Napoléon’s 1812 Mental Illness – 2

“We maintain … that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means ….We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.”

Carl von Clausewitz—On War

Von Clausewitz sounds almost reasonable. A man with a pipe in a lounge chair saying something sensible about politics transforming suddenly into war. Just as normal as the molecules of heated water suddenly boiling and turning into gas vapour.

Only war isn’t reasonable because war has never truly ever been reasonable. It is a kind of madness—at best an organised form of human madness.

Let me be blunt: War is the most frightening grotesque idea humans have ever conceived. Ask those who are unwilling participants first-up—not the generals and staff officers some distance away from the nitty gritty frontline.

There are of course ways and methods of rationalising reasons for war and there is at least one good defence. Self-defence. People, nations have a right even a duty to defend themselves. Though then the reasons collide and soon everyone is staggering around in a fog of war. Discretion is the better part of valour, only not always.

My earliest memory of human madness came from my mother—who in recounting to me a story her father had told her occupied my mind for many sleepless moments at night.

My grandfather’s arm was permanently disabled by a dum-dum bullet fired by a sniper in World War 1. He returned home to become the manager of a returned serviceman’s club. In his spare time he visited men who were inmates at the city’s main mental hospital (stricken, wounded returned servicemen I believe, but I can’t be sure). The wounded helping the wounded at the scary place, the place on the hill, we kids whispered—tales of the scary-place told and retold in the street.

A man there said to my grandfather. ‘I am as sane as you. I don’t know why I am here.’ (I am guessing now but my grandfather’s fault here is that he was humouring the poor man— just wishing the man well was perhaps mistakable for a form of condescension.) Glad he could help-out at least a little, my grandfather turned to leave—and for his well-meant efforts and concern for the man’s welfare he was pushed down some asylum stairs.

How does anyone defend him or herself when a moment of madness appears in one form or another? How do we analyse madness? Madness as a word is part folklore, part frightening comic tale children yell at each other in backyards. Madness has several meanings and definitions in medicine. So it’s probably wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness—without qualification—without consulting an expert. I give ground on that. Many no doubt think that Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was only a miscalculation. Just that. Napoléon Bonaparte drags 690,000 north across Europe to invade another sovereign country and he made a military miscalculation.

Napoléon said he was on a noble military-mission to free serfs and turn barbaric Russia into a modern nation state (get Russia back inside his continental system more like it). None of which he did, I add. He thought he was there to free Russians serfs—apparently—until he gave up his moral mission, and was driven out of Russia. So, give him half a mark out of ten for good intentions. Still I’ll bet the smart money is on: Napoléon was out of his head.

At best he needed his head read, but no-one thought to do it back then. Napoléon marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five or so months later with less than 20,000 half-dead combatants and no-one thought to say: Nappy, you need to see a psychiatrist.

Napoléon went on to lose the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, losing another army. And let’s not go into the madness of how that all ended, a corporal panicking and blowing up a bridge, trapping thousands of French soldiers. Equally let’s not return to the mess that was Waterloo. They were all the actions of a sane man making difficult military calculations.

The Russians defended themselves effectively against Napoléon. Russia’s strategy of retreat worked exceptionally well, even if everyone in the Russian command didn’t think so at the time.

“Tell me for God’s sake,” Prince Bagration said, “what will our Russia—our mother—say seeing that we are so frightened … that we are giving up such a good and zealous Fatherland to such rabble and instilling hatred and disgrace in every subject? Why are we so cowardly, and who are we afraid of? It is not my fault that the minister is irresolute, cowardly, muddle-headed, temporizing, and has every bad quality. The whole army is completely in tears and scolds him to death …”

Discretion is the better part of valour. Barclay de Tolly’s strategies as the Russian army chief lacked valour—at least in the mind of General Bagration.

Important aside: The problem here is I am discussing the merits and demerits of Napoléon’s Russia campaign as if it is proper to elevate his mission—which I freely admit I think was a mad as anything I have ever read about—to, in effect, take Napoléon’s madness and turn it into a subject worthy of sane inquiry. When, to me, it is and was no better than a pointless sudden explosive street fight, all started for no reason. Still, to show I am reasonable, that I’m willing to consider the other side—I’ll state this: some think the art of militarism is born from the inner necessity of a soldier in an enigmatic mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life which becomes an independent entity animated by a spiritual breath. Okay I said it. Guess what, I think it’s MADNESS.

What was Napoléon’s motive for the invasion? He didn’t really know—wasn’t sure what he could achieve—except start a fight as soon as he got inside Russia. Yes, he wanted to show Tsar Alexander who was boss of Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the unfairly drawn-up Tilsit Treaty and Napoléon was angry about that.

