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October 24, 2008

minard's eternal silences

Minard.jpg [Image: Charles Joseph Minard, "Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l'Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813"]

Yes, one thing does lead to another. It is impossible to draw up a map of any kind (as I did yesterday in "Homage to War and Peace") concerning the invasion of Russia by the French Army during 1812 without invoking memories of one of the greatest of all information graphics, the "Figurative Map of the Successive Losses of Men in the French Army during the Campaign in Russia 1812-1813" (1869).

The "Map" was created by the civil engineer and cartographer Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870) after he had retired from a position as a general inspector in the French government's "Corps des Ponts". Published on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, less than a year before Minard's death, this potently lucid graphic work, in the words of one of Minard's obituarists, "inspires bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madnesses of conquerors and the merciless thirst of military glory" (Annales des ponts et chaussées, 1871). The great chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey said that Minard's chart "defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence."

The "Figurative Map" dramatizes statistically the period between 24 June 1812 when, using Minard's figures, some 442,000 of Napoleon's troops crossed the Nieman and entered Russia to mid-December of the same year when what still passed for the French Army, now reduced in number to some 10,000 or so shattered souls struggled back across the Nieman's ice. (Modern estimates suggest that somewhere between half a million and 690,000 French and allied troops surged into Russia during the summer of 1812 and that about 400,000 of them died there in the next six months.)

Minard's work tracks three variables: 1) the size of the army at any given point; 2) its location and the direction it was moving in; and 3) the declining temperatures that took hold during the Army's apocalyptic disintegration and retreat out of Russia, which occurred between 19 October and 14 December 1812.

Critics often note the special significance of rivers in Minard's work. The most obvious instance is the sanguinary crossing of the Berezina, which took place in sub-zero temperatures between 26 and 29 November, when troops commanded by Kutuzov, Wittgenstein and Chichagov killed roughly half the remnants of the French Army either in, or on the banks of, the river as it attempted to scrabble across two 100 metre pontoons General Eblé's engineers had cobbled together in spite of frostbite, exhaustion and heavy enemy fire. Minard's black line, "one millimetre for every ten thousand men", shows some 50,000 approaching the Berezina and, with a sudden ugly contraction, some 28,000 departing from it. There is a special pathos in reading a professional bridge engineer's dispassionate graphic account of a human disaster on such a scale taking place where a river is crossed.

Given such a masterwork, all accurate observations, even critical ones, are a form of implicit celebration. Here are mine, largely inspired by the "Map"'s silences and occlusions.

Minard's "Figurative Map" is an incomparable piece of graphic rhetoric. But, like all rhetoric, its success lies as much in veiling as in revelation. It was therefore fortunate that in 1869, the same year in which Minard published his gallocentric "Map" of hygienic but "brutal eloquence", Tolstoy righted the balance by completing and publishing the final installment in his ragged, loose, howling, chauvinistic and equally mystificatory epic of Russian suffering. Juxtaposing these two works, image is incommensurate with text. Minard and Tolstoy left us a "firm, French order" pitched against a "quite different", "Russian order of life", a system opposed to a vital anarchy, a cry of the soul to counterpoint the sombre, refined muteness of the spirit.

Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace that "there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent." So far, so good. But one may also wonder whether there is "greatness" where "simplicity, goodness, and truth" are too visibly and exclusively present. "The Figurative Map" and War and Peace both say, No.

Posted by njenkins at October 24, 2008 02:49 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins