If you are young and ambitious, whom can you idolise? Of course, Alexander the Great comes to mind. By his thirties he had conquered most of the world known to the ancient Macedonians. Such military feats seem incompatible with mortality. Thus the titular protagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet incredulously asks, “Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ th’ earth?”
The privileged few — who are born into opulence, placed under the tutelage of the finest teachers and quietly succeed to the throne — may well be daunted by the thought of Alexander. Yet he cannot intimidate the underprivileged many. It is not as if he began as a lowly artillery officer, rose through the ranks during a bloody revolution, overthrew the government in a coup d’état and installed himself as First Consul.
Napoleon Bonaparte is the idol of every commoner who aspires to become uncommon. Classical literature is teeming with his fictional devotees. Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black “was above all things ambitious” and always carried a portrait of Napoleon. Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment explains his atrocious deeds, “I wanted to make myself a Napoleon, and that is why I killed her …” In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man we learn that “Stephen, who had read of Napoleon’s plain style of dress, chose to remain unadorned”. Et cetera.
Vautrin sourly asserts in Balzac’s Father Goriot, “… [T]o cut the Gordion Knot with a sword … you have to be Alexander, or else you go to jail.” No doubt this alludes to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequent confinement on the island of Saint Helena. Yet Napoleon’s downfall is precisely what makes him so relatable. In Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, an exhausted Pechorin collapses into bed and sleeps “like Napoleon after Waterloo.” Who has not experienced such sleep?
The National Gallery of Victoria was home to Napoleon: Revolution to Empire from 2 June to 7 October. It showcased hundreds of objects from the 1770s to 1820s, including paintings, furniture and jewellery. But even if you missed the exhibition, don’t dismiss Bonaparte. As the brilliant English poet John Clare wrote in The Rural Muse: “The heroes of the present & the past Were puny vague & nothingness to thee Thou grasped a span almighty to the last & strained for glory when thy die was cast …”