Chateaubriand's memoirs, XV, 7

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XV, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVI, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XV- Chapter 7
The years 1803 and 1804: The first idea of my Memoirs – I am named Minister of France for the Valais – Departure from Rome

Paris, 1838.

I was determined to quit that diplomatic career where human tragedy had become blended with mediocrity of effort and vile political worries. No one knows what desolation of spirit is, unless they have been left alone to wander among places once inhabited by someone who adorned their life: you seek for her and find her not; she speaks to you, you smile, you are with her; everything she has moved or touched conjures her image; there is only a transparent veil between you, yet so heavy you cannot lift it. The memory of the first friend whom you have left behind on the way is cruel; for, if your days are prolonged, you will necessarily have other losses: those dead who follow attach themselves to the first, and you will grieve together in the one person for all those you have successively lost.

While I was setting in train lengthy arrangements in far-off France, I remained alone in the ruins of Rome. On my first outing, the aspects seemed changed, I failed to recognise the trees, monuments, and sky; I wandered through the Campagne, along the arches of the aqueducts, as I once did beneath the arbours of the New World. I returned to the eternal City, which had now added one more extinguished life to so many lost existences. By dint of travelling the solitudes of the Tiber, they were so deeply engraved on my memory, that I reproduced them correctly enough in my letter to Monsieur de Fontanes: ‘If a traveller is unhappy,’ I said, ‘if he has mingled the ashes of a loved one with the ashes of the famous, with what charm will he not pass from Cecilia Metella’s tomb to the grave of an unfortunate woman!’

It was in Rome too, that I had the first idea of writing the Mémoires de ma vie; I find here a few lines written at hazard, in which I can decipher these few words: ‘Having wandered the earth, and spent the best years of my youth far from my country, and suffered more or less all that a man can suffer, including hunger, I returned to Paris in 1800.’

In a letter to Monsieur Joubert, I sketched out my plan thus:

‘My sole happiness is to snatch a few hours and occupy myself with a work which alone can ease my suffering: namely the Mémoires de ma vie. Rome will appear in them: It is only in that way that I can speak of Rome in future. Don’t worry; they will not be confessions that will pain my friends: if I achieve anything in future, my friends will be there with names as fine as they are respectable. No more shall I reveal to posterity the details of my frailties; I will only say those things about myself that suit my dignity as a human being, and, I dare say, the nobility of my heart. One must reveal to the world only what is beautiful; it is not a deception before God to only show whatever of one’s life can inspire noble and generous feelings in our fellow men. It is not that, ultimately, I have anything to hide; I have not driven a serving girl away because of a stolen ribbon, nor abandoned my friend dying in the street, nor dishonoured the woman who welcomed me, nor placed my bastard offspring in the Foundlings Hospital, but I have my frailties, my despondencies of heart; one groan of mine is enough to comprehend the common miseries of the world, fitted to remain behind the veil. What does society gain by reproducing those wounds we see everywhere? There is no lack of examples if one wishes to triumph over poor human nature.’

In the plan that I sketched out, I passed over my family, my childhood, my youth, my travels and my exile: yet those are the passages where I am perhaps shown to most advantage.

I lived like a cheerful slave: accustomed to setting chains on his freedom, he has no idea what to do with his leisure, when his chains are broken. When I wanted to give myself up to work, a face would appear before me, and I could not turn my eyes away: only religion gained my attention through its seriousness and the thoughts of a superior nature that it suggested to me.

Still, in occupying myself with the idea of writing my Memoirs, I felt the value that the ancients attached to the importance of their name; perhaps there is a touching reality in perpetuating memories that one might let go as they pass. Perhaps, for the great men of antiquity, that idea of an immortal existence amidst the human race took the place for them of that immortality of the soul which remained a problem to them. If fame is nothing much as it appertains to our selves, it must nevertheless be admitted that it is a fine privilege, deriving from the friendship of genius, to grant imperishable existence to all it has loved.

I began a commentary on several books of the Bible beginning with Genesis. On the verses: And the Lord God said, behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil, and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever; I remarked on the Creator’s great irony: Behold the man is become as one of us, etc. Lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life. Why? Because he has now tasted the fruit of science and knows goodness from evil; he is now overwhelmed with troubles; so, he shall not live for ever: what a kindness of God is death!

Prayers commenced, some for inquietude of soul, others to fortify against the prosperity of the spiteful: I tried to call back my thoughts, wandering far from me, to a centre of repose.

Since God did not intend my life to end there, reserving it for lengthy trials, the storms that had arisen calmed once more. Suddenly the Cardinal, and Ambassador, altered his manner towards me: I had a discussion with him, and declared to him my decision to withdraw from office. He opposed it: he claimed that my resignation, at that time, would carry a suggestion of disgrace; that I would give pleasure to my enemies, and the First Consul would be angered, which would prevent me from enjoying my place of retirement in tranquillity. He suggested I go and spend a fortnight, or even a month, at Naples.

