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The Last Word on Napoleon [by David Lehman]

NapoleonThe last word on Napoleon has not been written. More than 600,000 books have been published about the military genius who crowned himself emperor of France in 1804 and united the rest of Europe in fear. Does the world really need another book on Napoleon? Yes, if only because our fascination with him endures.

As Alistair Horne points out in his cogent and highly readable account of “The Age of Napoleon” (Modern Library, 219 pages, $21.95), every era refashions Napoleon in the image of its own aspirations. But there are constants. For generations since he lost his final gamble at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon personified courage, leadership, ambition. Only heroism or madness can account for some of his gambits, and so he tends to be popular among professional soldiers and inmates of loony bins. The diplomacy assuring European peace for the ninety-nine years preceding World War I resulted directly from the British and continental reaction to Napoleon, whose image takes a body blow when authoritarian dictators bent on world conquest come to power.

On the other hand, Napoleon represented – not only in France but in all of Europe – the triumph of an idea made possible by the French Revolution but realized only in the meteoric career of the Corsican-born artillery captain who, at age twenty-four, saved the day for the French army at the Siege of Toulon in 1793. Two years later, he dispersed a Paris mob with a “whiff of grapeshot,” as historians have termed it, and thereafter rose irresistibly to power, replacing the anarchy of revolution with order and military ardor.

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, champion of American self-reliance, Napoleon was the model of a “self-made man.” To other illustrious observers it seemed that the spirit of Romanticism and Rousseau culminated in him. But he was as much a despot as a liberator, capable of cruelty, some of it gratuitous, and full of an overweening arrogance. Beethoven composed the Eroica symphony in Bonaparte’s honor but withdrew the dedication in disgust, ripping up the title page, on learning that the French republic had terminated in Napoleon’s imperial coronation.

Horne, the author of two previous books dealing with Napoleon’s military career, devotes this little tome to his social and cultural impact. “The Age of Napoleon” is rife with arcane details (that, for example, matches were invented in 1809) and ironic asides. The cemetery of Pere Lachaise was Napoleon’s monumental solution to “the urgent problem of creating space for the grateful dead of Paris.” If Josephine showed too much cleavage, Napoleon would tear off her dress and throw it into the fire or spill a bottle of ink on it. “She put up with a lot,” Horne comments.

To Josephine, the love of his life, Napoleon wrote hot passionate letters from whatever front he happened to be on. “Arriving home in three days,” he instructs her after the battle of Marengo. “Don’t bathe.” He loved Josephine hopelessly, despite her infidelities. “She had the prettiest little ----- imaginable,” he told a confidant. But that didn’t stop him from divorcing her in 1809. Needing a male heir, Napoleon married the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the Grand-Duchess Marie-Therese, a nubile nineteen-year old said to have had a bovine expression, who dutifully bore him a son.

Legendarily capable of inspiring his troops to overcome bigger and better-equipped opponents, Napoleon inspires or haunts the heroes of great novels. The battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s greatest victory, figures in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Waterloo does the same in Stendhal’s “Charterhouse of Parma,” which opens with the declaration that the French army’s triumphal entry in Milan in 1796 “taught the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor.”

Not that the Napoleon complex is always or even usually benign. Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s other masterpiece, “The Red and the Black,” comes to a bad end following the Corsican’s star. Raskolnikov, in Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment,” suffers under the delusion that he is a type of the Napoleonic man, who is exempt from all laws except those of his own making. As a result he murders two harmless old women.

Napoleon exalted glory higher than all else, and the glory he craved came at a steep cost. He was, said a contemporary, “the kind of general who needed a monthly income of ten thousand men.” In twenty years of warfare more than a million lives were lost in France alone. What should frighten us most about Napoleonic hero-worship is that he serves as the primary role-model not only for lunatics in asylums but for genocidal maniacs. It is possible to consider Adolf Hitler as precisely a perversion of the Napoleonic ideal. Like Napoleon, the Nazi dictator was expert at manipulating public opinion and ruthless in the exercise of power. Both aspired to world domination, and both tasted defeat at the hands of a Russian winter.

But the Fuhrer had none of the French Emperor’s saving virtues. No war criminal, Napoleon instituted major civil reforms and imposed, in the Napoleonic code, a coherent legal system on the whole of the continent. An early proponent of a Jewish homeland, he restored freedom of worship in post-revolutionary France. He began the reconstruction of Paris that turned it into the world’s most magnificent city.

Above all, Napoleon embodied – in his own example as much as in his edicts and decrees – the radical idea that careers should be based not on birth but on merit. He proved that a poor boy from a remote island could, through the sheer force of his personality, intelligence, energy, and will, vault higher than kings and popes and, in his words, “push back the boundaries of greatness.”

written for Bloomberg, 5 / 14 / 04

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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