Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 18

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XLII, 17 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >>


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 18
A summary of the changes which have occurred around the globe in my lifetime



Our grasp of geography has changed entirely since the day when, according to our old saying, I could see the heavens from my bed. If I were to compare terrestrial globes, one from the start of my life, the other from my end, the former is almost unrecognisable. Australia, a fifth part of the land surface has been discovered and peopled: a sixth continent has just been visited by French ships through the polar ice of the Antarctic, and Parry, Ross and Franklin, at our pole, have rounded the coasts which mark the northern limits of America; the mysterious solitudes of Africa have been revealed; ultimately there is not a corner of our world that will remain truly unknown. People are tackling all the languages of the countries into which the world is divided; soon we will doubtless see vessels passing through the Isthmus of Panama and perhaps the Isthmus of Suez.

Historians have made parallel discoveries in the depths of time; sacred languages have yielded their forgotten vocabularies; on the granites of Egypt, Champollion has deciphered those hieroglyphs which seemed like a seal on the lips of the desert, which responded to their eternal discretion. What if fresh revolutions have erased Poland, Holland, Genoa and Venice from the map, other republics occupy part of the coast of the great Ocean and the Atlantic. In those lands, advanced civilisation will lend its aid to energetic natures: steamships will mount those rivers destined to provide easy communications, where they were once invincible obstacles; the shores of those rivers will be covered with towns and villages, as we have seen a new American State emerge from the wastes of Kentucky. Through those forests, reputed to be impenetrable, vehicles, not horses, will run, transporting enormous weights and thousands of travellers. Down those rivers, down those roads, will come timber for the construction of vessels, and the output of the mines which will pay for them; and the Isthmus of Panama will open its locks to grant passage to the vessels of both seas.

The Navy, using steam-power, is not limited to rivers, it has the freedom of the Ocean; distances are shortened; no more currents, monsoons, contrary winds, blockades and closed ports. They were far from such industrial romances in the hamlet of Plancoët: in those days, the ladies played the games of yesteryear by their hearth; peasants would spin hemp to make clothes; feeble resin candles lit the wakeful village; chemistry had not produced its prodigies; machines had not set in motion the water and steel to weave cloth or embroider silk; gas, associated with meteors, had not yet furnished illumination for our streets and theatres.

These transformations are not limited to our planet: with immortal instincts, man has set his intellect soaring; at every step he makes through the firmament, he recognizes miracles of ineffable power. That star, which seemed simple to our forefathers, is double or triple to our eyes; suns interposed before suns obscure each other and lack space for their multitudes. In the centre of the infinite, God sees these magnificent constructs pass before him, proof on proof of the Supreme Being.

Let us conceive, according to our new science, our little planet swimming in an ocean whose waves are stars, in that Milky Way, raw matter of light, fused metal of worlds that the hand of the Creator will fashion. The distance to such stars is so prodigious that their light only reaches the eye that sees them after they have been extinguished, their fires lost before their rays. How small man is on this little atom where he dies! But how great his intelligence! He knows when the face of the stars must be masked in darkness, when the comets will return after thousands of years, he who lasts only an instant! A microscopic insect lost in a fold of the heavenly robe, the orbs cannot hide from him a single one of their movements in the depth of space. What destinies will those stars, new to us, light? Is their revelation bound up with some new phase of humanity? You will know, race to be born; I know not, and I am departing.

Thanks to the superfluity of my years, my monument is finished. It is a great solace to me; I felt someone urging me on: the captain of the vessel in which my seat is reserved was warning me that I had only a moment left to board. If I had been master of Rome, I would have said, like Sulla, that I was completing my Memoirs on the very eve of my death; but I would not have concluded my story with the words he uses in concluding his: ‘In a dream I have seen one of my children who pointed to Metella, his mother, and exhorted me to come and rest in the bosom of eternal happiness.’ If I had been Sulla, glory would never have allowed me rest and happiness.

New storms will arise; one can believe in calamities to come which will surpass the afflictions we have been overwhelmed by in the past; already, men are thinking of bandaging their old wounds to return to the battlefield. However, I do not expect an imminent outbreak of war: nations and kings are equally weary; unforeseen catastrophe will not yet fall on France: what follows me will only be the effect of general transformation. No doubt there will be painful moments: the face of the world cannot change without suffering. But, once again, there will be no separate revolutions; simply the great revolution approaching its end. The scenes of tomorrow no longer concern me; they call for other artists: your turn, gentlemen!

As I write these last words, my window, which looks west over the gardens of the Foreign Mission, is open: it is six in the morning; I can see the pale and swollen moon; it is sinking over the spire of the Invalides, scarcely touched by the first golden glow from the East; one might say that the old world was ending, and the new beginning. I behold the light of a dawn whose sunrise I shall never see. It only remains for me to sit down at the edge of my grave; then I shall descend boldly, crucifix in hand, into eternity.