In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

2 Imperium The Logic of Absolute Prominence France does not know my position well, and that is why she completely misjudges most of my acts. Five or six families are sharing the thrones of Europe, and they are pained to see a Corsican taking a seat on one of them. I cannot keep my place except by using force. I cannot accustom them to look upon me as an equal except by keeping them under my yoke. . . . Among the anciently established sovereigns, war aims never go beyond possession of a province or a fortress. With me, the stake is always my existence and that of the whole empire.1 For Napoléon, the equation was clear: glory is pursued not for the sake of superfluous vanity but because it is synonymous with one’s station, which in turn is nothing other than one’s reason for being. His emancipation cannot therefore be possibly understood in terms of simple equality with the established master. He knows that it is too late in the history of governance for equality, that equality itself is no more than a rhetorical farce. That is, in order to gain recognition, he must be more accomplished than, rather than even with, the ancient master. For the historical slave, the entire weight of history is stacked against him. The new master must make up for his lack of authenticity, which his world is accustomed to grant only in proportion to one’s history of prominence. Such an equation introduces one of the trajectories of absolute prominence, which the case of Napoléon clearly typifies.2 This trajectory is prevalent in postrevolutionary times, when the crumbling of an old order leaves the stage of history open for a moment. Who will occupy it? Someone who has no fear of death. To be more precise, someone who has become saturated with death, drenched in blood and carnage, desensitized to terror. In its very movement, the revolution explores and reveals the prospect of universalizing exposure to terror. It is a new kind of terror , a product of the chaos following the declining capacity of the old despotic order to generate terror in the usual and customary way. The legendary Hegelian 30 interpreter Alexandre Kojève qualified this point, arguing that Robespierre’s (universal ) terror was a specific feature of a bourgeoisie turned revolutionary. According to this view, the bourgeoisie, being neither master nor slave, must liberate itself from itself, that is, from its servitude within the horizons of capital.3 Bourgeois selfrealization , therefore, takes not the form of battle (against specific others) but of generalized terror. The value of terror here is that it introduces to the bourgeois the element of death. Through that exercise, the bourgeois loses the fear of death and becomes the master of his destiny.4 But this argument misses the true significance of terror as an essential prerequisite for the postrevolutionary trajectory, particularly inasmuch as the selfunderstanding of governance is concerned. The terror is a property of a universalizing understanding of governance akin to the logic of empire, not that of a specific social class at a particular point in time. One cannot understand Napoléon by references to transformations in the bourgeois ethic of mortality. With Napoléon, what is lost is not simply the fear of death but something even weightier: the fear of terror itself. And he provides no shortage of what must be purposeful expressions of emotional indifference to scenes of worldly horror. In 1799, he expresses little passion as he describes in a letter to the Directorate how he drowned twelve thousand enemy soldiers. In 1807, he inspects the slaughter after the battle of Eylau, where he passively looks at thousands of corpses of soldiers and horses congesting the small field.5 In 1812, as he watches the fires consuming the city of Smolensk, he quotes a certain Roman emperor, in response to the expressed horror of one of his officers: “The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet.” Describing the burning of Moscow, the emperor becomes almost poetic: “Mountains of red rolling flames, like immense waves of the sea, alternately bursting forth and lifting themselves to skies of fire, and then sinking into the ocean of flames below. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld!”6 Yet for Napoléon, this was not unfocused terror, as Robespierre’s reign appeared in retrospect. For Napoléon, terror is transferred to...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.