Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 3
Monsieur de Lafayette



If by any chance some measure of greatness still stirs here below, our country will continue to slumber. The loins of a decomposing society are fruitless; even the crimes it engenders are still-born, marred as they are by the sterility of their source. The age we are entering is like a tow-path along which generations, fatally condemned, haul the old world towards a world unknown.

In this year of 1834, Monsieur de Lafayette died. I may already have done him an injustice in speaking of him; I may have represented him as a kind of fool, with twin faces and twin reputations; a hero on the other side of the Atlantic, a clown on this. It has taken more than forty years to recognise qualities in Monsieur de Lafayette which one insisted on denying him. At the rostrum he expressed himself fluently and with the air of a man of breeding. No stain attaches to his life; he was affable, obliging and generous.

Under the Empire he was noble and lived quietly; under the Restoration he did not preserve his dignity so effectively; he abased himself inasmuch as he allowed himself to be known as the father of the French Carbonari sections (ventes), and the leader of minor conspiracies; he was fortunate to escape justice at Belfort, as a common adventurer. At the commencement of the Revolution, he kept aloof from the murderers; he fought them weapon in hand and wished to save Louis XVI; but though abhorring the massacres, and obliged though he was to flee them, he found it in himself to praise those scenes where heads were carried along on the ends of pikes.

Monsieur de Lafayette is celebrated because he survived: there is a fame that arises spontaneously based on talent, which death enhances by arresting that talent in youth; there is another kind of fame, a tardy offspring of time, which is the product of age; deficient itself in greatness, it is so because of the revolutions in the midst of which it is placed by chance. The bearer of such fame, by dint of existing throughout, becomes involved in everything; his name becomes the insignia or banner of all: Monsieur de Lafayette will be eternally identified with the National Guard. The results of his actions were, in an extraordinary manner, often in contradiction to his ideas; a Royalist, in 1789 he overthrew a monarchy eight centuries old; a Republican, in 1830 he created a monarchy of the barricades: he was off to endow Philippe with the crown he had taken from Louis XVI. Moulded by events, his image will be found, when the alluvia of our misfortunes settle, embedded in the revolutionary sediment.

His enthusiastic reception in the United States uniquely enhanced his reputation; a nation, rising to salute him, covered him with the glory of its gratitude. Everett ended his speech of 1824 with this apostrophe: ‘Welcome, friend of our fathers, to our shores!...Enjoy a triumph such as never conqueror nor monarch enjoyed…Above all, the first of heroes and of men, the friend of your youth, the more than friend of his country, rests in the bosom of the soil he redeemed. On the banks of his Potomac he lies in glory and in peace. You will re-visit the hospitable shades of Mount Vernon, but him, whom you venerated as we did, you will not meet at its door…But the grateful children of America will bid you welcome in his name. Welcome, thrice welcome, to our shores, and whithersoever throughout the limits of the continent your course shall take you, the ear that hears you shall bless you…’

In the New World, Monsieur de Lafayette contributed to the creation of a new society; in the old world, to the destruction of an old one: freedom invokes him in Washington, anarchy in Paris.

Monsieur de Lafayette had only one idea, and happily for him it was that of the century; the fixity of that idea created his empire; it served to blinker him, it prevented him looking to right or left; he marched with a firm step on a single track; he advanced, without tumbling over precipices, not because he saw them, but because he did not; blindness took the place of genius in him: everything fixed is fatal, and whatever is fatal is powerful.

I can still see Monsieur de Lafayette, at the head of the National Guard, passing, in 1790, along the boulevards to reach the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. On the 22nd of May 1834, I saw him again, lying in his coffin, following the same boulevards. Among the cortege could be seen a band of Americans, each person with a yellow flower in their buttonhole. Monsieur de Lafayette had a quantity of earth transported to the United States sufficient to cover him in his grave, but his plan was not fulfilled.

‘And you shall ask instead of holy oil
A few urns of earth in American soil,
And then return that pillow sublime,
So that after death, his dear remains
Might, in his homeland, own six feet at least
Of free earth in which to sleep.’

In his final moments, forgetting both his political dreams and the romance of his life, he wished to rest at Picpus next to his virtuous wife: death sets everything in order.

At Picpus are interred victims of that Revolution begun by Monsieur de Lafayette; there stands a chapel where they say perpetual prayers in memory of the victims. To Picpus I accompanied Monsieur le Duc de Montmorency, a colleague of Monsieur de Lafayette in the Constituent Assembly; in the depths of the grave the rope twisted that Christian’s bier askew, as if he had turned on his side to pray once more.

I was in the crowd, at the entrance to the Rue Grange-Batelière, when Monsieur de Lafayette’s procession filed past: at the top of the boulevard the hearse halted; I saw it, gilded by a fugitive ray of sunlight, gleaming above the weapons and helmets: then the shadows returned and he vanished.

The multitude flowed by; women selling pastries (plaisirs) cried their wares, vendors of toys, here and there, hawked paper windmills that turned in the same breeze whose sighs had stirred the plumes of the funeral car.

At the session of the Chamber of Deputies on the 20th of May 1834, the President spoke: ‘The name of General Lafayette,’ he said, ‘will remain celebrated in history…In expressing to you the condolences of the Chamber, I add, dear colleague (Georges Lafayette), my personal assurances of affection.’ After these words, the note-taker to the session placed in parentheses the word: (Hilarity).

That is what one of the weightiest of lives is reduced to: hilarity! What remains of the deaths of the greatest men? A grey cloak and a cross of straw, like those over the body of the Duc de Guise, assassinated at Blois.

In earshot of the public news-vendor who, by the railings of the Tuileries Palace, sold the tidings of Napoleon’s death for a sou, I heard two charlatans singing the praises of their Venice treacle (orviétan); and in the Moniteur of the 21st of January 1793, I read these words beneath an account of Louis XVI’s execution:

‘Two hours after the execution, nothing proclaimed that he who was once leader of the nation had just suffered the punishment reserved for criminals.’ Following those words this announcement appeared: ‘Ambroise, a comic opera.’

The last actor in a drama played for fifty years, Monsieur de Lafayette was left behind on stage; the final chorus of the Greek tragedy proclaims the moral of the piece: ‘Learn, blind mortals, to turn your gaze on the last hour of life.’ And I, a spectator seated in an empty theatre, its boxes deserted, its lights extinguished, I alone, of all my age, remain before the lowered curtain, in silence and the night.