Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon Bonaparte

How not to read the news

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Umberto Eco in his library

In “How Not to Use a Cellular Phone,” an essay first published in the early nineties, the late author Umberto Eco described what seemed, at the time, like the most obnoxious kind of cell phone user imaginable. It was the person who is anxious to show us how much in demand he is “for complex business discussions,” and who conducts these conversations at great length in public spaces like airports or restaurants, thinking that the impression he makes is “very Rockefellerian.” Eco observed:

What these people don’t realize is that Rockefeller doesn’t need a portable telephone; he has a spacious room full of secretaries so efficient that at the very worst, if his grandfather is dying, the chauffeur comes and whispers something in his ear. The man with power is the man who is not required to answer every call; on the contrary, he is always—as the saying goes—in a meeting…So anyone who flaunts a portable phone as a symbol of power is, on the contrary, announcing to all and sundry his desperate, subaltern position, in which he is obliged to snap to attention, even when making love, if the CEO happens to telephone…The fact that he uses, ostentatiously, his cellular phone is proof that he doesn’t know these things.

At first glance, Eco’s point might seem dated. Few people these days regard the mere act of using a cell phone as a status symbol, and if anything, the sight of someone actually talking on one has begun to feel slightly quaint. In fact, of course, the essay isn’t dated at all. The only difference is that we’ve all been transformed into the sorry figure whom Eco describes. Like him, we’re expected to be available at all times for emails, texts, tweets, and even the occasional phone call, and we don’t have the consolation of thinking that it makes us special. Instead, we’re all uniformly vulnerable to constant interruption, not only by friends and colleagues, but by strangers, spammers, and nonhuman sources of distraction. I’m thinking, in particular, of the news. The gap between an event in the world and its dissemination, analysis, and dismissal online has been reduced to invisibility, and it’s only going to get worse. During the election, there were times when I felt like a slave to information, which is just one step away from noise, and I took steps to insulate myself from it. At the time, I thought it was a temporary measure, but now it looks more like a way of life. Which, in a way, may be the only truly positive outcome of this past year. It forced me to do what I never would have been able to accomplish voluntarily: to take a step back and think more critically about my relationship to the unending deluge of data in which we live.

Robert A. Heinlein

You could make the case we have a moral obligation to be informed of all events as soon as they occur, or that unplugging is a form of denial in itself, but those who lived through even more stressful times knew better. In a letter dated December 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert A. Heinlein described his own “mental ostrichism” to John W. Campbell:

A long time ago I learned that it was necessary to my own mental health to insulate myself emotionally from everything I could not help and to restrict my worrying to things I could help. But wars have a tremendous emotional impact and I have a one-track mind. In 1939 and 1940 I deliberately took the war news about a month later, via Time magazine, in order to dilute the emotional impact. Otherwise I would not have been able to concentrate on fiction writing at all. Emotional detachment is rather hard for me to achieve, so I cultivate it by various dodges whenever the situation is one over which I have no control.

It’s a statement that seems all the more remarkable to me the more I think about it. Whatever his other flaws, Heinlein wasn’t a mental weakling, or a man inclined to avoid confronting reality, and the fact that he felt the need—as a form of preventative mental hygiene—to delay the news by a month is tremendously comforting. And it reassures me that I’m justified in thinking hard about the way in which I relate to the information at my disposal.

To put it bluntly, there’s nothing wrong with reading the paper every morning, absorbing what seems to have mattered over the last twenty-four hours, and then turning off the spigot for the rest of the day. It’s how people got their news for most of the twentieth century, which certainly wasn’t lacking in meaningful events. (Increased coverage doesn’t always lead to greater understanding, and you could even make the case that the sheer volume of it—which has diffused the impact of what is truly important and paved the way for the rise of fake news—has inhibited our ability to respond.) It may even turn out to be more useful to postpone these confrontations to a modest degree. When Napoleon was the Emperor of France, he developed a strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence that he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved, or that the passage of time had put it into perspective. The news works in much the same way. There are very few items that can’t be better understood after a day or two has passed, and for those rare events that are so urgent that they can’t be ignored, there will always be a chauffeur, as Eco puts it, to whisper it in our ears. As Heinlein understood, when you can’t help something in the short term, you have to manage your relationship to it in ways that maximize your potential impact over the long run. It’s measured in years rather than seconds. And it starts right now.

