Tolstoy, Art, and The Great Comet
A Meditation on Tolstoy’s Enduring Brilliance and The Passage From War & Peace That Inspired Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812
Reading War and Peace is a long-time bucket list item of mine.
I started it earlier this month.
I expected it to be a chore, it has that reputation, but other than a difficult first 50 pages (Tolstoy throws dozens of characters at you in the beginning and you just have to sort it out), the book has been a pleasure to read. It’s engaging, at times riveting, insightful, full of wisdom, and beautifully written in a way few books I’ve ever read are.
Tolstoy has a unique gift of knowing when to narrate a scene, when to get into a character’s head, when to step outside, and when to stop the action for a look around.
There’s a scene in War & Peace, about half-way through the book, when Tolstoy has one of his characters go through an emotionally transformative moment, and then, while the moment is still fresh, his character looks up into the night sky and sees a comet.
It’s a moment of such incredible beauty that it compelled me to look up from the book and meditate on the words I just read.
I was so moved I got on the Internet to see if other War & Peace readers felt as strongly about this one moment, this one paragraph from an 1100-page text, as I did.
The answer is yes. Many people who have read War & Peace were stopped dead in their tracks at the moment when Pierre looks up in the night sky and sees a comet.
One reader was so moved he turned the scene and the story that built to it into a hit Broadway show.
Dave Malloy was a journeyman, a record store employee, and an occasional piano player on cruise ships. In 2007, while working a cruise, he bought a copy of War and Peace at one of the ports where the ship stopped.
He read it on the boat. He loved it.
And he turned the crucial plotline in the middle of the book, the plotline that ends with Pierre looking up at a comet, into a hit Broadway show.
Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 started out as a small production, worked its way into prominence through the grit and hustle of its producers, and eventually became a Broadway smash starring Josh Groban.
It’s a fascinating story, this tale of the cruise ship piano player who built a hit Broadway musical, but that’s not the story I’m telling here.
I’m telling the story about the art beneath that show, about a paragraph in the novel that spoke so deeply to me that I still can’t stop thinking about it, days later, a paragraph that hit Dave Malloy so hard he dedicated years of his life to bringing it to the stage.
I’ll quote the stunning paragraph about the comet in its entirety at the end of this essay. I’ll do my best to make you feel what I felt when I read it, or at least give you enough of that feeling that you’ll want to read War & Peace so you can feel it too.
But first, a word on what Tolstoy thought about art.
At the end of his life, Tolstoy wrote a book about what separates good, important art from creations that don’t have lasting value. That book, titled What is Art?, dug deep into the function of art in society, and the role of the artist in creating a better world.
“In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life.” — From What is Art by Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy understood that art is a way humans communicate. That art, like language, is one of our most important inventions, one that makes civilization possible.
“A real work of art,” Tolstoy wrote, “destroys the separation between the receiver and the artist, and not that alone, but also between the receiver and all whose minds receive this work of art.”
Read that last bit again. Art connects the receiver and all whose minds receive this work of art. Such a profound, important thought.
When I experience the art that is War & Peace, I’m not just connected to Tolstoy, I’m connected to everyone who’s ever read Tolstoy.
When I engage with a great work of art, I am connecting myself to everyone else who has engaged. When I create art, if I’m doing it right, I am creating connections in the world.
And, importantly, I’m connecting in ways that other mediums of communication can’t.
I can connect to the logic of your mind with rational argument, like I’m trying to do in this sentence. But when I do that, I am limited to the rational part of your mind, to your ability to reason, and to the language we use to express our ideas.
Art can go farther than that.
Art can connect to you at an emotional level. It can grab all those parts of who you are that logic and reason don’t quite reach.
All your instincts, all your emotions, all the patterns you recognize and relate to at a subconscious level, patterns you’ve programmed into your mind from years of living as a human on this earth.
The sound of the breeze running through the leaves of the trees.
The feeling of disappointment when life isn’t going how you planned.
The sense of connection you feel to the people and universe around you, even when you’re alone.
Art makes use of all that in ways that neither language nor logic can.
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.
I’ve never seen Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but I feel a deep connection to the man who created it. I feel that connection because he and I were both infected by the art Tolstoy created 150 years ago.
If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.
So what was so infectious about this scene? What is it about that moment that Pierre looks up at the sky and sees a comet that hit me, Dave Malloy, and many others with such force?
To understand what makes the comet’s appearance so powerful, we need to start a few chapters before its appearance.
We start with Andrei and Natasha. They are engaged, but Natasha, youthful and restless, falls prey to a bad boy’s wily charms.
