Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLII- Chapter 4
Armand Carrel

Armand Carrel threatened Philippe’s future, as General Lafayette haunted his past. You know how I came to know Monsieur Carrel; since 1832 I never ceased to communicate with him until the day I followed him to the Saint-Mandé cemetery.

Armand Carrel was anxious; he began to fear that the French were incapable of any rational feeling for freedom; he had some presentiment of the brevity of his life: as something on which he could not count and to which he attached scant worth, he was always ready to risk that life on a throw of the dice. If he had died in his duel with young Laborie, over Henri V, his death would have been in a great cause at least, and in itself a noble drama; his funeral would probably have been honoured by violent demonstrations; yet he has left us because of a wretched quarrel not worth a hair of his head.

He was in one of his innate fits of melancholy when he inserted an article in the National to which I replied in this note:

‘Paris, 5th of May 1834.
Monsieur, your article is full of that sensitive feeling for situations and conventions which elevates you above all the other political writers of our day. I do not speak of your rare talent; you know that, even before I had the honour of meeting you, I rendered it full justice. I will not thank you for your praise; I like to think it is due to what I regard now as an old friendship. Sir, you are rising higher; you are becoming more isolated as all men do who are made for great things; gradually the crowd, which cannot follow, deserts them, and they are seen all the more clearly for standing apart.

I sought to console him in another letter of the 31st of August 1834, after he had been condemned for a Press offence. I received this reply; it displays the man’s opinions, regrets and hopes.

Your letter of the 31st of August was only passed to me on my arrival in Paris. I would have thanked you earlier, if I had not been forced to spend the little time allowed me by the police, who were informed of my return, in preparations for my entering prison. Yes, Monsieur, here I am, condemned to six months in prison by the magistrates, for an imaginary offence and in virtue of an equally illusory law, because the jury intentionally dismissed the charge against me, on the most substantial accusation, after a defence which, far from attenuating my guilt in speaking the truth to Louis-Philippe, aggravated that crime by establishing it as the right of the entire opposition Press. I am pleased that the difficulties of so bold a thesis, in times like these, seemed to have been virtually overcome by that defence, which you have read, and in which it benefited me to invoke the authority of that book with which, eighteen years ago, you educated your own party as to the principles of constitutional responsibility.
I often ask myself sadly what end writings such as yours have served, Monsieur, and those of the most eminent leaders of public opinion to whom I myself belong, when that concurrence of the noblest intellects in the land, in constant defence of the laws of free speech, has not resulted for the mass of thinkers in France in a party determined from now on under all regimes, to demand from whatever politics may be victorious, freedom of thought, speech and writing, as the prime responsibility of whichever legitimate authority is in power. Is it not true, Monsieur, that when you demanded, under the previous government, total freedom of debate, it was not for the sake of the temporary benefit that your political friends might accrue, in their opposition to adversaries who had become masters of the power of intrigue? Some used the Press thus, as has indeed been shown since; but you, Sir, you demanded freedom of debate for the whole of society, a forum, and general protection, for all ideas past or current; it is that which has earned you, Sir, the recognition and respect of those thinkers whom the July Revolution brought fresh to the lists. That is why our work is linked to yours, and why we quote your writings, less as admirers of the incomparable talent that produced them than as aspirants from afar to the continuation of the same task, young soldiers as we are of a cause in which you are the most glorious of veterans.
What you have desired for thirty years, Monsieur, and what I would wish, if I am allowed to name myself alongside you, is to guarantee, to the interests that share in our noble France, more humane rules of engagement, laws more civilised, more fraternal, more decisive than civil war, and only debate can prevent civil war. When shall we succeed in replacing faction by ideas, and intrigue, egotism and greed by legitimate and worthy interests? When shall we see persuasion, and the word, control those inevitable transactions that the duelling of parties and the shedding of blood wearily bring about, but too late for the dead of both camps, and too often without benefit to the wounded survivors? As you have said, sadly, Monsieur, it seems that much that was learnt has been forgotten and that in France no one knows, any longer, what it costs to shelter beneath a tyranny promising silence and peace. Nevertheless we must continue to speak, write and publish; unforeseen benefits sometimes emerge from constancy. And, Sir, of all the fine examples you have given us that which is most constantly before my eyes is comprised in the single word: Persevere.
Accept, Sir, the feelings of undying affection with which I am happy to sign myself,
Your most devoted servant, A. CARREL.
Puteaux, near Neuilly, the 4th of October 1834.’

Monsieur Carrel was imprisoned at Sainte-Pélagie; I went to see him there two or three times a week: I found him standing at the bars of his window. He reminded me of his neighbour, a young African lion in the Jardin des Plantes: motionless behind the bars of his cage, that scion of the desert allowed his vague and melancholy gaze to wander over the objects outside; it was obvious he would not live. Then we went downstairs, Monsieur Carrel, and I; the servant of Henri V walked with the enemy of kings in a damp courtyard, sombre, narrow, and surrounded by high walls like a well. There were other Republicans walking up and down the courtyard too: young and ardent revolutionaries, with moustaches, beards, long hair, German or Greek caps, and pallid faces, looking about, with a threatening aspect, and the cast of ancient souls in Tartarus before their emergence to the light: they were ready to burst back into life. Their clothes acted on them as a uniform does on a soldier, like Nessus’ blood-stained shirt on Hercules: they represented a vengeful world hidden behind current society and prepared to make it tremble.