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January 2, 2017 at 9:03 am

The world of Tlön

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Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

Last month, my wife suffered a miscarriage in her eighth week of pregnancy. We had been trying for a second baby for a long time, and it devastated us. She has already written about it more eloquently than I ever could, and I don’t want to relive it all here. But there’s one memory that I’ve been turning over in my head for most of a sleepless night. It was during our first visit to the hospital, when we were waiting to go upstairs to hear the results of my wife’s blood test and ultrasound. I ended up alone in the lobby for a little while, and I caught myself wondering if this would be the last happy moment I would ever have. At such times, you try to strike bargains with the universe, and my personal life already felt so entangled with the election that I made a silent offer: I would accept a Trump presidency, if only it meant that I could have this baby. A few minutes later, we were seated across from a midwife who told us that the fetal heartbeat was abnormally slow, and that it didn’t seem to be viable. There was a chance that it would survive, but it was very low. We went home, spent a tense week waiting to see what would happen, and finally returned for a second appointment. The fetus was already gone. And when I think back now to the deal I tried to strike—Trump in exchange for that baby—I’m reminded of what the late Gene Wilder screams at Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “You get nothing.”

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. I’m fortunate enough to have a life that is mostly shielded from the obvious fallout of a Trump administration. There isn’t any risk that I’ll be deported. I’m a heterosexual male in the middle class. If I want to tune out the news for weeks or months, I’ve got an absorbing project that was going to take up most of my time anyway. But the prospect of doing any work on my book now reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges ends the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is devoured by the alternative reality of a fictional encyclopedia:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly…Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

We’re all about to take the plunge into unreality that Borges describes here—and it isn’t a fantasy spun by a secret society of encyclopedists, as the Borges fan Karl Rove might have foreseen, but the product of a single man’s brain. And part of me is tempted to pay no attention to it and go on revising.


In many ways, it feels like any reasonable person is faced with two alternatives. Either you can fully accept that this is the time that you’ve been given, as Gandalf says to Frodo, and gird yourself for four years of battle, or you can withdraw, tend your own garden, and try to make as much happiness as you can for yourself and your loved ones—which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I’m an imperfect creature, so I suspect that my reaction will be some combination of the two. I’ll unplug for a while, wait for the noise to die down, and then figure out a way to muddle through and do the best I can. It’s not so different from the way in which I dealt with the George W. Bush administration, which, in retrospect, encompassed eight of the happiest years of my life. It had nothing to do with politics: I was in my twenties, I was making my way in the world for the first time, and I felt no need to identify with the man in the White House. Trump may well turn out to be similar, if far worse. For one thing, I’m not twenty anymore. But I’ve also been spoiled by Obama. For most of the last decade, the president was a man I admired and understood. He made me feel that I was part of something larger. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. Part of me sensed this, which is why I tried to savor this last, awful year in whatever way I could. Maybe my relationship to politics has simply been restored to what should be its natural state, as forcefully and abruptly as possible. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

As for Trump himself, I don’t think there’s any point in denying that what he did was extraordinary. As L. Ron Hubbard, a charismatic leader with disturbing affinities to Trump, once wrote: “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” Trump did this unequivocally, and along the way, he reminded us of how little we know about anything, both individually and collectively. Maybe it’s a lesson that all we needed to be taught, although I sincerely doubt it will be worth the cost. And I still don’t know what to make of it. Goethe said of another historic figure:

The story of Napoleon produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

Despite its apocalyptic tone—or perhaps because of it—this is pretty much what I’m feeling now. I don’t have any illusions that Trump will be a decent president, and even a mediocre presidency seems like too much to ask. What consoles me now is that there are good things in this country, and in all our lives, that Trump can never take away. As the world becomes Tlön, the rest of us will muddle through, even if it has to be on our own. My wife and I lost one baby, but we’ll try for another. But I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

