Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

The Jacobin Moses

Gance’s Napoleon concludes with the young general’s departure for the Italian campaign. What makes this climactic part interesting is not the novel panoramic triptych that allows us to view the sight in panorama even before panoramic cameras were used in film making before, but in the way the panorama determines both the past and the future as an organic whole. What Gance does with the triptych is to portray Napoleon’s Italian campaign as the beginning of his storied career. The film builds up to this scene by establishing Napoleon’s prodigy: as a child, he was astute and intelligent, hampered only by his Corsican descent. As a young officer in the army, he had to endure the oscillations in the revolution as well as the incompetence of the generals in the new revolutionary army. Hence, after suppressing a Royalist counterrevolution, Napoleon, given command of the Army of Italy (by then one of the Armies protecting France from Austrian incursions from the South). Before departing for Italy, he enters into an empty convention hall, the young general reflects on his plans not just for the campaign, but for the future of the revolution itself. Staring at an empty hall, the ghosts of the former members of the Convention appeared. In the midst of the different ghostly figures, the main icons of the revolution appeared. The ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, and Couthon appeared before him, depicted as larger than life figures, occupying the screen in a double exposure sequence. The ghostly figure of Danton asks him about his plans, demanding from him the continuation of the revolution and its expansion beyond the borders of the country. The figure of Robespierre demanded that a strong authoritarian system of government had to be constructed to protect the revolution from its internal and external enemies. Amidst this ghostly figures, Bonaparte promises a unified Europe under a single Republic, the liberation of all men from crowned heads, and a centralized system of government. All the ingredient of a benevolent dictatorship. What Gance develops in this scene is to contrast the Italian campaign as part of Bonaparte’s own exodus and descent into the unknown.

ghosts of the revolution
The Ghosts of the revolution appears over Bonaparte

The appearance of the figures of Danton and Robespierre shows how Gance understood the legacies of Danton and Robespierre as two complementary ideals. Danton was the figure of the Republic and its roots in the popular sentiments of the masses. Robespierre, on the other hand, was the stern dictator and a cold pragmatist, seeing the need for strong authority to hold the revolution together as a cohesive system of government that can protect the interests of all citizens and not just the interests of the middle class. Gance’s portrayal of these two figures divides the two tendencies and abolishes the antagonism between the two. The growth and expansion of Republican ideals and the need for a centralized system of authority are two inherently antagonistic ideas that address the external and internal contradictions within the revolution. However, Gance performs a vulgar dialectic. Bonaparte is the figure where the expansion of the revolution and its stability are possible.

Gance depicts the figures of the revolution as the sole authority of the revolution; they are the authors who generated new ideas to create the revolution, inspire the people, and hold them together. The revolution as a cataclysmic event owes itself to the ideas of individuals and their approaches to the republican aspiration. What the Thermidorean reaction brought was stagnation, depicted as a chaotic storm of people. The appearance of the “gods of the revolution” before Bonaparte legitimizes him as the authentic continuation of the struggles of the revolution.

tryptich
Napleon, the Jacobin Moses

The speech he makes before the Army of Italy echoes the exodus narrative that Gance builds beforehand. The triptych scene depicts Bonaparte in the middle screen in a worm’s eye view, side by side with a shot of the army from a birds eye view. Both figures are framed as two parallel gazes of each other, creating a common fetish. Napoleon becomes the object of the gaze of the soldiers and the people are becomes the object of the gaze of the individual. Despite this relation’s inherent non-rapport, the rapport between the people and the the figure of the leader is mediated by the signifier by which the figure of the leader introduces to the dualism. In the case of Bonaparte, he makes a promise to the people: to lead them to the fertile plains of Piedmont and subjugate towns under their rule. This portrays that Bonaparte’s exodus into the the Italian campaign is their pilgrimage to the promised land and Bonaparte is their Jacobin Moses. The Grand Army is the Israel of the Egalitarian cause.

Romanticizing the Body of the Leader

Gance’s depiction of Napoleon relies on a fundamental Lacanian insight “desire is the desire of the Other”. The scene from the empty convention hall to the triptych portray Bonaparte as he sees his destiny in relation to the revolution’s expansion. The soldiers see Napoleon as the savior, the person that can deliver them to some form of dignified existence.

