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Napoleon vs The Internet
On the difficulty of using internet terminology to describe a Great Man of History
The trailer to Ridley Scott's new historical epic Napoleon was released recently and garnered some interest within online right circles. It isn’t difficult to see why, and it isn’t even a particularly political phenomenon: if you’re a normal white man with an IQ higher than an overpriced hotdog you’ve had nothing to watch in the cinema for years. A final judgment on Scott’s Napoleon and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance will have to wait for the cinematic release in November. My current attitude is one of cautious optimism having viewed the trailer. There are certainly a few thumbs down for the deployment of a cover of a Radiohead song in the trailer, however. This is the music of a depressed 19-year-old playing video games and contemplating self-harm, not a legendary exemplar of military genius and superhuman will.
Hollywood hasn’t been kind to historically curious and reasonably intelligent white men in recent years so when we’re met with a new film featuring grandiose battle scenes and a historical sweep of epic proportions we approach it like a whipped dog to a mysteriously placed and very convenient bowl of beef broth. We want to engage with it but also have an eye to the trap being sprung and the rainbow-coloured garrote being slipped around our necks. Like Deckard in Scott’s Blade Runner we scrutinize the content for giveaways and signs of danger:
“Enhance the ballroom scene. Stop. Enhance 35-42. Stop. Track 27 left. Stop. Enhance. Okay, boys, that’s a black aristocrat in post-revolutionary France.”
No such concentration was needed when it came to Napoleon’s great love Joséphine de Beauharnais. For some reason one of the most glamourous women of the age had, in this movie, adopted a sort of New York junkie chic complete with ragged spiked hair and fuck you demeanour. Thus, here we have it. Joséphine is to be a girl boss and she’s going to be depicted as the true conquering force of Napoleonic France. At least, this is a widely held sentiment. The Empress Joséphine would follow in the third-wave feminist footsteps of the Star Wars girl, Galadriel, and all the capeshit heroines. Hollywood has certainly earned every drop of suspicion and contempt with which it is currently held -- many times over. In the trailer to Scott’s film, Joséphine whispers to Napoleon:
“You’re just a tiny little brute that is nothing without me.”
And there we have it: proof that Scott is woke and his movie carries a feminist message.
It is perfectly possible that his Napoleon will turn out to be politically correct trash. We shall see. However, before we squeal too loudly about historical inaccuracies, it behooves us to consider the actual history.
Napoleon Bonaparte genuinely was besotted with Joséphine de Beauharnais. What’s more, she was older than he, previously married and mother to another man’s children. Their relationship runs parallel to the legend of Napoleon himself as a great, and tragic, romantic saga. Consider this extract from a letter (one of hundreds) that Napoleon sent Joséphine:
My spirit is heavy; my heart is in chains and I am appalled by my imaginings…You love me less; but you will recover. One day you will no longer love me; Say it; I shall then know how to be worthy of this misfortune. …Farewell, wife, torment, joy, hope and heart of my being, whom I love and fear, and who inspires in me gentle emotions which draw me close to Nature and violent impulses as volcanic as Etna. I ask of you neither eternal love, nor fidelity, but simply…truth, unlimited honesty. The day when you say “I love you less”, will either be the end of my love or the last day of my life. If my heart were base enough to love without being loved in return I would tear it to pieces with my teeth. Josephine! Josephine! Remember what I have sometimes said to you: Nature has made me strong and decisive. She has made you out of lace and gossamer. Do you love me no longer? Forgive me, love of my life, my heart is racked by conflicting forces. Obsessed by you, my heart is full of fears which make me unhappy…I am distressed not to be calling you by name. I shall wait for you to write it. Farewell! Ah! if you love me less you can never have loved me. In that case I shall truly be pitiable.
Famously, Napoleon wrote to Joséphine demanding she withhold from bathing during the few days it would take him to return from battle to her so that he could enjoy her natural scent to its fullest. Despite this affection, Joséphine had multiple affairs with other men behind his back and more generally viewed Napoleon as something like a cash cow and a pragmatic way to deal with her many debts.
Despite knowing all of this Napoleon on his deathbed uttered:
France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine
The only conclusion we can come to, then, is that by the standards of the discourse online in rightist circles, Napoleon Bonaparte was a massive simp, cuckold, and beta-male to boot. The fact that we find such language to describe a man of Napoleon’s stature jarring and nonsensical tells us more about the thought-terminating nature and outright idiocy of online terminology in the 2020s than about Napoleon. Any realistic portrayal of Napoleon would see him fail an online purity test dismally. Indeed, a politically correct incarnation of his life would be less painful for the right than a realistic one because they wouldn’t have to confront their own memetic demons.
