Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 13

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book III - Chapter 13
Illness – I am afraid and refuse to enter into the ecclesiastical state – A planned passage to India



An illness, the fruit of this disordered life, put an end to the torments through which the first inspirations of the Muse and the first assault of the passions touched me. These passions which taxed my spirit, these passions as yet ill-defined, resembled storms at sea that rush on from every point of the compass: a pilot lacking experience, I did not know how to trim my sail to the uncertain breeze. My chest swelled, fever seized me; they sent for an excellent doctor, named Cheftel, whose son played a role in the Marquis de la Rouërie affair, from Bazouches, a little town fifteen or so miles from Combourg (As I advance in life I meet again people from my Memoirs: The widow of Doctor Cheftel’s son came to me to apply for entry into the Marie-Thérèse Infirmary: one more witness to my veracity. Note: Paris, 1834). He examined me carefully, prescribed certain remedies and declared that above all it was necessary to remove me from my current mode of life.

I was in danger for six weeks. One morning my mother came and sat on my bed, and said: ‘It is time for you to decide; your brother is able to obtain a benefice for you; but before you enter the seminary you must think about it carefully, for though I desire you to embrace the ecclesiastical state, I would rather see you a man of the world than a scandalous priest.’

Having read this, one can judge whether my pious mother’s suggestion came at a timely moment. In the major events of my life, I have always known immediately what to evade: a sense of honour prompts me. An abbé? I would consider myself ridiculous. A bishop? The majesty of my office would overawe me and I would respectfully recoil from the altar. As a bishop should I make an effort to acquire virtue, or content myself with concealing my vices? I felt too weak to play the first part, too honest for the second. Those who call me hypocritical and ambitious know little of me: I shall never succeed in the world, precisely because I lack a passion and a vice, ambition and hypocrisy. At most the first would be, in me, wounded self-esteem; I might sometimes desire to be minister or king so as to mock my enemies; but after twenty-four hours I would throw my portfolio or crown out of the window.

So I told my mother that my calling to the ecclesiastical state was not strong enough. I was altering my plans for the second time: I had not wished to become a sailor; I no longer wished to be a priest. A military career remained; I liked the idea: but how would I tolerate the loss of my independence and the constraints of European discipline? A ridiculous idea entered my head: I declared I would go to Canada to clear forests, or to India to take service in the army of one of that country’s princes.

By one of those contrasts that one remarks in all men, my father, so prudent normally, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He complained to my mother about my changeableness, but he decided to support my passage to India. I was sent to Saint-Malo; they were fitting out a vessel for Pondicherry.