The Cult of Che

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Oct. 30 1997 3:30 AM

The Cult of Che

Knowing what we know, why do we still celebrate him?

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In 1821 Napoleon was murdered--he was poisoned--while in the hands of his enemies, far away from home, just as Che was murdered in 1967. It took 19 years to bring Napoleon's remains back to France, compared to 30 years for Che. Napoleon's reburial took place on Dec. 15, 1840. People who should have known better found the ceremony moving. Victor Hugo, who stood among the crowd, dutifully recorded, in a poem on the occasion, that Napoleon had been wrong--that Napoleon had tried to conquer with the sword instead of with the mind. Yet a few lines later, Hugo wrote, his Bonapartist blood pounding:

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May the people forever keep you in their memory,      Day as beautiful as glory,      Cold as the tomb!

So in the Cuban tropics, too, there has just now been a day as beautiful as glory, cold as the tomb. And because the cult of glory feeds on defeat and not on victory, we can be sure that, like the passion for Napoleon in the last century, the passion for Che will disappear no time soon. Not in this generation, not in the next.

Paul Berman, a regular contributor to Slate, is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.

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