The Glass Walking Stick

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Napoleon did once say, among many other random and cynical remarks in a busy life, that he doubted whether he really loved anybody. If human beings in history were treated with half the sympathy and sobriety given to human beings in novels, we should all understand that this was probably the bitter and brief expression of some mood of hardening, common in middle age, but faced with all the realism of a Latin. Napoleon, in early life, had quite certainly loved not wisely but too well. So much for the remark itself. And now let me draw attention to something that went along with it. Immediately after Napoleon had said in his haste that he loved nobody, he corrected himself and added as an after thought some such words as these: ‘Except perhaps Joseph, from a sort of habit; because he is the eldest of us.’ Now, those who regard Napoleon either as Satan or a Superman would never have dreamed of his saying that. It is the very last thing they would expect him to say; it is the very last exception they would expect him to make. They would understand the sinister hero being faithful to one faithless woman; or worshipping some Princesse Lointaine of legendary beauty; or having his weary heart refreshed by a golden-haired child or beggar maid; or taking the advice of some wild prophet or jester in whom anything was tolerated. But that he should still have a humdrum and almost humble attachment to the head of the family, bigger than he in the nursery and the playground, and for no other reason whatever, is an anti-climax to all anarchical romance. The Superman is still actually looking up to his elder brother, simply be cause he is his elder brother. We look for Napoleon and we find Buonaparte ainé. In Thackeray and nearly all English fiction, it is taken for granted, with a laugh, that a fellow can hardly be expected to be very fond of his elder brother. In the Code of the Corsican Ogre it is taken for granted, with entire innocence, that a fellow cannot help being fond of his elder brother, even if it is only a habit. That is what I mean when I say that if we wanted to find the virtues of men like Napoleon we should look for them in the wrong place. That is what I mean when I say that we do not understand even what such a Latin would mean by trying to be good, if he did try to be good. His virtues would startle us by their staleness. The devil would hardly become anything so romantic as a monk; but rather a bourgeois. He would be domestic and almost dowdy.

In short, Napoleon may or may not have had all these fancy virtues and vices of the strong man; but, anyhow, there was something that was stronger than Napoleon. There was something that he served and did not really pretend to rule. He served his own family; and he served the whole institution of the family. Much of the Code Napoléon turns upon it, and its economic expression in a peasantry. It is the supreme and sacred institution of Latin society; and whether we are to be friends or foes of that society, we shall be wise to understand it better. The men who are professing to reconcile all nations do not attempt to understand it at all.

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