August 6, 2008

War and Love

I inexplicably purchased Ida Tarbell’s Napoleon for six bucks at a sale, an 1895 edition with the binding ruined. To make it worse, I read it. It had some astonishing photos I examined with a magnifying glass. It was rather a romantic view of the man, and she hadn’t much access to documents about his affairs, but the book was readable and revealing nonetheless. I didn’t realize how much Napoleon had to do with the form and content of modern France. Looked at from today, it’s obvious what Napoleon wanted was a European Union (with France in command, of course,) and a Common Market. He hated England and he hated them with good reason. They ruled the world! He wanted to rule the world. I can understand that, because sometimes I do too. Sometimes things are so stupid you know you could do a better job. It’s a “Napoleonic complex?” Well I’m not the only one who has it, but unlike the President I’m not in a position to do any harm with it. It’s kind of fun. It’s almost a game. Everyday I see this or that part of the world I could bring order and justice to with a modicum of common sense and a good army. I know I never will of course conquer much less rule the world (God rules the world) but it’s fun imagining it. There are so many things I would do differently. Wouldn’t you?

Another thing I think about sometimes: If reincarnation is real, can we be reincarnated into the past, or is everything set in stone? If we can, I want to be reincarnated as Napoleon, because I still want to try my hand at ruling the world. I’m not so sure it wouldn’t have been better if the French had kept Louisiana. Napoleon would have done better keeping good armies on the border of France and sending one over here to keep the Americans out. After all, the French married the Indians and abolished slavery before we did. Easterners might need a passport to reach California, but, oh well. We wouldn’t be so big and maybe we’d be less arrogant and more of us could speak French, a lovely language. And the Midwest would be French, good farmers. I mean look at this corrupt, toxic chemical waste dump of Louisiana, and tell me the Americans know what they are doing.

See, things could have been different, if only this or that had happened instead. We all know this, but knowing it doesn’t stop us from doing stupid things. The future will never get here so it isn’t our problem. Too many think of “the future” as some period after we’re dead. But it just got here. In the end, it is the character or lack of it in ourselves and our leaders that lets the Americans have Louisiana for a pittance and gives revolution a bad name, or sends armies to invade nations we don’t like. But, think about it: How can sane people hate a whole nation? And what if we hadn’t invaded Iraq? Or Vietnam? What sort of world would we live in today? What sort of world would they live in?

Years ago in Texas I read a book about Napoleon’s 12 military campaigns. Then in a thrift shop I saw a small and affordable bronze bust of him about three inches high and bought it. I glued it to the dashboard of my old C-10 Chevy truck. It was like a hood ornament only inside. I even thought about having it braised to the hood, but I knew someone would take it, or maybe an Englishman would smash it. I had a Persian friend in Galveston who asked if I “admired Napoleon?” I don’t remember what I answered. I probably said no so I wouldn’t be politically incorrect. I knew that to some Napoleon was the Hitler of his day. But on the other hand he didn’t set up death camps, and his laws couldn’t have been too bad. The Napoleonic Code is still around today, even in Louisiana. (Don’t ask me anything about it.). Today I might have answered Jason, “yes,” because the truth as I see it is that as far as “dictators” go Napoleon wasn’t as bad as Bush. Sure he wrecked a lot of the world, but the world got something back, and most of it was rebuilt. And Napoleon had the foresight to recognize Serbia as a nation, the only world leader to do so. If other nations had followed his lead there might not have been a WW I or WW II, since they both started there. The only thing Bush is bringing back is misery, a plummeting economy and a horde of new enemies. If push ever comes to shove in the Middle East or South Asia and we nuke somebody for sinking an aircraft carrier, there won’t be any clean-up and the rebuilding will be delayed for the 26,000 years it will take for radiation to reach acceptable levels, assuming there are still humans about who can measure it or build anything.

When Napoleon returned with the treasures of Ancient Egypt, he enlightened Europeans and the whole human race about some of our unknown or forgotten history. Of course, the Egyptians were robbed of their treasures-- so was everybody else Napoleon conquered—but on the other hand that stolen wealth is what built modern France, and that isn’t so bad, except for the atomic bombs and such. The treasures are still on display for anyone even the Egyptians to see. Maybe someday the Egyptians will get them back as the Greeks might yet recover the Elgin marbles stolen from the Acropolis by England. Also, don’t forget Sartre, Camus, Celine and Bridget Bardot. And French politics are, you must admit, hilarious. And sooner or later there has to be something better than the Suez Canal to result from the discovery of Egypt. It’s a mess now. We might as well not have learned about the place, for all the quarrelsome squalor of it, which our brave country had a hand in making, by paying the bills and arming-to-the-teeth one dictator after another. Like the Vietnamese and now the Iraqis, Afghanistanis, Pakistanis, Somalis and a dozen other peoples around the world, Egyptians are only pawns in the game. What game? "The Great Game." It used to be about competition between major nations for control of trade routes, and still is.