Napoléon was only 43 during the Russian campaign of 1812, so dementia is not quite yet a useful excuse. His performance was less-effective than others of his age. Some very pressing physical ailments, as I argue in the last instalment hampered him—Napoléon had PTSD.

Yet, I think it perhaps more about the ‘mentalness’ of his intentions, not just his physical condition. His objectives were mental.

By the time he left Smolensk, chasing the Russians—heading for Moscow—his forces were already reduced by skirmishes, battles, desertion, starvation, thirst, disease, to 160,000, give or take a few ten thousand men and horses and wagons.

Marching/riding after the Russians, Napoléon also found himself facing a new chief of the Russian army. Barclay had been removed by Alexander.

Barclay de Tolly

Recently back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the south, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov rode to meet the Russian army on 29 August. Kutuzov, considered a Russian’s Russian, with battle credentials, a survivor or two head wounds, satisfied the Russian officers who couldn’t take another retreat-filled day under Barclay. Napoléon was happy with Kutuzov’s appearance. He had beaten him at Austerlitz.

Prince Mikhail Kutuzov

At the age of 67 Kutuzov was at the end of his career. Fitness for duty concerning physical and mental condition was evening-up the command strengths between the two sides.

Moscow gave Napoléon sleepless nights and countless nightmares. Moscou, la capitale asiatique de ce grand empire, la ville sacrée des peuples d’Alexandre, Moscou avec ses innombrables églises en forme de pagodes chinoises!

Like no other challenge in his life Napoléon wanted to enter Moscow as its conqueror. But did his Grande Armée have enough fight left? Could Napoléon ride triumphantly through Moscow’s gates and control Russia’s empire? Would Alexander give up his crown to Napoléon Bonaparte? Would Russians accept Napoléon as their ruler? Could he open up the gateway to Asia? Was he as great as Alexander of Macedonia?

At the end of the road Napoléon was on, lay the City of Truth. On he went, chasing a fate-defining military-engagement.

Trump Napoléon and Mental Illness

The United States is as good as done with Trump (there’s a few tantrums to come) and we are now just months away from the bicentennial anniversary of the death of Napoléon.

Unhappy Nappy at Borodino
Donnie hearing the final vote-count

Two men in politics with very different histories and characters though both suffered from comparable delusional fantasies.

Mental illness is at the centre of both men’s failure: Trump’s sociopathy; Napoléon’s shell shock/PTSD.

Donnie’s mismanagement of COVID-19 in 2020 is enough to condemn him, and the 1812 Russian campaign is enough to condemn Napoléon.

With Trump: let’s forget the Mexican wall, the ruined lives of children, the destruction of America’s international standing, the cosying-up to dictators by a neophyte with only cash on his mind, the obtaining and maintenance of loans for himself and others in his circle, all against the Emoluments clause rules deftly written into the American Constitution – even without all that, Donnie’s mishandling of Covid-19 does it for him. All by itself.

Bonaparte’s mismanagement of the Typhus epidemic in his army speaks eloquently for his abilities at the end of his career. Forget his runaway from Egypt, his failure at Smolensk, or Borodino, or his empty negotiations with Alexander, or his cowardice at Maloyaroslavets, leading to the disastrous retreat that killed hundreds of thousands. Let’s even forget his floundering and desertion of his army at Bérézina (again he left his army) – Nappy’s mishandling of Typhus does it for him. All by itself.

Both men rose improvisationally, powered by others. Both were chancers, inveterate risk takers, who got noticed by those who know how to and can use people like them. Napoléon as an artillery commander made himself seem big in opportune moments, making himself seem a better soldier than he really was. The powerful saw an opportunity.

Donald began as a real estate impresario who went bankrupt over and over reinventing himself through copious lying and fraud, the powerful seeing an opportunity and throwing an electoral dice into his lap.

Both Nappy and Donny proved to be narcissistic self-deluding conmen, mister damn-lucky fraudster meets criminal. Donald constructing phoney real estate projects – mafia-style. Napoléon running around redrawing the boundaries in Europe – mafia style.

So where does mental illness come in and how did it adulterate their lofty fates?

By Borodino Nappy’s brain was shot to pieces. Hammered every second by the battering-sonics of seven muskets and three cannon, a cowering PTSD shell-shocked Nappy had a severe urinary tract infection. He sat, a shadow of himself, on a dinner-table chair (probably pissing himself), unable to dream up a simple way of winning, even though his maréchaux kept offering-up ideas. Napoléon Bonaparte’s military dreams and often over-stated genius had shrivelled to nothing before the disaster of Borodino rolled-out in a field. A field like any other, a field of no strategic importance, as Tolstoy said.

