Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Week Two Thoughts: War and Peace and Crowds and Power

Chinese National Revolutionary Army troops

After many scenes of dinners, polite (and slightly less polite) conversation, descriptions of desserts, etc., near the end of last week's reading, we finally got to the War side of the WAR AND PEACE equation.

I found the descriptions of the Russian army in Austria in last week's reading to be some of the most compelling of the book so far. There's an immediacy and vividness to these descriptions that jumps through the translation, and across the hundreds of years separating us from the events described.

As I mentioned on the Twitter account last week, many of the descriptions of the Russian army brought to mind Elias Canetti's masterwork, CROWDS & POWER. In that book, Canetti describes the key attributes of crowds as follows:
1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created . . . an eruption of the crowd is always is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time....

2. Within the crowd there is always equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they tend to overlook anything which might detract from it....

3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself....

4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all of the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.
(CROWDS AND POWER [1962 Transl., Viking Press] at p. 29.)

Demonstrators in Bangkok

These attributes of the crowd that Canetti outlines are startlingly reproduced in Tolstoy's description of the Russian army pouring into Austria.
"You there, brother!" the Cossack said to a supply soldier with a cart, who was pushing through the infantrymen crowded right against his wheels and horses, "you there! As if you can't wait: look, the general needs to pass."

But the supply soldier, paying no heed to the denomination of the general, shouted at the soldiers who blocked his way:

"Hey, countrymen! keep to the left, hold up!"

But the countrymen, pressed shoulder to shoulder, catching on their bayonets and never pausing, moved across the bridge in a solid mass. Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers'; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company's or an officer's cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.
(W&P at p.139.)

In this description we see the equalizing force of the crowd, its disregard of distinction, its urge to exceed its boundaries, the density that makes the crowd what it is, and its need to continue in a shared direction. The comparison of the army procession to the Enns River also corresponds to Cannetti's description of crowd symbols, and in particular the symbol of the river: "[W]e may conclude that the river is only a limited crowd symbol and differs in this respect from fire, sea, forest or corn. It it is the symbol of a movement which is still under control, before the eruption and the discharge; it contains the threat of these rather than their actuality." (CROWDS AND POWER at p.84.)

The striking parallels continue as we get snippets of conversation from unnamed members of the passing crowd:
"Look at 'em, it's like a dam burst," the Cossack said, stopping hopelessly. "Are there many of you there?"

"One shy of a million," a merry soldier in a torn greatcoat, passing close by, said with a wink and vanished; after him came another old soldier.

"Once he" (he was the enemy) "starts peppering the bridge," the old soldier said gloomily, addressing his comrade, "you'll forget about scratching yourself."

And the soldier passed by. After him came another soldier on a cart.

"Where the devil did you stuff those foot cloths?" said an orderly, running behind the cart and rummaging in the back.

And this one passed by with the cart.

After him came some merry and apparently tipsy soldiers.

"He just gave it to him, the dear fellow, right in the teeth with his musket butt . . ." one soldier in a high-tucked greatcoat said joyfully, swinging his arm widely.

"That's it, the sweet taste of ham," replied another with a guffaw.

And they passed by, so that Nesvitsky never learned who got it in the teeth and what the ham referred to.
(W&P at p. 140.)

In these snatches of dialogue, and in the refrain of "and this one passed," Tolstoy draws a picture of an endless river of soldiers pouring by, "like a dam burst," the various exclamations and observations of the mass not attributable to any individual in particular, but simply to the crowd. Similarly, the crowd collectively ogles the German women who cross their path: "The eyes of all the soldiers turned to the women, and as the cart went by, moving step by step, all the soldiers' remarks were addressed only to these two women. All the soldiers' faces bore virtually one and the same smile of indecent thoughts about the women." (Ibid.) In the density of the crowd, where the individual is submerged in the mass, responsibility is dissolved, and the crowd often acts together on its basest instincts.

What is the point of all of this? There is certainly something at work here, in the contrast between the intimacies of the drawing room and the torrent of undifferentiated humanity marching toward battle.

The contrast seems to be one between the individuals who inhabit and react to history and the masses of (mostly) organized crowds who do the work of shaping history. The book has alluded to the power of individuals to shape history, especially Napoleon, but Tolstoy also takes care to show us the profane masses tramping through the mud in their disintegrating boots, who provide the force to shape the course of history. War is about numbers, force, losses; as Canetti notes, it is ultimately about crowds of the living and crowds of the dead. The victor is the side that produces a larger crowd of the dead among the enemy.

