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September 25, 2019

#155:  AN IDOL OF MONSTROUS ASPECT.  Anyone with the slightest feeling about Napoleon Bonaparte, either admiring or antagonistic, should read Pieter Geyl’s book Napoleon: For and Against, published in 1949, frequently reprinted, and beautifully translated from Geyl’s Dutch by Olive Renier.  It does require some knowledge of Napoleon’s life and of the period, but it’s not only an admirable, even brilliant rundown of the then-exisiting, already enormous library of books on the subject—beginning with the doubting tomes of Madame de Stael and finishing up with the perceptive criticism of Georges Lefebvre—but an extraordinary lesson in how an historic image has been built, criticized, and sustained.  No matter what Napoleon’s commitment to action in the real world, we know him through historic writing—as a much quieter Frenchman said, “Everything exists in order to end up in a book.”  The marvel of Geyl’s book is that though he is by temperament obviously leaning to the “against” side, he cannot resist turning the subject around and around to the light, constantly discovering new aspects.  He writes: “History can reach no unchallengeable conclusions about so many-sided a character, on a life so dominated, so profoundly agitated, by the circumstances of the time.  For this I bear history no grudge.  To expect from history those final conclusions which may perhaps be obtained in other disciplines is in my opinion to misunderstand its nature.”  So the book is not only a study of Napoleon’s life and a critique of his legend but a remarkable lesson in the methods of history—and this without one moaning philosophical word about the ultimate unknowability of truth.

        The interest in Napeon’s life continues, for perfectly legitimate reasons—biographer Andrew Roberts recently wrote that more books have been written about Napoleon than there have been days since his death in 1821.  But for myself, I have to admit to being, in the main, against; Napoleon’s virtues and strengths are very real, but they are virtues which neither impress nor attract me.  Of all the monuments to the great I have visited, that monstrous, multi-layered tomb in that frigid and grandiose church at Les Invalides is the one that has moved me least.  (One wag, I forget who, suggested the Russian-doll nesting of coffins was to ensure he wouldn’t escape and ruck up Europe all over again.)  I am almighty tired of being asked to admire people whose actions are largely “to the annoyance and terror of the ordinary people, whose only prayer was for peace and quiet.”  Geyl is right—there are endless answers to this question, endless complexities to this life, which is why we read history—but when he speaks of Taine’s writings, which “within the temple of Napoleon worship unveiled an idol of monstrous aspect,” I nod my head in agreement.  Count me in with them ordinary people.

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