December 27th, 2008

Admirable Words (III)

The truth is that like all great French generals and statesmen, I am a man of action by default. My real vocation was to be a writer but my early stories were rejected by corrupt monarchist editors who wished to suppress the truth about Corsica. Before they went to the blade, my poems were taped to their mouths. Now I feel most myself in the night silence of my tent, the candles sputtering, the white paper stretching out in creamy reams softer than the eyeball of an empress. My letters to Josephine, my diaries of war, but most of all the words unwritten, the vast armies that have sunk into the whiteness of paper like my troops into the snow of the endless Russian plains.

Lost, yes, because words cannot equal the splendour of these pre-dawn hours, the wonder of being alone in a tent near tomorrow’s battlefield. Outside my canvas the starry sky sparkles over the heads of my sleeping troops, four hundred thousand men lurching towards the dawn, toward the first light that will jerk them awake, full of fear and hunger and that wild chaos only I can harness, only I can turn into an orderly hurricane of violence that will send them flying into the enemy, hacking and being hacked until their skins split, their bones shatter, their blood masses in stinking pools slowly draining to dark patches on the earth so at the end of the day, as the sun sets on the dead and the dying, as the cries of the wounded rise above the surgeons’ saws and the hasty whispered prayers of my priests, I, Napoleon, repulsed, sated, sick at heart, fulfilled, I will mourn the great unconscious mass of men who sleep around me now; I will mourn their dead and crippled horses, their orphans, the rivers of wine they will never drink, the aging flesh their hands will never know. Monster, yes, that is the title with which history will reward me, but I am most at home in my lonely simple tent, doing the job that has been left to me, the manufacture of dreams and nightmares, sending my word-rich armies onto their pages of snow, letting them cancel and slaughter each other until all that remains is a brief and elegant poem, a few nostalgic blood-tinted lines limping towards eternity, yes, that’s how I want to be remembered, bleeding and limping in rags across the snow, or even forget the blood, the rags, the snow, the limp. Just me.

–Matt Cohen’s “Napoleon in Moscow,” from Getting Lucky

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