Napoleon and the art of the next

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Napoleon Bonaparte

History is full, down to this day, of the imbecility of kings and governors. They are a class of persons much to be pitied, for they know not what they should do. The weavers strike for bread, and the king and his ministers, knowing not what to do, meet them with bayonets. But Napoleon understood his business. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next. It is an immense comfort and refreshment to the spirits, not only of kings, but of citizens. Few men have any next; they live from hand to mouth, without plan, and are ever at the end of their line, and after each action wait for an impulse from abroad. Napoleon had been the first man of the world, if his ends had been purely public. As he is, he inspires confidence and vigor by the extraordinary unity of his action…

We can not, in the universal imbecility, indecision and indolence of men, sufficiently congratulate ourselves on this strong and ready actor, who took occasion by the beard, and showed us how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degrees; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage and thoroughness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Napoleon, or The Man of the World”

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2016 at 7:30 am

The art of the impossible

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

A couple of years ago, after I saw Jack Reacher, I wrote the following about Tom Cruise, whom I still regard as the most interesting movie star we have: “He’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made.” I didn’t think much of that observation at the time, but when I look back, it seems to explain a lot about what makes Cruise both so consistent and so enigmatic. A producer credit can mean just about anything in Hollywood, from the person who willed an entire movie into existence to the financier who signed the checks to the studio executive who was in the right place at the right time. On the highest level, though, a producer is an aggregator of talent and money, a magnet to whom capable professionals and funding are drawn. By that definition, a major movie star, whose involvement can be all that takes a project out of turnaround and puts it into production, is frequently the only producer who counts. If you start to think of Cruise, then, as less a star than an industry player who can get movies to happen, he ranks among the greatest producers in history. And the Mission: Impossible franchise is the jewel in the crown, a series of sandboxes for five distinct directors to play with the idea of a studio tentpole, linked only by the master orchestrator who assembles the pieces.

This may be why it has taken so long for the series to get the recognition it deserves. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been financially successful, but it wasn’t until Ghost Protocol—and now Rogue Nation, which by all accounts is just as superb—that they began to inspire anything like affection. Most franchises thrive on our fondness for a central character, but Ethan Hunt is nothing but whatever the screenplay happens to require. Cruise is the undeniable creative force behind these films, but he’s also turned himself into a studio executive’s idea of an obedient movie star, a pro who gets to the set on time, always gives everything he has, and defers throughout to the overall operation. Each installment is less a movie in itself than a kind of object lesson, with endless variations, in what a big studio production ought to be. Hence the way Cruise, with a producer’s sure instincts, has used the franchise as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable sidekick or villain performances (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Philip Seymour Hoffman), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, Christopher McQuarrie). The result works precisely to the extent that it gives us our money’s worth, and few franchises over the years have so consistently embodied the basic reasons I go to the movies.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Yet there’s something about the impersonality of the result that can be a little alienating, and I think this has contributed more to the ambivalence many viewers feel toward Cruise than any of his public missteps—which, in any case, are far less damaging than countless transgressions for which many lesser stars have been forgiven. It’s hard to feel much love for him, any more than we feel love for, say, Brian Grazer, and Cruise himself seems increasingly reluctant to build a film around his star power alone. When you look at the trailers for his movies, you find that many of them fall back on the same gimmick: instead of opening on the star, as the ads for most movies would, they establish the story and situation for up to a minute without showing Cruise at all, and when he first appears, it’s as a slow fade into a glowering closeup of his face. (You see the same pattern in the teasers for Mission: Impossible III, Collateral, Ghost Protocol, and Jack Reacher, and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.) It sells us on the movie first, then slides in Cruise toward the middle, as if to seal the deal. It’s a neat trick, but it also has the effect of subordinating the star to the producer. He’s an important piece, even the keystone, but he derives his value solely from the machine he sets in motion. And we might like him better as a human being if he’d stuck to movies like Cocktail or Days of Thunder, in which he coasted on his considerable charm alone.

