This essay was originally published in the 2018 AATSEEL newsletter.
A beekeeper sits in front of “Petersburg hives” (invented in 1814 by Pyotr Prokopovich) in the background, and log hives in the foreground. (Makovsky’s At the Aviary, На пасенке, Александр Владимирович Маковский)
(Hi-res photos are available here. You’ll need to use Google Photos correctly to obtain the highest-resolution photos. All photos are either mine or in the public domain.)
I teach a Russian literature seminar dominated by Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace. It’s such a weird novel, especially the two-hundred pages of pseudo-philosophy devoted to ramblings about history and human agency. A lot of the early reviews of the novel, from the middle of the nineteenth century, described it as “elephantine.”
Exactly. There’s something bestial about the work and its creator.
Readers–especially the young, first-readers of the novel in my class–often skim these philosophical sections. They shouldn’t. The ramblings are brilliant!
How to convince students that these philosophical essays are necessary, that they ramify through the narrative’s framework? These essays, they’re all so… cold, distant, cerebral… compared to black-eyed Natasha with her songs and doll; Natasha, who loves the bespectacled Pierre and his telescope. More about macho Anatole and fearless Andrei! Less philosophy, less ranting about the stupidity of historians and how humans are probably never completely free!
As soon as we reach Volume III in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where the essays start in earnest, I know it’s time to visit Hive World, the better to understand Tolstoy’s concept of swarms that pervades the novel. I want to lead students to think deeply about collectivity and the human condition. What are the parameters of our freedom? asks Tolstoy throughout the novel.
On the first page of Volume III, about halfway through the fifteen-hundred-page novel, the comparison of human life to the insect world first appears. Here’s the translation as rendered by Louise and Aylmer Maude:
There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. (War and Peace III, 3, i)
That phrase “hive life” is in Russian роевая жизнь. It’s hard to translate: Рой is both the hive, the “bee colony” (Russians say “bee family”); but рой also means the swarm of bees, when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees to start a new hive. Another translation of War and Peace, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, renders the phrase as “swarmlike life.” I like that translation, it has panache, but it leaves out the collective sense, subordinates the ordinary “bee colony” meaning of the word and emphasizes the more active, unpredictable sense of bees’ swarming.
I think mainly Tolstoy means the collective, passive, unconscious hive, not swarm.
I want my students to understand the biological reality of Tolstoy’s assertion when reading these essays on history and freedom. I want them to see that hive life up close. So, when beginning Volume III, I lead my students on a surprise field trip: Leaving behind our phones and books, across the street from our classroom here on the edge of Stetson University’s campus, through the longleaf pine restoration area at the Gillespie Museum, past the Chickasaw Plums and blue Spiderwort and bluer rat-tailed Porterweed, we come to the old carriage house at the bottom of the slope where a former student and friend of mine, Maxwell Droznin, meets us. He’s the bee guy, a science guy who reads literature. He and I cool our heels while the students wiggle into their gusseted-yet-blousy white bee suits. Among the students, there’s uncomfortable giggling, nervous laughs, a regular admission that “I’ve never been stung by a bee!” They’re nervous. They’re excited.
How have they never been stung?!
Maxwell and I light a smoker crammed with pine needles and Spanish moss gathered from the pines that shadow us this warm October evening, and march across the yard to a handful of boxes, perched on PVC legs so they look like maquettes from Welles’ War of the Worlds. He explains to the costumed students–they look like marshmallows in their bee suits, topped with netted Tilley hats… the whole scene is a bit absurd–that we’re about to open the hives of European honeybees, Apis mellifera (“honey-maker bees”). These introduced bees are essential to Florida’s farm economy, fertilizing the citrus, blueberries, tomatoes, and beans. Now that Florida farms have largely been sold to land developers, Max explains, there are few endemic, indigenous pollinators like carpenter bees, sweat bees, and plaster bees. Most of these native pollinators live underground, so unsurprisingly their populations have plunged as we’ve topped the state’s soil with pavement, lawn, and house. Now farmers rely on these honeybees, essentially domesticated animals, to do the work of pollination on the remaining groves and fields.
As the sun sets, our class gathers around the Langstroth hives. We are careful to stand alongside them, not in front of them. Bees don’t like to have their entrance blocked. Max and I carefully pry the tops, stuck to the box with sticky black propolis, to reveal the Hive World that fascinated Tolstoy…
Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya, Tolstoy’s wife’s, informs us in her autobiography that Tolstoy was an enthusiastic beekeeper in early 1863, just as he began writing War and Peace:
That spring Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] became terribly fascinated with bees. He bought several hives from my grandfather Islen’ev, read books on bees, he built frame-type hives, and acted as though the apiary was the centre of the universe, and so everyone should be interested exclusively in bees. I tried to delve into the significance of the bees’ life, but it was a challenge. This hobby was an indication of Lev Nikolaevich’s whole passionate nature. His involvement with the bees took Lev Nikolaevich away from home and from me […]. I would go to the apiary, sometimes taking Lev Nikolaevich his lunch there. I’d sit there and sometimes get stung by a bee, and then make my lonely way home. (My Life 91)
One student works the bellows of the smoker, pacifying the hive as Maxwell and I see-saw a frame free. As he works, Max explains the caste system of the hive: The bees circling around outside of the box are females, guardians of the hive, ready to defend the hive to their death. They are the ones who will sting you. The bees flying into the hive from every direction are foragers, field workers bringing back nectar, pollen, water, and propolis (sticky stuff) from as far as two miles away.
Finally freeing it, Maxwell holds out a frame for students to inspect. They crowd around in the fading light, eager to fathom, like Sofia Andreevna, the mysteries and rites otherwise hidden within the gloom of the hive. Across the plastic sheet framed by balsa are hexagonal cells, the building blocks of the hive. Some of the cells are full of honey and sealed with wax, some half full of honey, some empty and ready. We see the Hive World up close.
