The Proof of Bravery

Issue #88

Archivist’s Note: The following text was discovered by researchers from the American Society for the History of Mathematics during their survey of the 19th century archives of the Davidson College Historical Trust.

It may surprise those who remember that l’Empereur Bonaparte himself named me a Marshal of the Empire, Prince of Moscow, and le brave des braves, to hear that I have spent the three decades of my exile as a professor of mathematics. I teach at the embryonic college of Davidson, engendered by parochial ambition on the broad fertile plain of Carolina.

My students are all rude and indolent scions of plantation gentry whose interests lie entirely outside the field of mathematics and more reside in the mounted pursuits, both of game and of females, between which they hardly seem to differentiate. They judge me a dry old tapette and laugh at me behind my back as they whisper of their conquests. I envy them nothing in either equestrianism, I who ravished one hundred nymphs across Europe.

I foresee a war between the North and South of these not-so-United States; the hatred and contempt of the Yankee in my students intensifies year after year. Sometimes a perverse voice from within urges me to take up the marshal’s baton here in the New World as well. Just so was my mentor General Moreau lured, and also pushed by his woman, back to the field of battle and then to the firing squad that awaited him. But I left my wife Aglaé long ago and have no woman to push me now. And I have already faced my firing squad, yes, and given them their order to fire.

I have always been able to see strengths and weakness at a glance and identify the various minimums and maximums of systems. That is my gift, as applicable in the classroom as on the field of battle. Like all things in this world given to us by le mathématicien suprême, war is but the graphical expression of an equation, comprehensible by those with the eyes to identify the variables and the brain to solve for their values.

As I see defeat looming for Carolina and the other southern states in a war to defend their property of Africans, so I smelled the putrefaction of the Bourbons and anticipated their demise. As I served the revolutionary committees, I sensed from afar the storm clouds that would unleash a rain of blood in the summer heat of thermidor to drown them.

The one man I met who was without flaw was Bonaparte. So we called him in those days, the humorless Corsican tough. I did not like him, but as I followed his career I could not help but love him. As he said, he always fought his battles with the same plan: hold the center, turn your enemy’s flank, then charge and split them, whilst all the time intersecting them with parabolas of destruction from one’s cannon.

Not only was he an unparalleled general. By enforcing the système métrique, he changed the way the world measured and weighed. As he gave order to the world of matter, so too did Bonaparte bring order to the rules of men, in the form of the code civil. Evenhandedness, clarity, fairness, justice, efficiency: so was his system of law.

Bonaparte was quite simply the greatest man in the world, the most modern and unafraid of grand scale. As I was the man who could factor, he was the master of integration. Together, we were two sides of a golden coin, and the world bowed down before us.

Time alone l’Empereur could not master. In the face of fierce resistance by the ignorant and superstitious, he gave up on the calendrier républicain. How much more beautiful and logical, to say “It is the month of wine, vendémiaire,” than “It is the 7th month (when it is actually the 9th!), September.” Or to say, “It is the month of heat, thermidor,” instead of “It is the month of Caesar Augustus.” But the day after 10 nivôse, on the tenth day of snow-month in the fourteenth year after the Revolution, we fell back into two-faced barbarity, the first day of the month of the god Janus in the Year of Our Lord 1806.

Perhaps that failure presaged the greater one to follow, when Bonaparte passed his zenith and began to descend. The triumphant system of the future was defeated by the forces of nature, by the catastrophe of our invasion of Russia in the Second Polish War and the subsequent mortification of our flesh. Though this happened in the days that the world remembers as the autumn of 1812, the prime of my life was in the Republic, and I will always order the days by the calendrier républicain, even in recounting its downfall.

I have seen Charles Minard’s graph of our campaign, and though there are those who esteem it as a triumphant scientific abstract and chronicle of the disintegration of l’Armée, simultaneously charting time, location, number of men, and temperature, I tell you that it is missing its most important component: the Z-axis of suffering. Said axis would be asymptotic, starting low but rising to the limit of all that is possible.

