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OPINION

The emperor of nothing

How does a deposed leader with untrammeled ambition and a massive sense of injured self-importance deal with a world in which nothing more can happen?

Detail of "Napoleon at St Helena" by Paul Delaroche, between circa 1855 and circa 1856, oil on canvas, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom.
Detail of "Napoleon at St Helena" by Paul Delaroche, between circa 1855 and circa 1856, oil on canvas, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom.Paul Delaroche/Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Can a powerful political figure come back after being sent into exile?

The answer is no — at least, not if it’s 1815 and he is sent under heavy guard to an island 1,200 miles west of Africa and 1,800 miles east of South America.

I am talking about Napoleon Bonaparte, who, after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, was shipped off to the island of St. Helena. This small, desolate, windswept island in the South Atlantic Ocean is “further away from anywhere than anywhere else in all the world,” in the words of the writer Julia Blackburn. “The Emperor’s Last Island,” published in 1991, is Blackburn’s eccentric, beautiful book — part history and part literary meditation — about Napoleon’s exile during the last six years of his life. How does a deposed leader with untrammeled ambition and a massive sense of injured self-importance deal with a world in which nothing more can happen?

He takes baths, in Blackburn’s account. Lots of baths, in a lead-lined bathtub whose soap dish still shows the indentations made by his restless fingers. He frets. He sulks. He makes peevish comments about the lackeys who surround him. He orders his carriage and rides around the perimeter of his territory. He cheats at cards. He eats in a dark, damp, sweltering, windowless dining room to the sound of rats scrabbling beneath the floorboards. He gobbles his food (five-course dinners, consumed in less than half an hour). He has insomnia. He gets fat. His legs swell. His stomach hurts.

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Visitors ask to meet him. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes no. Sometimes he ignores them. Sometimes he launches into a self-aggrandizing monologue, and their job is to listen admiringly. Sometimes he hides.

On St. Helena, Napoleon was the emperor of nothing. He ruled over a house oozing with mold and infested with vermin. In the garden he designed, the carp ponds leaked and the fish died. The canaries imported for his new aviary died of disease, and so, according to Blackburn, the aviary was only ever inhabited by “a chicken, a lame pheasant, and a few pigeons who escaped when the door was left open.” Sometimes a neighbor’s farm animal — an ox, a pig, a goat — would stray into the garden; Napoleon would pick up a gun and shoot it. The island was a geographical and psychological prison, an insular empire of monotony, hysteria, and malignant stagnation.

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So what would be today’s equivalent of St. Helena? You can’t help thinking about this sort of thing if you pick up Blackburn’s brilliant and uncannily apt book now, in the early weeks of 2021. There’s certainly no place on earth that’s unreachable, or virtually out of touch. Even Mars is starting to seem closer than it used to. Today’s bars to political comebacks are legal rather than geographical. And an impeachment, or even two impeachments, without a Senate conviction might feel more like an Elba than like a St. Helena.

Although she never writes about it, Elba is implicit in the title of Blackburn’s book. Elba was the emperor’s next-to-last island — the scene of his first, ineffectual, exile. When Napoleon was defeated and deposed in 1814, by a coalition of all the other European states, his adversaries chose to exile him to an island in the Mediterranean, 160 miles south of France. They believed he had been not just defeated, but so decisively discredited and disgraced that he would never dare try to regain power — and that if he did try, no one would follow him. They were wrong.

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As soon as Napoleon arrived on Elba, he began plotting his departure. After only 10 months he escaped and sailed back to France, where his supporters and soldiers flocked to him. The king fled; Napoleon was ruler again. It was only after his final defeat at Waterloo that his opponents, having learned their lesson, saw the need for the more permanent solution of St. Helena.

And that was the devastating point of St. Helena: its permanence. That was the thing that undid Napoleon — the thing he couldn’t tolerate, as Blackburn’s evocative narrative makes clear. The island, Blackburn writes, rendered time “stubborn and unmoving.” Napoleon said that “there was little to distinguish the days from the nights except that the nights seemed longer.” He was a chess player, and he understood that he had been checkmated. There was nothing to look forward to, no hope of change or improvement, no place else to go. St. Helena was the end of him.


Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.