Event, and dissolution of event
In Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), we follow the life of impetuous, rebellious young Italian aristocrat Fabrice del Dongo during the Napoleonic era, from Fabrice’s birth in 1798 until his death. Fabrice wanders across France, loses his money, is imprisoned, escapes thanks for the jailer’s wife, and then, largely clueless, wanders out onto the muddy field at the Battle of Waterloo.
The Battle of Waterloo took place on Sunday 18 June 1815, near Waterloo in Belgium. A French army under Napoleon was defeated by a coalition led by the Duke of Wellington. Here is an engraving of the event, gathered and distilled into image and title, published a year later in England, in The Lady’s & Gentleman’s Annual Pocket Ledger with Various Articles of Useful Information (1816):
Part of what is compelling about Stendhal’s account of Fabrice at Waterloo is the sense of uncertainty and confusion that pervades the battlefield, a lack of any sense of pattern or shape: of troops and bullets flying in all directions, of dead bodies that come alive, of tiny red forms on the horizon that may or may not be troops. ‘The smoke made it impossible to see anything ahead. Only, from time to time, hurrying horsemen emerged from the white smoke.’
But more than chaos is Fabrice’s more fundamental uncertainty as to whether or not he is participating in a battle at all. Is this it? Is this the real thing? Where is the centre? Is he really inside the Battle of Waterloo?
Fabrizio found himself riding alongside a good-natured-looking sergeant. ‘I really must speak to this man,’ he said to himself. ‘Perhaps if I do that, they’ll stop staring at me.’ After considerable meditation he said to the sergeant: ‘This is the first time I have ever seen a battle. But is it really a battle?’
‘I should think so! But who on earth are you?’
Fabrice is a terrible soldier: he gets drunk on a bottle of brandy bought to make the other soldiers like him, is hungover, sleeps through much of the day. He can’t load a rifle. He returns to his family’s castle, injured. ‘Had what he’d seen been a battle?...Had this battle been Waterloo?’ – or just a muddy field filled with bodies running criss-cross in various directions, horses slumping to the ground, men falling at random, people wondering where they were?
That sense of event, and dissolution of event, is at the heart of one of my favourite books: the account by the Mass-Observation movement of the coronation of George VI, May 12 1937. Mass-Observation was founded in 1937 by the poet Charles Madge, filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and anthropologist Tom Harrisson.1 Its aim was to produce an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ by issuing questionnaires, collecting diaries, and amassing great quantities of granular, first-hand accounts of everyday life in Britain, across as wide a social spectrum as possible. What is life like now? What are you doing? What do you see? What is the texture of experience? May 12 1937 was compiled from individual reports gathered by more than 200 participants in response to ‘directives’ that asked them to describe what they saw around them (‘Try to write down notes as frequently as possible. Do not interrupt anything to do so’). The political ambition behind this project was to disrupt the story of its time: to de-centre that version of ‘now’ as reported in national newspapers, and by historians and commentators. The account of the coronation of George VI achieves this, but its commitment to what Harrisson called ‘human activity’ leads also to a broader reimagining of the relationship between ‘event’ and individual experience. To read May 12 1937 is to experience a repeated pull between a centralised single story of coronation, on the one hand, and the innumerable other narratives that are occurring at the same time.
Here are some of the records for 9pm on May 12 1937:
Piccadilly Circus, London. A woman said, ‘Doesn’t it give you a terrific thrill walking across streets?’
It was raining again.
An upper-class man: ‘They’ll call for somebody to come out.’
Some squibs seem to be exploding.
Men selling whistles pushed them to my mouth to induce me to buy them. I refused scornfully.
Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Women gaze in hat shops. A group: ‘Where’s the best pub?’ and to some sailors, in passing: ‘God bless the navy.’
Man, about 35: ‘My next neighbour’s 150 miles away.’
Some men are standing on top of a full taxi.
East End, London. Overheard: Girl: ‘Pleased to meet you.’ Man: ‘No love lost.’
Every pub you went past roared with singing.
Cambridge. Went to a dance at Corn Exchange.
Swansea. Watched dancing in nearby streets – walking about – windows open – and radios on.
Hertford. The caterer lost 8 dozen glasses, the Cricket Club 4 dozen glasses. Six cricket club deck chairs were missing the next day, and were most probably thrown into the bonfire (200-300 yards away). Other chairs were damaged, and scattered all over Balls Park under the trees.
Prestwick. About 2,000 people at Prestwick Cross waiting for torchlight procession. Four or five bagpipe players intoxicated.
Suffolk. People stand about dismally in raincoats, fumbling with their mugs.
Isle of Man. I went to the cinema in Douglas, the Island’s chief town. The show was interrupted at 8pm so that we could listen to the King’s speech over the wireless. We saw the first films of the procession. God Save the King was heard over the radio as a prelude to the King’s speech, [and] spontaneously, but without excitement, everybody rose to their feet.
Leeds. Soon after this hour I set out for home, accompanied by my sweetheart who bid me goodnight in the lane.
Mass Observation’s account achieves a toggling between foreground and background, over and over again: what is centre becomes marginal. The King’s coach passing by becomes suddenly a blur in the background of a boy climbing up a lamp-post who himself becomes lost in a crowd emerging from an opened pub door. Some forms of representation are better at conveying this kind of perspective-switching simultaneity. Novels are generally bad at it: they may offer many perspectives, but these are necessarily conveyed to the reader one after the other. One of film’s great powers is precisely this thing-and-not-thing-at-once. Writing about cinema in 1926, Virginia Woolf contrasted the intense sense of character one gets from a novel (reading Anna Karenina means knowing Anna ‘almost entirely by the inside of her mind’) with cinema’s (as Woolf saw it) trivial concern with surfaces (an actor’s ‘teeth, her pearls and her velvet’). But Woolf saw cinema’s potential not in any attempt to duplicate a novels’ effects, but in an ‘accidental scene [taking place in the background] – like the gardener mowing the lawn.’2
Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, May 12 1937 (Faber and Faber, 1937, 1987). The archives of the Mass Observation Project are at the University of Sussex. The Project collects, each year, material about everyday life on 12th May. Details are here.
This Woolf passage is discussed in Moyra Davey’s brilliant Index Cards (Fitzcarraldo, 2020), pp. 64-5.