by Suvij Sudershan
Suvij Sudershan is an undergraduate student at McGill University
Tolstoy’s War and Peace foregrounds the spatial dimension. This is especially relevant as the novel is set in times of the modern nation-state and the nineteenth century redefinition of nationalism as bounded borders with human bodies trapped within them. Using David Harvey’s classification of spaces as absolute, relative, and relational, I map out how Tolstoy’s placement of particular characters in specific scenes, physically and psychologically, changes from peace to war to generate a sense of the weird, the uncanny, and the strange in different ways.
In “Space as a Keyword,” David Harvey provides a definition for three kinds of spaces. Absolute space is “fixed … represented as a pre-existing and immovable grid … open to calculation” (272). Relative spaces can “be understood as a relationship between objects which exists only because objects exist and relate to each other” (qtd. in Harvey 271). Finally, relational spaces are the space of experiential reality, with meanings contingent on how people understand existence in a specific point in space (274). Vivian Sobchack has written about how the loss of Euclidean spatial coordinates (or relative space for our purposes) can be geared to producing a sense of the uncanny (17-25). The dialectical interactions between these space-body coordinates structure the differences between the peace and war sections at the beginning of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in terms of how they generate a sense of the uncanny.
In “Part One,” Tolstoy is extremely reticent about providing descriptions of interiors. This leaves the reconstruction of the absolute spaces of Tolstoy’s scenes up to the reader to a large extent. The reader is only provided with the relative placement of objects and characters in space. Which is to say, space derives meaning from bodies in space, and is almost entirely relativized. It is by reconstructing the larger material surroundings through these bodies in space that we arrive at a sense of spatiality in Part One. So, any changes in the bodily configurations of characters are registered on the plane of space.
A key instance of the odd setting this use of space can create is found in the character of Vera Rostova. Vera lacks control of the way her body relates to others around her. Her “smile d[oes] not embellish [her] face,” instead rendering her “unnatural, and … unpleasant” (43). In Chapter Fourteen, Vera appears suddenly in space, when Anna Mikhailovna looks at her (45). The chapter seems to begin with a description of the characters present (Anna and Countess Rostova), but Vera is not mentioned then. It is as if the relative nature of space does not factor her presence, or that she is so relativized in space that she becomes a part of the undescribed interior until her presence is invoked by Anna, both of which are uncanny body-space configurations. In the first, she appears as though a ghost, emerging at command, and in the second case, an inanimate object that comes to life. Thus, she is strangely disembodied, and like Count Bezukhov (discussed below) a dismembering force. When the couples are going to the dinner table, “the count [goes] first with Marya Dmitrievna,” the countess is “led by a hussar colonel” and “Anna Mikhailovna [is] with Shishin” but Berg “offer[s] his arm to Vera” (61). Her strangeness is entirely generated through the different manner in which she exists in the space-body grid compared to the others.
An even stronger instantiation of this argument is the scene with the dying Count Bezukhov’s final interaction with his son, Pierre. Pierre is already very dislocated at the Bezukhov household – he is led everywhere by Anna Mikhailovna, who “touche[s] Pierre’s arm” to lead him into the count’s room, to “indicating” to Pierre to send kiss “the sick man’s hand” (Tolstoy 82). Since this scene is focalized through Pierre, who is in an unfamiliar place, the reader is only aware of the relative positions of the characters in space and there is no description of the count’s “high bed,” or even the design of the room (82). It is when Pierre, whose body is already being directed by Anna, has to in turn take charge of his father’s movements that Tolstoy centralizes the strangeness of the scene. Suddenly, as Pierre looks at the count’s “lifeless arm,” “hanging helplessly,” he recoils in horror (83). Noticing this, the count smiles a smile that worsens the situation, since it is very “incongruous with his features” (83).