The point of inflection was the Battle of Moscow, or as the Russians call it, Borodino. Before that, it was a magnificent war. From the time we crossed the bridge over the Niemen at Kovno with over four hundred thousand men, on the first day of messidor, the harvest season, our harvest seemed to be of victory. From Vilnius past Minsk, all the Russians could do was fall back. The waving rye-stalks of the fields and hawks circling a sky of purest blue live on in my memory as my high-water mark of that greatest feeling in life, anticipation.

My skills were at their height, and the Emperor was brilliance itself. By the time of heat in thermidor, when we bested them at Borissov, at Krasnoe, Smolensk, Dorogoboui, and Viazma, we knew the Russians were beaten. Beaten, I tell you, though they refused a decisive battle.

At last, in that glorious but cursed fructidor we bit into the poisoned apple of triumph. They gave us our battle at Borodino.

It was a strange battle. Some say we lost that day, but I was there and I tell you we beat them. We never lost a battle, but only the whole war. This time, though, they did stand and fight.

Five times I led my cuirassiers against them, and five times they repulsed us with heavy losses. Despite everything, as we marshaled for the sixth, I knew they would break. But in our moment of triumph, the finger of God touched the battlefield and struck me down, in the form of an incandescent piece of shrapnel that whirled out of a cloud of smoke and buried itself in my neck.

As the charge moved on without me, I saw my life pass before my eyes. They all say that, because it is true. What else can one do when faced with eternity but turn away to review for a last time one’s memories of the past? But throughout my reveries of my childhood, wife, family, and glorious career, I became aware of two most incongruous figures wandering about the battleground.

One was Russian, a noble of some kind by his marvelous clothes. His top hat was a sparkling white to match the lace collar peeping from beneath his splendid dark jacket, decorated like the night sky with silver stars across his broad chest. As they drew closer, I noticed the contrast between the great strength of his enormous shoulders and the diffident sensitivity of the eyes behind his spectacles.

The other was swarthy and slight, and his billowing cloak was of good quality but much used. I took him for a merchant Gypsy or perhaps a Persian or a Turk. As he drew closer, though, I saw by his hat he was a Jew.

“Tsk, tsk, look at this, Pierre,” said the Jew. “What a splendid uniform this one is wearing! He must be a general. Might you be able to identify him for me?”

Pierre straightened his spectacles with his index finger, stooped, and drew out a corner of my cape to better examine me. He had the eyes of an elephant, enormous and wise yet placid. “By his unique leopard cloak, I recognize him from the stories of my friend Prince Bolkonsky. This is Marshal Ney, bravest of Bonaparte’s generals.”

I spit out a mouthful of blood and managed to gasp a few words. “Sir, are you a doctor? Save me, I beg you!”

The Jew gave a low whistle. “The bravest? My, that’s brave. Monsieur Ney, I’m sorry, but you are most surely doomed. Your artery has been severed; you will be dead in but a minute. I would respectfully suggest you commend yourself to your God.”

“But Monsieur Lazarus, surely—” The big Russian cut himself short at a glance from his companion, and I sensed an opportunity, which I grasped as a man will at any straw to arrest his fall into the abyss.

“Sir, we French of the Empire are not like the Russians and their hunting dogs the Cossacks who persecute the Jews. I would aid you were our circumstances reversed.” I spat blood, and started again. “Do you know what the Emperor has stated of the Jewish people in France?

‘I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.’“

The Russian turned again to his companion and said “Surely this is most fair-spoken, Monsieur Lazarus? Must you not also be interested in his qualities as an exemplar of bravery?”

“You are a gentleman of quality, sir,” I said, “and I beg the name of those that rescue me so I might suitably reward them later.”

He frowned but tipped his white top hat and inclined his head. “I am Pyotr Kirilovich, Count Bezukhov. If it were in my power to help you, I would. But the kind of help you need can only be supplied by my companion, who I once again implore on your behalf.”

“Let me think about it, Pierre.” The Jew leaned over me and spoke more gently. “It is very fine that you and your Emperor don’t hate my people. You don’t know how rare that is. I would like to do you a favor, but I’m not sure which way that cuts upon this question. What I can do for you, you may not thank me for. Tell me one thing, Monsieur Ney: would you want to go on living if you lost what meant the most to you?”

