Monday, August 9, 2010

Crowds (again), and Is this a good book?

In the reading over the past two weeks, I've noticed Tolstoy returning several times to descriptions and depictions of the crowd as the moving force in historical events. The crowd he depicts is a relatively mindless, primal mass -- an assemblage of individuals acting out of what they believe to be their own personal interest and motivations, but, somehow, in the crush of the crowd, acting as one, as a mob.

The scene of Count Rastopchin appeasing an angry mob by allowing it to tear apart Vereshchagin is quite focused on the peculiar dynamics of the mob:
But after the exclamation of surprise that escaped Vereshchagin, he uttered a pitiful cry of pain, and that cry was the end of him. The barrier of human feeling, strained to the utmost in holding back the crowd, instantly broke. The reproach was stifled by the menacing and wrathful roar of the crowd. Like the seventh and last wave that breaks up ships, this last irrepressible wave surged from the back rows, raced towards the front ones, knocked them down, and engulfed everything. The dragoon who had struck Vereshchagin was about to repeat his blow. Vereshchagin, with a cry of terror, ... rushed towards the people.

Some beat and tore at Vereshchagin, others at the tall fellow. An the shouts of the crushed men and of those who were trying to save the tall fellow only excited the fury of the crowd.... And for a long time, despite all the feverish haste with which the crowd tried to finish the thing they had begun, the people who beat, strangled, and tore at Vereshchagin were unable to kill him; the crowd pressed at them from all sides, with them in the middle, heaving from side to side like a single mass, and not giving them the opportunity either to finish him off or to abandon him.

The peculiar psychology of the crowd, or mob, organized to different degrees, is also seen in Nazi Germany, lynch mobs in the American South, riots in Los Angeles, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, etc. Tolstoy suggests, at various points in the book, that history is not made or determined by individual decisions, but, rather, by masses of people, acting almost without agency or the ability to determine their own course. As in the scene above, the crowd finds itself acting, almost despite itself, and not knowing why it does what it does. History, in Tolstoy's view, is created unconsciously, as masses of individual actors unwittingly do the bidding of History.

Of course, as some of you have noted, Tolstoy may not be the most convincing historian. He's a novelist, and his attempts at laying out his personal philosophy of history can sometimes feel a bit tiresome. Which raises the question: what are the peculiar merits of this book, which has been enshrined, seemingly permanently, as one of the greatest books ever written? Is it Tolstoy's depictions of historical events? His portraits of his characters? The philosophy of history he sets out? There seem to be many different things Tolstoy is seeking to accomplish in this book, and it's still not clear to me that he succeeds in all of his aims.

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