The important element in Gance’s depiction of Bonaparte is that he shows us not the desire itself, but the framing of desire as a formal system of relations. Bonaparte’s story is not a historical flick qua history as a narration. Its politics is not depicted through a set piece where lines in the books are spoken by actors. What Gance portrayed is not a Bonaparte that is simply a product of the politics of the revolution, but to portray a myth. Hence, we do not see a chronological retelling of important events in Bonaparte’s life, but of scenes that generate the myth.

Romanticizing the body of the leader entails that the story of an individual is a convergence of genius and the destiny set upon him by the high gods of the revolution. Life becomes an irony between determinism and the sheer force of the will. Destiny retroactively determines the contingent occurrences in an individual’s life and sees them as part of a singular narrative that leads solely to the destined point. Hence, the myth of the genius is generated: the precocious boy becomes suited for military campaign. The leader is a man with destiny inasmuch as he is a product of his own time and context.

The romanticization of the leader’s body is far from the idealist enforcement of the leader’s authority, but of a vulgar materialism that served as the obverse of a scholastic and theological realism, grounded on the divine. Its materialist expression is the central role of nature and of the human being as the foundation of values and systems of knowing. Hence, any populism is not built around the concept of an idea, but of an attempt to address concrete reality as part of a greater reality. The populist always seeks justification through a continuation of an ideal (the “spirit” of democracy or the revolution) set against a determined moment of stagnation. As a populist figure, Gance’s Bonaparte frames the general as the savior of the revolution, its genuine inheritor.

 

 

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Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed

            Perhaps, the general symptom of to-day’s political milieu is the emergence of highly divisive polarized political situations. The rise of populist politicians under questionable policies has plagued not only the Philippines but also different parts of the world. However, the recent events leading to the Supreme Court decision to bury Ferdinand Marcos under a hero’s grave demands that we look at it not as an isolated case of historical amnesia but as an overall symptom of our incapability and resistance to admit the inherent contradictions within our post-1986 liberal democracy. At the same time, compromises made under the banner of national unity have divided us more than it has actually united different sectors of society.

 

The Failure of the Post-1986 Liberal Democracy: A Manichaeism

Ken Fuller described in The Lost Vision that despite the promises of reform after the Marcos dictatorship, the Aquino administration bearing the constraints of the large debt left by the previous administration and the demand by different sectors to expedite the recovery of the country’s economy, conceded to the neoliberal policies that its predecessors have applied under the brutal hand of the dictatorship. The Cory administration did not shy away at the number of extra judicial killings, suppression of dissent, and concessions to neoliberal policies and economics. The forced choice borne upon the young democracy of the 1987 constitution paved the way for a wide neoliberal deregulation of the economy.

What it basically introduced or reintroduced is the same brand of cronyism with different names and a different sponsor and protector. The oligarchy continued to reap the benefits of neoliberal deregulation, while those who are affected remained in the same poverty-stricken condition as before. Liberal democracy in this case only allowed the formal freedoms guaranteed by the fundamental rights of man, but it did not allow the resistance to the economic dogmatism that the country will be an obedient child to the market, following its oscillations and trends of speculation.

Aside from the continuity of the Marcos neoliberalism—a neoliberalism a la Pinochet—replaced by an Aquino neoliberalism—neoliberalism with a human and motherly face—, the post-1986 liberalism played one dangerous political tactic: the demonization of the Marcos regime. By positing the dictatorship as the face of pure political evil, the Aquino administration have reduced the 1986 EDSA revolution as a battle between the forces of good and evil and that the unified effort to depose Marcos was the triumph of good versus evil led by an agent of change who singlehandedly led us to freedom and gifted us the present democratic constitution. The 1987 constitution became the Holy Scripture and the Aquino family the Holy family to whom we have the utang na loob for our present democracy.

The Manichaean discourse failed miserably as the incompetence of the subsequent administrations proves that the promised democracy did not actually work for the rest of the poverty afflicted people. The obscene effect is not the legitimization of our present liberal democracy, but the nostalgia of the way things were, a return to the old order of things.

