Go to that chalet in Bechtesgaden, in Southern Bavaria. Despite the panoramic pastrolare, you will feel nothing but revulsion for its most famous Nazi occupant. Go to the Red Square. You may have a tremor or two for the October Revolution, but you will feel only hatred for the man who betrayed it with his murderous tyranny over the Soviet empire, 1923-53. If you visit the mausoleum-like memorial for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoniette in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, you may feel reverence for a rich past, but it is one that is irretrievably far away and long ago. As for the Republic’s Pantheon for France’s “great men,” you will find it a place that disappoints you for its spiritual void — surely emptier than the parish church of Sainte Genevieve, which it replaced.
Now go to Les Invalides, which is a veterans’ hospital complex, an army museum, and a large church, on Paris’s Left Bank. Here lies Napoleon Bonaparte, in a gigantic sarcophagus, emplaced on a high plinth, arising from the lower depths of the Church of Saint-Louis. The tomb lies directly under grand cupola, towering two hundred feet above. The visitor looks down on it from a marble balustrade.
Visiting Les Invalides is like visiting the Lincoln Memorial: amid all the funeral marble and the airless geometric space, something is alive. You revere Abe Lincoln, you long to have known or at least heard him, you feel proud to be part of the republic that spawned him, and if you are born north of the Mason-Dixon line, you feel proud to be a descendant of those who fought for him.
But at le tombeau de l’Empereur, something is different. Here the abyss peers back.
The imperial sarcophagus is a costly slab of reddish porphyry — a hard and expensive crystalline rock — that is sculpted like a wave, a shape cut from a continuum: dense and heavy, frozen in stone yet eternally cresting. The stone is unexpectedly, almost shockingly, flesh-colored, not the customary black or white, which would more easily relegate it to a dead past. It is livid and living, the color of a flayed chest in an autopsy, exposing a raw, still-beating heart. The tomb is remarkably modern for an object constructed in the 1850s, quite impersonal and unpictorial, having no story to recount or symbolism to impart. It is not even characteristically French, but is more like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – still and powerful, knowing and alive, overwhelming the impressive ecclesiastical and military setting which it is placed. You forget you are in a church and a hospital, and despite the presence of all the trophy flags of battle, which the Michelin guide has told you to look for, you even forget that this is a military establishment.
If the large presence is not characterized, it is because the architect of the tomb, Louis-Tullis Visconti (1791-1853), was all too aware of the paltriness of characterization in this case. Unlike historians and writers, the architect was satisfied with seeking to evoke, not to describe or (still less) explain, and in that regard he has succeeded with Nietzschean force: to power, the will, the threat, the thrill are all here. For how to describe or explain this man, though it has been tried and tried — and will be tried again in the pages of this book? As what do you characterize Napoleon? As Hitler? As Prometheus? Both analogies, and even Jesus Christ himself, have been invoked, but the man lying in this tomb was very far from any of them. One might rather say that Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle — full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar. One is pulled in opposing directions.
His tomb evokes no grief and sorrow, as does the Lincoln Memorial. The visitor’s throat is not thick with emotion, nor does his heart reflexively fill with high resolve. Rather, his mind is troubled but wide awake, in response to what lurks down there — equally menacing and thrilling, with Sphinx-like qualities of good and evil and mystery. Most present in this place is the awe-evoking sense of human possibility, which is a different thing from hope. The wave of this tomb becomes a sleigh that will carry us off into an unknown future, even if only a hundred days’ worth.
Steven Englund, Napoleon: A political life, xiii-xiv