This is a book largely about a handful of privileged individuals, but it is also a book about the assembled masses that have been pitted against one another in bids to control territory, populations, and the future. As Don DeLillo noted in a different context, "the future belongs to crowds." We'll see how this theme plays out through the rest of the book. Perhaps there's an argument to be made about the role of the crowd in the French Revolution, versus the attempt to control the power of the crowd made by Napoleon, in proclaiming himself Emperor? The French Revolution and Napoleon's reaction to it are the foundational points for this novel. And sitting where we do in history, we have a sense of how the power of the crowd played out in Russia over time.

Bolshevik (1920), by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiyev


  1. Ha! "Crowds and Power" was supposed to be my summer reading before your offer to participate in this War and Peace project turned up. I'm excited to get down to that as well.

    I'm struck how different the prose in your version is to my translation. I do think it's a little bit better, less staid, more musical.

    Your post puts Tolstoy's themes in some perspective. As confusing as memorizing all the names of all the guests at all the soirees, the war scenes feel a lot messier. Still though, the soldiers' (and therefore mass's) fortunes rest on the competency, if not brilliance, of its commanders (individuals). And it seems thus far, the Russian officers are not very skilled in keeping the numbers of its masses at optimal strength.

    Tolstoy's grasp of such fine details and precise telling of them continues to astonish me...

  2. I'm a little bit ahead of the reading pace I think, but I have to comment that this little bit about Emperor Alexander reviewing the troops really jumped out at me:

    Regarding the soldiers, "...all of them felt they were doing something profound, solemn, and serious. Every general and every soldier was was aware of his own insignificance, like a tiny grain of sand in an ocean of humanity, et as a part of that vast whole hey sensed a huge collective strength."

    This is Rostov's scene and his reaction deserves to be quoted in full since it is a frightening bit of prose that could stand strong in any work regarding 20th century fascism: "Feeling as he did that at a single word from this man the entire vast mass of them (including him , no more than a grain of san) would go through fire and water, commit any crime, face death or fight on to glory..."

    Is it my inherited culture of American individualism that finds such feelings not only incomprehensible but irrational and horrible, a case of historical and cultural relativism?

    Good show on bringing Canetti into the discussion.

  3. Interesting observation. I wonder if Rostov's reaction isn't one that is universally felt in various cultures, when one is a member of a crowd, willingly and obediently obeying a leader. I wonder if U.S. troops in our various wars may have experienced a similar feeling as they faced their generals and leaders, etc. It seems to me that the very structure of most military systems, the use of uniforms, the stamping out of signs of individuality, etc., are designed to create a cohesion and mindset approaching Rostov's described feeling in the presence of the Emperor -- a willingness to act as one, to sacrifice or subordinate one's own interests and thoughts to the group, the chain of command, etc. One could point to examples of the results of such a mindset in Vietnam, WWII, Iraq, etc.

  4. Ron, the military accoutrement and discipline explain part of Rostov's reaction maybe. But he was passionately in love with Alexander, and it strikes me that the typical military regimens don't include having troops in complete thrall to their superiors in that way. They are supposed to obey at all costs but they need not love them. Also, the messy retreat at Austerlitz showed some other reactions from the troops that highlight the obvious fact that Rostov's were the feelings of someone from a particular class. Speaking of which, does your translation render the informal and unpolished speech of the lower-ranking soldiers and the house servants as a sort of written cockney dialect (or something like that)? It seems a little odd and I've been wondering how other translators have addressed that particular language issue (separate from decisions to leave passages in French, e.g.).

  5. Tom: Re the translation of informal or unpolished speech, the V&P edition does not render the lower-ranking soldiers' speech as anything like Cockney (perhaps your translator was English?), but the reader gets the sense of the nature of the lower-soldiers' speech.

    As to being in thrall to the leader, you make a fair point. I guess my point was not so much as to the love of the leader (such as Rostov's for Alexander), but the crowd-feeling of being a "grain of sand" in the massive army, feeling "a huge collective strength" -- and a collective lack of responsibility. Thus, when there's discipline, the individuals in the crowd act in ways they would never feel free to act as individuals. When discipline fails, the crowd gives in to its insticts, fears, hence the messy retreat.

