Chateaubriand's memoirs, XI, 1

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X, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XI, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XI - Chapter 1
A defect in my character



London, April to September 1822. (Revised December 1846)

My relations with Deboffe regarding L’Essai sur les Révolutions had never completely lapsed, and it was important for me to re-establish them swiftly in London to support my everyday life. But where had my previous problems come from: my obstinate silence. To understand this, you need to delve into my character.

At no time has it been possible for me to overcome that spirit of reserve and inner solitariness that prevents me talking freely about what moves me. No one can affirm without lying that I have ever uttered what the majority of people utter in their moments of pain, pleasure or vanity. Names, confessions of any degree of seriousness, rarely or ever emerge from my lips. I never speak about my passing interests, my plans, my work, my ideas, my relationships, my joys, or my sorrows, persuaded of the profound ennui that one causes others in speaking of oneself.

Sincere and truthful, I lack openness of heart: my soul always tends to shut itself off; I have never spoken fully of any matter, and I have never revealed my life except in these Memoirs. If I try to begin a story, the thought of its length suddenly terrifies me; after three or four words, the sound of my own voice becomes intolerable and I fall silent. As I have no faith in anything, except religion, I challenge everything: ill-will and denigration are two characteristics of the French spirit; mockery and slander, the guaranteed result of any confidences.

What benefit have I gained then from my reticent nature: that of becoming since I seemed impenetrable a product of others’ imaginations, which bore no relation to my reality. Even my friends were in error concerning me, in thinking to make me better known, and embellishing me with the illusions conjured by their devotion. All the mediocrities of the antechamber, offices, news-sheets and cafes, considered me full of ambition, and I had none. Cold and detached in everyday matters, I showed nothing of the man of enthusiasm or sentiment: but my swift, precise perception quickly traversed men and events, and stripped them of all importance. Far from training me to idealize applied truth, my imagination brought the highest matters down to earth, disabusing me of my illusions. The petty and ridiculous aspect of things was always the first to strike me; to my eyes, hardly anything revealed genius or greatness. Polite, laudatory, admiring of the self-important who proclaimed themselves superior intellects, my secret contempt smiled and placed over all those faces wreathed in incense the masks of Callot. In politics, the warmth of my opinions never lasted longer than my speech or my pamphlet. In my inward and contemplative being, I was a man filled with dreams; in my outward and practical being, a man of realities. Adventurous yet orderly, passionate yet methodical, there has never been a creature more fanciful and yet practical than I, more ardent and more icy; strangely androgynous, formed of the differing seed of my mother and my father.

The portraits painted of me, lacking any real resemblance, owe that fact principally to the reticence of my speech. The crowd is too superficial, too inattentive to give time, unless it has been alerted beforehand, to viewing individuals as they truly are. Whenever, by chance, I have tried to counter one of these false judgements in my prefaces, no one has believed me. In the last resort, all things being equal, I have not insisted; an as you will always freed me from the tedium of trying to persuade anyone, or seeking to prove the truth. I retreated into my heart’s depths, like a hare into its form: there I again set myself to contemplating the movement of a leaf or the angle of a blade of grass.

I do not make a virtue of my unassailable circumspection in as much as it is involuntary: though it is not insincerity it has the appearance of it; it is not in harmony with happier, kinder, more easy-going, more innocent, more abundant, more communicative natures than mine. It has often harmed me in matters of feeling, and business affairs, because I could never endure explanations and reparations by means of protestations and clarifications, lamentation and tears, verbiage and reproaches, details and apology.

In the case of the Ives family, this obstinate silence of mine, regarding myself, was fatal to me in the extreme. Twenty times Charlotte’s mother had enquired about my parents and had brought me to the verge of revelation. Not foreseeing where my muteness would lead, I was content, as usual, to reply in a few brief vague words. If I had not suffered from that hateful spiritual fault, no error would have been made, and I would not have displayed the appearance of having deceived the most generously hospitable of people: the truth, spoken by me at the decisive moment, does not excuse my behaviour: a real wrong was committed nevertheless.

I resumed my work in the midst of my sorrows and the just reproaches I heaped on myself. I accustomed myself to the work, since it occurred to me that in acquiring fame I would render the Ives family less regretful of the interest they had shown in me. Charlotte, whom I sought to reconcile myself to through renown, presided over my labours. Her image sat before me while I wrote. When I lifted my eyes from the paper, they rested on the beloved image, as though the original had been there in reality. The inhabitants of the island of Ceylon saw the daystar rise one day in unparalleled splendour: its sphere opened, and out of it came a shining creature which said to the Ceylonese: ‘I am come to reign over you.’ Charlotte, bathed in a shaft of light, reigned over me.

Let us forego these memories; memories age, and vanish, like our hopes. My life is about to change, it will unfold under other skies, in other valleys. First love of my youth, you flee with your charms! I happened to see Charlotte again, it is true, but how many years later was it, that I did see her again? Sweet light of the past, pale rose of the twilight, which edges the night, when the sun has long set!