Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 15

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V, 14 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> V, 16

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book V - Chapter 15
What I did in the midst of all this chaos – My solitary days – Mademoiselle Monet – With Monsieur de Malesherbes I decide on my plan for a voyage to America – Bonaparte and I, unknown second-lieutenants – The Marquis de La Rouërie – I embark at Saint-Malo – Last thoughts on leaving my native land

Paris, December 1821.

The year 1790 completed the measures outlined in 1789. The property of the Church, first placed in the hands of the Nation, was confiscated, the civil constitution of the clergy was decreed, the nobility abolished. I did not attend the Festival of the Federation in July 1790: a fairly serious illness made me keep to my bed; but I was greatly entertained before it by all the wheelbarrows on the Champs-de-Mars. Madame de Staël has described the scene wonderfully well. I will always regret not having seen Monsieur de Talleyrand say Mass assisted by the Abbé Louis, as I regret not having seen him, sabre at his side, grant an audience to the ambassador of the Grand-Turc.

Mirabeau fell from favour in the year 1790; his relationship with the Court was apparent. Monsieur Necker resigned the ministry and retired, without anyone wishing him to stay. Mesdames, the King’s aunts, left for Rome on a passport provided by the National Assembly. The Duc d’Orléans, having returned from England, declared himself the most humble and obedient servant of the King. The societies of the Friends of the Constitution, having multiplied beneath the sun, reattached themselves to Paris and the mother-society, from which they received their inspiration and whose orders they executed.

Public life meshed favourably with traits in my character: what was happening publicly attracted me, because I could guard my solitude in the crowd and nothing there assailed my shyness. Moreover the salons, participating in the general movement, became a little less strange to my gaze, and I had, despite myself, made new acquaintances.

The Marquise de Villette lived on my street. Her husband, his reputation tarnished by libel, wrote, as did Monsieur, the King’s brother, for the Journal de Paris. Madame de Villette, still delightful, lost a sixteen-year old daughter, more delightful than her mother, and for whom the Chevalier de Parny wrote these lines worthy of the Anthology:

Her soul is Heaven’s to keep,
She has fallen gently asleep,
Accepting Heaven’s decrees:
So is a smile effaced,
So dies, without leaving a trace,
The song of a bird in the trees.’

My regiment, garrisoned at Rouen, preserved its discipline until late. It had engaged with the mob over the execution of the actor Bordier, who suffered the last sentence handed down by the old High Court; hanged the one day, he would have been a hero the next, if only he had lived another twenty-four hours. But, in the end, an insurrection began among the Navarre regiment. The Marquis de Mortemart emigrated: his officers followed him. I had neither adopted nor rejected the new thinking; as little disposed to attack them as to serve them, I neither wished to emigrate nor to continue my military career: I resigned my commission.

Free from all ties, I had, on the one hand, quite heated arguments with my brother and Président de Rosanbo; and on the other, no less bitter discussions with Ginguené, La Harpe, and Chamfort. Since my early youth, my political impartiality had pleased no one. Moreover, I only attached importance to the questions raised at that time because of common ideas of human liberty and dignity; personally, politics bored me; my true life lay in more exalted regions.

The streets of Paris, crowded with people day and night, no longer permitted me to stroll about them. To find solitude, I fled to the theatre: I settled into the depths of a box, and let my thoughts wander among Racine’s verse, the music of Sacchini, or the ballet at the Opéra. I was forced to go barefacedly twenty times in succession to the Italiens, to Barbe-bleue and the Sabot perdu, boring myself in order to prevent boredom, like an owl in some hole in the wall; while the monarchy fell, I heard neither the shattering of age-old arches, nor Mirabeau’s voice thundering to the galleries, nor that of Colin singing to Babet about the theatre:

‘Whether its rain, or storm, or snow,
When nights are long, it helps them go.’

Monsieur Monnet, Inspector-General of Mines, and his young daughter, sent by Madame Ginguené, sometimes came to disturb my savagery: Mademoiselle Monnet seated herself at the front of the box; I sat there before her, half-contented half-miserable. I do not know if she pleased me, if I loved her; but I was very afraid of her. When she left, I missed her, while full of joy at no longer seeing her. However I sometimes went, with sweat on my brow, to find her at her house, to accompany her on her walk: I gave her my arm, and thought for a while I might be hers.

One idea dominated me, that of travelling to the United States: I needed a useful purpose for my journey; I proposed (as I have said in these Memoirs and in several of my works) to discover the North-West Passage. This project was in keeping with my poetic nature. No one took any notice of me; I was merely, like Bonaparte, a second-lieutenant then, completely unknown; both of us emerged from obscurity at the same time, I to seek fame in solitude, he to seek glory among men. Now, without attachment to any woman, my sylph still possessed my imagination. I could take pleasure in imagining myself making my way with her through the forests of the New World. Under the influence of a different landscape, my flower of love, my nameless phantom of the Armorican woods, became Atala in the shaded groves of Florida.

Monsieur de Malesherbes excited me with the idea of this voyage. I would go to visit him in the mornings: our noses glued to maps, we compared the various charts of the Arctic Circle; we calculated the distance between the Behring Straits and the furthest reaches of Hudson Bay; we read the various narratives of English, Dutch, French, Russian, Swedish and Danish sailors and explorers; we enquired into the land-routes to reach the shores of the Polar Sea; we discussed the difficulties to be surmounted, the precautions needed against the rigours of the climate, the attacks of wild animals, and the lack of food supplies. The great man said: ‘If I were younger, I would go with you, and spare myself the spectacle offered here of crime, treachery and folly. But at my age, one must die where one is. Don’t forget to write to me by every ship, to tell me of your progress and your discoveries: I will make the ministers aware of them. It’s a great shame that you know no botany!’

