Opinion | Napoleon, Once a Legend, Is Now a Mere Movie Star

“History,” the essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840, “is the biography of great men” – and of these, Napoleon, whom Carlyle described as “our chief contemporary wonder”, was considered by many to be the greatest. . The “little corporal” who became a general and then emperor, the revolutionary who overthrew a dynasty only to establish his own, rapidly became an international legend after his death in 1821, admired and condemned in equal measure. done. The ambitious dreamed of emulating him; The inmates of the asylum believed in him Were Him. And now we find him, nearly 200 years later, once again larger than life, on IMAX screens and in multiplexes in Ridley Scott’s new epic “Napoleon.”

So why does Mr. Scott’s choice of topic feel like a throwback? When the philosopher Hegel saw Napoleon on horseback in 1806, he declared him nothing less than “the soul of the world.” Now, even if we can register Napoleon’s widespread influence, he still does not stir our emotions the way he once did. Still has admirers among the world’s would-be autocrats: When Silvio Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister, he reportedly bought the royal bed (before widening it) and used the emperor’s name to greet Vladimir Putin when he came to visit. Hung a picture. But for the rest of us, Napoleon has turned from one of those historical heroes about whose life and exploits it is impossible to remain neutral – like Hitler or Stalin – into a titan distant from time and defeated, like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

What has changed is not the story of Napoleon, but our sense of the possibilities it once represented. The basic source of his appeal was that he seemed to embody something quite unprecedented in human affairs: the unknown man who through his genius succeeds in becoming the agent of history, overthrowing social and political norms. As a vehicle for change on an epic scale, Napoleon reestablished the Romantic hero as a man of action, and his rise to power came at a time when mass political activism was a new and revolutionary force, brimming with optimism.

Today, faith in the future is waning. People (with the possible exception of Mr. Putin) are unlikely to see themselves as heroes of history. Like other film directors who have worked on the subject, Mr. Scott has used Napoleon’s biography and love life as the basis for a biopic, but the legend of Napoleon always rested on more than a surprising thread. Is: It reflects the aspirations of an era that now feels very distant from our own.

For one thing, the way war is conducted today bears little relation to the military life that was Napoleon’s path to power and fame. In 1977, Mr. Scott’s first feature film, “The Duelists,” explored the wonderfully obsessive strangeness of the military code of honor in the Napoleonic era. But in our age of remotely targeted drones, killer robots, insurgents, and collateral damage, neither the duel nor the battlefield provides a proving ground for virtue. The battle scenes in Mr. Scott’s latest film present only nostalgic anachronisms: drawn swords and wild cavalry offer few moral lessons at a time when our models of leadership are more likely to do battle in corporate boardrooms, their greatness their wealth. Is measured from.

Another essential instrument of Napoleon’s success, his rhetoric, fared no better. The writer Alfred de Vigny once described a generation of French writers as having “grown up on the emperor’s bulletins”; Napoleon’s proclamations, first to his troops and then to his country, increased his popularity. Image mattered to Napoleon, to be sure – the great imperial portraits make this clear – but visuals circulated much slower than texts, which were the primary source of his political power. His legal reforms changed much of the world, and memoirs and biographies have secured his legend. In our age of TikTok and headline-grabbing tweets, nothing may be harder for us to grasp than the cultural power of rhetorical tradition.,

But it is Napoleon, the great man at the pinnacle of history, who now seems most distant. Over the past few months, one thing has come to light MEME, It shows a photo of the former emperor in exile on St. Helena, sitting dejectedly on the shore, accompanied by the line: “We can do nothing.” This meme is an epitome of the Napoleonic myth. An image that was intended to show a great leader as a contemplative intellectual now portrayed him as powerless and isolated from the world and its affairs. He has become a shadow of his former self, a justification for inaction. This is a Napoleon that still resonates today.

Maybe we shouldn’t mourn too much. The crimes of the dictators of the mid-20th century make it difficult to trust again a great national leader who led us to glory. But our contemporary sense of being helplessly battered by forces beyond our control – in the global economy, in the changing climate – is a less comfortable reason why Napoleon no longer speaks to us the way he once did.

Strong on perseverance and ambition, Mr. Scott’s “Napoleon” is a multimillion-dollar blockbuster with all the trimmings, offering captivating battles, lavish costumes and the always enjoyable spectacle of a world conqueror conquered by a woman. Yet its arrival is a reminder that Napoleon no longer exists for us as a myth or model; Now, he just entertains. Greatness is an aspiration for tomorrow, a glorious failure: “We can do nothing.” Unable to dream of emulating them, we sit and watch them.

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia.

Source Photos by Kevin Baker/Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures and Getty Images.

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