I drew shuddering breath to reply. “The surgeon’s knife is no stranger to me, and I am ready for whatever sacrifice may preserve my life. Even if I am to be a cripple, I want to live to witness the coming triumph of France and the new day of reason and glory just dawning.”

I sensed it was too late, whatever medical genius the Jew might possess. I felt my soul leave my body. I floated up out of the cloud of smoke into the breezy sunlight above, so high I saw the plain and beyond it the forest, and beyond it rivers, mountains and the curvature of the Earth. It was wonderful. I was suffused in light, floating in radiance like a warm bath, dissolving into the light of the world that is to come.

Then I heard words but in a different voice, as in a dream, “So be it.” All went dark.

Then I woke up, and a medical officer was standing over me saying “Sir, you are blessedly lucky, I see no serious wound.”

There was no sign of the mysterious stranger and his burly companion, and no sign either of that shard of metal and the gaping hole it had carved in my neck. I lived, though I had died, and I wondered at the meaning of the stranger’s words.

I learned that the rest of the day had been a stand-off, after which the Russians retreated. So we declared victory.We advanced and conquered the great oriental capital of Moscow, city of onion-domes and Asiatic mystery, waiting for the official surrender and victor’s tribute which were never to come.

The calendrier républicain has twelve months, each with three décades of ten days. At the end of fructidor came in the last five days of the year the festival of sans-culottides, for the sans-culottes, the common man without (for him unaffordable) trousers, whose violent passion for a change of circumstance had given us our revolution and Republic. Their five days were named for their prime qualities (as judged by the poets Chénier and Fabre d’Eglantine, who came up with the names of days): Virtue, Genius, Labor, Opinion and Rewards. A sixth complementary day, added in leap years, was named Revolution. I respectfully submit that the poets erred in omitting Intoxication from the list. I know not on which of those days our sans-culottes set fire to the city, but I know they did so.

Though in our histories we blame it on the fleeing Russians, I saw hundreds of our drunken troopers making bonfires of unoccupied houses for the sheer exuberant pleasure of watching them burn. The China-Town in particular I recall they burned most excitedly, because in a few of the structures were stored the fireworks for which the Chinaman is so justly famed. They set fire to whole streets of mandarin architecture five centuries old, in anticipation of the moment when the flames found these fireworks’ storing places and the resulting brilliant rainbow explosions so reminiscent of the celebration of the storming of the Bastille.

By the jour du raisin, the day of the grape and the first of the New Year after the equinox, Moscow was half-consumed by the conflagration. Too slowly in the smoky delirium of our pillaging occupation of vendémiaire, the month of the vine, did it dawn on us that the fire was a pox, destroying the available supplies as a fever consumes the flesh.

Even worse than fire was the hatred of the poor. When we defeated the Russian army, we drove away our best friends in a thousand kilometers. The Russian officers all worshiped us; in fact, they spoke better French than our sans-culottes. They would have taken our surrender, and fed and clothed us like Samaritans. But in our enthusiasm to crush them, we had delivered ourselves into the hands of hardened former serfs, and worse, the Cossacks summoned by the Tsar from the wilds of Siberia, who had barely heard of France and thought nothing of slaughtering us like beasts.

At dawn on the first day of brumaire, the month of mist and fog, the Emperor gave the general order for an evacuation of the city. Confused like a hibernating animal smoked from its den, l’Armée stepped unprepared once again out into the fog of war.

The line of carriages on the road west stretched for ten kilometers. I abandoned the very fine goods I had accumulated over vendémiaire and rode through the mud alongside the road. I saw some make the same calculus and live. Many others stayed in line with their new treasures, cursing those in front of them, and were never seen again.

Though we named our seasons for the climate of our sweet mother France, Mother Russia has her own time and nature. What is time of mist in France is in Russia the time of starving, frostbitten death. At the midpoint of brumaire, on jour du dindon, the day of the turkey, great dark-gray clouds raced from the east and dumped half a meter of snow in an hour as we trudged, our numb feet tracking blood into the slush with every step.

