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....(CROWDS AND POWER [1962 Transl., Viking Press] at p. 29.)
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.
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."(W&P at p.139.)
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.
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?"(W&P at p. 140.)
"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.
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