“How many things apparently impossible have nevertheless been performed by resolute men who had no alternative but death.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
“In the skin of a soldier” (http://musee-armee.fr/expoDansLaPeauDunSoldat/index-en.html)is the current exhibit at the Army Museum at the Invalides in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte’s incredible tomb is also housed there. Under the golden dome of the Invalides, visitors mingle around his huge sarcophagus. Tourists wearing clownish replicas of Napoleon’s famous hat stand gazing at the polished stone monument that holds the dead emperor’s remains.
Like most museums these days, the place has a gift shop. The trinkets on display are almost more satisfying than the actual site. Who cares about what it means to be a soldier at war when you can have a selfie taken in a paper hat?
The English translation of the exhibit’s title is “The Life of a Soldier,” a curious way to express the original French version. But then nobody worries too much about accurate translation these days. In the trenches of commerce as long as the exhortation to consume is clear, nuances of meaning are of little import. So “Liberty” becomes a slogan bandied about by advertisers while the rest of the French motto is left out. The complete phrase, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” still hovers above the entrances of many French schools where little Gallic soldiers are being formed. But what are they learning about how to cope in the real, lifelong campaign that each one of us must face?
In Nova Scotia I encountered warriors who taught me a lot about the way to handle combat. Resolute souls like Fleur Mainville, courageously fiddling hope into troubled hearts. And Danny MacLeod, a sergeant of good cheer bearing fresh produce from his garden.
Here in Paris I crave their spirit as I march through my dirty, battle-worn neighborhood. The sidewalks are filthy with the detritus left by human beings living in the kind of pollution and noise that feels like the heart of a most fatal siege.
The scraping wails of electric saws pierce the air. Sirens seem to be screaming from ambulances transporting the wounded, while the underground subway shudders under the pavement. The assault on the senses is so deadly not even a bullet-proof vest would help. I tried one on in the “interactive” section of the army museum exhibit. I could hardly stand up. The replica of an ancient helmet was no different. Rather than making me feel protected when I slid it over my head, it was a hindrance: Like the ear buds I long ago threw away with my old iPod, version one.
Fortunately, there are unarmed fighters who renew my courage. A wise general named Janine traipses up and down the boulevards here waiting to defeat her enemies by transforming them. She has been victorious with me.
One day a couple of years ago, I was hurrying to one of my classes on a chilly winter evening. As an admiral I listened to during a conference on faith and leadership declared “Hurrying only leads to violence.” So I was lucky to be beaten out of my haste by this little old lady’s clever tactic. Janine stopped me by stepping out into my way with her cane. “Help me cross the street?” she implored. We advanced, strolling together. Somehow I wasn’t late for my class and the pace Janine set restored a sense of peace in me.
A few days ago I witnessed Janine holding someone else’s arm. They were deep in conversation. I smiled and the other person laughed when I said “Janine commands us all!”
A few blocks away Michel, a man who resembles the image I have of Socrates, crouches on guard before a bakery. One cold morning I stopped to shake his hand when I was feeling particularly vanquished myself. Probably over some trifle that I certainly can no longer remember because as I reached out to take Michel’s hand, he stood up to meet my gaze. His act elevated me.
Isn’t that the real sensation of being in a soldier’s skin: a feeling of dignity no matter what the battle, and a persistent strategy of hopeful engagement- especially with strangers who are really just fellow soldiers…
Magdalena Randal is an artist and filmmaker from Nova Scotia currently studying in Paris.