Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IV - Chapter 6
Regrets – Would my father have appreciated me?



Berlin, March 1821.

I mourned Monsieur de Chateaubriand: his death showed me his worth more clearly; I remembered neither his severities nor his weaknesses. I seemed to see him still, walking of an evening in the Great Hall of Combourg; I was moved by thoughts of those family scenes. If my father’s affection for me suffered from the rigidity of his character, it was none the less deep. The fierce Marshal de Montluc, who, rendered nose-less by dreadful wounds, was reduced to hiding the horror of his glory under a piece of shroud, that man of bloodshed, reproached himself for his harshness towards a son he had lost.

‘That poor lad,’ he said, ‘never saw anything of me but a grim and scornful countenance; he has died in the belief that I could neither love him nor estimate him at his proper worth. For whom was I saving the singular affection I felt for him in my soul? Was it not he who should have had all the pleasure and the obligation? I was constrained and tormented to wear that false mask, and thereby lost the pleasure of his conversation, and his affection, also, since he cannot have felt anything but cool towards me, having never received anything from me but harshness, nor experienced anything but a tyrannical manner.’

My affection was never cool towards my father, and I have no doubt that, despite his tyrannical manner, he loved me tenderly: he would have grieved for me, I am sure, if Providence had called me, before him. But if we had remained on earth together, would he have appreciated the noise my life has made? A literary reputation would have wounded his sense of nobility; he would have seen nothing in his son’s gifts but degeneration; even the Berlin embassy, won by the pen, and not the sword, would have satisfied him little. His Breton blood, moreover, made him a political malcontent, a great opponent of taxation and a violent enemy of the Court. He read the Gazette de Leyde, the Journal de Francfort, the Mercure de France, and the Histoire philosophique des deux Indes, whose declamatory style delighted him: he called the Abbé Raynal a master-mind. In diplomatic matters he was anti-Muslim; he declared that forty thousand Russian rascals would march over the Janissaries’ bellies and take Constantinople. Yet Turkaphobe though he was, my father none the less bore a grudge against the Russian rascals because of his encounters with them at Danzig.

I share Monsieur de Chateaubriand’s sentiments concerning literary and other reputations, but for different reasons to his. I don’t know in history of a fame that tempts me: if I had to stoop to pick up at my feet and to my profit the greatest glory in the world, I would not weary myself doing so. If I had moulded my own clay, perhaps I would have created myself as a woman, for love of them; or if I had created myself as a man, I would have endowed myself with beauty above all; then, as a precaution against ennui, my relentless enemy, it would have suited me to be a great artist, but an unknown one, only employing my talent for the benefit of my solitude. In life, weighed by its light weight, measured by its short measure, stripped of all deception, there are only two true things: religion coupled with intelligence, love coupled with youth, that is to say the future and the present: the rest is not worth the trouble.

With my father’s death, the first act of my life ended: the paternal halls became empty; I pitied them, as if they were capable of feeling solitude and abandonment. Henceforth I was independent and master of my fortune: the freedom scared me. What should I do with it? To whom should I give it? I mistrusted my powers; I shrank from myself.