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Saturday, March 12, 2005

On Napoleon and Metaphor

A case may be made that histories of the world, or what we have made of the world, belong in the proverbial attic, or not even there. What remains for our view of the complete accounting of the past are merely legacies that exist as tales told to inform through allegory or example. And what does Napoleon teach us about the dynamics and foibles of human nature, and how it plays out on a continental stage? If told well, at the very least it is all quite entertaining, and can be as dramatic and telling as a play by Shakespeare. But the minutiae of Napoleon’s past are not one’s concern because they have no import to our concerns. However, summarize and embellish them with metaphor, and they become the stuff of high drama, and sometimes will bear lessons that are worth repeating. So by remembering the garish outlines of the past, it will help us prevent repeating its mistakes, but it is not Napoleon we need remember but the maxims we learn from his history.

History of course entails a summary and account of human behavior from the soft focus of the eddies and currents of metaphors writ large. Countries and individuals are charged with metaphorical impulses, desires, and needs that cause matter and people to well up like thunder heads. Names for nationalistic, religious, and political movements pin down the genus of our behavior as if a collective point of view was as distinguishable as the wings and body of a butterfly fixed by a needle. But the human imagination embodies the rules it makes for its history, and art, literature and philosophy paint equally vivid pictures of the metaphorical forces that drive collective and individual minds.

But we don’t describe behavior through broad brush strokes that barely hint at the greater structure beneath. Like Chines boxes or a Russian doll, smaller metaphors fit into a larger and infinite regression. To know Napoleon is not to know his victories, but his history, his mind, and if possible, the very events that shaped it. Each one fits into the other. The purpose of course is harmony, the smaller must fit into the larger, and the larger must suggest the outlines of the smaller. If not, there is no harmony, and the puzzle will not fit. Regress has its own laws, its own discipline. To know Napoleon is to know what he had for breakfast. On that fateful day at Waterloo two hundred years ago, it was perhaps a spoiled meal that made for Napoleon’s indigestion that like the proverbial want of a nail lost an empire. We can accept ill fitting metaphors because our knowledge is fuzzy, and we can only approximate the myriad events that are nested within the large scale events that have turned our world.

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