What’s in a Name?

Not a lot, it turns out.

When I found out that Tolstoy didn’t come up with the title for War and Peace himself, I was shocked. Shocked and appalled.

To my distress, I discovered that it was first written by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1861. Only it was called La Guerre et la Paix (it was in French). Tolstoy pinched its main themes, too.

It happened after he visited Proudhon in 1861. Tolstoy went out of his way to visit because he was so taken with Proudhon’s revolutionary ideas. Proudhon, then living in exile under an assumed name, was the first person to dub himself an ‘anarchist’, (though he was also a member of the French parliament). Ironic coincidences aside, Tolstoy reviewed La Guerre et la Paix, and was profoundly affected by their meeting.

I can only imagine how peed off Proudhon might’ve been when, in 1869, ol’ Leo published his version. You know, the one that went down in history as a masterpiece. Surely some slice of that immortal pie should’ve been his?

It’s hard to imagine Proudhon not feeling short-changed in this scenario. And easier to imagine him cheesed off, and suing Tolstoy.

But that’s not how it went down. Perhaps because Proudhon was above all that? After all, neither of them believed in intellectual property – or any other kind, for that matter. Because they were such anarchists.

Proudhon’s catchphrase was ‘property is theft’. He even wrote a book called What Is Property?, in which he called for the abolition of private property and the feudal social structure he thought it encouraged. (This later caught the eye of some other guy, named Karl Marx).

These days, our society still values property (and intellectual copyright, its next-door neighbour) pretty highly. Remember when Apple got $1 billion off Samsung for breaching its precious patent? We live in a culture of what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is definitely not yours. Just ask the National Accident Helpline. They’ll tell you that if you’ve slipped on a floor recently, someone should pay you for your buffoonery. It’s definitely NOT your own stupid fault.

But I digress. The point is, maybe this culture of blame limits our creativity. We’re so fixated on who owns what, maybe we’ve forgotten that no idea has ever evolved in a vacuum? Brilliance doesn’t come in lightning bolts from the sky, it comes from a series of interactions with our surroundings. Less of an isolated epiphany; more of a dialogue. If that meeting of minds hadn’t happened, maybe War and Peace wouldn’t be what it is. And maybe it was naive to think that anyone, even Leo Tolstoy, could be truly original. (Mark Zuckerburg, I’m looking at you, too.)

Mary Shelley definitely knew what I’m talking about. She said that ‘creation, it must be humbly admitted, comes not out of a void but out of chaos… the materials must be in the first place afforded.’ She’s making no apology for the fact that Frankenstein, though her own idea, is actually the product of all the reading she’s done in her lifetime.

12 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. laurafsw,

    Thanks for liking us at Living with Lit.

    Great post, by the way – didn’t know Leo was such a thief! Wonder how he consoled that with his (intense) Christian beliefs?

    Welcome to the blogosphere and keep up the writing!-

  2. Thanks very much, that’s lovely to hear!

    I don’t think he would’ve felt the need to reconcile it with his religious beliefs, if he didn’t consider it stealing.

    Thanks for the follow, too – I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts 🙂

  3. I always feel shocked and appalled, too. Darwin didn’t come up with the theory of evolution, Edison’s light bulb wasn’t the first, and Columbus had been beaten to the Americas by centuries. Even Elvis’s recording of Blue Suede Shoes wasn’t the original version. You’re right: they’re not lightning bolts. Breakthroughs are almost always the result of a long series of small steps. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” (Oh, wait a minute. I just looked it up, and it seems Newton borrowed that line from a twelfth-century theologian.)

    This is an excellent post. Good luck with the new blog.

    • Haha brilliant – even Newton’s quote was borrowed!

      Thanks! I didn’t know about Edison: there certainly does seem to be a trend there. Also Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was adapted from a popular myth.

      Thanks for letting me know your thoughts, I really appreciate it!

  4. hello, thanks for visiting my blog! I liked your What’s in a name. I was travelling in America and there was a quiz show on (literary, of course) and people were asked to guess the ‘working titles’ of famous novels, (ie: before someone suggested a better one). I can’t remember many of them anyway, but I know that War and Peace was not the title Tolstoy began with, nor was The Great Gatsby the original title, nor Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen’s and many others…it was rather fun sitting in the car yelling suggestions at the radio!
    Well done, anyway

    • Thank you! I really like your blog so I’m glad you enjoyed this post, too 🙂 That’s really interesting – I didn’t realise ‘The Great Gatsby’ wasn’t the original title! I think the original title of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’ was ‘First Impressions’. Thanks again!

  5. Great post! I think one of the titles Tolstoy considered for his epic before War and Peace was ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, which was possibly borrowed from Shakespeare (who had borrowed it from the popular saying). Nice to be reminded of old ‘All Property is Theft’ Proudhon, too! Why does Earl Grey taste better when it’s stolen? Because all proper tea is theft… (I’ll get my coat.)

    • Haha thanks for sharing, I hadn’t thought of that in connection with Proudhon! And that’s fascinating about ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, I’m going to have a look if I can find out! Thanks again 🙂

  6. ‘it comes from a series of interactions with our surroundings’, yes ideas and bloggers go well together as well. I would be a bit miffed at Tolstoy though…perhaps if he gave me a free signed book (hardback of course!) then I would have been happy had I been proudhon.

  7. So Frankenstein may be a metaphor for raiding the graveyard of literary history in order to patch together a new living being? Fascinating notion.

  8. Pingback: The Luminaries: Why I Failed to Fall in Love | A Word Child·

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