Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.


Black and White

December 18, 2007

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The drawing above is by the artist Heinrich Kley, an academic painter who turned satirist. I owe my rediscovery of him – I’ve seen some of his images before – to Richard Sala, who like me, enjoys his drawings and mentioned them in an interview. (He also intimates that his heroine Peculia is inspired by Louise Brooks.)

Kley’s drawings can be grotesque, bizarre, and hilarious. (Here is a site with a nice gallery: The Art of Heinrich Kley). The tension and sinuosity of his line – so typical of Art Nouveau – is fascinating. Click on this thumbnail to see a short animated tribute to him that I created from some of his drawings, a sequence that may have inspired some animators at Disney.

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There’s no end to the wonders of black and white drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from this period, some of them a source of rich inspiration for comic artists today, as well as others of course. I find the work of Frans Masereel particularly arresting. Both he and the American Lynd Ward, created early forms of what some now call the “graphic novel.”

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Equal Opportunity Madness

December 20, 2004

Since the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists from Saudi Arabia, I have seen the occassional editorial piece, commentary, review, etc., make the point that “there is something wrong with those…Arab countries.” Well, who can deny it! Many are impoverished, others have great wealth and bizarre social arrangements. Their cultures uneasily straddle the chasm between modernity and traditional society, and at this point in history, they are churning out murderous fanatics at an alarming rate. But these commentaries often push further, intimating that there is something fundamentally violent, deranged, or fanatical about these societies and the Moslem religion. Ah, how short is our historical memory!

In my parents’ generation, a lunatic loser led a great and civilized nation into a suicidal quest for world domination. In the process, his nation systematically murdered in cold blood six million people, simply because they were Jews, and another five or six millon becuase they were Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, or some other despised category. He espoused a visionary mythology that seemed lifted from a Classic Comics version of The Ring, and he was quite successful, for a while. Right in the heart of the West!

Can we, citizens of the free, democratic West, seriously maintain that there is something intrinsic to the Arab countries that has put them in this mess? Does the history of Christianity reveal a steady roll call of peacemakers, saintly statesmen, and reasoned negotiation throught the past two millenia? Or does it contain endless brutal slaughter of minorities and fellow Christians for G*d knows what all reasons?

Let’s face it, human beings of all races, creeds, colors, and religions share at least this one common trait: they are capable of doing horrific wrongs to their fellow human beings and claiming that God is on their side as they do it.


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