17 September, 2004

Hugo makes a good point

Hugo has spent the first half of Les Misérables offering incense to the French Revolution in general and to Napoleon in particular, with no acknowledgment of the mass brutality these men favored. In general, our histories don't dwell long on this brutality, nor on the brutality of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other great "champions of the people." It seems almost to be a sine qua non that if you want to liberate people from oppressors, you have to go about it in barbaric fashion.

To stay on the topic of France, though: I'm realizing that Hugo and most of his contemporary readers took for granted something that I, born and raised in 20th-century America, simply cannot imagine, which somewhat mitigates his Napoleonic idolatry.

Hugo is now introducing Marius Pontmercy, who is discovering that his father, George Pontmercy, was hero of numerous campaigns under the great modern Cæsar Napoleon. Hugo actually uses the word Cæsar to describe Napoleon, as well as words like these:

Despot but dictator; a despot resulting from a republic and summing up a revolution. Napoleon became for him the man-people as Jesus Christ is the man-God.
I rolled my eyes last night to read such nonsense. Napoleon wasn't even French: he was Corsican, which is (or was at the time) more Italian than French, more Genovese than Parisian. Napoleon spoke French, but with a distinct Italian accent. If I recall correctly (I might not; I'm at the office and I'll have to check it tonight), Lord John Julius Norwich narrates in his History of Venice that when "negotiating" with the Venetians, Napoleon parleyed in fluent Italian.

Then there's the matter of influence. My thoughts were along these lines: For an empire to be truly great, it's not enough to conquer land; you must also hold it. By that measure alone, the Russian, Mongol, Byzantine, Moorish, Venetian, Genovese, Turk, British, and other empires were greater by far than Napoleon's. I'd add that the Aztec, Inca, Mayan, and Zulu empires were greater than Napoleon's; maybe even the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which may or may not be an empire, depending on whether you're a Sicilian gnashing your teeth or a Neapolitan living in Europe's most beautiful city at the time.

If you add the qualification that the empire bring people from backwardness into some semblance of modernity, I'd say that either the British Empire or the Russian Empire of the tsars did far more for their subjects than Napoleon to better his. Note that the Russians liberated their serfs before we Americans liberated our slaves.

"But at his apex, he had gained so much ground!" I'm not willing to concede that, either. Napoleon might in fact have lost more territory than he gained: in his failed quest to conquer Europe, Napoleon sold Louisiana to America, depriving the French empire he inherited of a huge amount of territory.

Hugo thought it marvelous that a man could walk through Europe and see circled N's on many buildings, graffiti left by legions of Frenchmen. That's nothing: anyone can hear the influence of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Longobards, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Turks, Russians, and (lately) Americans on the languages of Europe. In my book, it's a far greater achievement to alter a man's language than to deface his public square.

While I grumbled inwardly on this, Marius Pontmercy was experiencing his conversion from Royalist to Bonapartist, and I realized that Hugo was relating something that he may have experienced personally. This caught my interest for the first time in about 50 pages, and as I read on, I began to realize why Hugo so admires the Revolution and Napoleon. It's not because they conquered foreign countries and built an Empire for France, nor because they introduced a supposedly enlightened form of government.

The most illuminating sentence comes in the following paragraph:
Where he had formerly beheld the fall of the monarchy, he now saw the advent of France.
This line (and a few others like it) finally lit the proverbial light bulb. Royalists identified France with a man: the king — or, more accurately, with a particular family line: the Bourbons. To the Royalist's mind, France and the king were inseparable. France was not a people; France was a man. To depose the king was to descend into anarchy; to kill the king was to commit suicide.

This was true not only of France, but of many other European states: Russia, Prussia, Venice... the list goes on. I personally would argue that Britain had abandoned that mindset some centuries prior, but while Parliament was increasing its power in Britain, continental Europe was sinking deeper into the morass of absolute monarchy.

What Hugo admires most about the French Revolution in general, and Napoleon in particular, is that by committing regicide and dislodging monarchs throughout Europe, they separated the ideas of a nation from the ruler of that nation. They brought greatness to France, so that, rightly or wrongly, the people of France saw their nation as great, not the king. It might be comparable to the differince between saying that dislodging Iraq's armies from Kuwait was the accomplishment of the United States military (and Britain's, and France's, and others), and saying it was the accomplishment of President Bush alone.

This seems obvious to us in the twentieth century, but to an enormous number of Europeans in the early nineteenth century, it was inconceivable. Only after Napoleon's failed quest to become the new Cæsar would serious independence and/or unification movements pick up steam in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere — independence movements, I emphasize, not democratic movements. Most of the resulting nation-states had monarchies which were more or less constitutional.

This is a really good point, and I'm glad Hugo makes it. I wish he'd made it more directly, as he does when wasting words promiscuously on Napoleon's genius, or on the sentimentality of France's superiority to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, it's a very, very good point, and I can agree that the French Revolution, and Napoleon, deserve our respect for that.


jack perry said...

I had written: If I recall correctly (I might not; I'm at the office and I'll have to check it tonight), Lord John Julius Norwich narrates in his History of Venice that when "negotiating" with the Venetians, Napoleon parleyed in fluent Italian.This is (mostly) correct. From page 625: Striding backwards and forwards across the room, the speed and volume of his heavily accented Corsican Italian increasing with every step, [Napoleon] launched into a searing diatribe against Venice, her government and her people, accusing them of perfidy, hypocrisy, incompetence, injustince and — most serious of all in his eyes — hostility to himself and to France, ending with the words that were soon to echo in the heart of every Venetian: 'I will have no more Inquisition, no more Senate. Io sarò un Attila per lo Stato veneto — I shall be an Attila to the State of Venice.'Norwich's History of Venice is by the way a very good book, illustrating well how Venice is a bridge from the Byzantine Empire to modern Europe.

Anonymous said...

I came across a poem today which reminded me of your struggle to slog through Les Miserables without enjoying it much. I post it here with my sympathy:

A Bookmark

Four years ago I started reading Proust.
Although I'm past the halfway point, I still
Have seven hundred pages of reduced
Type left before I reach the end. I will
Slog through. It can't get much more dull than what
Is happening now: he's buying crepe-de-chine
Wraps, and a real, well-documented hat
For his imaginary Albertine.
Oh, what a slimy sort he must have been-
So weak, so sweetly poisonous, so fey!
Four years ago, by God!- and even then
How I was looking forward to the day
I would be able to forgive, at last,
And to forget Remembrance of Things Past.

Tom Disch


PS - A friend of mine appropriated my copy of The Idiot, so for the time being I've switched to Dr. Zhivago, and some lighter things.