Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 12

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V, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> V, 13

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book V - Chapter 12

Paris, November 1821.

Involved by the danger and disorder of his life in great events, and living among hardened criminals, brigands and adventurers, Mirabeau, tribune of the aristocracy, deputy for democracy, owed something to Gracchus, and Don Juan, Catiline and Guzman d’Alfarache, Cardinal de Richelieu and Cardinal de Retz, to the Regency roué and the Revolutionary savage: he possessed more than enough of Mirabeau, an exiled Florentine family that retained something of those fortified palaces and noble dissidents celebrated by Dante; a naturalised French family, in which the republican spirit of the Italian Middle Ages and the feudal spirit of our own Middle Ages were united in a succession of extraordinary men.

Mirabeau’s ugliness, overlaying the background of his race’s particular beauty, produced a powerful figure from the Last Judgement by Michelangelo, a compatriot of the Arrighetti. The furrows ploughed in the orator’s face by smallpox had more the look of burn-scars. Nature seemed to have moulded his head for empire or the gibbet, sculpted his arms to embrace a nation or capture a woman. When, gazing at the crowd, he shook his mane, it quietened; when he lifted his paw and showed his claws, the mob ran away swiftly. In the midst of the appalling disorder of a session, I have seen him at the rostrum, ugly, sombre, and motionless: he recalled Milton’s chaos, impassive, and formless at the heart of confusion.

Mirabeau inherited something from his father and uncle, who, like Saint-Simon, wrote immortal pages haphazardly. His speeches for the rostrum were prepared for him: he took from them whatever his spirit could amalgamate with his true substance. If he adopted them in their entirety, he chopped them about mercilessly: it was obvious they were not written by him, from those words which he added at hazard, and which revealed the man. He drew energy from his vices; those vices were not born of a cool temperament, they concerned passions, deep, fiery, and stormy. Cynicism in manners, brought back to society, by annihilating the moral sense, a tribe of barbarians: these barbarians of civilisation, ready to destroy like the Goths, lacked the power to create anything, as those men had: the latter were the giant offspring of virgin Nature; the former the monstrous abortions of Nature depraved.

I met Mirabeau twice at a banquet, once at the house of Voltaire’s niece, the Marquise de Villette, once more at the Palais-Royal, with opposition deputies to whom Chapelier had introduced me: Chapelier went to the scaffold, in the same tumbrel as mybrother and Monsieur de Malesherbes.

Mirabeau talked a great deal, and especially about himself. This lion’s offspring, himself a lion with the head of a chimera, this man so positive in action, was full of romance, full of poetry, full of enthusiasm for imagination and language; one recognised in him the lover of Sophie, exalted in feeling and capable of sacrifice. ‘I found her,’ he said, ‘that adorable woman;…. I knew what her soul was, that soul formed in Nature’s hands in a moment of splendour.’

Mirabeau enchanted me with love stories, with longings for seclusion from which he fashioned arid discussions. He also interested me in another way: like me, he had been treated seversely by his father, who had maintained, like mine, the inflexible tradition of absolute paternal authority. The famous guest reached out to the political newcomer, and revealed almost nothing of the politics within; though it was that which occupied his thoughts; but he did let fall a few words of sovereign disdain for those men who proclained themselves superior because of the indifference they showed towards tragedies and crime. Mirabeau was born generous, appreciative of friendship, quick to pardon offence. Despite his immorality, he could not betray his conscience; he was only corrupt in private matters, his firm and upright spirit refused to make murder a subject for sublime intellect; he had no admiration for abattoirs and charnel-houses.

However, Mirabeau was not lacking in pride; he boasted outrageously; though he was established as a draper in order to be an elected member of the third estate (the nobility had made the honourable mistake of rejecting him) he was obsessed with his birth: a wild bird, whose nest was made between four turrets, as his father said. He never forgot that he had appeared at Court, ridden in a carriage and hunted with the King. He demanded to be called Count; he stuck to his guns and clothed his people in livery when everyone had stopped doing so. He referred at the slightest opportunity and most inopportune moments to his ancestor, Admiral Coligny. The Moniteur having referred to him as Riquet: ‘Do you realise,’ he said angrily to a journalist, ‘that with your Riquet, you have bemused Europe for three days?’ He repeated this impudent and well-known pleasantry: ‘In any other family, my brother the Vicomte would be the intelligent man and the unruly subject; in my family, he is the fool and the philanthropist. ‘ Biographers attribute this witticim to the Vicomte himself, comparing himself with humility to the other members of his family.

Mirabeau’s deepest sentiments were royalist; he pronounced these fine words: ‘I would like to cure the French of superstition concerning the monarchy and substitute worship.’ In a letter, destined for Louis XVI’s eyes, he wrote: ‘I would not wish to have worked to create only a vast destruction.’ That however was his fate: Heaven, to punish us for misusing our talents, makes us repent of our achievements.

Mirabeau moved public opinion by employing two levers: on the one hand, he placed his point of leverage among the mob of which he was appointed the defender while scorning it; on the other, though a traitor to his order, he maintained sympathy for affinities of caste, and common interest. Such a thing would be impossible for a plebeian champion of the privileged classes; he would be abandoned by his own party without winning over the aristocracy, by nature ungrateful and un-winnable, when one is not born within its ranks. Besides, the aristocracy cannot just create a noble, since nobility is a child of time.

Mirabeau created a school. In liberating moral ties, they thought it transformed them into statesmen. These imitations only produced perverted little men: such as pride themselves on being corrupt thieves, and are merely debauched rogues; such as think themselves lecherous, and are merely vile; such as boast of being criminals, and are merely base.

Too soon for his own good, too late for its good, Mirabeau sold himself to the Court, and the Court completed the purchase. He put his reputation at risk for a pension and an ambassadorship. Cromwell was on the point of bartering his future for a title and the Order of the Garter. Despite his pride, Mirabeau did not value himself highly. Now that an abundance of money and positions has raised the price of conscience, there is not a promotion that does not cost hundreds of thousands of francs and the highest honours the State can offer. The grave freed Mirabeau from his commitments, and rescued him from dangers he would probably not have overcome: his life had shown his weakness for good; his death left him in possession of his power to do evil.

On our departure, after dinner, there was talk of Mirabeau’s enemies; I found myself next to him and had not said a word. He looked me in the face with his proud stare, of vice and genius, and placing his hand on my shoulder, said: ‘They never forgive me for my superiority!’ I can still feel the impression of that hand, as if Satan had touched me with his fiery claw.

As Mirabeau fixed his gaze on the silent young man, had he any presentiment of my possibilities? Did he think he might one day appear in my memoirs? I was destined to become the historian of important men: they have paraded before me, without my needing to be hung on their coat as a trophy to be dragged along with them towards posterity.

Mirabeau has already undergone the metamorphosis that occurs to those of whom memory remains; transported from the Pantheon to the gutter, and transported from the gutter to the Pantheon again, he was raised by the great heights of that age which serve him today as a pedestal. One no longer sees the real Mirabeau, only the idealised Mirabeau such as the artists created, to render him a symbol, or mythological figure, of the age he represents: thus he became both falser and truer. Among so many reputations, actors, events, ruins, only three men stand out, each attached to each of the three great revolutionary phases, Mirabeau for the aristocracy, Robespierre for democracy, Bonaparte for despotism; the monarchy has no representative: France has paid too dearly for those three celebrated men not to admit to their quality.