May 21, 2013
Farewell to providence
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald
Grande Rue, as you might expect, runs through the heart of the old city. At ground level, Boulogne-sur-Mer offers up the scarred stone and the obscure shuttered recesses of a French city in decline. It smells, as it should, of fresh croissant and black tobacco, of last night’s urine and the holy nectar of cheese. Of sea, granite, age and food.
This may seem an incongruous place to commemorate the life of Argentina’s greatest warrior, the sole man who could compete for glory on the American continent with Simón Bolívar. But there, on the third floor of number 113, José de San Martín died in the year 1850. His family grieved, and blamed his demise on the briney cold of Boulogne, a world away from the dry Andean airs of the spiritual home of Argentina’s father.
In light of this unnatural location, the museum that now exists in the house to celebrate San Martín, preserved at the cost of the Argentine taxpayer, is not one of the city’s main crowd-pleasers; that honour goes instead to a nearby aquarium. Passing Argentines pay a dutiful visit. The resident French barely know of it.
Visitors coming to northern France may be forgiven for sating other objects of curiosity. Here, in a cool and windy corner of the country, stands the battlefield of Agincourt, where the legend of the victorious British underdog was created. Close to Calais is the nondescript Field of the Cloth of Gold, site of a famous Anglo-French peace treaty in 1520. Cemeteries of the dead from two world wars are strewn everywhere. Hitler’s bunker for launching V-2 missiles, “the progenitor of all modern rockets” according to Wikipedia, sits in Éperlecques.
Such historical density has come at a price. Cities that were bombed, rolled over and maimed have not benefited aesthetically from post-war Europe’s architectural reflux. Likewise, in the house where San Martín died, it is hard to know what is real and what has been introduced as an acceptable fake. The Liberator’s body, of course, is now entombed in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires, under permanent guard. A notice in Grand Rue 113 informs the visitor that the bed, personal belongings and the floorboards were also removed, and carted off to Argentina’s National Historical Museum (Museo Histórico Nacional).
Shortly after visiting the house, and aroused by the oddness of this fake deathbed on the lip of the English channel, I read John Lynch’s magnificent biography of San Martín. Unlike the multi-volumed tributes of historians from the three countries San Martín helped liberate from Spanish rule — Argentina, Chile and Peru — Lynch’s version is succinct and judicious. Without ever being overly explicit on the subject, he does not hide San Martín’s relative lack of glamour, his incapacity at womanising, and, unlike the Venezuelan Bolívar, his want of caudillo charisma and dislike for the all-night borrachera.
The daguerrotype taken of the liberator aged 70 is proof enough: stern, brooding and straight-backed, San Martín is seen for what he was. Though born in Yapeyú, Corrientes province, he was the son of a peninsular Spanish family. He became a soldier because it ran in his family, and generally preferred war and political strategy to light-hearted banter.
Lynch also deals at some length with the notorious failure that culminated San Martín’s career. In September 1822, he resigned as Protector of Peru. In spite of recurrent waves of speculation about his re-emergence as a saviour of Argentina, San Martín never again assumed a public role. Indeed, so concerned was he about the radioactive effects of his mere presence on scheming Argentine politicians, that he decided to take exile in Europe.
Differing interpretations can be given of San Martín’s withdrawal from the world-historical stage. Matters had not proceeded as planned in Lima, and Bolívar’s star was waxing while the protector’s waned. But if we attend to the narrative which San Martín actually provided, knowing that he was not the duplicitous sort, we find a somewhat different reasoning. In his version, his failure was that he was not built for early Latin American politics. He was a military man, a devotee of order, but a convinced liberal. He was aghast at dictatorship, barbarity, violence and persecution, even as he recognized that all were needed in liberated America, and that the carousing, garrulous and merciless Bolívar could provide them.
The night before leaving Peru, he told an adviser why he could not continue. He could not fulfil “the unavoidable obligation that to save the honour and discipline of the army I should shoot a number of commanders, and I lack the courage to do this.”
San Martín simply didn’t fancy himself as the supreme lawgiver. He would not be the man of providence, and would not pretend morality was his plaything. San Martin had read much Enlightenment theory, and like Kant, wanted everyone to rule themselves through reason, rather than being harried by a large laughing overlord with a chorus line of bayonets.
It might appear tendentious to say it, but modern America does not appear to have entirely resolved this debate over the merits of providence. Was George W. Bush’s administration not supposed to be on a “holiday from history”? Further south there is of course the entire Bolivarian clique of state makers. And make what you will of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s lecturing to the nation.
Yet in Europe, having shaken off providence through horror and trauma, we now have the eurozone. Although emergency leadership has been thrust on Germany, this financial union stands out for the paralyzing diffusion of its authority, and for the voluntariness of every country’s self-harm: you have to want to be in the euro to be ordered to obey. It is the financial apotheosis of Enlightenment thinking. And while lacking the bravura displays of statecraft, it trundles along, never far from collapsing under its own abstractions.
San Martín’s French house of death is incongruous, but the place is fitting as his last home.