The Emperor of Death

by Chris Horner

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death in exile on the island of St Helena. And it was 206 years ago last June that his career came to a bloody end at Waterloo, with defeat at the hands of an allied army led by Britain’s Wellington and Prussia’s Blucher. But while the Emperor himself is dead and gone, the Napoleon Myth marches on, and is celebrated in some unlikely quarters. 

The Guardian’s Martin Kettle is a big fan of the Emperor, as is the historian Andrew Roberts. Both have written admiringly on the man, the former in the pages of his newspaper, the latter in a big biography that verges on hagiography. On the face of it this is odd – Kettle is a liberal and Roberts is a conservative. What could they both find in the life of the ‘Disturber of the Peace of Europe’ to admire?  They are not first to mourn the fall of Napoleon and sympathise with those who saw him as a great bulwark against reaction, but just the latest in a long line of Bonaparte fans. I’m not inclined share their adoration of the Corsican Adventurer. 

It is certainly true that an appalling set of Crowned Heads did well out of the fall of the Emperor: after 1815 they imposed reactionary regimes across the content of Europe, which lasted until at least 1848. And in Britain the period fallowing the wars was one of great suffering and repression,  a veritable ‘Thanatocracy’ in which armed force and the noose secured the rule of the rich. It is understandable that any radicals of the day tended to see Napoleon as a great alternative to the tyranny of the Monarchs who fought him: the essayist Hazlitt kept a bust of Napoleon on his desk, Byron publicly regretted the result at Waterloo, and later Victor Hugo devoted a large section of Les Miserables to mourning the fall of the Emperor in 1815. They saw him as carrying the spirit of the great Revolution of 1789 forward, and wished he had prevailed on the field of battle. Read more »

The Valet and His Hero

by Christopher Horner

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford)

No man is a hero to his valet. —proverb

The highest act of reason…is an aesthetic act. —Holderlin (attrib)

Sometimes it seems that growing up and learning things is one long process of disillusionment. Dis-illusion: we shed illusion, fantasy  and myth, and so we disenchant the world. Somehow this is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because we cannot, must not, live on lies; bad because we cannot live on facts alone.

There are plenty of people ready to feed us lies, and plenty who want to believe them: about American Exceptionalism, about race, about the economy – about how global warming is nothing to worry about, when in fact it threatens our very lives. We really do need to find out what is happening and and how it came to be. In the UK, for instance, there seems to be the widespread vague sense that the empire was a sort of outdoor relief programme, all about building railways and schools for the lucky natives, and not at all about exploitation and oppression. So who are all these brown skinned people and what have they to do with us? In the USA we have seen the effects of nurturing lies about race and nation, lies that go all the way back to the the founding: the denial of a history of slavery, genocide and subjugation. And our heroes have feet of clay: Gandhi, Wollstonecraft, Lincoln, Churchill, Jefferson, all were flawed. Indeed, the last three in that list can be indicted of racism. And because of their actions, people died.

And yet there is more to be said about myth, legend and facts. Sometimes the facts can lead us towards error, and the myth can convey something true, as when an event or person inspires us to reach for something higher and better. Moreover, the desire to debunk and find the dirty laundry can generate its own smell: it can be motivated less by a desire to get at the truth than what Nietzsche called ressentiment: half suppressed feelings of hatred and envy that find a brief satisfaction in bringing down anything noble or good. Sometimes, too, something of the truth is to be grasped in the very illusion it engenders – as Hegel says, appearances both conceal and reveal the essential thing. Let me try to explain with some examples. Read more »