But the history of popular entertainment is richer and more intriguing thanks to Cruise’s withdrawal into the producer’s chair. At times, he reminds me a little of Napoleon, and not just in terms of stature: both are genetic freaks who were statistically bound to emerge sooner or later, and their success depended largely on being born into a time that could put them to use. Napoleon was a political and administrative genius who also had the physical endurance and luck of a soldier; Cruise was a handsome kid with a knack for acting who also had a relentlessly pragmatic sense of the possible. Which isn’t to say that his instincts are always infallible, any more than they were for Spielberg or Hitchcock. His attempt to become something like a real studio mogul at United Artists fizzled out quickly, and efforts like Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day, Oblivion, and Rock of Ages have revealed something less than a flawless understanding of what the public wants. In recent years, he has seemed content to be nothing but an action star, and he’s proven just as capable of this as might be expected—although I also feel the loss of the actor who starred in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. As always, his choices serve as a microcosm of the movie industry as a whole, which has moved away from human stories to four-quadrant blockbusters, and Cruise seems determined to demonstrate that he’s as good at this as he was at anything else. And he is. But convincing audiences to love him for it may be the most impossible mission of all.

The art of postponement

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Napoleon Dictating to his Secretaries

When Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France, he developed a useful strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved in the meantime. At first glance, a writer might not seem to have a lot in common with Napoleon—although he did write fiction as a young man—and the process of writing a novel, while daunting, is slightly less difficult than administering an empire. But there’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. When you’re a writer, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material and detail required by even the simplest story. How does Trevor dispose of the gun? What kind of outfit would Barbara wear to the restaurant? How can Amanda get out of the upstairs bedroom before Don gets home? Sometimes a solution will present itself at once; occasionally you’ll rack your brains for hours without coming up with anything good. But I’ve found that when you don’t know the answer, you’re often better off just postponing it for later.

Which isn’t to say that a writer should plunge blindly into a story without any sense of the destination, or that I don’t prefer to plan as much as possible in advance: I’ve spoken at length about my love of outlining, and I like to have at least the overall shape of a story sketched out before I start work on the first page. As I’ve grown more experienced as a writer, though, I’ve learned that it’s better to work around—or just omit—a tricky section rather than let it sap the momentum you’ve built up so far. You may not be happy with the page as it stands, but if you insert a placeholder and move on, when you go back to revisit it, you’ll often find, like Napoleon, that the problem has taken care of itself. Either the troublesome section ends up being condensed or cut entirely in the rewrite; or something good will occur to you eighty pages later; or you’ll find that the makeshift solution you cobbled together works just fine, at least within the role it needs to play in the larger story. It’s impossible to know really matters until the entire rough draft is done, and it’s far more dangerous to get hung up on trifles while putting the entire project at risk.

Walter Mosley

Other writers have offered similar advice. In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley observes:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away—even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.

And I’ve found that this red question mark is useful for far more than just research issues. The great film editor Walter Murch talks about leaving “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” of any creative project, both because it keeps the process interesting and because the version of yourself who confronts the problem will be better equipped to deal with it. Writing a novel is essentially an extended collaboration between your past, present, and future selves, with the process stretching across many months or years. It’s unreasonable to expect that your present self will have all the answers, and in fact, your future self will probably know more than you do now, once you’ve invested more time into the project. (That’s why I always advise writers to finish a complete first draft before going back to revise: an issue that seems insurmountable in Chapter 1 may have an obvious solution in Chapter 20, but only if you’ve written the intervening eighteen chapters first.) All that matters is that you get something down, even if you suspect that you’ll need to change it later. It can’t be postponed forever, of course. But it often helps to postpone it for just long enough.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

So what exactly is genius?

