The Glass Walking Stick

THE CODE NAPOLEON 1921 and 1922 I

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1921 and 1922


WHILE being what many would call a fanatic for the French alliance, I cannot bring myself to admire the suggestion that we should alter such names as that of Waterloo Station, out of delicacy towards the French. If once the memory of a national victory is to be regarded as an international insult, France herself would have to apologize to nearly every country in Europe. There is scarcely a city on the Continent the French have not entered in triumph; there is scarcely a flag in the civilized world that the French have not hung on their temples or their triumphal arches; there is scarcely a kingdom or a province that has not the name of a French victory that might be or is the name of a Paris street. If such a reminder to the victors is a reproach to the vanquished, England, as well as Europe, has a right to complain of the monuments of France. Every statue of Joan of Arc is a memorial of English defeat. In short, if we, the English, did really desire to glorify the memory of the Battle I of Waterloo, it would seem that we have adopted a rather dingy and ineffectual way of doing it. We have never been very fortunate with our public monuments, and Waterloo Station would certainly seem to be one of the least felicitous. The great figure on the Colonne de Vendôme can afford to smile at the artistic effort.

But there is another reform, connected with the same set of ideas, which I would very respectfully urge as a substitute. I fear it is a much more radical and even revolutionary reform than the alteration of a name connected with the defeat of Napoleon. It is that we should leave off talking nonsense about Napoleon, and especially talking nonsense against Napoleon. It is, that instead of bothering about whether a large railway shed is named after the Battle of Waterloo, we should actually try to learn something about the Battle of Waterloo and about the real merits and demerits of the European adventure which finally failed there. So drastic and even dramatic a change in our historical habits is certainly more of an undertaking than the alteration of a luggage label from Waterloo to Stockholm or Brest-Litovsk, or some name which our Pacifists might prefer. Men will certainly not forget Waterloo any more than they will forget Napoleon; and since we cannot forget them, we are almost driven back on the desperate expedient of understanding them.

In looking over a large number of English articles and essays touching Napoleon I was astonished to find how insular and even ignorant our national tradition still is on the subject. So far as moral atmosphere is concerned, nothing seems to have changed. Bonaparte is still Boney; nobody denies his genius now; but nobody denied it then. Even those whose very natural emotions at the moment made them insist that he was a great tyrant, a great murderer, a great monster, did not dispute that he was a great man. But what he was doing, what he was driving at, why he was what he was and what the whole terrific business was all about, none of us seems to have had any notion then, and none of us seems to have any notion now. What is wanted is not glorification of Napoleon, still less glorification of him as a demi-god, which is even worse than denunciation of him as a demon. What is wanted is a calm and candid consideration of him as a historical human being, and of the things he stood for, which were much more important than himself. This is the one thing that nobody will do for Napoleon; and the trick by which his reasonable fame still suffers is simple enough.

The trick consists of first artificially attiring him in all the terrors of a superman, and on that ground denying him the rights of a man. Somebody said the devil was a gentleman; and somebody else said that Napoleon was not a gentleman. The trick consists in expressing surprise that he was not a gentleman when we have settled to our own satisfaction that he was the devil. But if we need sanity touching Napoleon in his personal aspect, we need it much more in his public aspect. For the things for which Napoleon really fought were the very contrary of those cloudy and fatalistic things with which his legends have been clothed. If ever a man stood for the strong southern sun against the clouds and the confusing twilight, it was he. What Napoleon stood for was common sense — le bon sens français. That French common sense can sometimes be cruel, but never fatalistic. It despises dooms and omens and hereditary curses and chosen races and all the superstitious necessitarianism of the North. In short, he stood for French freedom and in this sense for French free thought. But if there was another thing he stood for, it was French respectability. He represented a mass of customs and conceptions, of which his English enemies seemed to know nothing and his English admirers to know less. His laws cannot be understood without the French key of domesticity. All his legislation and social reform revolved round the very thing which all our legislation and social reform are seeking to destroy — the family. It was the very reverse of what we call grandmotherly legislation, but it might in one sense be called legislation for grandmothers. The central figure of its family council was that terrible person the French grandmother. If Napoleon was not always a Christian, he was always a pagan, and what paganism would call a pious pagan. He understood the thing that so many French poets express, the veneration of the soil and the invocation of the dead. In all this he was doubt less merely the leader of Latin culture; and all the more because all forms of that culture are rooted in the form we call agriculture. It desires the human family to stand on its own feet, within the frontiers of its own land. With that object it was revolutionary. With that object it is conservative. The French Revolution cannot be under stood, till we realize that it is exactly where the Jacobins went that the Bolshevists cannot follow.

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