Being Napoleon — A Short Story

Let me warn you in advance that the following story may not be to your taste.  It’s more for those who enjoy a bit of a puzzle—who enjoy figuring out the meaning of a story. If you do read it, be sure to let me know what you think it’s about so I know if I’ve executed it properly. Enjoy.

Being Napoleon

“So how long have you been Napoleon?” said the psychiatrist.

“That’s a stupid question,” replied the patient, “I’ve been me all my life.”

“I see. And where are your army and your white horse, your field guns, your medals and the hat you always wear?”

“Another stupid question. You took them all away when you locked me in here.”

“Your uniform, sure, I guess you could explain that. But how did we manage to seize you from the midst of your army without anyone noticing. Can you explain that?”

“As I said before, it was treason. English spies must have bribed my guards to drug me and bring me here for safe keeping. Maybe it was democrats.”

“Of course,” replied the doctor, “spies and democrats.”

“But I wonder why they’re not anarchists? That’s how they were known at the time.”

“Semantics. I call them democrats. What do you care?”

“I see,” said the doctor who knew how it went with Ben Cairns, patient number 1A-100345, otherwise known as Napoleon.

Since he was admitted for assaulting a police officer, a charge later dropped, Cairns had gone from a patient to a curiosity and a running debate.  No one was too sure whether he was putting them all on in some type of elaborate hoax—that he was playing a solipsist for some reason—or whether he represented a danger to the public—mostly because no one had seen exactly this before.

Stranger still, after the criminal charge was dropped in light of his mental instability, he’d become a voluntary patient.  He’d often expressed a desire to leave, but no one felt entirely confident in discharging a man who believed he was Napoleon. He in turn claimed to interpret their reluctance to endorse his discharge as part of the ruse to keep him in.

‘Sure,’ he’d say, ‘You discourage me from leaving because you plan to shoot me in the back the moment I step out the door. Until you tell me to leave, or I figure out how to escape undetected, I’m staying put.’

Every psychiatrist on the ward had taken a shot at Napoleon, though no one had managed to catch him in a contradiction.  Whether this would break the delusion was anyone’s guess.  But there was little else to do with him; and truth be told, the doctors had found arguing with Napoleon an entertaining—if often also frustrating—diversion from the hard cases.

Talking with Napoleon had become quietly known as “lunatic chess,” because he seemed able to neutralize every gambit. When pressed with historical details about Josephine, the march to Moscow or the outlines of Paris, he countered with ‘Lies,’ ‘That’s not the way I remember it,’ or brushed it off with a joke: ‘You know me better than I know myself!’

When presented with modern technology—radios, automobiles computers, elevators—that represented incontrovertible proof that Napoleon’s age had passed away three centuries before, he’d reply, ‘Magic tricks and sorcery.’ When asked how he came to be in New York, he’d reply, ‘By boat, I assume—supposing I’m not still in some elaborate compound in France.’

And when he was pressed with the ultimate question, ‘Why go through so much trouble and expense over Napoleon when he was in custody—why not just send you off to the guillotine?’ the same response always came back: ‘Because Napoleon defeated—Napoleon resigned—is a far sweeter victory for you than Napoleon dead.’

Now it was Dr. Banes turn at psychological Waterloo, and he thought for sure he had a few mating moves up his sleeve.

“Do you speak French?” the psychiatrist asked, setting his patient up for the first assault.

“Of course,” said Napoleon.

Pouvez-vous discuter avec moi en français?” replied the doctor, barely concealing a Cheshire Cat smile, confident his check was but one remove from mate.

“Say what?” retorted Napoleon.

“I find it a little strange that Napoleon wouldn’t want to speak his native language,” said the psychiatrist with mock-surprise. “I thought you’d enjoy—“

“—I am speaking French,” Napoleon interrupted, “I don’t know what foreign tongue you’re jabbering in, but you should stick to French if you expect me to respond.”

Dr. Banes flushed with embarrassed irritation in spite of himself, just as his peers had done when similar gambits were so easily rebuffed. How amateurish his ploy seemed now, countered even before it had a chance to play out. He didn’t even have to look to the observation window to see his sniggering colleagues because he knew they were there watching, doing exactly that. He recovered a little:

“Forgive me. I was just having you on a bit.”

“Well I find it strange,” the patient replied, aping his captor’s phrasing, “that someone who claims to be a doctor would play such games.”

