How Does the Seer Make Us See? The Representation of the Body in Tolstoj’s War and Peace

Petre Petrov, University of Pittsburgh

This paper joins a more than a century long critical conversation concerning Tolstoj’s method of depicting the human body in War and Peace. Except for occasional annoyed remarks by some of the author’s contemporaries (most notably, Turgenev) on his habit of repeating a given bodily detail or gesture, it has been a matter of general agreement to praise Tolstoj’s art of physical portrayal. He has been reputed for his “gift of insight into the body,” praised as the “seer of the flesh” (Merežkovskij), and even his critics have not failed to acclaim the “physiological truth” of his portraits (Leont′ev).

Without disputing this customary homage, the present paper inquires once again into the “startling truth” of the Tolstojan body (Merežkovskij), seeking to reveal its sources. How do the fictional bodies in War and Peace (the most frequently referenced text whenever Tolstoj’s art of portrayal is discussed) elicit the effects of truth? So far, the answer to this question—and this is hardly an answer at all—has amounted to little more than a verbalized mimic of delight. Many students of Tolstoj have noted the capacity of a fortunately chosen and repeatedly emphasized physical detail to lay bare the character of the hero; the discussion of this device, however, has not become more hermeneutically focused for being unanimously laudatory.

Behind the reluctance to analyze the representation of the body in War and Peace one finds a rather mechanistic view of how the novel links character and portrait. According to this view, the physical detail is “drawn” into the literary text from the domain of cultural semiotics, where it exists with its more or less stable semantics; within the text, then, this semantics is “coupled” with the author’s idea of a specific character, making any direct psychological characteristic obsolete, since it is now the physical detail that “speaks” about its possessor. Tolstoj’s then is the art of finding that physical detail that will best “reveal the moral essence of the hero” (Ardens) or “capture an essential attribute of the character” (Sankovič). The author’s artistic procedure is thus reduced to hardly more than a moment of choice. And after that, what is there left, but to sit and marvel at the aptitude of this choice?

The present paper will argue that Tolstoj’s fictional portraits do not depend on some culturally immanent link between the physical and the ethical. It is from the literary text, not from the cultural context, that the physical detail in War and Peace derives its semantics. If the readers of the novel find that the short upper lip of Princess Bolkonskaja denotes her “charming beauty,” but also her “garrulity and sociability,” and, in addition, her “childlike happiness and frivolity” (Sankovič), it is certainly not because short upper lips have any necessary relation to these traits. It is simply that for the short span in which the Princess appears in the novel, her lip manages to “swallow” the whole of her character and thus become saturated with a rich array of semantic connotations. This semantic saturation, whose mechanism will be my purpose to uncover, is what accounts for the effect of veracity produced by the Tolstojan body.