In the evenings they gathered in their leader, Armand Carrel’s, room; they talked about what they would do when they came to power, and the necessity of shedding blood. Debates took place about the mighty citizens of the Terror: some, partisans of Marat, were atheists and materialists; others, admirers of Robespierre, adored that new Christ. Did not Saint Robespierre say, in his speech on the Supreme Being, that belief in God gave the strength to brave misfortune, and that innocence on the scaffold would make the tyrant in his triumphal chariot grow pale? The equivocation of an executioner speaking tenderly of God, misfortune, tyranny, the scaffold in order to persuade men that he was only slaying the guilty, and indeed as an act of virtue; an anticipation of those miscreants, who, sensing the approach of punishment, stand like Socrates before the judge, seeking to ward off the blade by threatening him with their innocence!

His stay in Sainte-Pélagie did Monsieur Carrel harm: imprisoned with those ardent spirits, he contested their ideas, berated them, and defied them, nobly refusing to celebrate the 21st of January; but at the same time he was made irritable by suffering and his powers of reason were weakened by the murderous sophisms that rang in his ears.

Mothers, sisters, young men’s wives came to care for him each morning and carry out the domestic tasks. One day, passing through the dark corridor that led to Monsieur Carrel’s room, I heard a delightful voice coming from a neighbouring cell: a lovely woman hatless, hair unbound, sitting on the edge of a pallet bed, mending the tattered garments of a kneeling prisoner, who seemed less a captive of Philippe than of the woman at whose feet he was enchained.

Freed from captivity, Monsieur Carrel came in turn to visit me. A few days before his end, he came to bring me an issue of the National in which he had taken pains to include an article on my Essais sur la littérature anglaise, where he quoted with excessive praise the pages that terminate the Essais. Since his death, I have been sent this article in his own hand, which I will keep as a pledge of his friendship. Since his death! What words I have just traced without thinking!

Despite being an essential supplement to the law which does not recognise crimes of honour, duelling is dreadful, especially when it destroys a life full of promise and deprives society of one of those rare individuals who only appears after a century of effort, in the wake of certain ideas and events. Carrel fell in the woods that saw the Duc d’Enghien fall: the shade of the great Condé’s descendant served as the famous commoner’s witness and bore him away. Those fatal woods have twice made me weep: at least I cannot reproach myself for any lack of essential sympathy or grief engendered by those two catastrophes.

Monsieur Carrel, who, in other encounters, never thought of death, thought of it before this: he spent the night writing his last testament, as if he had been forewarned of the result of the duel. At eight in the morning, on the 22nd of July 1836, he went, swift and keen, to those leafy shadows at the very hour when the deer are at play.

Placed at the measured distance, he walked rapidly forward, and fired without flinching, as was his custom; he seemed never to have enough of danger. Wounded to death and supported in his friends’ arms, as he passed before his adversary who was himself wounded, he said: ‘Are you much hurt, Sir?’ Armand Carrel was as thoughtful as he was intrepid.

On the 22nd, it was late when I heard of the incident; on the morning of the 23rd, I went to Saint-Mandé; Monsieur Carrel’s friends were extremely anxious. I wanted to enter, but the surgeon advised me that my presence might excite the dying man too much and extinguish the feeble ray of hope that still remained. I withdrew in consternation. On the following day, the 24th, Hyacinthe whom I had sent on ahead, came to tell me that the unfortunate young man had died at five-thirty, after having experienced severe pain: life despite all its efforts had lost its desperate struggle with death.

The funeral took place on Tuesday the 26th. Monsieur Carrel’s father and brother had arrived from Rouen. I found them shut in a little room with three or four of the closest friends of the man whose loss we deplored. They embraced me, and Monsieur Carrel’s father said: ‘Armand should have remained a Christian like his father, mother, brothers and sisters: the needle has but a few hours to move before reaching the final point on the dial.’ I will regret forever not having seen Carrel on his death-bed: I would not have despaired, at the supreme moment, of helping the needle travel that space beyond which it might have reached Christ’s hour.

Carrel was not as anti-religious as has been suggested: he had doubts; when from firm disbelief one passes to indecision, one is quite near to certainty. A few days before his death, he said: ‘I would give all this life to believe in the other.’ In giving an account of Monsieur Sautelet’s suicide he wrote these forceful paragraphs:

‘I have been able in thought to extend my life to that instant, rapid as lightening, when the sight of objects, motion, sound, and feeling shall escape me, and in which the last efforts of my spirit shall gather to form the idea: I am dying; but for the minute, the second that follows immediately upon that, I have always felt an indefinable horror; my imagination always refuses to distinguish anything further. To plumb the depths of hell seems a thousand times less fearful than that universal uncertainty:

“To die, to sleep,
To sleep! Perchance to dream!”