Behind the storm came bitter cold. The men wearied, discipline waned, and alongside the road were cast aside the supplies we would so desperately need in days to come: extra shoes and spare soles, bags of biscuits and flour, even muskets and ammunition.

As the afternoon faded into night, at first only a few, then more and more, once-proud members of the great Armée lay down to die in the snow. Unless they were senior officers, or had very good friends, no one stopped to pick them up. Sometimes not even then.

We reached Smolensk after three days of such conditions, exhausted, miserable, and with few supplies. The horses died by the hundreds of hunger and cold. Without horses, we would not be an army but a band of lemmings leaping over a precipice into the endless void that is the steppe. So we fed them with the thatched roofs of any huts we found and slept roofless and shivering inside.

The third night from Moscow Bonaparte summoned me to his quarters. His toilet was still immaculate, and he sipped from fine china a pot of tea.

“Ney, you are my favorite, and my champion, and I need you to do what no other man would dare to do. You must be our shield and cover our retreat. You may pick the best ten thousand men.”

I was a good Marshal of the Empire, and I said what such men say to their Emperor. “It will be done tonight.”

His smile was brittle as he acknowledged my submission to his will. I think we had both thought of each other as friends until that moment. Perhaps it had even been so.

The Emperor and the remains of l’Armée waited five days for us to draw off the pursuit and then dashed west towards Vilnius, while we that same damned night plunged off east into the maw of the wilderness, so beginning of the month of frost. In that frimaire rearguard action I believe we found the frozen plain they say is at the very heart of Hell. We fought without sleep, without food, without shelter, without ammunition, without hope. We fought in the mist, rain, wind, frost, and snow that drifted to many times our heights.

When a horse would no longer move, we ate it, slicing open its entrails and eating them quickly raw if no fire was handy, for otherwise they congealed into a mass of ice. The roads were glass, and the barrels of our muskets burned us as if white hot.

I saw my men, who had been the cream of the III Corps, gladly take impossible risks, charging well-fed, well-shod Cossacks with plentiful ammunition with nothing but the bayonet and stock of the musket frozen in their hands, barefoot and starving. I admired them for their courage. I envied it. Because I had lost what I most cared for: the calculus of risk, and in its disregard, of bravery. That frimaire, I learned that nothing could end my life.

As our numbers dwindled every day, I had to fight hand to hand myself, and many times I was worsted. I was frozen, burned, crushed, bombed, slashed, stabbed, buried alive, torn apart by dogs, shot, whipped, raped, beaten, and hanged.

But though many times I died, I did not stay dead. Every time I fell, I rose up again the next day, like our Lord and Savior, like Lazarus. Those of my men who retained the capacity for thought found me uncanny and lost their regard for me. Some said le rougeaud drank blood or had no blood but frozen ice in his veins. Many knew the truth, and most sensed it. I was no longer human.

As for me, the niceties of calculating limits had been my defining passion; now I found I had transcended the limit of death, and my life as a soldier lost its savor and its meaning to me. I was despondent. Nonetheless, I fulfilled our mission.

When it was found out that the Cossacks had seized the bridgehead at Borisow, I led the dire revenant of my cuirassiers, a few hundred skeletons riding skeletal horses, back out of the wilderness in time to save l’Empereur, who was trapped like a fat rabbit on the east bank of the Berezina, and the rest of the army from complete annihilation.

We rode out of a blizzard and cleared the bridge. Few of the Russians would stand before us, our appearance by that time being exceedingly grim. Our withered bodies animated by sheer will, we kept on riding until we stumbled into the French camp. My men fell on their faces by the soup-fires, but I walked straight into the Emperor’s tent, knocking down the guard who challenged me and surprising the Emperor in the midst of playing a music-box while drinking a cup of cocoa.

“Ney,” he exclaimed. “You are indeed le brave des braves. Someone, bring me a crown for the Prince of Moscow!”

I almost forgot to kneel for my crowning, distracted by my fruitless search for the greatness that had once been so evident to me in the person of Bonaparte.

Bonaparte made a beeline for Kovno but left half the men behind. I witnessed the calamity in its entirety. Soon after l’Empereur and his guard crossed, the Russians brought hidden batteries of mortars to bear on the tightly packed crowd of French stragglers. These miserable men were caught between cannon fire and the icy flood. There was a great panic of overturned wagons that blocked the way, and within minutes twenty thousand men were cut down where they stood or swallowed up by the river.