At this very moment, the Russians sounded me out as to whether I would accept the position of Governorship of a Grand-Duchy; it might have been just as good as choosing to sacrifice the remainder of my life to the cause of Henri V.

While I hovered between a thousand courses of action, I received the news that the First Consul had nominated me as Minister to the Valais. Initially he was angered by those denunciations of me; but he regained his temper and understood that I was of that race which is useless unless it is in the foreground, that it was no use subordinating me to others, or it would be better to have no dealings with me at all. There were no places vacant; he created one, and selecting it as suitable for my instinct for solitude and independence, he set me down in the Alps; he gave me a Catholic republic with a wealth of mountain streams; the Rhône and our soldiers met at my feet, the former descending towards France, the latter climbing towards Italy, the Simplon opened its daring path before me. The Consul granted me as much time as I would have wished to travel in Italy, and Madame Bacciochi let me know via Fontanes that the first significant Embassy available was reserved for me. I therefore obtained this first diplomatic triumph without expecting or wishing it: it is true that there was a fine intellect acting as Head of State, which did not wish to abandon to office intrigue another intellect, which it felt was all too disposed to separate itself from the power nexus.

That comment is even truer in that Cardinal Fesch, to whom I grant in my Memoirs a justice he might not have expected, had sent two malevolent dispatches to Paris, almost at the very moment when his manner to me had become most obliging after the death of Madame de Beaumont. Was his true opinion reflected in his conversations, during which he agreed to my going to Naples, or in his diplomatic missives? The conversations and missives were of the same date, and contradictory. It was entirely within my hands to remedy Monsieur le Cardinal’s inconsistency, by erasing all trace of the reports concerning myself: it would have been sufficient to remove the Ambassador’s ranting from the files, while I was Minister for Foreign Affairs: I would only have been doing what Monsieur de Talleyrand used to do with regard to his correspondence with the Emperor. I did not consider I had the right to use my power for my own benefit. If anyone chances to look for those documents again, they will be found in their proper place. That this manner of acting would have been duplicitous, I well knew; but in order not to credit me with the merit of a virtue I did not show, one should understand that this respect for my detractors’ correspondence owed more to contempt than to generosity. In the Embassy archive in Berlin I found offensive letters from Monsieur le Marquis de Bonnay concerning myself, as well: far from letting them lie, I made them known.

Monsieur le Cardinal Fesch was no more reserved about poor Abbé Guillon (the Bishop of Maroc): he was marked down as a Russian agent. Bonaparte considered Monsieur Lainé an agent of England: it was in that way, from such gossip, that the great man acquired the unpleasant habit of initiating police reports. But was nothing said about Monsieur Fesch himself? What did his own family make of him? The Cardinal de Clermont-Tonnerre was in Rome, as I was, in 1803; what did he not say concerning Napoleon’s uncle! I have the letters.

As for the rest, to whom then do these things matter, buried as they have been for forty years in worm-eaten files? Only one of the actors remains from that époque, Bonaparte. All we who pretend to live are already dead: who reads an insect’s name in the feeble light that it sometimes sheds behind it in its crawling?

Monsieur le Cardinal Fesch has met me since, as ambassador to Leo XII; he gave me proofs of his esteem: for my part, I determined to avoid him and respect him. It is natural moreover that I should have been judged with a severity that I never spare myself. It is all past and done: I would not even recognise the writing of those who, in 1803, served as official or unofficial secretaries to Monsieur le Cardinal Fesch.

I left for Naples: there I began a year without Madame de Beaumont; a year of her absence, to be followed by so many others! I have never returned to Naples since that time (except for 1828, when I was at the gates of that same city, which I promised to visit with Madame de Chateaubriand). The orange trees were heavy with fruit, and the myrtles covered with flowers. Baiae, the Elysian Fields, and the sea, were enchantments that I could no longer tell anyone of. I have described the Bay of Naples in Les Martyrs. I climbed Vesuvius and descended into its crater. I plagiarised myself: I was acting out a scene from René.

At Pompeii, they showed me a skeleton in chains, and ill-formed Latin words, daubed on the walls by soldiers. I returned to Rome. Canova granted me entry to his studio, while he was working on the statue of a nymph. Elsewhere the marble tomb figures which I had ordered were already full of expression. I had been to pray over the ashes from the bed of Saint Louis, and left for Paris on the 21st of January 1804, another inauspicious day.

Behold a prodigious sorrow: thirty five years have passed since the date of those events. Did my grief flatter itself, in those distant days, that the tie which had been broken would be my last tie? And yet how quickly I have, not forgotten, but replaced what was dear to me! So a man passes from frailty to frailty. While he is young and his life is before him he has the shadow of an excuse; but when he is yoked to it and dragging it painfully behind him how can he be excused? The poverty of our nature is so great, that in our weakness and fickleness, we can only employ the words we have already used in our former relationships to expression our most recent affections. They are words however that should only serve us once: one profanes them by repeating them. Friendships deserted and betrayed reproach us for the new associations we engage in; our days accuse one another: our life is a perpetual blush of shame, because it is an ongoing error.