Musings / Rogues and Renegades

The characters of history in whom I have particular interest do not normally bring about any swings of power.

I am normally unimpressed by the sweeping statement. The kind of assertion of which I am thinking is made in E.M. Forster's "Howard's End": "It will be generally admitted," writes Forster, "that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man." I don't think so, and I doubt very much if, despite Forster, this is generally admitted. Still, I do not think I would care to challenge the equally universally accepted judgment that when it comes to literature, Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is the greatest novel ever written. Like Forster's, that assertion is made to establish a point, but is arrogant. It assumes that the person making it has read every other novel that can remotely be considered a candidate for the title. I have read "War and Peace" more than once, and go along with the determination of its greatness.

"War and Peace" meets the principal test for an artistic masterpiece. After you have completed reading it, you want to return to it immediately. On a wide canvas, the novel paints a picture of five aristocratic Russian families, their interrelationships and their experiences at the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. The book tells its stories fascinatingly and, were it not for Tolstoy's hobbyhorse, you would find it hard to find a boring section in the novel. But Tolstoy has a theory of history that can easily interfere with his brilliant descriptions of balls and battles. His particular obsession is with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who appears as a real-life character (one of 580) in the novel. The author cannot tolerate that an individual personality such as Napoleon's can be given credit for any significant effect on history; Tolstoy will not allow that history would be in any way different were Napoleon not to have existed.

Tolstoy's theory of history as it appears in "War and Peace" is examined brilliantly in Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox."

Tolstoy's theory of history is for historians to discuss. It is not in my area of competence. For a reader of fiction, the sections of "War and Peace" that discuss the theory - principally, the second part of the epilogue - are tedious. I find it hard to accept that history consists merely of movements and political and market forces, and is unaffected by the principal characters who feature in its progress. How, for instance, would Tolstoy have related to the changes in world history brought about by the actions of Hitler or Stalin? Would the world not have been different had Hitler not existed? I will allow the true historian to discuss the historical significance of serious statesmen.

But I am not devoting this discussion to men of destiny. They interest me, of course, but the characters of history in whom I have a particular interest do not normally bring about any swings of power. No theory of history would render them any less or more interesting. I am not thinking of men of destiny, but of men who are interesting because they themselves are colorful characters; men who are less interested in the fate of nations than in their own individual fates. These are men possessed of chutzpah. I call them the "rogues" of history, not important of themselves, but fascinating because of the curiosity they arouse among later observers. Rogues are colorful and have certain common characteristics.

A common characteristic of the historical rogue is the loose nature of his loyalties and the ease with which he changes them. His loyalty is to himself rather than to any country, state or group of people. Take, for example, the most scintillating of classical figures, the heretical and sexually versatile Alcibiades, the most fascinating of Athenians. A brilliant soldier, he had no compunction in switching sides from his home state of Athens to Sparta, the sworn enemy of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. It did not take him long to make enemies in Sparta and he was compelled to leave, this time for the great enemy of Greece: Persia. Alcibiades was a free spirit who mocked the gods. He parodied the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, for which he was accused of sacrilege and, not for the first time, was driven out of Athens.

The next classical rogue was Flavius Josephus, the great historian. He is one of the famous chroniclers of antiquity and, following the pattern of rogues, seemed to have no regrets at having betrayed his people. Although he was a historian, some of his actions are still shrouded in mystery. He was a leader of a Jewish band of fighters in the Galilee. When they were defeated by the Romans at Yodfat, the Jewish garrison committed mass suicide. Josephus, however, contrived with a small group to escape to a cave. When the Romans pressed for their surrender, Josephus - a mathematician as well as a historian - suggested a mathematical process of committing mass suicide that providentially left him alone alive. The system has been discussed among mathematicians and has been referred to as Roman Roulette.

A rogue who has long intrigued the student of history is the long-living Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, known as Talleyrand, as subtle a diplomat as history has known. He is one of the most memorable figures of French history, a great survivor. A noble of the ancien regime and a churchman, when the time arrived Talleyrand deftly switched his loyalty from Louis XVI to the Revolution, and then at the right moment moved on to Napoleon and served as his top diplomat. A true son of the Church, Talleyrand was a legendary womanizer. By his mistress, the brilliant Germaine de Stael, he fathered the great Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix. When he saw that the wind was no longer blowing in Bonaparte's direction, he negotiated with France's enemies, Austria and Russia, for the restoration of Bourbon rule, the nimble Talleyrand helping himself to the job of foreign minister to the Bourbon dynasty. When the Bourbons gave way to the House of Orleans, the now elderly Talleyrand was still there, this time as French ambassador to London.

Rogues like Alcibiades, Josephus and Talleyrand were patricians. No one could say that about my next rogue, Grigori Rasputin, often known as the Mad Monk. He was born to a peasant family and little is known about his early life. He became a healer and a mystic, who wielded unprecedented influence over the Romanov royal family. There are legends galore about Rasputin, including the grisly manner by which he met his death. It resembles very much the bungled murder attempt of Clare Quilty in Nabokov's "Lolita"; indeed, one wonders whether Nabokov made use in the novel of the story of the bungled assassination of Rasputin by noble but incompetent czarist officers.

Contemporary rogues are not lacking. For instance, England has always specialized in eccentricity, a sine qua non of roguery. Benjamin Disraeli, fascinating though he is, is perhaps too important to be a rogue. Hermann Goering was too unpleasant to qualify as a rogue. There has to be something likable about a rogue. May the rogues continue to flourish and make life intriguing for those of us who are bored by Alexander, Caesar, Metternich and Bismarck!