Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 8

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 8
Monsieur de Talleyrand



Paris, 1838


In the spring of this year, 1838, I was occupied with The Congress of Verona, which I was obliged to publish according to the terms of my literary contract: I have spoken of it in the appropriate place in these Memoirs. A man has died; that guardsman of the aristocracy follows the powerful plebeians who have already vanished.

When Monsieur de Talleyrand first appeared on the stage of my political career, I spoke a few words to him. Now his whole existence is revealed to me by his last hour, in accord with that fine saying of the ancients.

I had dealings with Monsieur de Talleyrand; as a man of honour I was loyal to him, as you have seen, especially regarding the falling-out at Mons, when I sacrificed myself freely for him. Quite simply, I shared in disagreeable things that happened to him, and I pitied him when Maubreuil slapped his face. There was a time when he pursued me in a charming manner; he wrote to me at Ghent saying, as you have read, that I was a strong man; when I was lodging at the house on the Rue des Capucines, he sent me, with perfect gallantry, a Foreign Office seal, a talisman engraved no doubt under the sign of his constellation. Perhaps it was because I did not abuse his generosity that he became my enemy without any provocation on my part, when I achieved a little success which was not his work. His remarks travelled the world and failed to offend me since Monsieur de Talleyrand could not have offended anyone; but his intemperate language absolved me, and since he allowed himself to criticise me, he left me free to employ the same right in his regard.

Monsieur Talleyrand’s vanity deceived him; he mistook his status for genius; he thought himself a prophet in fooling everyone: his authority regarding future events was worthless: he saw nothing in advance, he only saw in retrospect. Lacking insight and the light of conscience he revealed nothing that superior intellect can, he valued nothing that probity does. He took a leading part in chance events, when those events, which he never foresaw, had occurred, but only on his own behalf. He was ignorant of that breadth of ambition, which submerges personal interests in public glory as the treasure most profitable to private interest. Monsieur de Talleyrand did not belong then to that class of beings fitted to become fantastic creations around which public opinion, deceived or disappointed, is forever weaving its fantasies. Nevertheless it is certain that various sentiments, in sympathy with diverse ideas, worked to create an imaginary Talleyrand.

Firstly that kings, governments, former foreign ministers, and ambassadors were erstwhile dupes of this man, and incapable of grasping him, is proof that they merely obeyed a higher reality: they would have doffed their hats to Bonaparte’s kitchen-boy.

Then, the members of the old French aristocracy linked to Monsieur de Talleyrand were proud to have a man among their ranks who was so kind as to reassure them of its importance.

Finally, the revolutionaries and the generations without morals, while ranting against titles, have a secret leaning towards aristocracy: these curious converts willingly seek baptism and think to acquire fine manners by it. At the same time, the Prince’s dual apostasy delighted the young democrats’ pride in another way: since they concluded from it that their cause was just, and that noblemen and priests are quite contemptible.

Whatever we make of these obstacles to the light, Monsieur de Talleyrand was not great enough to create a lasting illusion; he had not within him enough power of belief to turn his lies into heightened stature. He was seen too clearly; he will not live, because his life was linked neither to a national idea that has survived him, nor a celebrated action, nor peerless talent, nor some useful invention, nor some epoch-making concept. Remembrance with regard to virtue is denied him; danger did not even deign to honour his days; he spent the reign of Terror outside the country, he only returned when the forum transformed itself into the antechamber.

Diplomatic records prove Talleyrand’s mediocrity: you cannot cite an action of any worth which is due to him. Under Bonaparte, none of the important negotiations were his; when he was free to act alone he let the opportunity slip and marred what he touched. It is well attested that he brought about the death of the Duc d’Enghien; that bloody stain cannot be effaced: far from having pursued the Minister in my account of the prince’s death, I have been too lenient with him.

In his statements in defiance of the truth, Monsieur de Talleyrand displayed fearful effrontery. I have not spoken, in the Congress of Verona, of the speech which he made to the Chamber of Peers relative to my address regarding the War in Spain; his speech began with these solemn words:

‘It is sixteen years ago now that, summoned by the man who governed the world at that time, to give him my advice on engaging in conflict with the Spanish people, I had the misfortune to displease him by unveiling the future, by revealing to him all the host of dangers which would ensue from an aggressive action no less unjust than foolhardy. Disgrace was the fruit of my sincerity. A strange fate it is that brings me, after such an extent of time, to make the same effort, and to offer the same counsel, to a legitimate sovereign!’