As Ho Chi Minh said in a good poem: “At the correct moment, a pawn can deliver victory.” But a victory for whom? And for what? And which pawn?

What did I know about Napoleon? I was reading all kinds of books about the French Revolution, bewildering accounts of one of the most momentous events in modern history. What a bloody mess! Nearly as bad as now. The forces that impelled nations and peoples to bloody revolution and aggressive war still are extant, of course. I don’t think they will ever disappear until humans quit lying and stealing. They were yanking people off the street and putting them in the great patriotic army, or throwing them into prison and cutting off their heads. Good men and women, though venal and cowardly by Nature, disgusted, confused, wronged, misled and uneducated like ourselves, struggling against one another and all of them in a tragically-culpable villainy for a “noble cause,” or mere survival. Isn’t it the same thing today? You think Danton, Marat and Robespierre had character defects? It was an unbelievable time, much like today really. Rich women were all but worshipped. They walked around half-naked and presumably putting out like rabbits. Men died for them, or swore they would. Was the blow job actually born in France, or only popularized? (Nobody wanted to be pregnant.) Mark Twain alluded to it when he wrote about "French depravity." It wasn’t born there because hieroglyphs show pharaohs being serviced by kneeling women. Does that get you hot? Imagine what France was like after Napoleon restored order and the rich could come out and party again. It must have been a drunken orgy. I mean, look at the pictures of the day, the opulence, the low necklines, the full pouty lips, the bemused arrogant looks of the young men and knowing eyes of the old. Good art.

Another little-considered thing is that WW I vets returning from France must have had something to do with stimulating the feminist movement here. Puritanical and inexperienced American women didn’t do that sort of thing, did they? At least not then. But soon they were wearing short skirts, scandalizing their parents by smoking, and doing things in the backs of cars. Today American women are getting rings in their tongues, they say, because it helps them do it better. What the modest Muslims think of this isn’t a mystery. Do you wonder why they call us “decadent.” Now there is even a small movement for “public sex.” Oh that’s a great idea, for when the anarchists occupy the moon, as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s great book, The Dispossessed.

If I ever have to retreat from Russia with a freezing army and hordes of infuriated Russians on my tail, I will have oxen towing medium-sized wagons fireproofed within, where coals attended by rotating soldiers produce heat for freezing soldiers to seat themselves over and warm up. Fewer frostbite casualties, more men to fight. This contraption could also keep drinking water from freezing. A factory full of wheelwrights could turn them out like Higgins Boats, (See, I can even improve on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.) Also, I would have expected to get caught by winter because overconfidence has routed more armies than spears or bullets, and I’m a cautious dude. I would have brought along a train of warm clothing and blankets in case. But I wouldn’t have invaded Russia in the first place. What’s the point? As soon as you relax your grip or die they are just going to invade you back. History proves that. People and nations don’t forget. You don’t think the Indians or Mexicans have forgotten what we took from them do you? It took the Spanish 800 years to kick the Arab Muslims out, but they did it. Of course we should thank those “Moors” for rescuing and bringing to Europe the ancient texts of Greece to teach us arithmetic and algebra, so it wasn’t all bad. Plus, Muslims really knew how to draw, and their architecture isn’t bad either. On the other hand, arithmetic and algebra led to the 100-megaton bomb, so maybe we shouldn’t have learned it. I mean, what good is the beauty of mathematics if there are no humans to see it? So there’s an upside and a downside to everything.

Have some consideration for the future of your people, Mr. President, and for your nation, your species, and your race. What you do or don’t do today will ripple out through the pools of time and affect everything. You go over to Iraq like gangbusters and shoot the place up, blow up their buildings, destroy bridges and water plants, shut off the electricity, run the officials who know how to run essential systems into the desert, poison everything with radioactive explosives,(nuclear warfare) bring education to a dead stop, throw everybody out of work, let the gangs take over so you’ll have somebody to fight, turn the cities and towns into no-man’s land, kill kids for throwing rocks or looking threatening, kick down doors, search intimate places, disrespect women and the old, “mis-fire” your deadly rockets, cause heart attacks, cancer and despair, spread fear like smoke, overload the hospital system, blow up whole neighborhoods to get one guy, lock people up for no reason other than that they are young or able, or had stood up for their right not to be insulted, not to have their religions or traditions disrespected, not to have their petroleum stolen, and so on. And now you say it’s all for friendship. In the end, if there ever is an end, you will leave a “friendly Iraq,” with a government more in-line with our own idea of what a good, democratic government should be. Do you get how arrogant that looks? These people were handling their own governments when your European ancestors were building grass shacks on the riverbanks. Not to mention all the American servicemen and women coming home dead, wounded, traumatized, paralyzed, anesthetized or otherwise ruined from having done this “patriotic work.” And the VA system is falling apart.

Napoleon sent back as booty to Paris 25 Raphaels, 23 Titians, 53 Reubens, 23 van Dykes, and 31 Rembrandts, as a small sample of some of the stuff he adorned the Louvre with (which he built.) He also built ports and canals, roads and bridges, forts and public buildings. He improved education and provided equal access to the culture and decades of future learning. For starters he put an end to the disorder of the Terror by blowing the hell out of the feared Paris mob with one cannon (he was an artilleryman,) and returned to the business of Public Administration the skills and expertise of better-experienced and sometimes intelligent and goodhearted men who happened to be aristocrats. He allowed more than 150,000 of them amnesty and gave back much of the property which had been seized. Like Alexander Hamilton in America and Hitler in Germany, he knew you couldn’t do it without the rich. He built up native industries and started new ones. He changed agriculture, reduced taxes and made them more fair, and was also responsible for some of the early coordinated efforts to teach communication skills to the blind, which resulted in Braile. He created the Red Legion of Merit to award the high and the low for deeds benefiting the Republic.

Compare those achievements with President Bush’s. At least the French got something for his war-making, even if England did shove it back up their butts in the end. However, the Louvre is still there, and so is the rest of it. But what have we got? High prices, plummeting dollars, an infrastructure falling down like autumn leaves, less education, bad health care, more homeless, an out-of-control prison-building program, the highest murder rate in the world outside of Iraq and the aversion or hatred of more than half the nations of earth.

We speak English and the English hated Napoleon, so it’s natural that we have sort of a bad opinion of him. But it’s not that simple, is it? Today Napoleon is only another world-conquering hero who lost in the end anyway, as most of them do. He’s a character in a romantic fiction we entertain about the past, irrelevant and meaningless in today’s world. The stuff of movies and novels. Can someone tell me why men posed for portraits and later photos with their right hand in their shirts? Because Napoleon did it?

The contradiction I see about Napoleon is that he was said to be a great lover of women. I imagine he was a womanizer. How could the Emperor not be? But I don’t know. What I do believe is that he must have loved—you can see it in his appreciation for art—and the French launched a lovemaking marathon after he set up Court. Well, love is the opposite of war. Or is it?

This is from “The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©,” by Carson McCullers:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know this. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added that the lover need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be a man, woman, or child, or indeed any human creature on earth.

“Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be a stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a simple and tender idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

“It is for this reason that most of us would rather make love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved hates and fears the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can only cause pain.”

So Napoleon Bonaparte, it seems to me, must have been driven by something other than a “Napoleonic complex;” --a wish to rule the world. He must have wanted to make the world a better place, because it is evident that he tried to. Was he driven also by love? Is there a man, excepting Hitler, who has not felt love, unless he had a chronic brain disorder or was created sociopath by genes and upbringing? Did Napoleon have a love for people or at least a true patriotic love for his (adopted) nation, which fueled his passion to rule it? If France was the beloved and Napoleon the lover, was he trying to make her strip? And did France hate and fear him at the same time she called him her Savior and fell to her knees before him?

I ask, because this is the dilemma I face. If I ever do get a chance to rule the world (considering that God can do anything He wants,) do I have enough love to keep from becoming the Hannibal Lechter of world-conquerors? Hitler didn’t. Bush doesn’t seem to have any either, though I imagine he loves his family. Napoleon’s damage produced at least some good but Bush’s won’t. If Bush loves his country it is a “perverted love,” like that of the cruel Marquis de Sade, who loved his victims. This thing that Bush is doing and Obama’and McCain are prepared to escalate is an atrocity far worse than anything Napoleon (and possibly Hitler) ever did. This is the war that can burn up the world. History will tell. If there’s anybody left to write it.

Consider this: Nearly every nation involved in the developing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan has enough atom bombs to destroy the planet. America, Russia, England, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China, they all are involved. It takes only one madman with some pretty dumb followers to do the job. Pakistan and India are having shootouts on the border and blowing up embassies. They almost blew the world up a few years ago. Quit stirring the pot of hatred with violence.

Stop it now. Come home and make another plan. Put the army on the borders to make them tight. Let the corporations with the unfair labor deals and out-of-control profits whom we protect either clean up their act so they won’t be attacked, or go out of business or pay their own damned armies. Train large special units to respond to natural or manmade disasters. Store food and supplies. Lower food prices. Improve health care. Put a trillion dollars into repairing the infrastructure. You’ll be sorry as hell if you don’t.

________

Another reincarnation I wouldn’t mind would be Pushkin. I’m sure I could have found a way to get away from Alexander and Russia. But that’s another fantasy, for another day when I can’t think of anything else to write about. I know it seems trivial and irrelevant. But I bet I can connect it somehow to this stupid situation going on overseas. Fiddling with the past reveals a myriad selection of futures that never made it.

You just have to follow the ripples through the rapids of war and love, and stay focused.

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