Literature versus Napoleon


NAPOLEON was more interested in the stage than in literature. He noted carefully the programs of the Théâtre-Français, expressed his judgment on them, and was largely responsible for their discarding Voltaire and reviving Corneille and Racine. His taste in literature was not so respectable. He read fiction eagerly, and took many novels—mostly romantic—with him on his campaigns. His table talk at St. Helena contained some good literary criticism, showing knowledge of Homer, Virgil, Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine, Mme. de Sévigné, Voltaire, Richardson, and Rousseau; but he was quite dead to Shakespeare. “It is impossible to finish any of his plays; they are pitiful. There is nothing in them that comes anywhere near Corneille or Racine.”1 (French translations of Shakespeare were pitifully inadequate.)

Like most men of affairs he had no respect for writers on economics or government; he considered them phrasemongers with little corrective sense of reality, or of the nature and limits of man. He was sure that he knew better than they what the French people wanted and should have: efficiency and integrity in government, moderation in taxes, freedom of enterprise in business, regularity of provisions, security of remunerative employment in industry, peasant ownership, and a proud place for France in the parade of states; if this were given them the people would not insist on determining measures, or filling offices, by a count of noses after a contest of words. In his laborious pursuit of those ends—and of his own power or glory—he would not long tolerate interference by lords of the rostrum or the pen. If these gentry could be quieted by prizes, pensions, or political plums, such sedatives would be provided; otherwise disturbers of the consular or imperial peace should be barred from publication, or from Paris or France. “Unlimited freedom of the press,” Napoleon wrote in 1802, “would very soon reestablish anarchy in a country where all the elements for such a condition are already present.”2

To watch public opinion, Napoleon—following Directory precedents—ordered postmasters to open private mail, make note of hostile passages, reseal the envelopes, and send copies of the excerpts to himself or to the “Black Cabinet” in the General Post Office at Paris.3 He instructed his personal librarian to make and bring to him, “daily between five and six o’clock,” summaries of political material in current periodicals; “to submit to me, every ten days, an analysis of the brochures or books published within the previous ten days”; to report on the content and political tendencies of each play performed, within forty-eight hours after its premiere; and “every first and sixth day [of the ten-day week] between five and six o’clock, he will submit to me a bulletin on the posters, placards, or advertisements that may be worthy of attention; he will also report on whatever has come to his knowledge, and has been done or said, in the various lycées, literary assemblies, sermons,… that might be of interest from the point of view of politics and morals.”4

On January 17, 1800—again continuing Directory custom—Napoleon ordered the suppression of sixty of the seventy-three newspapers then published in France. By the end of the year only nine survived, none of them radically critical. “Three hostile newspapers,” he said, “are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”5 Le Moniteur universel regularly defended Napoleon’s policies; sometimes he composed articles—even book reviews—for it, unsigned, but betraying their origin by their authoritative style. A wit renamed this government organ Le Menteur [liar] Universel.6

I want you to write to the editor of Le Journal des débats, Le Publiciste, and La Gazette de France—these, I think, are the newspapers most widely read—in order to declare to them that… the Revolutionary times are over, and that there is but one single party in France; that I shall never tolerate newspapers that say or do anything against my interests; that they may publish a few little articles with just a little poison in them, but that one fine morning somebody will shut their mouths.7

On April 5, 1800, censorship was extended to the drama. The government argued that opinions individually and privately expressed might do little harm, but that the same opinions when put into the mouth of a famous historical character, and proclaimed from the stage with the force and eloquence of a popular actor, would have an influence explosively multiplied by the mutual reverberation of feelings—and by the irresponsibility of individuals—in a theatrical audience.8 The censorship excluded from public performances any criticism of monarchy, and any praise of democracy. La Mort de César was banished from the boards because the audience applauded the speeches of Brutus against dictatorship.9

Finally the state took control of all printing. “It is very important that only those be allowed to print who have the confidence of the government. A man who addresses the public in print is like the man who speaks in public in an assembly”;10 he can scatter inflammatory material, and should be watched as a potential arsonist. Hence every printer must submit to a censor every accepted manuscript, either before or while he prints it, and, to secure the state’s imprimatur, he must agree to delete objectionable matter, or accept substitutions proposed by the government. Even after the censor has given his consent, and the work has been printed, the minister of police is authorized to confiscate, and even to completely destroy, the published edition, no matter at what loss to the author or the publisher.11

It was in this prison of the mind that literature struggled to survive under Napoleon. The most heroic effort was made by a woman.

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