Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 8

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book III - Chapter 8
Phantom of love

Thus I imagined a woman derived from all the women I had seen: she had the figure, the hair and the smile of the guest who had pressed me against her breast; I gave her the eyes of one young girl from the village, the complexion of another. The portraits of great ladies of the age of François I, Henri IV, and Louis XIV, with which the drawing-room was decorated, furnished me with other characteristics, and I stole certain graces from the pictures of the Virgin hung in church.

This invisible charmer followed me everywhere; I talked to her as if she was a real person; she varied according to my mood: Aphrodite without a veil, Diana clothed in dew and air, Thalia with her laughing mask, Hebe with the cup of youth, she often became a fairy who subjected Nature to my control. I retouched my canvas, endlessly; I took one grace from my beauty to replace it with another. I also changed her finery; I borrowed from every country, every age, every art; every religion. Then, when I had created a masterpiece, I dispersed my lines and colours once more; my unique woman was transformed into a multitude of women, in whom I idolised separately the charms I had adored in unison.

Pygmalion was less enamoured of his statue: my problem was how to please mine. Not recognising in myself any of the qualities that inspire love, I lavished upon myself all that I lacked. I sat a horse like Castor or Pollux, I played the lyre like Apollo; Mars wielded his arms with less strength and skill: a hero of history or romance, what fictitious adventures I heaped upon those fictions! The shades of Morven’s daughters, the Sultans of Baghdad and Granada, the ladies of ancient manor houses; baths, perfumes, dances, Asiatic delights, were all appropriated by me with a magic wand.

A young queen would come to me, decked in diamonds and flowers (it was always my sylph); she sought me at midnight, through gardens filled with orange-trees, in the galleries of a palace washed by the sea’s waves, on the balmy shores of Naples or Messina, under a sky of love that Endymion’s star bathed with its light; she walked, a living statue by Praxiteles, among motionless statues, pale pictures, and silent frescoes whitened by the moon’s rays: the soft sound of her movement over the marble mosaic mingled with the imperceptible murmur of the waves. Royal jealousy surrounded us. I fell at the knees of the sovereign of Enna’s plain; the silken tresses loosed from her diadem caressed my brow, as she bent her sixteen-year old head over my face, and her hands rested on my breast, throbbing with respect and desire.

Emerging from these dreams, finding myself again a poor obscure little Breton, without fame, beauty, or talent, who would attract no one’s attention, who would go unnoticed, whom no woman would ever love, despair seized me: I no longer dared lift my eyes to the dazzling image I had conjured to my side.