Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIV- Chapter 4
The years 1802 and 1803 – Interview with Napoleon

Paris, 1838

While we were occupied with everyday life and death, the world’s great advance was accomplished; the Man of his time took up his place of honour at the head of the human race. In the midst of immense changes, the precursors of a universal movement, I had disembarked at Calais in order to join in the general activity, to the degree allotted to every soldier. I arrived, in the first year of the century, at Bonaparte’s camp where he beat out the drum-roll of destiny: he soon became First Consul for life.

After the adoption of the Concordat by the Legislative Body in 1802, Lucien, the Interior Minister, gave a reception for his brother; I was invited to attend, as one who had rallied the forces of Christianity and had led them back to the charge. I was in the gallery when Napoleon entered: he struck me agreeably; I had not seen him before except at a distance. His smile was soft and pleasant; his eyes were admirable, especially in the manner in which they were set beneath his forehead and framed by his eyebrows. There was no charlatanism in his gaze as yet, nothing theatrical or affected. Le Génie du Christianisme, which was making a considerable stir at that time, had moved Napoleon. A prodigious imagination animated that cold-blooded politician: he would not have been what he was if the Muse had not been present in him; reason carried out a poet’s ideas. All the men who lead great lives possess a dual nature, since they must be capable of inspiration and action: one conceives the project, the other executes it.

Bonaparte saw me and recognised me, I have no idea how. When he made his way towards me, no one knew whom he was seeking; the ranks opened successively; everyone was hoping that the Consul would stop in front of them; he had the look of a man experiencing some impatience with those misapprehensions. I sank back behind my neighbours; Bonaparte suddenly raised his voice and said: ‘Monsieur de Chateaubriand!’ I was left standing alone there, in front, since the crowd stepped back and then quickly reformed a circle around the speakers. Bonaparte addressed me simply: without complimenting me, without idle questions, without preamble, he spoke to me immediately about Egypt and the Arabs, as if I had always been in his confidence, and as if we were merely continuing a conversation we had already begun. ‘I was always struck,’ he said, ‘when I saw the sheikhs fall to their knees in the midst of the desert, turn towards the east and touch the sand with their foreheads. What was that unknown thing they were worshipping in the east?’

Bonaparte interrupted himself, and passed on to another idea without transition: ‘Christianity? Haven’t the ideologists tried to make an astronomical system out of it? If that should be the case, do they think to persuade me that Christianity is therefore trivial? If Christianity is an allegory of the movement of spheres, the geometry of stars, the free thinkers have done well, since despite themselves they have still left sufficient grandeur to l’infâme.’

Bonaparte suddenly moved away. Like Job, in my darkness, ‘a spirit passed before me; the hair of my flesh stood up; it stood still: but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice…’

My days have been only a series of visions; Hell and Heaven have continually opened beneath my feet and above my head, without granting me the time to explore their darkness and light. On the shore of two worlds, and on only one occasion in each case, I have encountered the great man of the last century and the great man of the new, Washington and Napoleon. I spoke for a moment with each; both sent me back to my solitude, the first with a kindly wish, the second through a crime.

I noticed that while circling the throng, Bonaparte glanced at me in a more profound manner than he had gazed while speaking to me. I followed him also with my eyes:

‘Chi e quell grande, che non par che curi

‘Who is that great spirit, who seems indifferent to the fire?’ (Dante).