The bad boy is named Anatole. We already know him well by this point of the novel. He’s a selfish lout who may be having an incestuous relationship with his sister.
Natasha renounces her engagement with Andrei and tries to elope with Anatole. It’s an impulsive, terrible decision, one we’re begging her not to make as we read.
But Natasha does it anyway, and everything goes wrong for her after that.
We knew it would.
Her engagement is ended, her family is furious, her status in Moscow society is damaged, and Natasha falls into a deep depression.
Then Pierre, who is madly in love with Natasha, comes to her house to comfort her.
What a pickle Pierre is in. Natasha’s at a low point in her life and he’d like nothing more than to sweep in and rescue her.
But he’s already married, and quite unhappily so.
Pierre is a fascinating character. Though not fully autobiographical, he’s clearly Tolstoy’s vessel for putting his own opinions into the story. Tolstoy, like Pierre, was a Count in charge of a vast estate and many serfs. Tolstoy, like Pierre, believed that the feudal system that so enriched him should die and Russia should ditch its monarchy for a Republic.
Tolstoy, like Pierre, was thoughtful and kind, determined to live an ethical life, but aware that his own influence as one man, even a wealthy man, was miniscule.
Come back with me to that scene where Pierre is comforting a weeping Natasha, who is convinced her life is ruined.
“One thing I beg you,” Pierre says, “look on me as your friend; and if you want help, advice, or simply want to open your heart to some one, think of me.”
It’s the final chapter of Book 8 in War & Peace. We feel heartbroken for Natasha, who made an impulsive, youthful mistake with devastating consequences.
And we feel heartbroken for Pierre, who has made many mistakes of his own.
In a moment of candor, Pierre lets it all out, confessing to Natasha that he would marry her if he could.
“If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, best man in the world, and if I were free I would be on my knees this minute to beg for your hand and your love!”
It’s a big moment for Pierre. It’s the first time he’s spoken honestly to Natasha about feelings he’s had for years. And even though he can’t do anything about it, he feels stronger for having said it.
He should have married Natasha. It’s too late for him to fix that now, but the act of acknowledging that reality out loud changes him. Having been truly honest with Natasha, Pierre’s heart is ready to receive whatever truth about his place in the world that the world is ready to give.
He says goodnight to Natasha and steps outside.
The year is 1812. It’s a chilly winter night. Napoleon’s armies are massing on Russia’s borders. Revolutions in America and France have the aristocracy in Russia thinking that their time of unchecked opulence and privilege is up.
Pierre looks to the sky.
He sees a comet.
We are 500 pages into the book when Pierre sees the comet. 500 pages into a story that brilliantly mingles the personal scale of individual lives with the political scale of great powers at war. We’ve been going back and forth between the story of Pierre and Natasha and the story of Napoleon’s army marching across Europe.
To Tolstoy’s audience, the comet that Pierre sees, a real comet that appeared over Europe in 1811 and 1812, was inextricably attached in the popular imagination to Napoleon’s march across Europe. It was an omen to the people who saw it. A signal in the night sky that terror was coming.
But Pierre doesn’t see it that way.
Pierre, who has spent the first half of the novel struggling and failing at most everything he has tried, sees the comet as a challenge to be better.
To Pierre, the vision of the comet perfectly complements the feeling in his heart that it’s time for him to rise up and be an honest man.
Are you ready to read the text?
Here, quoted in its entirety, is the breathtaking final paragraph of the final chapter of Book 8 of War and Peace. Enjoy.
“It was clear and frosty. Over the dirty, half-dark streets, over the black roofs was a dark, starlit sky. It was only looking at the sky that Pierre forgot the mortifying meanness of all things earthly in comparison with the height his soul had risen to. As he drove into Arbatsky Square, the immense expanse of dark, starlit sky lay open before Pierre’s eyes. Almost in the centre of it above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded on all sides by stars, but distinguished from all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and long, upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of 1812; the comet which betokened, it was said, all manner of horrors and the end of the world. But in Pierre’s heart that bright comet, with its long, luminous tail, aroused no feeling of dread. On the contrary, his eyes wet with tears, Pierre looked joyously at this bright comet, which seemed as though after flying with inconceivable swiftness through infinite space in a parabola, it had suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth, stuck fast at one chosen spot in the black sky, and stayed there, vigorously tossing up its tail, shining and playing with its white light among the countless other twinkling stars. It seemed to Pierre that it was in full harmony with what was in his softened and emboldened heart, that had gained vigour to blossom into a new life.”