On the road any man with fire was subject to immediate attack by abominable snow-men, their faces horribly disfigured and blackened by frostbite, who would attempt to slay with their numb and decaying hands anyone who stood between them and warmth. Such undead stragglers became a greater menace than the Cossacks.

In Vilnius our men finally found beds to lie down in, but few ever got up again. The Cossacks came in the night and slaughtered Frenchmen in those beds like veal calves in their pens, too weak to put up any fight. I too was stabbed in my sleep, waking up with a sickle in my chest and a bearded savage with foul breath chuckling at my gushing blood. I woke up alive again, alone in an abattoir.

The last border of Russian territory was the bridge at Kovno. There was no order by then; the Emperor had passed on with his Guard days earlier. Fools fled over the bridge with no thought of what might come after, that the Russian Bear might chase them further than the very threshold of its den. As the Russians came on, I grabbed a torch and the reigns of a powder-wagon.

Though I was shot many times, my sapper’s charges went off most satisfactorily. The Bear roared from the far side, but a tiny fraction of our original strength did manage to get home.

The English and those treacherous Prussians soon joined the Tsar in dismembering the Empire like a team of butchers working on a steer. Bonaparte became a desperate gambler chasing his losses; the other Marshals saw it too. In germinal, sprouting time, the Emperor gave the order to march on Paris itself, to wrest it back from our enemies. As he spoke visions of Moscow burning filled my head.

“But of course, why not?” I said. “The conquest of great capitals is something we excel at, as evidenced by our triumph in my own principality of Moscow.”

Bonaparte sucked in his breath, but the other Marshals nodded their heads.

“Go on, my brother, you speak for the rest of us in this matter,” said Belissaires, a good chap.

I stood up. “Bonaparte, it is over. You know it. Paris cannot burn. We must make terms.”

His eyes so protruded from their sockets I feared they might burst like overripe fruit. “The army will obey its Emperor!” he said.

I put my face right in his, so he could not help but look into my eyes and see within the horrors of my frimaire that are forever frozen and reflected there.

“The Army will obey its chiefs,” I said, and thought it was done.

L’Empereur was put away in Elba by the royalty of Europe like an embarrassing wedding gift stuffed into the back of a china-hutch, and they brought back the Bourbons, as inbred and imbecilic as ever. I was landed and given a peerage as a reward for my rebellion.

I rode round the perimeter of my lands, seeking the shape of my new life. My thoughts were always of my monstrous transcendence of the human condition. I could no longer endure the society of my wife, or any woman. In my heart, as in Hell’s, was a howling, frozen abyss.

I awoke one day from a laudanum stupor to the frenzied banging of the Kings Men upon my chamber door. I was taken before the Chamber of Peers and told that Napoleon had fled Elba and was now an outlaw. Louis XVI himself asked me what might be done. I smiled at the powdered fop, a useless relic, and said: “I will bring him back to you in an iron cage.”

At home, a letter waited for me. Bonaparte wrote he would receive me as after the Battle of Moscow. The letter was dated 17 ventôse, le jour du doronic, the flower also called Leopard’s Bane. I laughed until I cried.

I met Bonaparte at Auxerre and fought by his side until we were bested at Waterloo by that Mason’s trowel Wellington. I was killed five times that day; I tried my best. But the thing Lazarus did not explain to me, or at least what I failed to understand, was the full price of his gift.

Without the incentive of avoiding death to sharpen my judgment, I’d lost my skill to sense the high and low extremes. I could no longer pick the weak point in the line to charge and break a pike square. I howled my fury to the sky and stalked the field till midnight with my saber, when someone at last dragged me away, insensible, to await my arrest and conviction for treason.

Why did I go back to L’Empereur? Because while I did not like him, I could not help but love a man who would overthrow the powdered, arrogant idiots. Yes, he was a vain thug, an over-proud bully with a heart of tin. It’s just that we live in such a limited world. Those limits, indeed, are what define us. If it was not so difficult to be great, or even good, men would cease to try.

