There are those few, extraordinary books that make me want to go back and alter all the reviews that I have previously written, so that I might give a certain book more glory by comparison. Such is the case with Jean D’Ormesson’s classic, The Glory of the Empire (1971), but I cannot go back. I cannot change history, so I must heap what accolades I can upon it here and now; for this is a truly astonishing book in its breadth of scope and its insight into the history of man (and how mankind interacts with its own history).
The Glory of the Empire is a history of the fictionalized empire’s (known throughout history as “The Empire”) rise to greatness that would forever alter the known world. The key figure in this rise is Alexis, whose own personal rise to Emperor would come to mark the rise of the Empire’s greatness. What D’Ormesson does here is brilliant. He writes of this Empire not as a novelist, but as a historian devoted to the study of the Empire, with all of a historian’s idiosyncrasies: personal reminiscences, historical digressions, excessive postulating, and biased evaluation. This does not, however, make the work tedious like the reading of another college survey history textbook. No, this book is made infinitely entertaining for its playful interaction with history.
Overall, it is a work of fiction that, like any other work of fiction, skews the vision of the real world. Only this time in the form of history. This notion that fiction and history are one and the same is one of the thematic iterations of the work, for as D’Ormesson says in his history: “No historian does anything but give birth to his own universe” (354). Jean D’Ormesson the novelist, and Jean D’Ormesson the historian, are one and the same here, and the world in which his Empire thrives is very much like our own, but also delightfully different.
In this world the Empire has made a lasting impact upon the course of history, which allows him to emphasize (without saying an extra word) how much history impacts our daily lives. D’Ormesson the historian cites the excavation of the Empire’s founding city of Onessa to Heinrich Schliemann (who, because of the Empire’s existence and the presumable impact it would have on his own life, would never search for and find the historical site of Troy as he is famous for in the real world). Instead of original characters in fiction, like Hugo’s Gavroche in Les Misérables, D’Ormesson attributes the inspiration of the character to the personage of Jester in the Empire’s history. He cites philosopher’s and historian’s remarks about the Empire just as he imagines they would. Marx is often cited for his interpretation of the political situations of the Empire and Hegel is quoted for absolving Alexis for a crime as Alexis “represents the necessary work of universal history and the very form of the new world”, making it a part of Hegel’s historical dialectic and progression of the historical Geist. Thus we see a greater story unfold than what is written on the surface of this history.
The history about which D’Ormesson writes is already played out. It is looking back on itself and subject to the judgments of time and the benefits of hindsight. This reflection is the essential boon of history. D’Ormesson has not just written a story of the Empire’s rise to greatness, but a history concerning the progress of mankind as a whole. In writing the story of the Empire as history, D’Ormesson is able to allude to the power of history – our history – in propagating the glory of mankind despite the smothering power of time and mortality:
“We shall all die. But we shall not die altogether. Something will be left behind us like a trail of light to transmit to succeeding generations all that is great in work and in the imagination…What remains, defying the ages, is what is most fragile, most intangible, barely existing in the form of murmurs, confidences, meditations, reveries: verses, speech, the words of poets and historians (255).”
The world of the Empire is a different world – a vague world that is still quite clearly like our own. It is unclear when the Empire existed in this world (it seems to be set mostly during the Dark Ages), but its temporal character is unimportant. What is important are the people who make up this world and how they have come to shape the world. History is cyclical, despite all the specific situations and characters, as is life: “There is something dispiriting about the march of history. That web never alters despite an infinite range of motifs and variations…nothing is more futile than history, but history is man himself” (56). It is the infinite variety in the same motion that breeds historical insight, but the purpose of this insight is to inspire mankind by the example of specific, great actions in history to keep the wheel of history spinning – for if we fail to keep the wheel spinning due to the futility of it all, due to the ceaseless destruction of time, perpetual entropy would eventually destroy mankind itself and all its wonderful history with it.
History itself is at stake. By the examples of historical figures (even fake ones!) mankind is inspired and given hope to push forward and continue history in search of an unknowable end. History ever looks back on itself to push itself forward. D’Ormesson sums up mankind’s relation to history perfectly:
“There is something intolerable about stability and order, something stimulating in the thrill of disorder. And the dignity of man consists in waiting and hoping and fighting for his hopes […] Time passes and things change. Attrition and hope form the web of history, moving toward a happiness forever receding (152).”
This hope to fight as our predecessors once did in order to make order from chaos, despite its futility, can come from nowhere but history itself.
Hope in The Glory of the Empire presents itself in the individual of Alexis, who is some indefinable amalgamation between Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Constantine, King Arthur, and Plato’s Philosopher King all rolled into one. Much remains a mystery concerning Alexis due to the obscurity of time and the exceptional qualities of the person, but what comes down to us through time is largely in part due to his contemporary historiographer, Justus Dion (who D’Ormesson suggests may be a pseudonym for Alexis himself!).
The Empire was in decline after the death of Basil the Great and barbarian chiefs claimed supremacy in many individual cities that once made up the Empire. Then, as if from nowhere, Alexis arrives on the scene and incites a rebellion against the barbarian overlords and frees the Empire from its yoke. Alexis is set up as Emperor and must soon face outside threats. One by one he responds to these threats and builds the greatest empire the world has ever known – almost unintentionally. D’Ormesson digs deeper into the childhood of Alexis to look at the motivations of such an historic character, finding a number of great people whom he believes influenced Alexis on his path to Empire.
One of the big influences was Philocrates, Alexis’ tutor. This relationship is very reminiscent of Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great. While Alexander fell short of the “philosopher” in philosopher-king, here D’Ormesson’s history gives an example of a ruler who would rise to the challenge and become something akin to Marcus Aurelius. In his philosophic and spiritual journey for a higher truth, we find Alexis worshiping the sun, falling in love with a forbidden priestess, exiling himself to asceticism and the Far East upon her death, learning the tenets of the great Eastern religious and philosophic traditions, and writing poetry before becoming a just and brilliant emperor who sought to bring peace to all the peoples of the earth. Yet, on a personal level, D’Ormesson posits that Alexis just wanted solitude in order to contemplate higher thoughts. To support this theory, at the height of his power, Alexis abdicates in order to wander the earth with what time remained in order to experience more of the infinite varieties of life – and he is never heard from again.
All the reader is left with are the deeds of Alexis passed down through time in order to make D’Ormesson’s history what it is today: not just an entertaining novel, but a brilliant look at the creative aspect in the historical process as well. Every story, real or fictitious, is mediated by the creator, the historian and the novelist alike. They emphasize certain events and repeat certain themes, so we, as readers, might come to the same insight as they did. History is a fine thread of events one after another, but it is up to the historians and the writers to weave these threads together and create a tale that extends beyond a lifetime.
Ultimately, history is about remembering, and continuing to remember, so that humanity itself should never die, but live eternally in the telling with all its varieties and iterations. In a strange reversal, the same could hold true with fiction as well. Fiction should perhaps have as much of an impact on humanity as what actually occurs in history, for fiction and history must be mediated in the same manner and may be used to the same effect – regardless of the veracity they hold.
We may never know what actually happened in history; nevertheless, it is the story that counts. The Glory of the Empire concludes with this brilliant insight: “And if we stopped thinking of and loving Alexis, there would be nothing left of him. It would be as if the vast Empire that ruled the world had never existed” (356). It does not matter that Alexis and the Empire are fictional, because D’Ormesson created something that is as true as any history could be – as long as we read and remember.
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