How did it come to this? How can somebody who is widely regarded as the Faustian incarnation of Alexander the Great become difficult to conceptualize or place within a descriptive framework?
The problem begins with the very existence of such a framework.
It is said that internet memes are effective because they reveal a truth and debunk a falsehood that is felt and intuitive, rather than an empirical or statistical, or theoretical method. The left can’t meme because their worldview is essentially anti-intuitive and relies almost entirely on political theory. One theory is stacked upon the previous theory ad infinitum like a giant wedding cake of dogma. Feminism argued that men and women are equally suited to the same jobs and societal roles because there were no inherent differences between the sexes that would prevent it. This was then superseded by a new layer that naturally progressed from it: there are no differences between men and women thus men and women can change sex.
Similarly, there are no biological differences between racial groups, therefore any discrepancies in material terms between groups must be the result of another factor, racism. Thus social justice and white privilege theory become layered on top of the original misconception with regard to race. In this way, left-wing thinking ascends gradually higher (or descends if you’d prefer) built upon faulty foundations, like an ideological Leaning Tower of Pisa with censorship and social ostracism acting as counter-weights and stabilizers. This soaring tower of lies and denial of reality takes a lot to explain, which is why it cannot be explained with a simple infographic.
Yet, is it not the case that an over-reliance on memes and “meme-thinking” ushers in problems of its own? The issue is not so much one of theory (Episteme) but practice (techne). The techne of meme production favours efficiency over depth, and intuition over theory. The purpose is to efficiently convey a concept and do it within the roiling and fast-moving environment of a digital landscape. It needs to land a punch, make an impact, and then be scrolled past — not dwelt upon.
Memetic energy is then, a method for the standardization and replication of an idea or concept within a highly technical environment. It is the political incarnation of a Big Mac or a can of Coca-Cola or any other product of mass production. Originally, the term “simp” was used to describe a young man online whose adoration of a female was never reciprocated but who, nevertheless, continued in his futile pursuit. With the term came connotations of a low-status male, sexually inexperienced and socially awkward. It is rooted in a wider context of the younger millennial or zoomer incel within the atomizing dislocation and alienation of the 2020s.
Nuance is to internet discourse as a large and thick, slowly melting slice of cheese is to a Big Mac — something to be jettisoned entirely in the name of efficiency. The form is given shape within the template of efficiency and overrides its original intent. Through replication and repetition the newer, more efficient form replaces the original entirely. Of course, efficiency is never alone; it is always accompanied by its ally, categorization. The process is one of efficiency, and the ultimate aim is categorization. You do not get to design your own cheeseburger in McDonald’s, you choose from an already existing “menu” because to allow the customer to design their own would be profoundly inefficient and defy the need to categorize clearly.
Internet discourse evolving through a similar process of efficiency, results inevitably in forms being slapped with stamps, terms, and digital stickers in order to efficiently categorize and box them. The original intention of describing something adequately has been jettisoned and replaced by the desired outcome. McDonald’s could make a genuinely nourishing burger, but they don’t.
To return to the problem of Napoleon, then, we see the issue is one of being unable to categorize the man within internet discourse precisely because of the nature of how the internet evolves and its incentives.
The impulse is not to understand, but to categorize.
Napoleon is problematic in this regard because he is a prime candidate for the boxes labeled both Simp and Chad simultaneously. On the one hand, he was indeed hopelessly romantic and obsessively in love with a woman who probably didn’t deserve it until the later years. At the same time, he was so driven toward greatness that he conquered Europe and led millions of men into battle as a literal emperor.
Napoleon does not slot neatly into the paradigm of thinking that the internet creates because its functionality creates a truncated and retarded version of real-world complexities which are, in their essence, better understood as stories and narratives rather than the outcome of utilitarian, mechanistic processes.
What’s worse, having been labeled and boxed themselves, the individual finds they exist within a deterministic reality in which they simply are the label and therefore must inhabit the role — the incel phenomenon being a prime example.
During Napoleon’s own lifetime, the Romantic movement reacted against the Industrial Revolution by arguing that Man wasn’t simply a commodity or labour mass to be deployed in the service of production and industry but had a sacred connection to the land and to God. Man’s entrapment by the cogs and logic of the Machine was antithetical to real living. In the same way, the processes and outcomes of digital thinking stand in direct opposition to life as it is.
Real life is a messy business. Principles get bent or twisted, hearts are broken and desires go unmet. Yet it is also to be lived to its fullest despite inevitable mishaps and disasters, wrong choices, and regrets. Few men have embodied a life lived to the fullest extent better than Napoleon.