On April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of the French empire, and was sent off to exile. The first time he was exiled, it was to the relatively accessible island of Elba in the Mediterranean. (Those seeking to be done with him would not repeat the mistake — the second and final time he was exiled, it was to the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. This place is exceedingly remote, even by today’s standards.)
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Napoleon in the past year. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle of 2019, and that book is set in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. And Napoleon’s all over War and Peace. I’m 89% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, and currently in the story, it’s October 1812 and Napoleon is hightailing it out of Russia.
Napoleon’s doings seemed to be the cause of a lot of uncertainty back in the day. I’d never really thought of it that way before, I think because I tend to look back at history as a concrete thing. “This happened, and then this happened because of it, and these were the effects.” But reading War and Peace has put me right back in that time, as only good fiction can. I felt the uncertainty of the characters as Napoleon’s army came into Moscow, and I feel it as the French abandon a burnt-out city and country.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with our current level of uncertainty.
So on Saturday, when I read that it was the 206th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication, it had a little more impact than if I had not spent the better part of this past 12 months in Napoleon’s world. It was like a reminder of the fact that the French really did leave Russia, and Napoleon was forced from public life, eventually. And, oh yeah, he’s been dead for almost 200 years.
The live oak pictured at the top of this post could have been around 200 years ago. It’s not far from some oaks that are believed to be between 750 and 900 years old. While it may not be too long before we can all say, “this is what happened as a result of our 21st century pandemic, and these were the effects,” that’s little consolation for our immediate anxiety. Thinking of what that tree may have been around for, and seeing it still standing strong, makes it feel like a beacon of hope.