The psychiatrists hackles went up: “To be honest, I don’t believe you are Napoleon,” deviating from his preconceived plan in favor of a direct assault.

You don’t believe or you want me not to believe?”

“Look,” the doctor said, ignoring the challenge, “Your name is Benjamin Cairns. You’re thirty-eight-years-old and you live at 54 Park Street, New York City. You’re unmarried and you have no immediate relatives. You were admitted to this hospital for assaulting a police officer when you were questioned about your erratic behavior. I know this and I know deep down you know it too.  You’re in good health otherwise, and there’s a whole wide world out there for you. Why don’t you just give up this charade now, Ben, and admit who you are? You can be discharged with a clean bill of health and go on with your life.”

The doctor stopped there, staring directly into Napoleon’s eyes, looking for even the smallest sign of recognition. But he saw nothing but half-bored intransience.

“Oh yes,” said the patient, “the Ben Cairns story. If you sincerely believe what you’ve said, why don’t you just discharge me with your stamp of approval and let me be on my way?”

The doctor pursed his lips.

“You won’t, will you,” said the patient, “because you want me to try and escape so you can shoot me dead. It would be dishonorable, after all, to permit me to leave and then shoot me in the back as I left—even you Englishmen would not be so vulgar.”

The psychiatrist clenched his jaw and pretended to jot down some notes on his pad, giving himself a moment to regain his composure.  It was funny watching someone else being subjected to this asinine game, but it was far harder when you had to sit through it yourself.  Something about these cute replies grated on one’s nerves—you just wanted to slap him silly. And it was such a waste of time; it went on only because you knew—and you knew he knew—that you couldn’t just discharge a man who refused to leave and yet persisted in claiming to be Napoleon.  Or maybe he didn’t know that—who knew what he knew and didn’t, the doctor thought, reminding himself not to fall into his own vicious circle.

He decided to change tactics.

“Okay, Napoleon, I’ll play along.  What’ll you do if I discharge you?”

“I’ll rejoin my army and continue my conquest of the world.”

“You’re in New York. Your name—sorry, your official name—is Ben Cairns and you don’t have a passport or money for airfare. How will you get to France?”

“Supposing what you say is true—and I don’t concede that it is—I’d have to find my way back to France and rally my supporters. Maybe I’d have to toil like a serf for awhile to make a little money to travel. Though to tell you the truth, I’m doubtful of the possibility of success now. A good commander knows when the deck is stacked against him, when victory is next to a miracle. And it seems to me that you could keep on changing the walls of this labyrinth you’ve constructed for me till the day I die.”

“Interesting,” said the psychiatrist; he wasn’t sure what else to say. Maybe he could be discharged on the world. Maybe Ben Cairns would go about his life like any other person, planning for a future that might never come, believing in an image of himself that was as false and as out of all proportion to his own importance as everyone else. Where normal people believed in heaven or human progress or some other myth that centered their lives, well, he’d believe he was Napoleon Bonaparte, suffering in exile and searching for his lost army.

Dr. Banes mulled it over.  There seemed to be only two possibilities. If the patient was suffering a delusion, he would eventually breakdown—nothing could last forever and he might well do something drastic when it all fell apart.  On the other hand, if he was playing pretend, the real world was the cure. No employer, no landlord, no friend would accept a man who claimed to be Napoleon for long. He would have to give up on the solipsism or become indigent.  Come to that, the patient would probably give up the game the moment he stepped out the door of the hospital—and this seemed the more likely diagnosis.

But a lingering doubt held the psychiatrist back. A man so desperately bored with his own life that he decided to play ‘debate the solipsist’ in a mental hospital must necessarily be suffering from some underlying condition.  And surely his world would collapse and this condition would emerge in all its ugliness without an audience to play along: didn’t every solipsist need an audience to play the foil? As much as he wanted to let Cairns go on his merry way—to let him experience how the world would treat Napoleon—Dr. Banes concluded it would be unethical to let him go in this condition.

He decided on his course.

“Our session is over for the day, Ben—“

“So soon? I thought you were just getting warmed up.”

“No. And I’m not recommending that you be released, because I’m not going to stamp you sane while you believe these things. Whether you’re delusional or whether you’re playing us, I can’t say for sure.  But I know you need help,” said the doctor somberly.

“Or maybe I just need to be left alone?” replied the patient.

“Maybe. But I’m also recommending that no one engage you in this game anymore either. So if you’re having us on, it’s all over. You can stay until you’re ready to leave or to let us help you—that’s it.”

