Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 17

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 17
A Recapitulation of my life



(This section has been shortened to avoid duplicating the 1833 Preface.)

Will this work inspired by my ashes and destined for my ashes survive me? It may be that my work is bad; it may be that these Memoirs will fade in the light of day: at least the things I have recounted to myself will have served to beguile the tedium of these last hours which no one wants and which one does not know how to employ. The end of life is a bitter time; nothing pleases because one is worthy of knowing; useful to none, a burden to all, near our last resting-place it takes only a step to reach it: what point is there in dreaming on a desert shore? What delightful shadows could one glimpse in the future? Fie on the clouds now hovering above my head!

One idea returns to trouble me: my conscience is uneasy regarding the innocence of my nightly labours; I fear the effects of my blindness and man’s indulgence towards his faults. Is what I have written in accord with true justice? Have morality and charity been carefully observed? Had I the right to speak of others? What use would my repentance be, if these Memoirs did harm? All you, unknown and obscure on earth, you whose lives pleasing to religion work miracles, hail to your secret virtues!

Some poor man deprived of knowledge, one whom no one will ever care about, has exerted on his companions in suffering, solely by his moral stance, that divine influence which emanated from Christ’s virtues. The finest book in the world is not worth a single unknown act of those nameless martyrs whose blood Herod mingled with that of their sacrifices.

You have seen my birth; you have seem my childhood, my idolatry of my strange creation in the Château of Combourg, my presentation at Versailles, and my presence in Paris in the first throes of the Revolution. In the New World I met Washington; I plunged into the forests; shipwreck overtook me on the coast of my native Brittany. Then my sufferings as a soldier transpired, and my poverty as an emigrant. Returning to France I became the author of Le Génie du Christianisme. In a changed society, I made and lost friends. Bonaparte halted me, and threw himself across my path with the bloodstained body of the Duc d’Enghien; I halted in turn, and led the great man from his cradle, in Corsica, to his grave, on St Helena. I participated in the Restoration and saw its end.

Thus I have known public and private life. I have crossed the sea four times; I have followed the sun in the East, touched the ruins of Memphis, Carthage, Sparta and Athens; I have prayed at St Peter’s tomb and worshipped on Golgotha. Poor and rich, powerful and weak, happy and miserable, a man of action and a man of thought, I have given my hand to the century and my mind to the desert; real life has revealed itself to me in the midst of illusion, as land appears to sailors amidst the clouds. If those events, whose tide covered my dreams like the varnish which preserves fragile paintings, are not forgotten, they will mark the places through which my life has passed.