Yesterday I read up to page 130 of Volume V, up to Chapter XXIX. Moscow has fallen, and there is a terrible scene wherein the governor-general of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, whom Tolstoy keeps calling an administrator–he has very harsh words for administrators–when he has totally flubbed the evacuation and faces an angry mob, offers up a scapegoat, a young man, Vereshchagin, who has been accused of treason but not tried. To save his own skin, Rostopchin offers up Vereshchagin and announces to the angry mob that the latter is the one who has somehow betrayed Russia and allowed the French to take over the city.
It is a harrowing scene. Rostopchin orders the crowd to kill Vereshchagin but they hesitate. Tolstoy is brilliant at conveying how the crowd behaves as one mass, as a sort of being unto itself, as a sort of ocean through which waves of feeling roll. He speaks of the crowd as groaning.
Just after Rostopchin orders the mob to kill Vereshchagin, the young man looks at the count and yells, “Count, there is one God over us.” The count pales and shouts for the crowd to kill the scapegoat. Finally a dragoon strikes the young man in the head with his broadsword.
“‘Ah!’ cried Vereshchagin, who gave a short cry of amazement, and looked around in terror and as if he could not understand why this was done to him. The same groan of amazement as before ran through the throng. . . . But, instantly following the cry of amazement uttered by Vereshchagin, he gave a piteous shriek of pain, and that shriek was his undoing.
“The barrier of humane feeling stretched to the highest tension, and holding back the mob, suddenly broke. The crime was begun, and it had to be accomplished. The lugubrious groan of reproach was swallowed up in a fierce and maddened roar of the mob. Like the seventh and last wave which wrecks the ship, this final, irresistible billow, impelled from the rear, was borne through to those in front, overwhelmed them, and swallowed up everything.”
I will spare the reader the details of his killing; it’s pretty gruesome stuff. What struck me in these pages, besides the organic behavior of the crowd, as if the crowd itself were its own being, was that surprise that Vereshchagin shows: it is the same surprise that Ellen showed when she realized she was dying, and it reflects Tolstoy’s horror of both death and violence. And then Vereshchagin throwing out the words about there being one God above us, which you can tell pierces Rostopchin.
After this, as he makes his escape, Rostopchin, after initial shame, in remarkably quick time, recovers his composure: “Slightly swaying on the easy springs of his equipage, and no longer hearing the terrible sounds of the mob, Rostopchin grew calmer physically, and, as always happens, simultaneously as physical calm returned, his reason furnished him arguments for moral tranquility.
“The idea that soothed Rostopchin was not new. Never since the world began and people began to slaughter one another has man committed crime against his fellow without soothing himself with this idea. This idea is the public good–the hypothetical weal of other men.
“The man not carried away by his passions never knows what this weal is, but the man who has committed a crime always knows very well what constitutes it. And Rostopchin now knew.
“He not only did not reproach himself for what he had done, but he even found reason for self-congratulation that he had so happily succeeded in taking advantage of this fortuitous circumstance for punishing a criminal, and at the same time pacifying the mob.”
But a little while later, as his carriage is driven by a lunatic asylum–the lunatics have all been let out to fend for themselves–one of them runs up to him and screams: “‘Thrice have they killed me, thrice have I risen from the dead. They have stoned me. . . .” etc. “Count Rostopchin suddenly paled, just as he had paled when the mob threw itself on Vereshchagin. . . . This vision was now so vivid that Rostopchin felt it was deeply etched into the very substance of his heart. He now clearly realized that he should never outlive the bloody trace of this recollection; but that, on the contrary, this terrible remembrance, the longer he lived, even to the end of his days, would grow more and more cruel, more painful.”
Tolstoy, at times, is very hard to read. He faces reality and keeps facing it until you start to squirm from self-recognition.
I selected this passage to discuss because of its power but also because it points to a truth we’d like to forget, one that Rene Girard detailed in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, that is, that when things get rough, we humans like to find a scapegoat. Girard says this impulse is the devil. That God, so to speak, tricked the devil when he had Jesus die as the Scapegoat. But whatever you think of the religious aspect of this question, I think it is obvious that world politics at present reflects this truth. Times have gotten rough for a lot of people, they are afraid, so they are picking out scapegoats to release their fear and anger. The scapegoats are the usual suspects: immigrants, Jews, people who are not like us. And just as Count Rostopchin rationalized his scapegoating with the idea of the commonweal, so do we.
The following quote, though out of context, is clear enough to show how Girard’s theory describes our fraught situation. I don’t see how you can read it and not think of the new wave of fascism and the equally totalitarian response to it:
“The more unbearable their personal scandals become, the more the desire to extinguish them in some huge scandal seizes the scandalized. This phenomenon can be seen quite clearly in political passions or in the frenzy of scandal that now possesses out ‘globalized’ world. When a really seductive scandal comes near, the scandalized are irresistibly tempted to ‘profit’ from it and to gravitate toward it. The condensation of all the separated scandals into a single scandal is the paroxysm of a process that begins with mimetic desire and its rivalries. These rivalries, as they multiply, create a mimetic crisis, the war of all against all. The resulting violence of all against all would finally annihilate the community if it were not transformed, in the end, into a war of all against one, thanks to which the unity of the community is reestablished.”