklace with purple gemstone, triangular Celtic knot dangle earrings, and my Outlander Fraser tartan scarf. Thanks, Hubby!

7. Completely read more books next year than I did this year, focusing on those I want to read most, or release myself from the pressure to. After all, I did read War and Peace, a mighty tome, this year, and dipped into lots more books than I finished. Although I set my 2017 goal for 25, it was looking as if I would finish the year with only 6 under my belt, but I managed to bump it up to 9 before New Year’s.

8. Re-watch Outlander STARZ Season 1, in some ways the best of the three seasons so far.

9. Continue training my anxious dog Ethan to trust and obey, and desensitize and counter-condition his separation anxiety so I can have a life outside the house and so he can be a happier dog.

10. Read Outlander book #5 The Fiery Cross, my next volume in the series to tackle.

11. Train my athletic dog (same one) to walk/run on our treadmill so he can get more exercise in these frigid teens and single-digit temperatures, and start him on agility classes early in 2018.

12. Re-read Outlander book #4 Drums of Autumn in preparation for watching Season 4, hopefully to air by the end of 2018.

13. Stretch several times a day and do modified daily yoga to manage stress, reduce pain and inflammation, and strengthen my body.

14. Continue editing, printing and framing the best pictures from our Scotland trip for gifts and to display at home. Build my next home decorating around those enhancements.

15. Take the time to draw, color, paint, photograph, explore metroparks and urban areas with the dog, and generally enjoy life.

16. Improve my health by finding and implementing an elimination diet to uncover what foods I may be allergic to; then, reduce my intake of any culprits.

17. Plan and accomplish a trip to visit relatives in California, and return to Great Lakes Theater to see Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the spring (saw Hamlet last year).

18. Simplify my life with the help of a house cleaning service, thinning down/updating my wardrobe, and planning weekly meals for the freeze and re-heat approach—using our new pressure cooker!

19. Read classic Scottish authors and poets such as Burns, MacDiarmid, Stevenson, and Scott.

20. Expand my sense of what’s possible for myself and move forward boldly with that optimism.

21. Revise, or re-envision, my resolutions as needed to focus on my best, most realistic goals and most beloved activities.

Happy New Year (and Hogmanay!), one and all.


Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.


edition I recommend for print reading

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.

Golden Globe Nod for Caitriona Balfe

Now that a wonderful Outlander Season 3 has wrapped, soon I’ll share a post outlining my plan for getting through Droughtlander #3. Meanwhile, congratulations to Caitriona Balfe for her Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress TV – Drama based on Season 3 of Outlander! A repeat nod! But this time, surely a win . . . .

via Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!

See the Outlander Community page at the official Outlander STARZ site for a complete set of stills summing up Season 3 based on Voyager, book 3 of the Outlander series.