Napoleon Touched a Bubo
Esteemed among the sick and dying,
A sash around your waist, a bright feathered cap,
A dashing uniform unsmudged by the smoke you made of Jaffa.
You touch the bubo of a brave soldier with your bare hand
While behind you your inferior officer clutches a scarf to his mouth.
He must not know, as you would say, that moral courage was the surest protection against plague.
He must not know of the greatness that shields you.
You would not order the slaughter of thousands of prisoners of war.
You would not poison your own sick and dying troops upon retreat.
Surely this painting could not be of a man capable of such savage acts.
Propaganda is nothing new.
They’ve been doing it since Napoleon touched a bubo (allegedly).
Antoine-Jean Gros. Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa. 1804.
So this is another piece inspired by my Surrealist Writing class. It’s an ekphrastic poem–that is a poem inspired by a work of art.
This painting hangs in the Louvre in the large hall of giant French paintings–like giant size wise but also in their significance in capturing key moments in French history (e.g., Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People hangs there). This particular painting was commissioned by Napoleon and exhibited at the Salon in Paris right before his coronation as emperor. As my poem implies, accounts suggest that the painting was made to dispel rumors that Napoleon had done some not so great things at Jaffa during his Egyptian campaign.
Studying art at the Louvre this summer reminded me how history is shaped by the hands of those whose accounts survive–it’s not a direct observable fact for us living in the present. It’s a story told to us. There are first hand accounts of Napoleon visiting the plague victims at Jaffa, but later historians question whether these meetings happened–how close Napoleon came into contact with his suffering soldiers.
This painting stands out to me now as we are dealing with our own plague like moment. Some things have been mishandled, and there’s a lot of finger pointing and shifting the blame. The information we’re receiving in the present about what will surely be a major historical event is being filtered through different perspectives: politicians, journalists, opinion writers, Facebook statuses of friends, popular memes on Imgur, late night comedy shows being taped at comedian’s houses. One would hope we could more easily identify the facts and truth of the present than we can going back hundreds of years in history, but with all these competing voices, sometimes its difficult to find the sound.
What is the truth of this bleak moment? Do what you can to know it.