Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 11

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 11
The Past – The old European Order expires



I was born during these events. Two new empires, Prussia and Russia, preceded me by barely a half-century on this earth: Corsica became French at the moment I appeared; I arrived in the world twenty days after Bonaparte. He brought me with him. I was about to enter the Navy in 1783 when Louis XVI’s fleet put in to Brest: it carried the birth certificate of a nation hatched beneath the wings of France. My birth is connected with the birth of a man and a people: pale reflection that I was of an immense light.

If one’s gaze is fixed on the world of today, one sees it shaken, as a result of the movement initiated by a great revolution, from the Middle East to a China which seemed forever closed; such that our past upheavals will be as nothing, and the noise of Napoleon’s fame barely audible in the general convulsion of nations, just as he, Napoleon, drowned out the noise of our former world.

The Emperor left us in a state of prophetic unrest. We, the most mature and advanced of countries, display numerous signs of decadence. As a sick man in peril is preoccupied with the afterlife, a failing nation is troubled about its future fate. From that arises a succession of political heresies. The old European order is expiring; our current debates will appear as futile quarrels in the eyes of posterity. Nothing else survives: the authority derived from age and experience, birth or genius, talent or virtue, all is denied; a few individuals climb to the summit of the ruins, proclaim themselves giants, and tumble to the bottom like pygmies. Except for a score of men who will endure, and who are destined to carry the torch across the shadowy steppes we enter; except for those few men, a generation which carries within it abundant spirit, acquired knowledge, the germs of all kinds of success, has stifled all in a disquiet as unproductive as its magnificence is barren. Nameless multitudes stir without knowing why, like the popular movements of the Middle Ages: starving flocks without a master, that rush from the mountain to the plain, from the plain to the mountain, ignoring experienced shepherds hardened to wind and sun. In the life of a city all is transitory: religion and morality cease to be acknowledged, or each interprets them in their own way. Among things in their nature inferior, even in their very power of conviction and existence, a reputation scarce lasts an hour, a book ages in a day, writers kill themselves to attract attention; yet more vanity: their last cry is not even heard.

Given this tendency it follows that no other means of moving people exists but scenes of the scaffold and a tarnished morality: they forget that the true tears are those a fine poetic engenders, and with which as much admiration as sorrow is mingled; but now that talent feeds on the Regency and the Terror, what need of subjects for those destined so soon to die? The thoughts of human genius, that become a common legacy, will no longer arise.

This is what everyone says and what everyone deplores, yet illusions abound, the nearer we are to dying the more we believe we will live. You can gaze at monarchs who imagine they are monarchs, ministers who think they are ministers, deputies who take their speeches seriously, and proprietors who in possession this morning are convinced they will be in possession tonight. Private interests, personal ambitions hide the gravity of the moment from the vulgar: notwithstanding the fluctuations of daily affairs, they are only ripples on the surface of the abyss; they do not lessen the depth of the waters. Amidst petty inessential lotteries, the human race plays the main chance; kings still hold the cards and hold them on behalf of nations: will the latter show any improvement on those monarchs? That is a separate question, which does not alter the main issue. What importance do childish amusements have: shadows sliding over the whiteness of a shroud? The invasion of ideas has succeeded barbarian invasion; the civilisation of today, decomposing, melts into itself; the vessel which contains it has not decanted its contents into a second vessel; the vessel itself lies shattered.