Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIII - Chapter 5
A change in society



The Revolution was divided into three phases with nothing in common between them: the Republic, the Empire, and the Restoration; three diverse worlds, each of them as completely finished as the other two, and appearing as if separated by centuries. Each of these three worlds had a guiding principle: that of the Republic was equality; that of the Empire force, that of the Restoration liberty. The Republican era was the most original and the most deeply etched, since it is unique in history: never had there been seen, never again will there be seen, physical order produced by moral disorder, unity emerge from government by the masses, the scaffold substituted for law and served in the name of humanity.

In 1801, I witnessed a second social transformation. The confusion involved was bizarre: by agreeing to wear disguises, a crowd of people became characters they were not: each had their nom de guerre or pseudonym hung round their neck, like the Venetians, in the Carnival, carrying in their hand a little mask to warn that they were masked. One was deemed to be Italian or Spanish, another Prussian or Dutch; I was Swiss. Mothers passed for their son’s aunt, fathers for their daughter’s uncle; a landowner was only his steward. This movement reminded me, in an opposite sense, of that of 1789, when monks and nuns left their cloisters and the old society was invaded by the new: the latter having replaced the former, was in turn replaced itself.

However an orderly world began to emerge once more; people left the streets and cafes to go home; they gathered together their remaining family; they reconstituted their inheritance and in collecting the debris, just as after a war, they beat the recall and took stock of what they had lost. The churches which were left undamaged re-opened: I had the happiness of sounding the trumpet at the gate of the Temple. One could distinguish the old retreating Republican generations, from the advancing Imperial generations. The generals produced by the draft, poor, badly spoken, of severe demeanour, who, from all their campaigns, had only brought back wounds and tattered uniforms, passed officers of the Consular army glittering with gold braid. The returning émigré chatted calmly with those who had murdered some of his close relatives. All the doormen, great supporters of the late Monsieur Robespierre, now regretted the spectacles in the Place Louis XV, where they cut off the heads of women who, as my own concierge in the Rue de Lille told me, had white necks like the flesh of chickens. The Septembrists, having changed name and district, had become sellers of cooking apples on street corners; but they were often required to move on, because people, recognising them, knocked their stalls down and tried to beat them. The revolutionaries who had enriched themselves began to occupy the grand houses for sale in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. In the process of becoming barons and counts, the Jacobins spoke only of the horrors of 1793, of the necessity of punishing the proletariat and suppressing the excesses of the populace. Bonaparte, appointing Brutus and Scaevola to his police force, prepared to dye their ribbons, sully their titles, force them to betray their beliefs and denounce their crimes. Among them jostled a vigorous generation conceived in blood and nurtured only to spill that of foreigners; day by day the metamorphoses of Republicans into Imperialists, and the tyranny of the many into the despotism of the one, were being accomplished.