Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 1

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II, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> II, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 1
The School at Dol – Mathematics and Languages –The nature of my memory.

Dieppe, September 1812. (Revised June 1846)

I was not a complete stranger to Dol; my father was canon there, as the descendant and representative of the house of Guillaume de Chateaubriand Sire de Beaufort, founder in 1529 of one of the first stalls in the cathedral choir. The Bishop of Dol was Monsieur de Hercé, a friend of my family, a prelate of very moderate political views, who kneeling, with crucifix in hand, was shot with his brother the Abbé de Hercé, at Quiberon, on the Field of Martyrdom. Arriving at the school, I was entrusted to the special care of Monsieur l’Abbé Leprince, who taught rhetoric and had a profound knowledge of geometry: he was a witty and handsome man, a lover of the arts, who could paint excellent portraits. He undertook to teach me my Bezout; the Abbé Égault, master of the fourth years, became my Latin master; I studied mathematics in my own room, Latin in the schoolroom.

It took some time for an owl of my species to accustom itself to the cage represented by a school, and regulate its flight by the sound of a bell. I could not win the ready friends that wealth provides, since there was nothing to be gained from a poor wretch without even a weekly allowance; nor did I join any kind of clique, since I hate protectors. At games, I did not try to lead others, but I would not be led: I was not suited to be a tyrant or a slave, and so I have remained.

Nevertheless as it happened I quite quickly became the centre of a set; I exerted the same influence, later, in my regiment: simple ensign that I was, senior officers spent their evenings with me and preferred my rooms to the mess. I don’t know why this was, unless perhaps it stemmed from my ability to enter into the spirit and adopt the manners of others. I enjoyed hunting and running as much as reading and writing. It is still a matter of indifference to me whether I talk about the most ordinary matters or speak on the most elevated of subjects. Being insensitive to wit, it is almost antipathetic to me, though I am no boor. No failings shock me, except ridicule and conceit, which I find it hard not to attack; I find that others always have some superiority over me, and if by chance I sense an advantage, I am dreadfully embarrassed by it.

Qualities that my early education had left dormant awoke in me at school. My aptitude for work was remarkable, my memory extraordinary. I made rapid progress in mathematics to which I brought a clearness of thought that astonished the Abbé Leprince. At the same time I showed a decided bent for languages. The rudiments, the torment of schoolboys, cost me nothing to acquire; I waited for the Latin lessons with a kind of impatience, as a relaxation after my calculations and geometry diagrams. In less than a year I reached good second form standard. For some strange reason, my Latin phrases fell so naturally into pentameters that the Abbé Égault called me the Elegist, a name which stuck to me among my schoolmates.

As to my memory, two traits were visible. I learnt logarithm tables by heart: that is to say when a number was given in a geometric series I discovered from memory its exponent in the corresponding arithmetic series, and vice versa.

After evening prayers which were offered communally in the college chapel, the Principal gave his lecture. One pupil, chosen at random, was obliged to reply. We arrived at prayers tired from our games and dying to sleep; we threw ourselves onto the benches, trying to squeeze ourselves into a dark corner, in order not to be seen and consequently questioned. Above all there was a confessional that we fought over as a perfect retreat. One evening, I had the good luck to gain this refuge and considered myself safe from the Principal; unfortunately, he spotted my manoeuvre and decided to make an example of me. He elaborated on the second point of a sermon, slowly and lengthily; everyone slept. I don’t know what chance led me to stay awake in my confessional. The Principal, who could only see the soles of my feet, thought I was taking my ease like the rest, and suddenly apostrophizing me, asked me what he had been saying.

The second point of the sermon contained an enumeration of the various ways in which one might offend God. I not only repeated the essence of the thing, but I recounted the divisions in order, and repeated several pages of mystical prose, unintelligible to a child, almost word for word. A murmur of applause filled the chapel: the Principal called me, gave me a little pat on the cheek, and allowed me, as a reward, to stay in bed the following day till lunchtime. I evaded, modestly, the admiration of my schoolmates and profited fully from the grace accorded me. This memory for words, which has not wholly stayed with me, has given way to another kind of memory, more remarkable, of which I may perhaps have the opportunity to speak.

One thing humbles me: memory is often a facet of stupidity; it generally reveals itself in dull souls, making them heavier from the load with which it burdens them. Nevertheless, without memory, what would we be? We would forget our friendships, our loves, our pleasures, our business affairs; the genius could never collect his thoughts; the most affectionate heart would lose its tenderness, if it could not remember; our existence would reduce to the successive moments of a present which flowed by without cease; there would be no more past. O wretchedness that is ours! Our life is so trivial that it is no more than a reflection of our memory.