‘I have seen how all men, whatever their strength of character or belief, own to that same impossibility of going beyond their last earthly impression, and the mind is lost there, as if in arriving at that boundary you find yourself suspended above a ten thousand foot precipice. You dispel that fearful sight in order to go out and fight a duel, attempt an attack on a redoubt, or confront a stormy sea; you even appear to scorn life; you adopt a confident expression, calm and contented; but it is because your imagination holds out to you victory rather than death; it is because the mind dwells less on danger than on the means of escaping it.’

These words on the lips of a man destined to die in a duel are noteworthy.

In 1800, when I returned to France, I was ignorant of the birth of one of my friends in that land where I disembarked. In 1836, I saw that friend descend into the grave without those consolations of religion whose memory I brought to my country in the first year of the century.

I followed the coffin from the mortuary to the burial place; I walked next to Monsieur Carrel’s father and gave my arm to Monsieur Arago: Arago has measured the heavens I have sung.

Arriving at the gate of the little rural cemetery, the convoy halted; speeches were pronounced. The absence of the cross told me that the sign of my grief must remain buried in the depths of my soul.

Six years previously in the July Days, passing before the colonnade of the Louvre, near an open ditch, I met those young men who carried me off to the Luxembourg where I was to protest in support of a monarchy which they had just toppled; six years later, I returned, on the anniversary of the July celebrations, to associate myself with the sorrow of those young Republicans, as they had associated with my loyalty. Strange destiny! Armand Carrel sighed out his last breath at the house of an officer of the Royal Guard, who had not sworn the oath to Philippe; a royalist and a Christian, I had the honour of bearing a corner of the shroud which covers those noble remains but cannot hide them.

Many kings, princes, ministers, men who thought themselves powerful, have passed before me: I did not deign to raise my hat to their coffin or dedicate a word to their memory. I have found more to study and describe in the intermediate ranks of society than in those whose livery is displayed; a piece of silk embroidered with gold is not worth the fragment of flannel that the ball drove into Carrel’s chest.

Carrel, who remembers you? Only the mediocrities and cowards do, whom your death has freed from their fear of your superiority, and I who did not share your views. Who thinks of you? Who recollects you? I congratulate you on having completed that journey, with a single step, whose trajectory when prolonged becomes so sickening and empty, on having brought the goal of your travels within range of a pistol-shot, a distance which still seemed too great to you, and which you shortened by advancing to a mere sword’s length.

I envy those who have departed before me: like Caesar’s soldiers at Brundisium, I gaze at the open sea from the cliff-heights and look towards Epirus to see if I can glimpse the vessels that transported the earlier legions returning to carry me off in my turn.

A few days after the funeral, I went to Monsieur Carrel’s house: the apartment was shut: when the shutters were opened, the daylight which could no longer reach the absent owner’s eyes, flooded the deserted rooms. My heart was heavy contemplating his books, his table, which I have bought, his pen, the insignificant words scribbled at random on a few scraps of paper; everywhere traces of life, and death everywhere.

A person dear to Monsieur Carrel uttered not a word; she was sitting on a sofa, I sat down next to her. A little dog came to gaze at us. Then the young woman burst into tears. Pushing back the hair from her brow and seeking to gather her thoughts, she said: ‘You wish to see Monsieur Carrel?’

She rose, took up a picture covered by a cloth, removed the cloth and revealed a portrait of the unfortunate man drawn by Monsieur Scheffer a few hours after death. ‘When I saw him dead,’ the young woman said: ‘he was disfigured by his final agony; his face softened afterwards, and Monsieur Scheffer told me his smile looked like that.’ The portrait, a striking resemblance indeed, revealed something of the martyr, sombre and energised, but the mouth smiled sweetly as if the dead man smiled at being freed from this life.

She who would have married Carrel some day, covered up the portrait once more and added: ‘It would be well if you could give me a letter that I could show my relatives; they would be happy if you esteem me: I could use it in my defence.’

In order to try and distract her, I spoke about the papers Monsieur Carrel had left behind. ‘There they are,’ she said, ‘he had a great affection for you, Monsieur, and he valued very few people and kept only a handful of letters, there are not many here, some letters from yourself, and then a letter from his mother which he kept because of its harshness.’

I left that unfortunate house: from then on vainly I have thought myself incapable of sharing young women’s sorrows, since the years besiege and chill me; I force a way through them with difficulty, as the cabin-dweller in winter is obliged to open a path through the fallen snow at his door to seek out a ray of sunlight.

Having re-read this in 1839, I will add that having visited Monsieur Carrel’s tomb in 1837, I found it quite neglected, but I saw a black wooden cross that his sister Nathalie had planted near the grave. I paid Vaudran, the gravedigger, the eighteen francs still owing for the metal railings; I asked him to take care of the site, lay some turf and grow some flowers there. I go to Saint-Mandé as the seasons alter, to pay the fee and reassure myself that my intentions have been faithfully executed.