Chateaubriand's memoirs, XI, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XI - Chapter 4
The death of my mother – Return to Religion

London, April to September 1822.
Alloquar? audiero numquam tua verba loquentem?
Nunquam ego te, vita frater amabilior,
Aspiciam posthac? at, certe, semper amabo!’

‘Am I never to speak to you? Never to hear your voice? Never to see you, brother more beloved than life? Ah! I will always love you!’

I had just lost a friend, I then lost a mother: it was necessary to repeat the lines Catullus addressed to his brother. In our valley of tears, just as in hell, there is some unknown eternal lament, which represents the lowest depth or the dominant note of human grief; one hears it ceaselessly, and it would continue if all created pain should chance to fall silent.

A letter from Julie which I received shortly after that of Fontanes, confirmed my sad remark regarding my progressive isolation: Fontanes urged me to work, to become illustrious; my sister pressed me to renounce writing: one proposed glory, the other oblivion. You have seen from my account of Madame de Farcy that she was prone to such ideas; she had grown to hate literature, because she regarded it as one of her life’s temptations.

Saint-Servan, 1st July 1798.
‘My dear, we have just lost the best of mothers; it is with regret that I tell you of this sad blow. We shall have ceased to live, when you cease to be the object of our solicitude. If you knew how many tears your errors have caused our venerable mother to shed, how deplorable they appear to all who think and profess not only piety but reason; if you knew this, perhaps it would help to open your eyes, and induce you to renounce writing; and if Heaven, moved by our prayers, permits our reunion, you will find all the happiness among us that can be enjoyed on earth; you would grant us that happiness also, since there is none for us, as long as we lack your presence, and have reason to be anxious about your fate.’

Ah! Why did I not follow my sister’s advice! Why did I go on writing? If my times had lacked my writings, would anything of the events and spirit of those times have altered?

Thus, I had lost my mother; thus I had troubled her last hours! While she was breathing her last sigh far from her last living son, praying for him, what was I doing, here in London? Perhaps I was out walking in the cool of the morning, while the death-sweat was drenching my mother’s brow, and my hand not there to wipe it away!

The filial affection I retained for Madame de Chateaubriand went deep. My childhood and youth were intimately linked to the memory of my mother; all I knew came to me from her. The idea that I had poisoned the last days of the woman who carried me in her womb, made me despair: I threw my copies of the Essai into the fire, as the instrument of my crime; if it had been possible for me to annihilate the work, I would have done so without hesitation. I did not recover from this grief until the idea came to me of expiating the effect of my first work by a religious work: this was the origin of Le Génie du Christianisme.

‘My mother,’ I wrote in the first preface to that work, ‘after being locked in jail at the age of seventy-two, imprisoned there still when one of her sons died, expired eventually on the pallet to which her misfortunes had brought her. The memory of my errors cast a great bitterness over her last days; at her death, she charged one of my sisters with recalling me to the religion in which I was raised. My sister sent me details of my mother’s last desire. When that letter reached me across the sea, my sister herself was no more; she too had died of the effects of her imprisonment. Those two voices from the tomb, that death which acted as Death’s interpreter, impressed me powerfully. I became a Christian. I did not yield, I must admit, to great supernatural enlightenment: my conviction came from the heart; I wept and I believed.’

I exaggerated my faults; the Essai was not an impious book, but a book of doubt and sorrow. Through the shadows of that book, glides a ray of the Christian light that shone on my cradle. It required no great effort to return from the scepticism of the Essai to the certainty of Le Génie du Christianisme.