Coincidentally: Old Boney

A reflection of Mark Twain abides: “How often we recall with regret that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity that his intentions were good.” Sympathetic words these, spurring the hope that my list of curiosities about Napoleon Bonaparte, the “Boney” of so many Anglo-Saxon nightmares, will not suffer on the Procrustes bed of the editor’s desk.

Of all his books, Twain loved best his biography of Joan of Arc, so it is right to reflect that Napoleon revived the dormant cult of Joan, putting up a statue to her in Orleans in 1803. Coincidentally, 100 years later, not a year less or more, Marshall Foch stunned France by suggesting that Napoleon lacked measure. Napoleon’s genius is certain. His vulgarity was evident long before he reminisced about Josephine’s physiognomy in his last exile. That he was more the natural child of fate than the adopted child of circumstance has volumes of attestation. If all the strange events of his life were nothing but coincidental, their sheer number would itself be a paramount coincidence.

In the enthusiasm of so many for their emperor, moderation was not a virtue. Their representative figure, the legendary soldier Nicholas Chauvin, for whom chauvinism is named, was delighted to have been wounded 17 times for Napoleon. After the Russian disaster, the notorious Twenty-Ninth Bulletin from the front neglected to mention the half-million French casualties but announced, “His Majesty’s health has never been better.” Messianism attached itself to Napoleon with facts like these: He became first counsel on a Friday in 1797, crowned himself emperor on a Friday in 1804, and began his journey to St. Helena on a Friday in 1815. As a capstone to all that, the British Crown ceded possession of his grave to the king of France on a Friday in 1821. On July 15, 1915, 100 years to the day after Napoleon’s surrender, Austro-German forces like jagged lightning launched their offensive along the eastern front.

The vessel on which the British received Napoleon’s surrender was the H.M.S. Bellerophon. This was not by design, at least not by human design. I point this out because Bellerophon in Greek mythology was the heroic slayer of the Chimera. The morose July 15, 1815, also witnessed one of history’s grandest homophonic sentences, a homophone being, we might say, a verbal coincidence. It happened thus: Napoleon stood silent on the deck for a painful while and then muttered with resignation, “Cast off, it is time to go.” Only the Corsican said it in his accented French, which he had learned at the age of ten: “A l’eau, c’est l’heure.”

A young British sailor standing on deck did not know the gilded tongue of mankind’s golden race. Under the impression that the fallen emperor was speaking English, the sailor was flattered by what he mistook for familiarity and later reported that Napoleon had the courtesy to address him, “Hello, sailor.”

Five years earlier on a happier day, Napoleon married the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. In that year, with little fanfare, a light-boned waist corset was introduced and made an almost immediate impact on the world of fashion. Josephine may have been left by the wayside, but her daughter, Hortense Beauharnais, gave birth to the future Napoleon III. As he was dying from stomach cancer, he routinely reviewed his troops on horseback, propped up by one of the light-boned waist corsets invented in 1810.

When he was isolated on St. Helena, Napoleon was a little like Chateaubriand, of whom Talleyrand said, “He thinks himself dead because he no longer hears himself talked of.” Thinking about his drenched battlefields and vacant thrones, he would have agreed with baby-boomer wisdom: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power is kind of neat.” But he was far from heartless. His last testament pulled on Gallican heartstrings by willing that his heart be buried by the Seine among the people he had loved. It was the last breath of his olympian cynicism—it was sincere cynicism, a half-messiah’s way of saying, “My word is half-truth.” The half- truths of the immoral are better than the whole lies of the amoral who govern much of politics now. The latter do not want to be messiahs. They only want power to shoot the publishers. Editors in their cross hairs are not worth a bullet.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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