    Sean was asking whether this crowd-sense, of being willing to "commit any crime, face death or fight on to glory" on the word of the leader was a sensation particular to certain cultures; he suggested that the feeling felt foreign to him as an American. We haven't had charismatic dictators or monarchs in America, so the easier examples to draw from history of this sensation are WWII Japan (Rape of Nanking, Kamikaze bombers, etc.), WWII Germany and Italy, but U.S. troops, caught up in the righteousness of their cause, and driven by some combination of patriotism, fervor, and rage, have not been immune through the years from this willingness to do anything for country -- whether that willingness springs from a focus on a charismatic leader, the flag, apple pie, or something else.

    The shameless fleeing from the field in fear at Austerlitz is another version of the crowd-mentality, what Canetti describes as the "flight crowd":

    "The flight crowd is created by a threat. Everyone flees; everyone is drawn along. The danger which threatens is the same for all. Is is concentrated at a definite point and makes no distinctions there.... People flee together because it is best to flee that way. They feel the same excitement and the energy of some increases the energy of others; people push each other along in the same direction. So long as they keep together they feel that the danger is distributed, for the ancient belief persists that danger springs at one point only."

    (CROWDS AND POWER, at 53.) (I promise to pick up a different book sometime soon to which I will make repeated forced references.)

  6. You could dip into George Rude's The Crowd in the French Revolution (1959) and The Crowd in History (1964), important landmarks in Marxist historiography. (The e has an accent; I don't know the key command on this computer.) Rude's books don't have the handy list of crowd characteristics that Canetti provides, but he embeds assertions about the nature of crowds in his historical narratives of the French Revolution and English history.

  7. One more comment. I was very impressed with the extended metaphor for group action that Tolstoy unspools in chapter 11 of Part III (which I'll perhaps gratuitously transcribe below). It struck me partly for its relevance to your theme above about the relationship between different elements of groups and their collective mobilization. I was also drawn to the passage as a historian.

    "The intense activity that had begun that morning in the Emperors' headquarters and then stimulated all the ensuing activity was like the first turn of the centre wheel in a great tower clock. One wheel began its slow rotation, another one turned, then another, and round they went faster and faster, wheels and cogs all revolving, chimes playing, figures popping in and out, and the hands measuring time, all because of that first movement.

    "Military movement is like the movement of a clock: an impetus, once given, leads inexorably to a particular result while the untouched working parts wait in silent stillness for the action to reach them. Wheels creak on their spindles as the cogs bite, the speeding sprockets hum and the next wheel stand and waits patiently, as if resigned to centuries of immobility. But the moment comes when the lever slips into place and the submissive wheel rotates with a creak, blending into the common movement without knowing where it goes or why.

    "In a clock the complex action of countless different wheels works its way out in the even, leisurely movement of hands measuring time; in a similar way the complex action of humanity in those 160,000 Russians and Frenchmen--all their passions, longing, regrets, humiliation and suffering, their rushes of pride, fear and enthusiasm--only worked it way out in defeat at the battle of Austerlitz, known as the battle of the three Emperors, the slow tick-tock of the age-old hands on the clock face of human history."

    It's perilously close to being facile or trite or something there at the end, but I still found that passage extremely impressive.

  8. Tom: I was also very struck by that passage. One thought I had in reading the passage was the effect current technology has on the metaphors and systems we imagine. See, e.g., Freud and hydraulics. I imagine current theories of military action probably use metaphors of information systems, surveillance, etc.

  9. Ron, absolutely; related to this would be the colonization of the US army's mind by PowerPoint, recently discussed in the NYT and elsewhere.

    Since I complained about my translation earlier, I looked up two articles that many of our fellow readers have probably already seen. I remembered reading the NYRB article a few years ago and went back to it to find (among other good observations) this comment: "The new War and Peace [the P&V] is more inventive in its rendering of plain speech than previous translations, which are too cockney-coy, too grammatically correct, to communicate the drunken street-talk" of workers and soldiers. I wonder if "cockney-coy" was rattling around in my head somewhere when I was complaining in my earlier comment about the quasi-cockney written dialect that was bothering me. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/nov/22/tolstoys-real-hero/

    Then, just to pile on, I read a damning review from the Guardian of the translation I'm reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/08/classics.leonikolaevichtolstoy

    Oh well.