Friday, November 13, 2009

Is the worse punishment living under Napoleon III or having to live with his textile choices?

On the subject of Napoleon III's questionable taste, the Amateur Historian cannot help but mention one Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, Notre Dame de Paris and more Romantic poetry than Coleridge, Shelley and Keats combined could have produced. Granted, of the three mentioned here, two died young and one was addicted to opium and probably spent days on end watching his hand move, but the point remains: Hugo was a prolific Romantic. Why say, "The cannon broke free of its restraints" when you can stretch out such an action for an entire chapter?

Therefore, when Hugo believed Napoleon III had questionable taste, he did not merely say, "I hate you and everything you stand for, Napoleon III", he:

a. single-handedly forced a revolution (it did not work)
b. got exiled
c. wrote a 300 page volume of poetry called Les Chatiments, which can be translated either as The Punishments or Dear Napoleon III I Hate You and Everything You Stand For, And You Exiled Me to Jersey, Where There Is Nothing To Do Besides Nurture My Deep Hatred For You In Alexandrine Rhyming Couplets Filled With Classical Allusions No One Else Will Understand.

In Les Chatiments, Hugo takes a gleeful delight in calling Napoleon III Napoleon le petit (as opposed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who gets the better moniker of Napoleon le grand), a hypocritical murderer with the blood of mothers and children on his hands, the Judas Iscariot of French political theory and a mustachioed Caesar. He also points out the the style Napoleon III looks as if it is a melange of all styles that came before it- or rather, a melange of all the worst parts of the styles that came before, much in the same way that Napoleon III's regime was a melange of all the worst parts of all the governments that came before.

However, it is best not to take Hugo's criticisms at face value as, if one goes to the Maison Hugo in Paris, one can see that Hugo's idea of style was to carpet his ceilings.


  1. Elyse, this just made me laugh out loud in Reid Hall. I wanted to read an excerpt of it to Kristin, but Rob is here and I'm afraid to speak in English.

    see you in about an hour! On va gouter avec la presidente!

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