The world is uncanny, familiar and unfamiliar at once.
We witness: The bees scurry about, tending the cells, doing what bees do. They are all females. There are as many as fifty thousand in each hive. They clean the hive, incubate the larval bees, receive pollen and nectar from the field bees, make the wax, and build the cells. The queen, hidden somewhere deep in the center of the hive, does nothing but produce more bees. She leaves the hive but once, usually in spring, mates in the air with a dozen or more drones, the only males in the hive and this their only purpose; she returns to the center of the hive, and spends her remaining days, as long as five years, laying eggs fertilized during that single flight she took one spring. Eventually, the queen ages, and gets replaced in a complicated sequence of events. Sometimes bees swarm, leaving some of their hive-mates behind to (maybe) continue maintaining the hive. The swarming bees fly off and start a new colony. And it begins again. The queen produces workers, the workers forage nectar, produce honey to feed the queen and themselves, they die. But the hive continues to… do what hives do: Produce workers to produce honey to produce more workers. In a world without end… In a sense, all hives must be relatives of one another. There must have been, way back when, eons ago, a first hive. And, in a sense, that first hive still lives.
Hives and communal animals offer Tolstoy a metaphor: a way to figure the foreground of individual choice against the ground of unconscious, collective action. We lead our personal lives, believing that we freely choose to do things. But those personal lives, amalgamated and intertwined, come together to create history. If (and this is a big IF!) history has a trajectory, then it is History, with a capital H, it has a plan and rules. If history is History, then what does human freedom mean? That’s what Tolstoy gestures at when he speaks of the “hive life of humankind”: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity.” Tennyson said much the same thing, ten years earlier:
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete…
War and Peace proposes an animalcule ecosystem of humankind: a biological, natural-world order that shapes and limits on our socially constructed notions of selfhood… An ecosystem with rules that absolutely govern our interactions with the “things” of this world, and with one another.
It’s sometimes difficult to wrap your head around the paradox, and I know I’m anthropomorphizing these bees, but so does Tolstoy: The hive is a single living creature in a very plain sense. At first, it doesn’t exist, then it does: it is “given birth to.” Then, it grows. It adapts to conditions. It has persistence in a philosophical sense. It’s possible to say very comprehensibly: This hive–pointing at the hive–has been “alive” for two years, four years, decades, centuries. The bees, maybe all the bees including the queen, that were in the hive two years ago are now dead; but the hive, in a very simple sense, still lives.
Every action that every bee takes, including the queen, ensures the continued existence and flourishing of the hive. Tolstoy is “terribly fascinated” by bees because the hive is a single organism, made up of individual organisms who, in performing their duties, ensure the continued persistence of this amalgamated living thing we call a hive. If the death of all the individuals is of no importance to the life of the hive, then which is really alive, the whole or the part? The individual bees in the hive are like cells in our own body. They serve a function, perish, are replaced. I am more than the totality of my cells.
The hive is a single, collective creature with a consciousness and a will to live.
I ask my class as they hover over the frame: How does the hive make decisions, how does it know what to do next? Who decides? No individual bee directs the action of the others, there’s no planning agency or mastermind bee. It’s plainly incorrect to think that the queen bee is “in charge,” as all she does, every moment of her life, is dedicated to the hive. Maxwell, knowing better, gives into his scientific training, and responds to my question: PHEROMONES! That is not an explanation, it’s the problem itself. Not how or what, but why do hives live? Science answers how and what questions well enough, but only the humanities can answer: Why?
Tolstoy continues his philosophical deliberations in Volume III:
A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.
“The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.”
A king is history’s slave.
History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.
Well, Tolstoy needs to perform a little gender sleight-of-hand here, because the hive world doesn’t quite match up to his nineteenth-century one: The king of the nation–Napoleon? Russia’s Alexander I?– is the queen of hive. She is the slave of the hive, like he is the slave of History, the general hive life of humankind. In Tolstoy’s topsy-turvy world, the world of the Gospel truth, the highest is the lowest: The king, logically the most free because his will is subordinated to no one, in fact serves History, what Tolstoy defines as “the inevitable course of events”; because he is most connected to the most people, his actions are the most determined by “predestination and inevitability.”
The king (and the queen!) is really just a slave.
The most free, the least predestined, is whoever occupies the lowest rung of Tolstoy’s ladder, whoever is maximally unconnected and powerless. I imagine these maximally-free monads being like early Christian Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, living ascetic lives far removed from contact with their fellow men and women. But I sense here that this kind of freedom is not one that you and I understand as freedom, much the less desire. How are those guys living in the desert free? I want to drink a bottle of rum with Pierre! I want to dance with pretty, black-eyed Natasha!
If such a rule-bound ecosystem of humanity actually exists–and Tolstoy posits that it does–then we individuals are vitally connected to one another and to everything. In that sense, we cease truly being individuals, and become part of the “elemental swarm.” Our “I” that we so treasure, our personality, is partial. But we are (mostly) unconscious of this belonging, this unfreedom.
But that personal, self-conscious beating-of-wings within and against this impersonal, natural ecosystem of the “elemental, swarmlike life”… that’s the novel, that’s the drama and romance that readers feel as they find their way through War and Peace.
There are two excellent academic pieces written about bees and Lev. N. Tolstoy:
““Swarm Life” and the Biology of War and Peace” by Thomas Newlin (Slavic Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (SUMMER 2012), pp. 359-384)
“What the Bees Do in Anna Karenina and Other Works by Tolstoy: A Study in Three Parts” by Rosamund Bartlett (Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. XXXVI (2014), pp. 1-18)