Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Little Military Marching Music, Please


The Arc de Triomphe today
     Mark Twain may not have liked the French but he did like Napoleon III.  How could that be?  
     Could it have the Emperor's uniform?  The military music? The artillery display?  The horses?  His hat?
     At first, frankly, Twain's high opinion of Napolean III seems inexplicable.  But it's also incontrovertable.  Sure, he puts in a disclaimer that he "cannot feel friendly toward" the emperor  because of how he treated Maximillian of Mexico.  But then he goes on to praise the French ruler not just once but three times in The Innocents Abroad.  The first time occurs when Twain ditches the International Exposition to go watch Napoleon III review 25,000 troops with his guest, the Sultan of Turkey, at the Arc de Triomphe, the second when he sees the emperor riding in a grand carriage through the Bois de Boulogne, the third when Twain  returns from Versailles through the slums of Faubourg St. Antoine.  
     Twain makes no bones about his delight at seeing the military review.  "I had a greater anxiety to see these men than I could have had to see twenty expositions," he admits.  So he and his companions stand on a board somebody has laid across a couple of barrels and join the cheering crowd for the fanfare and parade.  "There was a sound of distant music," Twain writes,
      in another minute a pillar of dust came moving slowly toward us; a moment more and then, with colors flying and a grand crash of military music, a gallant array of cavalrymen emerged from the dust and came down the street on a gentle trot.  After them came a long line of artillery; then more cavalry, in splendid uniforms; and then their imperial majesties Napoleon III and Abdul Azziz.  The vast concourse of people swung their hats and shouted --the windows and housetops in the wide vicinity burst into a snowstorm of waving handkerchiefs, and the wavers of the same mingled their cheers with those of the masses below.  It was a stirring spectacle.
      It's hard to give Twain too hard a time about the military parade since it's the equivalent of taking in an action movie today.  In fact, I watched the current French President, Francois Hollande, do pretty much the same thing on TV the other day: He reviewed the troops--this year including those from Mali because of France's recent engagement there--in a grand military cermony to celebrate 14 Juillet, the  equivalent of the Fourth of July.  We call it Bastille Day and associate it with the start of the French Revolution, though there's an alternate interpretation of the holiday. Whichever is true, I can see how the sounds and sights of the spectacle simply got Twain's his adrenaline going.
     But then he calls Napoleon III "the representative of the highest modern civilization, progress, and refinement."  Meanwhile, he compares the Sultan to a butcher, "a man whose whole appearance somehow suggested that if he only had a cleaver in his hand and a white apron on," he'd be asking, "A mutton roast today, or will you have a nice porterhouse steak?" The Emperor is "the brilliant adventurer" but the Sultan is "the genius of Ignorance."  
     Maybe Twain's preference for a ruler in a brimmed hat over one in a fez reflects a bias for West over East, Occident over Orient?  Surely there's some--in fact a lot--of that.  "Here in brilliant Paris [what?], under this majestic Arch of Triumph, the first century greets the nineteenth," Twain writes.  He also prefers how Napoleon III "rebuilt Paris" and "augmented the commerial prosperity of France in ten years" to how the Sultan "sleeps, sleeps, eats, eats, idles with his eight hundred conbumbines," though the former lived in pretty lavish circumstances by then himself.  Twain doesn't seem to mind, either, that in order to achieve this remaking of  Paris with Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III tore down the poor quarters of Paris, displacing the people there to make way for the grand boulevards--and conveniently getting rid of revolutionary hotbeds at the same time. You'd think that might have bothered Twain, who'd been pretty poor himself. 
     So why does Twain speak so well of the French emperor?  I think it's because he likes Napoleon's III failure-to-success story, which has, well, a kind of American course to it.  For those Americans a bit rusty on their Napoleonic history--and who isn't?-- Napoleon III wasn't the grandson of Napoleon I but his nephew,  his brother's son.  He grew up with his mother in Switzerland and Germany, and was exiled several times, back to Switzerland as well as to England, Italy, and once even to the U.S.  He was sentenced to life in prison after one failed coup attempt and lived an impoverished life before escaping and assuming power at last.  He extended French colonial power in places as far-flung as China and Mexico and launched wars including the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussion War.  After a humilitating defeat and surrender in Prussia (in 1870, three years after the Quaker City trip), he died in exile in England. 
    Given all that, Twain admires Napoleon III's  "Energy, Persistence, Enterprise."  He likes the guy's struggle, poverty, failure, and eventual success:
      This is the man who was sneered at and reviled and called Bastard--yet who was dreaming of a crown and an empire all the while; who was driven into exile--but carried his dreams with him; who associated with the common herd in America and ran foot races for a wager--but still sat upon a throne of fancy; who braved every danger to go to his dying mother--and grieved that she could not be spared to see him cast aside his plebeian vestments for the purple of royalty; who kept his faithful watch and walked his weary beat a common policeman of London--but dreamed the while of a coming night when he should tread the long-drawn corridors of the Tulleries...found himself a prisoner, the butt of small wits, a mark for the pitiless ridicule of all the world--yet went on dreaming of coronations and splendid pageants as before; who lay a forgotten captive in the dungeons of Ham--and still schemed and planned and pondered over future glory and future power--President of France at last!...Who talks of the marvels of fiction?  Who speaks of the wonders of romance?

Franz Xaver Winterhalter's portrait of Napoleon III
     What Twain likes, to put it simply, is Napoleon's III story.  It's a good, big tale, so big and unlikely, in fact, that it's almost a tall tale.  Who could believe the whole thing, Twain wonders, and he's right.  Without a doubt, Napoleon III's biography has the dimensions of fiction; it's a great swashbuckling adventure, featuring the Emperor as its hero.
       It's also, with its ups and downs--its success on the heels of so many setbacks--a very American kind of story.
     Napoleon III, it turns out, lived a French version of the American dream.  That exact phrase may not yet have been coined, but Twain knew the plot--and, with his references to "dreams" and "dreaming," he comes pretty close to coining it himself.
     The Emperor's tale as an American success story--who but Twain could imagine that?

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