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Napoleon Bonaparte

I throw around the word “genius” a lot on this blog. Over the last few years alone, I’ve written posts with titles like “The neurotic genius of Dan Harmon,” “Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad,” and even “The lost genius of Family Circus.” I’ve applied the term to individuals as diverse in their fields as Charles Schulz, Ferran Adrià, Matthew Weiner, Umberto Eco, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Dr. Seuss. The more I look at the word, though, the less satisfactory it seems. When I think of genius, isolated from any particular case or example, I tend to picture something inexplicable, maybe even a little sinister, as Goethe says about the career of one incomparable genius of the world:

The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

That sense of something unknown that we haven’t yet been able to grasp is central to the traditional spirit of genius, but at a time when most of our geniuses are so open to interviews, profiles, and commentary tracks, it’s hard not to feel that its meaning needs to be reappraised.

Originally, “genius” was a term with a touch of the supernatural, describing a guiding spirit or deity. Even now, we often think of genius as something other than ordinary consciousness, and it feels this way even to those who seem to possess it. This fits reasonably well with what we know about the brain: impulses and ideas do appear to filter up from lower strata to be sifted or processed on a more conscious level, and they range from the decision to brush one’s teeth to the melody for “Yesterday.” In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes hypothesizes that this division between inspiration and action used to be even more stark: messages would originate in the right hemisphere of the brain and wander into the left, where they were interpreted as the voice of a god or inner daimon. And one of the implications of modern neurological research is that this division still exists, and we’ve simply become better at attributing these impulses to our sense of self.

Stanley Kubrick

In short, there’s something occult and mysterious about the process of genius, at least as it’s traditionally understood. These days, however, much of it seems to unfold in public. Many of the individuals I mentioned above are geniuses in areas that don’t reward solitary visionaries so much as superb organizers: a television showrunner or film director may well follow a voice from his unconscious, but he also needs to be good at dealing with actors, coordinating the work of various creative departments, and deciding on the color of the wallpaper. As the case of Dan Harmon indicates, a strong creative vision may even be a liability if it makes it hard to work with others. And even a deeply original genius may find that inspiration is less important than methodical, systematic attention to detail. Kubrick, for instance, was as close to an intellectual genius as the movies have seen, but it manifested itself as much in his care and patience as in the conceptions of his films themselves. Genius is the engine that drives the project, but diligence brings it home.

And this deserves to be respected, even if it doesn’t fit the standard conception of genius—unless, of course, we use the alternative definition, as famously enunciated by Thomas Carlyle, that genius is a “transcendent capacity of taking trouble.” Napoleon, not surprisingly, embodied both qualities in one career, with a nearly supernatural level of intuition and decisiveness united to a bottomless appetite for facts, figures, and the daily bureaucratic grind of running an empire. (It’s no wonder that Kubrick was so obsessed by him.) A while back, I noted that the solitary geniuses of science, like Darwin or Freud, have largely been replaced by geniuses of collaboration, as science becomes an endeavor that requires increasing specialization and coordination. It’s likely that we’re seeing something similar taking place in the arts. The most visible art forms of our time—film, television, even music—are the work of little Napoleons, where the shadowy side of genius is enabled by the gifts of great producers and administrators. It’s the age of left-brained genius. And now it’s the right brain that seems to be taken along for the ride.

The mind of Napoleon

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Napoleon Dictating to his Secretaries

No one knew so well as he how to sort papers, documents, and statements. Lists were to be all of like dimensions, clothed in uniform bindings, arranged in identical order. The same with estimates…And it is he who combines and arranges these portfolios…

On all subjects he has a collection of information of the same order, dictionaries of individuals arranged by classes or by states. One of the Emperor’s nephews relates that every day Napoleon received and carried about on his person, written on a very small piece of paper, a statement of that which he called the fortune of France, and also the state of his own fortune,—that fortune which was only one of the reserves of the nation. He had this paper in his pocket and consulted it many times during the day.

It is this machinery, this spirit of order and method which he brings to bear on everything, that choice of those around him, which alone are capable, not of explaining, but of rendering credible, the amount of work which Napoleon got through, and which is actually ten times more important than one imagines; for he was not content to grasp the whole, he entered into the smallest detail, and for fourteen years it was he who thought for eighty millions of men.

Frédéric Masson, Napoleon at Home

Written by nevalalee

August 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

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