After these conversations I leafed through Tournefort, Duhamel, Bernard de Jussieu, Grew, Jacquin, Rousseau’s Dictionary, the elementary Floras; I hurried to the Jardin du Roi, and soon thought myself a second Linnaeus.

At last, in January 1791, I made the decision in all seriousness. Chaos was mounting: it was enough to bear an aristocratic name to be exposed to persecution: the more moderate one’s opinions, the more they were a question of conscience, the more one fell under suspicion and was attacked. I resolved to strike camp: I left my brothers and sisters in Paris and headed for Brittany.

At Fougères, I met the Marquis de la Rouërie: I asked him for a letter of introduction to General Washington. Colonel Armand (the name given to him in America), had distinguished himself in the American War of Independence. He became famous in France through the Royalist conspiracy which made such touching victims of members of the Désilles family. Having died while organising the conspiracy, he was exhumed, identified, and so brought ruin on his host and friends. The rival of La Fayette and Lauzun, the predecessor of La Rochejaquelein, the Marquis de la Rouërie possessed more spirit than they had: he had fought more often than the first; he had carried off actresses from the Opera, like the second; he would have become a companion in arms of the third. He used to scour the woods of Brittany, accompanied by an American major, with a monkey perched on his horse’s crupper. The law-students at Rennes loved him for his boldness in action and the freedom of his ideas: he had been one of the twelve Breton nobles sent to the Bastille. His figure and manners were elegant, his appearance fashionable, his features charming, and he resembled portraits of young lords of the League.

I chose to embark at Saint-Malo, so as to be able to embrace my mother. I have mentioned in the third book of these Memoirs how I passed through Combourg, and what feelings oppressed me there. I spent two months at Saint-Malo, occupied with preparations for my voyage, as once before for my intended voyage to India.

I struck a bargain with a captain called Desjardins: he had to carry the Abbé Nagot, Superior of the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, to Baltimore, with several seminarists in their principal’s care. These companions on the voyage would have been more to my liking four years earlier: from being the zealous Christian I once was, I had become a free thinker, that is to say a feeble thinker. This change in my religious opinions had been brought about by reading philosophical works. I believed, in all good faith, that a religious mind was partially paralysed, that there were truths which would not occur to it, however superior it might be otherwise. This smug pride led me astray: I inferred in the religious mind the absence of a faculty which is found precisely in the philosophic mind; a limited intelligence thinks it sees all, because it opens its eyes wide; a superior intelligence consents to close its eyes because it sees all within. One final thing completed my misery: the groundless despair I carried in my heart’s depths.

A letter from my brother has fixed the date of my departure in my memory: he wrote to my mother from Paris, to announce Mirabeau’s death. Three days after his letter arrived I joined my ship in the roads, my luggage already being on board. We weighed anchor, a solemn moment for sailors. The sun was setting when the coastal pilot left us, after guiding us through the channels. The weather was overcast, the breeze light, and the swell beat heavily against the reefs a few cables’ length from our vessel.

My gaze remained fixed on Saint-Malo; I had just left my mother there in floods of tears. I could see the steeples and domes of the churches where I had prayed with Lucile, the walls, ramparts, forts, turrets and sands where I had spent my childhood with Gesril and my other playmates; I was abandoning my shattered country just when she had lost a man whom none could replace. I was departing, uncertain equally of my country’s destiny and my own: which of us would perish first, France or I? Would I ever see France or my family again?

A calm halted us at nightfall at the mouth of the roads: the town lights and the beacons were lit: those lights which flickered under my paternal roof seemed at the same moment to smile at me and to bid me farewell, while lighting my way through the rocks, the shadows of night and the blackness of the waves.

I took with me only my youth and my illusions; I was deserting a world whose dust I had trod and whose stars I had counted, for a world where earth and sky were unknown to me. What would have become of me if I had attained the object of my voyage? Roaming the polar shores, the years of discord which have crushed so many generations with so much noise would have fallen silently on my brow; society would have changed its aspect in my absence. It is probable I would never have had the misfortune to write; my name would have remained unknown, or would have only gathered that quiet renown which is less than glory, scorned by envy and left to happiness. Who knows whether I would have re-crossed the Atlantic, or whether I would have settled in the solitary wastes, discovered and explored in risk and peril, like a conqueror among his conquests?

But no, I would return to my native land in order to change the nature of my misfortune, to become there something other than I had been. That sea, in whose lap I was born, would become the cradle of my new life; I was carried by her on my first voyage, as if at my nurse’s breast, in the arms of the confidant of my first tears and my first joys.

In the absence of any wind, the ebb-tide carried us out to sea, the lights onshore gradually diminishing and then disappearing. Exhausted by my reflections, vague regrets, and even vaguer hopes, I went below to my cabin: I turned in, rocked in my hammock to the sound of the waves caressing the sides of the ship. The wind rose; the unfurled sails, flapping against the masts, filled, and when I went on deck the following morning one could no longer see French soil.

Here my destiny altered: ‘Again to sea!’ as Byron sang.