For you will live as it were in a theatre in which the spectators are the whole world.My copy of Nerval, graciously lent me by a friend, contains an interesting (if logical) juxtaposition of three poems evidently scribbled out in the wake of the Revolution of 1830. First is "Le peuple," a celebration of the triumphant spirit of the people in its various aspects; second, "Les doctrinaires," an injunction addressed to Victor Hugo to cease glorifying the despot Napoleon; third, "En avant marche!", a bittersweet battle hymn about the Grande Armée's glory and destruction. The three poems seem to be in profound contradiction: how can you separate the glory of Austerlitz from the betrayal of liberty? The people from their own despot? But the conflict is only apparent: the poems clash because they reflect only partial truths, shards of a complete mirror.
- Maecenas, advice to Octavian (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LII)
A bas ! A bas donc petits hommes !
Nous avons vu Napoléon !
Petits ! - Tu l'as bien dit, Victor, lorsque du Corse
Ta voix leur évoquait le spectre redouté,
Montrant qu'il n'est donné qu'aux hommes de sa force
De violer la Liberté !
C'est le dernier ; nous pouvons le prédire
Et jamais nul pouvoir humain
Ne saura remuer ce globe de l'Empire
Qu'il emprisonnait dans sa main !
... Ne nous le chante plus, Victor,
Lui, que nous aimons tant, hélas !
- Gérard de Nerval, "Les doctrinaires" (1830)
If we can reassemble it, we can find, perhaps, an answer to Tolstoy, an answer to the centuries-old historiographical consensus. Is history made by great men? Yes, Nerval is driven to admit, and it is glorious, despite their crimes. But it seems that his Napoleon does not make history by virtue of being short, or having a cold at Waterloo, or even being Corsican. He does it because he personifies, embodies, portrays, the Revolutionary impulse that needed expression so desperately; it is the part of Napoleon, in its full theatrical dramatis personae sense of the word, that is important, not the man.
In the early months of this blog I was preoccupied with François Furet's essay on the structural roles established by the French Revolution for all the revolutions that followed. Furet's insight is remarkable; but what he's missing, perhaps, is that the role of Napoleon existed well before Napoleon himself arrived. Like Octavian, like Charlemagne, Napoleon crystallized within himself the aspirations of an entire age (a story well told, surprisingly, in Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution). Thus, in a significant sense, his political career was a performance, a playing out of the historical destiny of the Napoleonic figure. This, maybe, is why Nietzsche loved him so much: Napoleon was a living demonstration of amor fati, loving and becoming one with one's fate.
The 22-year-old Nerval, writing his verses after the decidedly un-Napoleonic Orleanist coup, could not have not felt a pang of nostalgia for the eighteenth Brumaire. For, although July represented a victory for the popular spirit of liberty, there was no liberal Napoleon to lead them. His absence reverberates throughout these poems; though he was a despot, criminal, traitor, in 1830 we no longer even have the choice to reject him, and Nerval's appeals to Hugo are tinged with the pain of the loss. "He is the last."
It may be best to think of this vision of history as a field of space-time: the roles of great men are black holes, empty of content, which bend the surface of the field so that nothing in the vicinity can escape feeling the effect. We cannot observe them directly, but we can watch the rays of light, the spirit of the century, bend around and accommodate themselves to the disturbance. After all, there can be no dichotomy between a history made by great men and a history made by crowds; the great man only exists, is only detectable, because of the (cultural, ideological, social) masses that are forced to deal with his existence.