Sunday, July 17, 2005
The Return of Napoleon, Sort Of
All truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an ‘outside’, an ‘other’, a non-self, and that no is its creative act.
--Nietzsche, The Geneology of Morals
One of the most intriguing bits of recent trivia concerns the new French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who turns out to be an unapologetic Bonapartist: “…the first wholehearted admirer of Napoleon,” points out Frank Johnson of the London Telegraph, “to become head of a French government since the Emperor Napoleon III…in 1848.” De Villepin has even published a book (not yet translated into English) about Napoleon’s Hundred Days, whose full original title is Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice. (“The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice”). Says David A. Bell in The New Republic: “for de Villepin, Napoleon is nothing less than a hero of almost Christ-like dimensions.” To readers who might find this an exaggeration, Bell points out the title of the final chapter in the book: “Waterloo: The Crucifixion.”
The day after his election, de Villepin said that he hoped to restore French confidence in 100 days. How, precisely, he would accomplish this wasn’t clear; the Guardian reported that de Villepin “refused…to push the country down the road towards free-market reform, saying ‘Gallic genius’ would help put back on its feet a ‘suffering, impatient and angry’ nation that has failed to adapt fully to a changing world.”
The figure of 100 days that de Villepin used was not a coincidence, as it deliberately echoed the Napoleonic Hundred Days on which his book was based. "These 100 days,” writes de Villepin in Frank Johnson’s quick translation from the book, “constitute an opening, in the form of a fable or a tale, the hyphen between two worlds, two epochs, and two legitimacies, which offers a gripping summary of the epic. In a short period, mixed and confronting one another, were the ideals and the doctrines, the characters and the passions, in a kind of laboratory of the human comedy, where the face of modern France is sketched." [italics mine]
De Villepin makes specific comparisons between the fate of the historical Napoleon and that of France itself: Waterloo "consecrates the end of passion at the profit of commercialism, this growing economic liberalism which neglects the founding humanism of France's political ancestry - the stamp of compassion and tolerance - to promote self-interest.” In de Villepin’s world, modern France stands, exactly like Napoleon, as the lone, heroic counterweight to rampant Anglo-Saxonism, shouting Non! to the government-by-shopkeeper ethos of the English-speaking hegemony.
It’s an audacious comparison, and one we haven’t seen in a while. The 19th-century Romantics took forever to get Napoleon out of their system; Thomas Moore’s attack on the British governor of St. Helena is typical:
- Sir Hudson Lowe, Sir Hudson Lowe,
(By name, and ah! By nature so,)
As thou art fond of persecutions,
Perhaps thou’st read, or heard repeated
How Captain Gulliver was treated
When thrown among the Lilliputians.
But the middle of the twentieth century presented an utterly unavoidable point of comparison—one that, fairly or unfairly, was destructive to Napoleon’s general reputation: Adolf Hitler. After Hitler, uncritical public appreciation of Napoleon became much more difficult, even among the French. In his biography of Stalin, Henri Barbusse quotes Bonaparte’s famous dictum that “if one is in the wrong, one must persist, and one will end up being in the right” with derision. If the nineteenth century could ignore Napoleon’s “persistence,” and the trail of bodies that came with it, the twentieth couldn’t—not after Hitler and Stalin. English antipathy has only increased: Paul Johnson’s recent, hostile biography, according to Victor Davis Hanson in a review, “reflects deeply-rooted Anglo skepticism about messianic killers, as the principled careers of Englishmen like Edmund Burke, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and most recently Tony Blair attest.”
Admiration for the Emperor has compartmentalized into admiration for his military genius among military historians and gamers, and I don’t think that will ever change: If, for the enthusiast, Napoleon can be faulted for errors at, say, Leipzig, his against-the-odds triumphs at Lützen, Dresden, and Hanau will forever outweigh them.
But to return to de Villepin: When he analogizes Napoleon and his Empire to 21st-century France, the audacity wears thin early on, and the bathos just grows and grows. Keeping Wellington’s army at bay is not the same as keeping free-market reforms at bay. On one hand we have “the struggle of nations”—and on the other we have the struggle for the 35-hour workweek. The correlations trail into absurdity. I’m still not sure what “sacrifice” is referenced in de Villepin’s title exactly, but it isn’t the sacrifice necessary to carve out a revolutionary European empire—perhaps it’s your standard Parisian worker’s sacrifice of having grand-maman sit in the attic during his customary eight-week summer vacation.
De Villepin apparently isn’t troubled at all by the modern historical trends that have hurt Napoleon’s standing. In another quote from The Hundred Days, translated by David Bell, de Villepin identifies those particular character traits that he admires most: “Here we touch on that particular essence of great men, on what distinguishes Napoleon or Alexander, Caesar or de Gaulle, from the common run. It is excess, exaltation, and a taste for risk that forms their genius.” A passage like this—of which one could easily say the same of Hitler—is intended to exalt Napoleon, but in fact it defames him.
The correlation between the Imperial era and contemporary France breaks down completely, of course, when we remind ourselves what Napoleon was most of all: A military man. The idea of France today—from a military perspective—would infuriate Napoleon, and tales of Sedan and Dienbienphu would horrify him. Victor Davis Hanson again:
For the insecure, megalomaniac, and duplicitous, Napoleonic power holds an eternal appeal, one apparently with increased attraction for a slowly eroding contemporary France, which deploys half an aircraft carrier as it eyes longingly the 12 fleet carrier groups of the United States.
Even if one supposes that Napoleon would know what to do about, for example, the current French unemployment problem, there is no immediately foreseeable cure for France's military decline. A vanguard role in a combined European military—had French voters not rejected the EU constitution--could have dragged the French into a more equitable bargaining position against the American hyperpower. But instead we’re left with a France that seems only able to react, despite all the Bonapartist nostalgia, and all the talk of “Gallic genius.” The real Napoleon, whatever else one might say about him, did a great deal more than simply delivering a Non!—which is all that contemporary France seems able to do.