Since space has been defined through bodies in this section, this interaction is a breakdown of the relative spatial distance between the count and his son through a textual dismemberment of their bodies. Pierre’s sense of the unheimlich appears when he is most at home, next to his father. This bodily contortion, which is the normal state of affairs of the war sections – consider the man who is being whipped for stealing (175) – throws the sense of relative space into confusion, generating a sense of the uncanny, as well as bringing the whole context of what war does to the human body into the space of peace. The war scenes, on the other hand, reverse this dialectic, so that while Part One presents space through the body, Part Two shows the body psychologically escaping into space, expressing and experiencing itself spatially, through relational spaces.
The war scenes generate the sense of weirdness through the abandonment of absolute space. In these sections, Tolstoy does not shy from providing elaborate, cartographic descriptions of armies moving across rivers, mountains, and countries across Europe. The vastness of war-space (Kutuzov’s regiment has walked “seven hundred miles” ), overwhelms the minuscule bodies within. Characters come to the war with an idea of the absolute and relative spaces (for instance, the repeated image of young characters imagining “cutting down” French soldiers on a horse). “All this [is] so strange, so unlike what [the characters] had hoped for” (199), that the shock of war has to be depicted through relational spaces, as the absolute and relative simply fail to capture the body’s experience of war. Unlike the peace scenes, bodies in war are already in a strange state of affairs in relative and absolute terms. The strangeness of the relational space comes to reflect their bodily dislocation.
Nikolai Rostov’s battle experiences are an instance of such a portrayal. When he is charging into battle for the first time, Tolstoy obliterates any sense of absolute or relative space around him, before clarifying Nikolai’s injured state. The reader is provided with Nikolai’s relative position – “Rostov raised his sword … Nikitenko galloped past, leaving him behind” (188) – and then suddenly all space is suddenly abandoned. Nikolai feels he is dreaming, and that he “was still racing on … and at the same time was staying in place” (188). Then, Tolstoy reveals that Nikolai had fallen and Little Rook killed, but it is even later that he mentions Nikolai’s snapped arm (189). The bodily experience is depicted through dislocation in space – the space of strangeness is relational, not relative.
Nikolai’s state of mind in the scene at the bridge is equally strange. When he arrives at the bridge he does “not know … what to do with himself” (148). Tolstoy then zooms in on Nikolai by negating his role in the bridge burning, in turn negating him from his relative space. Nikola realizes there is “no one to cut down” that he “could [not] help set fire to the bridge” because “unlike other soldiers” he has “not brought a plait of straw” (148). After this negation of the relative space around Nikolai, Tolstoy provides an elaborate description of the natural space “at the distance” – “the waters of the Danube,” the sky, and the sun (148). This is an absolute space insofar as it exists materially in Nikolai’s sight. However, what gives it its particular otherworldly touch, its weirdness, is that Nikolai is not there, that he is fantasizing about being in the midst of nature. His experience has been so alienating, and he feels so purposeless relative to the others in the space around him, that, relationally, he delves into the experience of “the distant blue hills … the mysterious gorges, the pine forests” (148). Simultaneously, the material space around him too is transformed, and the experience rendered spatially as Nikolai considers how there was surrounded by “death, above [him], around [him]” (148). The sudden intrusion of this relational space, of desired experience, renders the scene uncanny, removing Nikolai from the absolute and relative spaces around him.
Tolstoy employs different narrative mechanisms to create a sense of the strange and the uncanny in the “peace” and “war” sections. In the “peace” sections, space is relative, presented through the position of bodies, and the sense of uncanny is presented through bodily configurations, as in the case of Pierre and Vera. The strangeness they cause and experience is produced through a discourse of dismemberment. On the other hand, dismemberment and loss of relative positions being routine in war, the “war” sections create a sense of the uncanny with relational spaces. Nikolai’s strange experiences of dislocation are intimately tied to his physical and mental distress in facing his first battles, and the failure of the absolute and relative spaces of war to live up to his former expectations and present experiences.
Harvey, David. “Space as a Keyword.” David Harvey: A Critical Reader, edited by Noel Castree and Derek Gregory, Blackwell Publications, 2006, pp. 270-293.
Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. University of California Press, 2004.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage, 2007.