There are fits of forgetfulness or deceit which terrify: you open your ears, you rub your eyes, not knowing whether you are awake or asleep. When the imperturbable individual to whom you owe such assertions descends from the rostrum and takes his seat impassively, you follow him with your gaze, suspended as you are between a kind of astonishment and a sort of admiration; you are unsure whether the man has not received some authority from nature giving him the power to recreate or annihilate the truth.

I did not reply; it seemed to me that the shade of Bonaparte would rise to speak, and repeat the terrifying rebuttal he had once given Monsieur de Talleyrand. Witnesses to that scene were still sitting among the Peers, including Monsieur le Comte de Montesquiou; the virtuous Duc de Doudeauville recounted it to me, having heard it from the lips of that same Monsieur de Montesquiou, his brother-in-law; Monsieur le Comte de Cessac, present at the time, repeated his account of it to whoever would listen: he had thought that on leaving the room, the Grand Elector would be arrested. Napoleon, in his anger, shouted at his whey-faced Minister: ‘That’s fine, for you to speak against the Spanish War, you who advised it, you from whom I have a pile of letters in which you sought to prove to me that such a war was as necessary as it was politic.’ Those letters vanished when the archives were removed from the Tuileries in 1814.

Monsieur de Talleyrand in his speech claimed that he had the misfortune to displease Bonaparte by unveiling the future, by revealing all the dangers which would ensure from an act of aggression no less unjust than foolhardy. Let Monsieur de Talleyrand console himself in his tomb, he had not that misfortune; he need not add that calamity to his life’s afflictions.

Monsieur de Talleyrand’s principal crime regarding the Legitimacy was to turn Louis XVIII away from the idea of concluding a marriage between the Duc de Berry and a Russian princess; Monsieur de Talleyrand’s inexcusable crime regarding France was to have agreed to the disgusting Treaty of Vienna.

The result of Monsieur de Talleyrand’s negotiations was to leave us without proper frontiers: the loss of a battle at Mons or Coblenz would lead in a week to enemy cavalry deploying beneath the walls of Paris. Under the old monarchy, not only was France encircled by a ring of fortresses, but she was protected on the Rhine by the independent States of Germany. An invasion of the Electorates or agreement with them was needed to approach us. On another front, Switzerland remained free and neutral; it possessed few roads; nothing would violate its territory. The Pyrenees were impassable, guarded by the Spanish Bourbons. Monsieur de Talleyrand understood none of this; such are the crimes that will condemn him forever as a statesman: crimes that robbed us in a day of Louis XIV’s labours and Napoleon’s victories.

They claim that he was Napoleon’s political superior: firstly it is necessary to bear in mind that in carrying the portfolio of a conqueror, who every morning issues a victory bulletin and alters the boundaries of States, one is a clerk pure and simple. When Napoleon was elated, he made enormous errors obvious to all: Monsieur de Talleyrand saw them as clearly as everyone else; but that required no lynx-eyed vision. He compromised himself in a curious manner in the affair of the Duc d’Enghien; he was wrong about the Spanish War, though he later sought to deny his advice and retract his words.

Yet an actor gains no prestige if he is utterly lacking in the means to entertain the stalls: and the Prince’s life was a perpetual deception. Knowing what he lacked, he hid from whatever might reveal him: his constant study was to avoid assessment; he withdrew into opportune silence; he concealed himself in the three silent hours he gave to whist. One marvels that such a genius could descend to vulgar amusement: who knows if that genius was not sharing out empires while arranging the suits in his hand? During those moments of evasion, he would dream up a witty phrase, whose inspiration came to him from a leaflet that morning, or a conversation that night. If he took you aside to distinguish you by his conversation, his principal means of seducing you was to shower you with praise, to call you the hope of the future, to predict a brilliant career for you, to give you a nobleman’s bill of exchange to be drawn on him and payable on sight; but if he found your faith in him the least bit suspect, if he perceived that you had insufficient admiration for a few brief phrases with pretensions to profundity, in which there was nothing, he shrank with fear lest he display the contents of his mind. He would happily have told all, were his pleasantries only to fall on some subaltern or a fool, with whom he could amuse himself without risk, or a victim attached to his person and a foil for his raillery. He could not pursue a serious conversation; when his lips had opened thrice, his ideas expired.