With the ghost of Pyrrhus on his shoulder, the Russians retreating, Nappy deluded himself in to occupying Moscow for several depressing weeks. As he sat watching his troops strip, ransack and abuse the sacred cradle of Russian history, he kept on pretending he was negotiating with Tsar Alexander, the Russian monarch who didn’t even bother to answer his letters.

Spying first snowflakes, Nappy hastily left Moscow, a hollow, frightened man who then was spooked by Cossacks at Maloyaroslavets rushing out at him from a forest. Nappy and his commanders were out reconnoitering his next-round of pretend plans, a shaken Nappy saved only by the bravery of his Imperial Guard.

Back in his tent, he sat silent and blinking as a vehement Murat, the bravest of his maréchaux, logically outlined his arguments for the only solution left: join battle with Kutuzov south at Kaluga. And if successful, the French would have food on that open well-provisioned road west.

Nappy sighed and shifted-around and made excuses, then ordered his troops back north and west back along the food-stripped beaten old Moscow Smolensk road, taking his men by the still shocking death scene of Borodino, a field which weeks after battle lay covered in rotting human remains. It was enough to stun his most-hardened troops. Nappy drove his army west into the freezing Russian winter, unprepared, food-less, to certain death.

For Bankrupt Donnie’s part, living the life of politicians in his never-ending ‘let me show you how I cheat at golf’ picnic, Donnie threw money at the billionaire-class and waited for re-election – his belly growing sumptuously on junk-food. Only a pandemic stepped on to the path out in front and gave him history’s answer to wannabe-dictators like him.

After his catastrophic handling of Covid-19, facing rejection by the people in the 2020 election – which they delivered resoundingly – will Donald now continue on abusing the office he still unfortunately sits in? Will he try to save his skin, skirt justice, stay somehow out of jail? Nappy and Donny are good at getting away.

Napoléon predicted his end in 1805, just after winning Austerlitz, saying: ‘I have five good years left.’ Donald looks as if he would have said something similar in 2016: ‘I have four years. Let’s fake it.’ Both Nappy and Donny are famous for their ‘tells’. Both men knew all along what they were doing.

Donald’s sociopathy is a muck centre others call their heart. Napoléon’s PTSD was a malignant prostate pounder that ruined his head. Both knew enough to know they were infecting and killing wantonly with their respective couldn’t care-less ambitions.

Mental illness is the connecting factor of these two self-aggrandisers at two ends of history, chancers who mired their respective countries in a swamp of narcissistic self-delusion. Nappy in his bicorne, Donnie in his hair hat.

‘The Great Dictator’ dialog resonating in 2020

“Let us fight to free the world to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all people’s happiness.”

“The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people… liberty will never perish.”

The novel is dead: Long live the novel

I think it was Will Self who in the past has made several claims the novel is dead – usually when he is publicizing his latest novel. He is not alone. Many have said something similar, often for a similar reason. It’s an old rort. The look at me novelist, engaging in a little self-flagellation over his chosen craft – the novel – following up with, and here, look at my latest – you got it – novel.

I believe in the slow novel. The slow-dying novel. Perhaps the problem is not that the novel is dead, rather we are being ‘entertained’ by as good as brain or industry or novel-dead novelists or ‘deader than deader’ bought novelists. It’s not entirely their fault – they have been led down through this novel is dead garden path so long they couldn’t help but drink at the poisoned novel is dead well – lured there by you got it – money for the next novel.

We still live in an age of publishing which is owned and controlled largely by giant mixed-media conglomerates using consolidation-techniques of the late 20th century dribbling over into now in publishing that seems to have a project to kill off diversity in publishing.

Using the constricted market, the consolidated conglomerate run industry has been made easier business – fewer less diverse products, selling way more copies of each un-diverse novel, creating their ‘stars’ who weave the same old same un-diverse old rope you find in any shopwindow of limited product-range where variety is only now a word on a magazine cover.

What would happen if new-well-developed craft appeared on the front bookshop-paid-for-by-conglomerates table. Would readers have a nervous breakdown?

Instead of fewer and fewer choices by fewer and fewer voices which logically will one day be one – one publisher with one author on one table with a zillion books – the same book sold over and over and over for centuries. Sound good? It does to me. All that free time not having to say: when am I going to read a book again? I read it! Ten years ago. What a relief!

My once doctoral research looked at the period when digitisation once offered a chance at democratisation over the oldie-big-corporation-run publishing industry.

