Richard Pennington

... and the Student Problem

By Richard Pennington
University Librarian

The Editor asked me to write an article on the University Library and the problem of the future increase in student enrolment, and I agreed, and decided to write about Napoleon. 'Partly because this is a more fascinating subject, and partly because it is of exceptional importance to McGill men, as they will doubtless be unaware.

Not that he has any actual connection with McGill: it is one of the tragedies of the litigation that delayed our foundation that we were unable to give him an Honorary Degree - although, on reflection, I do not see why a posthumous one could not be given. After all, men are still more famous when they are dead - and his descendants are here to accept it on his behalf - some of them very distinguished men - on the science side - and the present Prince Bonaparte could open our Napoleon Room, if he came, if we had one. But this is to anticipate a little. Among the smaller collections in the University Library is the Napoleonic one. It is not as well known as it deserves, perhaps because there has not yet been an occasion to exhibit it.

Although it is gratifying to know that when McGill celebrated the 150th anniversary of the battle of Austerlitz this year by a display of the five original Proclamations of the Emperor, the graceful tribute was noticed by Paris-Match. Next year we hope to bring our Napoleonic material together in a special exhibition.

There is surely no need to explain why we possess a Napoleon collection, since it is difficult to imagine a university library existing without one. A repository of universal knowledge should honour the man who most nearly approached this ideal in his own person. For without doubt he was the most universal man who has ever existed, when one considers the diversity of the activities that were crowded into a life of fifty-two years and the intellectual intensity he brought to bear upon them all. For we should not be so blinded by his military achievements as to forget his impact upon the other arts and sciences.

In literature, strangely, his triumph was a posthumous one. His attempts to foster it during his lifetime were frustrated by the irritable vanity of authors such as the turncoat Chateaubriand and Germanie de Staël, that sultana in trousers who tried to keep Benjamin constant. The theatre he loved and encouraged and spent as much time discussing dramatic principles with Talma as he spent with actresses. He stimulated a school of painting and a style of interior decoration; and as for sculpture, he equalled his sister's generosity to Canova by exposing a great deal of it, formerly hidden in Italy, to the appreciation of connoisseurs in the Louvre. While even the prejudiced Englishman travelling on the continent in 1815 had to acknowledge the improvements the Emperor had made in the architecture of the capital.

His passion for science was sincere, and was that of a skilled mathematician and engineer. When he set out for Egypt - a dangerous voyage through waters infested by English and pirates - it was with scientists that he surrounded himself; and when the loss of his fleet strands him there, far from his base, in enemy country, with no hope of help from a jealous Directory, in this desperate situation he founds an Academy of Sciences, institutes the study of Egyptian archaeology (this is the beginning of modern Egyptology), and starts a survey for a Suez Canal; and all this without weakening of his personal interest in Madame Fourès.

But undoubtedly his chief concern was for efficiency in administration and for the prosperity of the people; and no man ever overworked himself more to achieve these aims. Roederer, who knew him intimately, says he worked eighteen hours a day, and this is not the exaggeration it seems when one remembers that he spent only six hours on sleep, worked immediately on waking, discussed business at Levées and Audiences, and rarely passed more than twenty minutes at table, and then was often listening to despatches being read. Business always took precedence over meals, and sometimes the Empress had to wait an hour or two for dinner. It sometimes took precedence over assignations; and Mademoiselle George, who had been summoned to the Tuileries one evening, was first of all asked to wait, then told two hours later she might as well lie down, and then towards morning that she might as well go home, as the Emperor was still busy in his study. A devotion to work that few of us fortunately can hope to emulate.

But unparalleled as he is in the history of the world as organizer and administrator, it is as military genius that he is pre-eminent, and that because there is in his conduct of war a quality that belongs to great works of art - a magnificence of conception, a mastery of the materials, a perfection of achievement. An artist is at work. The early campaign in Italy is an example, when, a young general, he creates an army out of disordered troops and leads it fighting over the Ligurian Hills in the face of two enemies and drives the Austrians into Milan and forces the surrender of Piedmont.

The clarity of thought and the willpower which in alliance are the typical Napoleonic qualities were shown here for the first time; and there is already in this campaign that seemingly effortless power and mastery such as in the case of another artist we feel at work in the early Shakespearean comedies. And, similarly, Austerlitz is Othello, the mature considered masterpiece.

All this is well known to every schoolboy, outside Canada. But there are two aspects of the Napoleonic story which are still not so obvious, and are more significant. There is, first, the continuity of the Napoleonic influence: this man who exerted so extraordinary a power over his contemporaries is exercising it long after his death upon European thought and upon the arts - upon painters and sculptors and especially writers. The literature of nineteenth-century Europe is stamped with his impression; and the chronicler of rural misdoings in Dorset whom he inspired to epic heights is only one example. The words Napoleonic, Bonapartism, Waterloo , the Little Corporal have become parts of speech; the hat, the left hand on the stomach, the lonely rock are universal symbols. And, secondly, and more important, and the cause of all this, is that the Emperor is ceasing to be the local hero and is becoming the myth. The great myths are so few and happen so rarely that for long it was not realized what was taking place, although the engravers of the 1830's are already prophetically showing him as risen from the tomb. His life contains nearly all the necessary elements for the growth of the myth which Miss Butler in her work on the myth of the magus has enumerated: his birth from poor parents, but with the legend of patrician ancestry; the hardships of his early life, the distant wanderings - (the lure of the East took him as far as Egypt, although his goal was always India); the rejection by the people - (he was imprisoned by the Republic); his rise, in the face of enormous odds, as though by supernatural means, to supreme power; the final betrayal - (by his marshals); the fall, and the exile to St. Helena , which might well seem a descent into the underworld. The return of the ashes to the Invalides was a piece of ritual; he had already risen as an idea, as an inspiration that was as powerful to move men emotionally as the living man had been. And it is possible that in this immortal state he will survive; as the one heroic legend of our West European civilization.

I hope to deal with the question of the Library and the student problem in a second article when I will discuss our inadequate Napoleon collection.

Image: Richard Pennington, University Librarian, examines an item from the Napoleon Collection in the Redpath Library.


[NB: this article has been modified from its original format]

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