Old engravings of the Abbé de Périgord reveal a highly attractive individual; Monsieur de Talleyrand turned into a death’s-head as he aged: his eyes were dull, such that it was hard to read them, which served him well; as he was the frequent recipient of contempt, he had absorbed it, and it showed at the drooping corners of his mouth.

A grand manner belonging to his lineage, the rigorous observation of the proprieties, a cold and disdainful air, contributed to nourish the illusions adhering to the Prince of Benevento. His Imperial manner was practised on petty individuals and the men of the new society, who knew nothing of the society of the past. Formerly one met people, at every corner, whose allure resembled that of Monsieur de Talleyrand, and one took no notice of it; but almost alone among the democratic mores, he seemed a phenomenon: to suffer the yoke of propriety, it suited his self-esteem to imbue his Ministerial wit with the influence exercised by his education.

When while occupying high office one finds oneself involved in mighty revolutions, they give one a chance importance that the crowd takes for personal merit; lost in Bonaparte’s radiance Monsieur de Talleyrand nevertheless shone, under the Restoration, with the borrowed light of a destiny not his own. The accidental situation of the Prince of Benevento allowed him to attribute to himself the power of having overthrown Napoleon, and the honour of having re-established Louis XVIII on the throne; I myself, like all the idle onlookers, was I not foolish enough as to subscribe to that fable! Better informed, I understood that Monsieur de Talleyrand was no Warwick the Kingmaker: his arms lacked the strength that pulls down and restores monarchies.

Impartial simpletons said: ‘We admit he is a very immoral person, but how skilful!’ Alas, no! That last hope must be foregone, so consoling for his supporters, so desirable for the prince’s memory, the hope of making a daemon out of Monsieur de Talleyrand.

Beyond certain commonplace negotiations, in the course of which he was skilful enough as to place his own personal interests first, nothing much was required of Monsieur de Talleyrand.

Monsieur de Talleyrand prided himself on a few habits and maxims employed by his private hangers-on and wretched subjects. His appearance when in public, modelled on that of a Viennese Minister, was the peak of his diplomacy. He prided himself on never being under pressure; he said that time is our enemy and must be slain: based on that he promoted himself as rarely being busy.

But as, in the last result, Monsieur de Talleyrand could not transform his idle hours into masterpieces, it is likely that he was wrong to speak of the necessity of abolishing time: one conquers time only by creating immortal things; by effort with no future, by frivolous distraction, one does not slay it: one expends it.

Entering government on Madame de Staël’s recommendation, she obtaining his nomination from Chénier, Monsieur de Talleyrand, then quite destitute, made his fortune five or six times over: through the million he received from Portugal which hoped to sign a peace treaty with the Directory, a peace which was never signed; through buying Belgian bonds at the time of the Peace of Amiens, which he, Monsieur de Talleyrand, knew about before it was known to the public; through the creation of the transient kingdom of Etruria; through the secularisation of ecclesiastical property in Germany; and through passing on second-hand his opinions of the Congress of Vienna. It was not merely the old papers from our archives that the Prince wished to yield to Austria: duped on that occasion by Prince von Metternich, the latter religiously returned the originals having had a copy made.

Incapable of writing even a phrase, Monsieur de Talleyrand obtained competent work from those under him: when, despite deletions and alterations, his secretary managed to write his despatches to his liking, he copied them in his own hand. I have heard him read some pleasing passages, on his youth, from the beginning of his memoirs. As his tastes varied, he detesting the next day what he had loved the day before, then if those memoirs exist in their entirety, which I doubt, and if the contrasting versions have been preserved, his judgements on any given event and above all on any one individual will be outrageously self-contradictory. I do not believe there are any manuscripts stored in England; the command it is claimed that he gave not to publish them for forty years seems to me a posthumous juggling-trick.

