Moloch Whose Eyes Are a Thousand Blind Windows
There is a strain in our literature that views the city as corrupting and inimical to good morals. Sita, the heroine of the great Indian epic, The Ramayana, for instance, is a foundling child discovered one day in the bucolic setting of a field. She grows into the very image of innocence and beauty. It’s only after prince Rama of the Ayodhya kingdom wins her hand in marriage and takes her back to the city with all its court intrigue and deceit that the epic takes a turn towards danger and menace. From the Book of Genesis we have both the story of Joseph — whose pastoral rearing guards him against the degrading influence of urban life near the seat of power in Egypt — and also that paragon of the wicked city, Sodom and Gomorrah. More recently there is Ginsberg’s “Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! […] Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!” And then, of course, we have William Blake’s eighteenth century London where every face is plagued by “marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
Tolstoy seems to adopt some variation of the Sita story for Natasha in today’s chapter. As the first act of the opera begins Natasha thinks the production is ridiculous. It’s absurd to her that people would take it seriously when it’s so obviously counterfeit. “After her life in the country,” we’re told, “and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha.”
But then something happens.
Natasha, looking around at the gathered Moscow society — and especially at Helene — becomes intoxicated by the urbanity of it all. When Helene’s brother, Anatole, enters the scene, strutting into her life with the swagger of a thousand of Penelope’s suitors, it’s game over. The intoxication is overwhelming. She submits to the life of the city. Where before all was “pretentiously false and unnatural” now “everything seemed simple and natural.” Naturally, the second act of the opera features a group of people dragging away a maiden, formerly dressed in white, now in blue.
This is exactly the design Anatole has for Natasha. He’s aiming to drag her away. It will be tough for Natasha to withstand his charm. On the one hand, as we’ve argued throughout A Year of War and Peace, she’ll want to maintain her cosmopolitanism and fellowship with others. On the other, she’ll need to be vigilant against the moral corruption of city life.
Contact with crowds is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.
Seneca, Letter on Crowds