“Very well,” said Napoleon, “I’ll give you my answer in the morning.”


3 thoughts on “Being Napoleon — A Short Story

  1. When I was directed to this post, I was under the impression it was in the form of a parable or fable. I don’t believe it is a parable or fable, although perhaps I was mistaken in that impression.

    A parable or fable is pretty straightforward in what it attempts to convey, whereas a ‘riddle’ (as this is described) makes an attempt to hide its true meaning. The author of a riddle wants to make you guess, while the author of a parable wants to make you see.

    I don’t know if I’m a whiz at solving puzzles, so I don’t know if this is a good riddle or not. (I spent a couple of hours doing the Jumble in the newspaper the other day. Is that too long, or just about right? Plus, I know I’ll go through my life never being able to get through the entire NYT crossword puzzle.)

    It seems to me the following two paragraphs should be combined, as I assume they are the same speaker:

    “Of course,” replied the doctor, “spies and democrats.”

    “But I wonder why they’re not anarchists? That’s how they were known at the time.”

    I can see that ‘being Napoleon’ is such a cliche that the doc takes the stance that the patient is playing a game with him. But if that’s what he believes is happening, why would he also believe the patient would play the same game outside his office? He’s not going to get the same results, after all.

    I guess the idea is that this is a Catch-22, where the patient cannot possibly believe he is Napoleon, so he’s clearly not ‘insane’ (whatever that really means). On the other hand, the ‘Catch’ is that he’s ‘insane’ to go around pulling everyone’s chain this way.

    If that’s it, it’s not a very powerful idea. People do things that are not in their best interests all the time. If that’s insanity, the whole world is insane. Which, of course, it may be, and that IS a powerful (if not terribly original) idea. However, it’s not the idea portrayed in this story.

    Of course, maybe I’m missing something here. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    I had a woman who worked for me once who was fairly literate and believed she could write. And for sure, she put the sentences and paragraphs in order fairly decently. She knew how to construct an idea, which is more than a host of supposedly well-educated people I’ve met in my life could do.

    Her problem was that the ideas she chose to convey were basically cliches… ‘common wisdom’ which was little more than widely-held beliefs. A belief being widely-held does not make it wise, it merely makes it common. It does not make the idea wise or worthy or well-examined, only popular.

    It’s a typical problem. What she saw as finished work I saw as a first draft. A first draft may be the springboard for something better, but aside from that it’s only purpose is to give the wastebasket something to do.

    As I said, I may well have missed the point here, and maybe I’m the only one who will. If so, good for you and too bad for me. On the other hand, if everyone else misses the point as well, you’ve failed to make it, for all practical purposes anyway. Writing is like having a telephone – if you’re the only person who has one, it’s not going to do you a lot of good, is it?

    Assuming I’m right (which is all I can do at this point), I’d say this idea could always be re-examined and taken further. There may still be something worthwhile further down the road.

    1. First, thanks for reading and the candor.

      This story is one of the weaker of my attempts at a traditional dialogue. I have a number of them and the bothersome ones I’ll probably put on line for feedback.

      As I suspected, there’s something missing in the execution. You picked up on more or less the first affect that I had in mind—the plot is rooted in the epistemological problem that you really can’t tell a committed solipsist from a delusional man and, more importantly, you can’t disprove either by cross-examination.

      The twist in the philosophical problem is provided by the dramatic situation wherein the philosophical problem becomes a practical one. A man just playing an elaborate game with his friends is one thing, but to go to such lengths (if that’s what he’s doing) invites a dilemma when you have an ethical obligation to decide which he really is. Now, this first impression, as you pointed out, was a little frivolous—fun to some philosophically-minded folk, perhaps entirely gratuitous to others.

      But the second affect didn’t come through. That dimension of the dialogue is far more ominous, and if the text had worked the way I planned it, it should’ve occurred to you shortly after you read it. This theme is connected with the psychiatrist’s response—and not only his response to the patient, but all our responses to a similar problem of committed belief. I won’t explain it more, because it may spoil the story, which I’m still hoping can be saved with some tweaking.

      I also see that I should never have called it a puzzle, which suggests I have the answer and the story is the pieces. But I didn’t mean to suggest it had a solution; I intended the story to be a epitomize the deep problem in a way that makes sense of it.

      At any rate, the input was helpful because it suggests I have exactly the problem I thought I had.

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