Lazy and unstudied, of a frivolous and dissipated nature, the Prince of Benevento gloried in what should have humbled his pride, the feat of remaining standing after the fall of empires. Spirits of the first order who make revolutions vanish; spirits of the second order who profit from them remain. These latter-day industrialised personages assist in the march of generations; they are charged with stamping visas on passports, with ratifying decisions: Monsieur de Talleyrand was of that inferior species; he countersigned events, he did not create them.

To survive governments, to remain when power dissipates, to declare oneself a permanent fixture, to boast of belonging to the country alone, of being a man of things and not a man of individuals, is a fatuity of insecure egoism, which tries to hide its lack of height in lofty words. Today there are hosts of characters possessing that equanimity, hosts of those citizens of the earth: however, in order for there to be greatness in growing old like a hermit among the ruins of the Coliseum, they must be guarded by the cross; Monsieur de Talleyrand has trodden his underfoot.

Our species divides into two unequal parts: the men of death beloved of it, a select band that is re-born; and the men of life forgotten by life, a multitude of nobodies who are not. The transient existence of the latter consists of a name, credit, a position, wealth; their fame, their authority, their power vanish with their person: their rooms and their coffin once closed, so is their destiny. That is what has happened to Monsieur de Talleyrand; his mummy, before descending into the crypt, was exposed for a moment in London, as representing the royal cadaver that rules us.

Monsieur de Talleyrand betrayed every government, and, I repeat, he neither created nor destroyed one. He had no real superiority, in the true meaning of those words. A minnow of banal prosperity, so common among the aristocracy, cannot step two paces beyond the grave. Evil which does not manifest itself in some terrible explosion, evil parsimoniously employed by the slave to his master’s profit, is mere depravity. Vice, tolerant of crime, becomes domesticated. Imagine a plebeian Monsieur de Talleyrand, poor and obscure, possessing along with his immorality only his incontestable salon wit, and one would surely never have heard a word about him. Remove from Monsieur de Talleyrand the Grand Seigneur debased, the married priest, the degraded bishop, and what remains? His reputation and success depended on those three depravations.

The comedy with which the prelate crowned his eighty-four years was a pitiful thing: firstly, to prove his strength, he went to the Institute to pronounce the common eulogy on a poor German idiot whom he cared nothing for. Despite our eyes having had their fill of spectacle, people made haste to see the great man appear; then he died at home, like Diocletian, displaying himself to the world. The crowd gaped; in this three-quarters putrefied Prince’s last moments, a gangrenous wound in his side, his head falling onto his chest despite the bandage which restrained it, playing out minute by minute his reconciliation with Heaven, his niece playing a role arranged at a distance between a deluded priest and a deceived grand-daughter: he signed with wearisome difficulty (or perhaps did not even sign), when his speech was almost extinguished, a disavowal of his previous adherence to the constitutional Church; but without giving any sign of repentance, without fulfilling the last duties of a Christian, without retracting the immoral and scandalous actions of his life. Never has pride shown itself so wretched, admiration appeared so foolish, and piety been so deceived: Rome, ever prudent, has not made the retraction public, and with good reason.

Monsieur de Talleyrand, called at a late date to the great tribunal, was sentenced in absentia; death sought him on behalf of God, and found him at last. To analyse minutely a life as marred as that of Monsieur de Lafayette was whole, means confronting distasteful things that I am incapable of handling. Corrupt men resemble prostitutes’ corpses: the ulcers have gnawed them so much they cannot be dissected. The French Revolution was a vast act of political destruction at the heart of previous society: let us fear lest it creates a more fatal act of destruction, let us fear moral destruction hand in hand with that Revolution’s evils. What would become of the human race if people tried to bring back ways of life that have rightly atrophied, if they attempted to offer up for our enthusiastic reception odious examples, to present the century’s progress, the establishment of liberty, or depth of genius to us, in the form of abject natures or atrocious actions? Not daring to advocate evil under its true name, people employ sophistry: be careful not to mistake that brute for a spirit of darkness, it is an angel of light! All ugliness is beautiful; every disgrace is honourable; every enormity is sublime; and every vice has its attendant admirers. We have returned to that materialistic pagan society where every depravity had its altars. Behind such praise, lie the cowards, liars, and criminals, who warp the public conscience, debauch youth, discourage the good, who are an outrage to virtue, and who spit like the Roman soldier into Christ’s face!