 

Nostalgia: Where Authoritarianism Breeds

Authoritarianism is not born out of the non-existence of liberal democracy, but of its fundamental failure to surpass the bureaucratic regime where consensus is constructed among a few members of an elite cadre of policy makers. Furthermore, liberal democracy tried to dispel political passions by placing it within the legal boundaries of the state and the communicative acts that follow from it. What is so radically different in our local liberal democracy is the perpetual authority of the illustrado class, the same dynasties have ruled the country with little to no benefit of the citizens.

As liberal democracy projects are bound to fail as it engages in a Manichaean struggle against the forces of evil, the plan backfires and people, disillusioned with to-day’s political status, turn to the past, looking for a pristine moment that has to be restored. The logic therefore of totalitarianism i.e. right-wing conservative fascism, is the establishment of a mythopoeic conception of the past that in the progression of history and the inevitable changes that will occur, something must be kept in permanent place that must never change, positing an external obstacle that constantly watches the progress of events, prohibiting the renaissance of the golden age. Nostalgia is the emotion that arises out of the authoritarian vision; a justification for everything can be constructed out of one’s romantic relation with the past. The agents and ideologues of fascism thrive in constructing their public discourse on the exemplification of the past and the assertion of an internal unity of society. One should be reminded that the word fascism was derived from fasces, the symbol of power that binds together all of the castes of society and upheld by the legal authorities. Fascism, given such etymology, is far less than the cooptation of revolutionary consciousness, but the combination of cooptation and the re-legitimization of old social relations that was supposed to have been suppressed by liberalism. While the contemporary right-wing populist is against liberals and the values of liberalism, he can only achieve his aims through the mechanisms of liberal democracy, pandering on its logic, system of suffrage, and construction of public opinion. The greatest of fascists, Hitler and Mussolini, did not engage in insurrectionary revolution, but were voted into power through national parliamentary elections. They were presidents in every legal sense of the term, but whose campaign runs under the unity of the people to heal the wounds of the past (in the case of Nazi Germany, to unite the Germans against the wounds of the Versailles treaty and world Jewry).

 

Unity under Dutertismo

We can read President Duterte’s speeches on different occasions in the same manner. When asked by a journalist what he will do after the violent dispersion at the US embassy. Duterte remarked “I’ll call the police and the activists together…there is no left and right. We are all Filipinos.” What is wrong with this remark? Duterte showed not the attitude of a stereotypical authoritarian leader, but the stereotypical liberal who abhors the polarized political situation and demands the unity of the citizens. But, unity for what purpose or goal? Behind the appearance of a liberal lies the fascist core, echoing Marx’s jibe against the party of order in Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Napoleon, liberals act like liberals, but profess fascist ideology among themselves. Authentic fascism in our current time is not entirely the madness of the extremists or the obnoxious presence of trolls on the internet to silence dissenting opinion, but the voice of people who call for unity simply by the sheer mythology of the nation and the perceived obsolescence of old ways of resistance and partisan politics. We should not see authoritarian leaders as the people who are greedy for power, ready to devour the country with its vitriolic speeches. Rather, they are people who see themselves as part of a wide project of restoring a country to its pristine condition. Marcos did not declare martial law and cracked down on communists and activists simply because who was against communism; rather, he saw himself as part of a greater mission to preserve order and unity. The declaration of Martial law was conjured within Marcos’ spiritual exercises asking God for a sign and rid the country of the un-orderly influences and permissiveness.

The difference between the leftist and a believer in right-wing demagoguery is not between passionate revolutionary and the traditionalist or the vulgar populist and the rational liberal; the fundamental difference lies in how both the left and the right deal with struggle. The left sees contradiction everywhere; the most fundamental relationship between things is not the unity of opposites, but that the struggle of opposites is absolute and in constant opposition.[1] The rightist on the other hand sees conflict and opposition within the current political situation, but what must occur at the end of it is not to fight a constant internal struggle and study the class contradictions in society, but that behind the conflict lies an identity that will unite all walks of life. Hence, the struggle of the left and the right is not between the multitudes versus the universal rationality of the right. What we have is the struggle between two universalities. The universality of the right is that of the unity of all social hierarchies, of everything has its proper place, repressing the struggle of opposites for the sake of what is supposed to bind us together as a nation.

 

[1] Mao Tsetung, “On Contradiction,” in Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1971), pp. 124-125.

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed