Saturday, May 5, 2007

The 5th of May

Portrait of Napoleon by David

As I have determined to write about Festivals and rituals both of celebration and commemoration, I cannot ignore the 5th of May.

From earliest childhood, the 5th of May has been an important day of the year for me. Others may know it primarily as the 'Cinco de Maya', a festival that celebrates Mexican independence. I always wore a black armband on this day, making me extremely unpopular in some quarters to those who mistakenly assumed that I was opposed to Mexican independence for some reason. I wish that Cinco de Maya were NOT the 5th of May, but inherent in the very name of the festival is the day itself. (Ironically, it is a Mexican victory over the French army of Napoleon III that Cinco de Maya celebrates.)

The 5th of May is the day on which Napoleon died. Even now, when I have become painfully aware of the shortcomings of the man and the political mistakes he made, I continue to admire the hero. Napoleon Bonaparte was my first love. I dreamed of him, and I made a pilgrimage to Les Invalides each time I visited Paris. When possible, I laid a tiny offering of violets at his tomb.

When I think of Napoleon, I do not think of the Emperor in all his glory. I think of the painfully shy young man, slightly alienated from his peers, an outsider with a Corsican accent, who yet believed in his destiny and followed his star with unshakable determination. To me, that was his greatest accomplishment: his belief in himself and in his duty to change the world.

The fact that he was able to endear himself to the common soldier, to share their privations and their hardships and to inspire the sort of loyalty that allowed him to return from Elba and create a new army from nothing... that is the Napoleon I admire.

To me, his greatest flaws were his execrable taste in women and his misguided campaigns in the Arab world and Russia. The Code Napoleon is an incredible accomplishment, and he did not delegate his tasks to others. He was the sort of man who had to be involved personally in every detail.

If I had been born in that period and had the extraordinary good fortune to meet him, I suspect that I might not have fancied him as much as I did as a teenage girl from the distance of two centuries. Even so, I would like to think that I would have recognised his greatness and not viewed him with the same sort of profound disgust with which I judge most politicians. To Napoleon's credit, he was NOT a politician but a leader and a general. There is a difference. A half-wit like George Bush can strut about in military accoutrements pretending to be some one, but at the end of the day, his claim to fame will rest solely upon his crimes against humanity, and those were committed by other men and women acting in his name.

My continuing fascination with Napoleon really cannot be justified intellectually at this point in my life. It is founded now upon nostalgia and memories of my own adolescence. Nonetheless, I must salute my Emperor on the 5th of May as I have done since I was a child.

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