Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 4
Danton – Camille Desmoulins – Fabre d’Églantine

London, April to September 1822.

The scenes at the Cordeliers, of which I was a witness on two or three occasions, were dominated and presided over by Danton, a Hun the size of a Goth, with a snub nose, flared nostrils, and scarred facial planes, having the look of a policeman joined to that of a cruel and lecherous public prosecutor. In the shell of the church, as in the carcass of the centuries, Danton, with his three male Furies, Camille Desmoulins, Marat and Fabre d’Églantine, organised the September Massacres. Billaud-Varenne proposed setting fire to the prisons and burning all those inside; another member of the Convention voted for drowning all the detainees; Marat declared himself in favour of a general massacre. Danton was beseeched to spare the victims: ‘F… the prisoners,’ he replied. Author of the Commune’s circulars, he invited free men to repeat in their departments the horrors perpetrated at the Carmelite Convent and the prison of the Abbaye.

Let us have regard to history: Sixtus V equated, for the purposes of man’s salvation, the devotion of Jacques Clément to the mystery of the Incarnation, just as they compared Marat to the Saviour of the world; Charles IX wrote to the provincial governors that they should imitate the Saint Bartholomew Massacres, just as Danton ordered patriots to copy the September Massacres. The Jacobins were plagiarists; they were such even when sacrificing Louis XVI in imitation of Charles I. Because crimes have been found embedded in a great social movement, it has been imagined, quite wrongly as it happens, that those crimes produced the greatness of the Revolution, of which they are merely a dreadful pastiche: in a fine but sick nature, passionate or systematic spirits have only admired the convulsions.

Danton, more honest than the English, said: ‘We will not judge the King, we will kill him.’ He also said: ‘These priests, these nobles, are not guilty, but they must die because they are out of place, hindering the movement of events and delaying the future.’ Those words, with the semblance of some terrible profundity, possess no genius: since they assume that innocence is worthless, and the moral order can be removed from the political order without destroying it, which is false.

Danton lacked the conviction of the principals that he maintained; he only rigged himself out in a revolutionary mantle in order to make his fortune. ‘Come and yell with us,’ he counselled a young man; ‘when you are rich, you can do what you want.’ He confessed that if he had not gone over to the Court, it was because it had not wished to pay enough for him: the effrontery of a mind that knows itself and of a corruption that acknowledges itself as a gaping mouth.

Inferior, even in ugliness, to Mirabeau whose agent he had been, Danton was superior to Robespierre, without having, as he had, given his name to his crimes. He retained a sense of religion: ‘We have not, ‘he said, ‘destroyed superstition in order to establish atheism.’ His passions might have been good ones, for the very reason that they were passions. One must admit the part character plays in the actions of men: those guilty in imagination, like Danton, seem, through the very exaggeration of their words and mannerisms, more perverse than the cold-bloodedly guilty, yet in fact they are less so. This comment applies equally to the nation: taken collectively, the nation is a poet, an eager author and actor of the part it plays or is made to play. Its excesses are not so much due to an instinctive natural cruelty as to the delirium of a crowd drunk on public spectacle, especially when it is tragic; a thing so true, that in popular horror shows, there is always something superfluous added to the picture and the emotion.

Danton was caught in the trap he set. It did him no good to flick pellets of bread at the noses of his judges, to respond with courage and nobility, to force the tribunal to hesitate, to put the Convention in danger and make it afraid, to reason logically about the hideous crimes by which the very power of his enemies had been created, to cry out, seized by barren repentance: ‘It is I who have instituted this infamous tribunal: I ask pardon of God and men!’ a phrase that has been borrowed more than once. He should have exposed the infamy before being arraigned by the tribunal.

All that was left to Danton was to show as little pity for his own death as he had for those of his victims, to lift his gaze as high as the suspended blade: as he did. In the theatre of the Terror, where his feet slid in the previous day’s blood, after casting a glance of powerful contempt at the crowd, he said to the executioner: ‘You will show my head to the people; it is worth the trouble.’ Danton’s head remained in the executioner’s hands, while his headless shade went to join the decapitated shades of his victims: equality, still.

Danton’s deacon and sub-deacon, Camille Desmoulins and Fabre d’Églantine, perished in the same manner as their priest.

At that time, when a maintenance allowance was paid to the guillotine, when one wore in the buttonhole of one’s jacket, instead of a flower, a little gilt guillotine, or a little piece of flesh from the guillotine; at the time when one shouted: ‘Long live Hell!’ When one celebrated the joyful orgies of blood, steel and fury, when one drank to nothingness, when one danced the Dance of Death quite naked, in order not to have the trouble of undressing when going to meet it; at that time, considering everything, what was necessary was to appear at the last supper with the last facetiousness of grief. Desmoulins was invited to Fouquier-Tinville’s tribunal: ‘What age are you?’ demanded the president. ‘The same age as the sans-culotte Jesus,’ replied Camille, jesting. A vengeful obsession forced these cutters of Christian throats to utter endlessly the name of Christ.

It would be unjust to forget that Camille Desmoulins dared to defy Robespierre, and made amends for his errors by his courage. He gave the signal for action against the Terror. A young and charming woman, full of vitality, in proving him capable of love, proved him capable of virtue and sacrifice. Indignation inspired the eloquence of his fearless taunting irony in front of the tribunal; with a noble air he attacked the scaffolds he had helped to raise. Matching his conduct to his words, he did not consent to his torment; he struggled with the executioner in the tumbrel, and arrived at the last abyss half-clothed.

Fabre d’Églantine, author of a play which will last, showed, contrary to Desmoulins, signs of weakness. Jean Roseau, the Paris executioner under the League, hung for having practised his occupation on behalf of the assassins of president Brisson, could not reconcile himself to the rope. It appears that one does not learn how to die by killing others.

The debates, at the Cordeliers, established for me the fact of a society in the most headlong moment of transformation. I had seen the Constituent Assembly begin the murder of royalty, in 1789 and 1790; I found the corpse of the old monarchy, still almost warm, left in 1792 to its legislative disembowelment: they ripped it apart or dissected it in their low-ceilinged club rooms, as the halberdiers tore and burnt the body of Le Balafré in the cellars of the château of Blois.

Of all the men I recall, Danton, Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Fabre d’Églantine, Robespierre, not one is alive. I met them for a moment on my journey, between a society in America being born, and a dying society in Europe, between the forests of the New World and the solitude of exile: I had experienced only a few months on foreign soil before those lovers of death had already become tired of her. At the distance I now am from those apparitions, it seems to me that having descended into Hell in my youth, I have a confused memory of the worms that I glimpsed crawling on the banks of Cocytus: they complement the various dreams in my life, and have come to have their names inscribed in my annals from beyond the tomb.