In the cold dark heart of the next frimaire, on jour du cèdre, the day of cedars, soldiers took me to the Luxembourg Garden to carry out the sentence of the Chamber of Peers. I spoke what I hoped would be my last words.

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her ... Soldiers, Fire!”

I think now that my search, our search, for rationality above all else was over-narrow, if not fundamentally misguided. After all, what am I now but a spirit or ghost? Such a figure as all the spiritualists and charlatans claim walk among us. And so I do. But cannot matters of the spirit still be susceptible to logic and thought, and so to mathematics, the natural language of these? So I have spent my life since in such work.

But now my work is at a good ending point, and I am tired of teaching these stupid boys who could not solve a multivariable equation if their lives depended on it; which it will, if the battle between states is brewing here as I suspect. It takes math to aim cannon.

Furthermore, I have seen questioning looks from long-time colleagues at my appearance, which is unchanged in age since the field of Borodino; most pointedly from a most unlikely amateur hagiographer, the dour Scotch Headmaster. I unguardedly confided my true name to him after an evening of talk and drink. He is a curious man, with much lore of forgotten saints that, though it would have been ridiculous to me when I wore the leopard’s cape, now seems intriguing as I wear the scholar’s mantle.

But he hungers for more knowledge of me and sometimes hints at what he may have guessed. I should do well to depart before he subjects me to questions I would not answer.

Other actors may also be at work backstage in this play that is my life: spilled corn that draws the dove will also call the crow. Rumor must somehow have spread. I have recently received a letter “in the strictest confidence” from a Professor at a certain New England University, asking for an interview and hinting at some special knowledge I might be able to impart with regards to secrets of longevity. The request fills me with dread. I seek knowledge of myself, but I have no desire to impart that knowledge to others or to wait here until caught like a prize beast in a trap and find the raven’s beak probing the secrets behind my eyes.

The man suggested we meet in what I still call fructidor, my favorite time of year, the time of anticipation. But by then I will be gone, gone from Carolina and this afterlife of scholarship.

My inquiries after the Russian Count Pyotr Bezukhov, whose name I borrowed, have been so uniformly fruitless that I now believe this “Count Pierre Kirilovich Bezukhov” to be an entirely fictional creation. Nevertheless, my thoughts have returned to Russia, as the stories I hear of bearded holy men who live there for hundreds of years have piqued my interest. Perhaps I can meet them and inquire of my brief acquaintance Monsieur Lazarus.

I have long considered his words and those of his fictitious companion, and in combination with datum I have drawn from my own experiences I have concocted the following set of scarcely-creditable inferences. First, that Monsieur Lazarus at least is just who he names himself to be, the man raised from the dead by Christ.

Second, that he is an immortal, alive some eighteen hundred years afterwards, or at least that he returns to life from death, as the hunting stick of the Australian savage does when thrown.

Third, that he was somehow given the power to raise the dead as he had been raised (this I know as fact beyond a doubt). Fourth, that his rationalist sensibility is such that he experiments with his situation and by resurrection assembles of the dead a menagerie of outliers, persons that reflect the limits of various aspects of the human condition.

Fifth, as motivation for this, that he is attempting to derive the nature of Almighty God from the admixture of the above specimens, as the Creator can be conceived of as the integral of man.

Beyond this, I shall give up mere verbal constructions of these speculations. However, as a reward to you, the student or scholar who has bothered to read this note so far, I bequeath an epistemological proof I have composed, along the lines of my conjectures above, for the existence of God.

Accepting that such a belief is susceptible to logical demonstration requires much bravery. An existent God is the author of the miraculous Olympian machine that is the world – but a machine which, like Zeus, is sustained through the consumption of infants and innocence. Though poor Bonaparte, a Prometheus who could not as I do re-grow his liver, was then wrong when he said I was, today I prove I am the bravest of the brave.

Archivist’s Note: The proof mentioned in the text was unfortunately missing.


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David Milstein is a computer programmer and attorney who lives near Washington DC with his amazing wife and beautiful baby daughter. His only previously published writing was co-authorship of a textbook, an introduction to the criminal justice system.

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