Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The bloguiste in Intermission

Today is blog day, but it is also the day we fly to an as yet undisclosable destination for an event of great significance in the Fleming family. My aim now is to achieve a little pseudo-mystery that can be unveiled and reported on in detail next week, but I must do it in a jiffy since we soon leave for the airport. Under these circumstances I fall back upon the genre of the unsolicited book report. Every private library should have three or four books suitable for brief and random multi-tasking during calls of nature, shuttle-bus rides, theater intermissions, grocery checkouts, and the hideous waits in car-inspection queues. I grabbed one last night as we set off for the Richardson Auditorium to hear the Leipzig Quartet play Haydn, Webern, and Beethoven. It was André Blavier’s indispensable Les fous littéraires, or Literary Nut Cases. This is a huge bibliography, compiled with equal measures of affection, erudition, and irony, of all the genuinely certifiable books that have been written by Frenchmen over the years. I need hardly add that the number of such books is very large. We badly need such a monument of English authorial eccentricity. It would probably be even larger.

The Leipzig quartet was superb, and the intermission hardly less so. There is a passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that I must now ask you to call to mind, check out, or simply take my word for. In Book 9, chapter 19, Pierre Bezhukov—for vulgarians, he’s the one played by Henry Fonda--hatches the plot to assassinate Napoleon, now the master of Moscow. He has determined that Napoleon is the Antichrist because the French phrase l’Empereur Napoléon (subjected to Hebrew gematria learned at his local Masonic lodge) adds up to 666. But it only does this if you include an extra e, the e dropped by elision and represented by the apostrophe. The phrase le Empereur Napoléon might be bad French, but it’s great gematria! Likewise he discovered that the French cardinal number 42 (quarante-deux) renders the same result. And (three exclamation points!!!) Napoleon, born in 1769 is forty-two years old in 1812, if one elides the year in which Napoleon completed his forty-second year of life and the year during which, in popular parlance, he “was” forty-two years old.

It’s pretty obvious that old Pierre must have been consulting one or more of the fascinating French writers detailed in Blavier’s lengthy chapter on “Prophets, Visionaries, and Messiahs”—maybe even my favorite, the abbé J. W. Würtz, author of The Precursors of the Anti-Christ, or, The French Revolution Predicted by St. John the Evangelist and other anti-Napoleonic works.

The fifth edition of Würtz's book is in the open stack of Firestone Library

The abbé Würtz was a native of Germany, then, after the restoration of French Catholicism, the vicar of Saint-Nizier in Lyon. There had been a large population of aristocratic émigrés in Germany, and it is possible that Würtz had returned with some of them after the Revolution. There were quite a few non-native Roman Catholic clergy involved in the process of “rechristianization” in France, so that this possibility, though of course speculation, is quite plausible. It is likewise possible that Würtz had had some connection with Lyon before or even during the Revolution. If so he would have been familiar with the terrible destruction unleashed upon the town as a punishment for its counter-revolutionary activities. He was certainly aware that in their bloody revels some of the Lyon revolutionaries had shouted out “Vive l’enfer”, or “Long live Hell”, an antinomian blasphemy perfectly designed to outrage Würtz, who was clearly a reactionary in civil and an ultramontane in religious politics.

“We know in advance that this explanation will drive many people into a rage,” he writes, setting off to prove that the Corsican upstart was actually the Anti-Christ. “We should prefer to accommodate and spare them the shame of having prostituted the incense of their admiration on one of the most criminal beings who has ever lived. But when the power of the truth commands is not the time to stop.” Far from stopping, he moved on with a detailed analysis. Was it not obvious that the words Appolyon and Napoleon were virtually identical? How much clearer a hint could be demanded of the Holy Ghost? Appolyon means “the Exterminator,” and was not Napoleon the person in all of human history who most appropriately might claim the title? Who had exterminated more people than he? This was the man, the Angel of the Abyss, whom the philosophers had recognized as their king. Furthermore they had done so at a perfectly anti-Christian ceremony held nearly 1000 years to the hour from that in which Charlemagne had been acclaimed Holy Roman Emperor. (This was a typology that had hardly gone unnoticed by Napoleon and his followers who, however, had put upon it an altogether different interpretation).

Würtz had anticipated the fact of a furious reaction, but not the power of its results. For the average Frenchman Napoleon was a great national hero. For the higher Catholic clergy he was the restorer of religion after a godless Revolution and even for a few a potential candidate for sainthood! (One of the reasons that some Englishmen were willing to entertain the notion that the Emperor had been the Antichrist was precisely his re-establishment of Catholicism!) The intemperance of the priest’s attack seemed an insult to the civil state and a threat to a still tentative ecclesiastical hierarchy. Würtz was for a time banned from sacerdotal functions. But the conservative Catholic revival continued. His book went through multiple editions. And when he died in 1826 he had been fully reinstated in his ecclesiastical functions, if not in universal favor. You can learn a lot in a good intermission.

Würtz's ideas were still current in this book by Louis Cavens (1909)