The big players killed off one such possible – Gemstar. The owner – Yuen. Where is he now BTW? He didn’t look at the history of Allen Lane – psst drop the price – Yuen didn’t look or didn’t hear.

Maybe he was too busy being cosyied up to – and cosying up himself to them of course – hearing one or more of the big players say with a smile: come in on old boy. It’s seductive – money for the new business/novel. Have a chair in our club where the good old boys and girls enveloped Mr Gemstar with ideas of ebooks and ereaders as luxury-items. Leave it to us old boy to run the market and it will flock to you… old boy.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2002/oct/09/newscorporation.rupertmurdoch

p99 ‘Publishing: Principles and Practice’ Sage Publications UK 2011

What noise does a Penguin make? Let’s all sound like Penguins for a moment – in 1935. 6p of Penguins chanting in old money. Not six shillings for old hard covers. Allen Lane ‘the bugger that ruined the trade’ – who made the paperback boom – dropped the price dramatically. And did the paperback boom – like a thousand penguins in the snow and ice arriving at the ocean. The paperback which we all grew to love and carry around everywhere. We want hardcovers too of course – but could we as well have grown to love an ebook that stood for democratised literature?

And so with the not so new digital book in the not so great industry, the offshoot of paperbacks that once dominated the market – standing for democratisation of information – the small e-book companies that once sprang up in the 1990s became only Amazon and Apple – and bingo the digital book revolution supporting wide uncontrolled literary ideas-of-reader-choice shrivelled up – as any endangered species in any jungle, you care to roam into, will when unsupported.

The free-market e-book died from neglect – well, in truth, it was shot between the eyes by big publishers – with the e-books that remained corralled into industry-run zoos under the reasoning and guidance of ‘let’s make it all a more manageable-market old boy’, with the management-cry of more profit for the old boys and old girls culturally watching over the e-book. And what did readers get in total? An endangered and on-its-last-legs novel in control of top-down economic-political controllers, as it once was before the early market-free days of the paperback boom.

A Rainy Day in New York

From the moment in Annie Hall when he led Marshall McLuhan out from behind a film hoarding in a New York cinema I have been a huge fan of Woody Allen. He is America’s best writer director of ensemble urban comedies – truly a unique filmmaker.

Celebrity…so what

I live in Cannes. Have done for a while. I have just finished a novel set in a similar festival, no names, no pack drill etc.

So down to the festival I sometimes go, some years, to see the hoi mix with the polloi. Where are all the stars? Shall I be honest? Who cares. I am not interested in them, though they appear in my novel. Go figure. Privileges and the Precious Few. I’m not concerned about that in my life, I say. I like bigger things, I say.

It’s just a personal thing, no big deal. Not trying to sell anything to you, change your heart or mind, or get you upset. I mean who cares what another human thinks unless it’s someone you love, care about, live with.

Most people, as Sartre identified, are hell, wild animals to watch, arrive at an unspoken agreement with, to give room to get by or around without any anger or fuss.

So there is this word I think about sometimes, not a lot, but some. It’s no great shakes in itself, unless you use it to rate the world, to measure others by. Some think it’s right up there with the really major words: death, love, hope, life. It’s not on that level, but it’s a word that gets talked about an awful lot. And ignored by me just as much, I like to say.

Renovating in Italy

It’s now ten years that we have been in Pitigliano, renovating, holidaying and living. We chose Pitigliano, in the hills of La Maremma, southern Tuscany, for several reasons – the town itself; the hot springs of Saturnia; the wonderful beaches south of Argentario, and the countryside all around. Here are a few photos.

We took up the floors and found old tiles which was a wonderful find, but which now need work again because the ceiling of the magazzino (store room) below is deteriorating affecting the floor above. In truth this work was always going to be done, it was just a matter of when – when arrived in 2012.


I made my own stoneware tiles for the kitchen, following the idea of uncovered – ‘found old marble’.

We found the original painted wall and built it around designs incorporating terracotta wall lamps I made. Not everyone would do this or even like it for his or herself, but for us the architectural point of an old house like this, going back in parts to the 17th century – as it it is for local builders – is that you create and reconfigure old aspects and ‘finds’ into the overall look.

The fireplace was completely excavated, set back and made much larger, and we designed a heavy cast iron grill and had it made at a local foundry, so any fire on it would suck up the air and roar up the chimney.

A wood heater (la stufa), for keeping the house warm when a roaring wood fire would create too much heat.

The roof was redone.

Ceilings and a skylight done.

Shutters (le persiane) put up.

Slowly, modestly we are getting the house in shape.