Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 8

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVI- Chapter 8
Bonaparte: his sophistry and remorse

Chantilly, November 1837

Finally the principal accused appears, after all the others: he ends the parade of blood-stained penitents. Let us suppose that a judge had the person named Bonaparte appear before him, as the Recording-Officer had the person named d’Enghien appear; let us suppose that we had the minutes of the later interrogation before us in the same form as the earlier; read and compare:

On being asked his name and forenames?
– He replied that his name was Napoléon Bonaparte.
On being asked where he has resided since he left France?
– He replied: at the Pyramids, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow,
and St Helena.
On being asked what rank he occupied in the Army?
– He replied: Commander of the Vanguard of the Armies of God. No other response emerges from the mouth of the defendant.

The various actors of the tragedy are charged together; Bonaparte alone denies guilt in person; he does not bow his head, he stands upright; he cries, like the Stoic: ‘Pain, I will never accept you as evil!’ But if in his pride he will never admit anything to the living, he is forced to confess to the dead. This Prometheus, the vulture at his breast, thief of celestial fire, believed himself superior to all, and he is forced to respond to the Duc d’Enghien whom he made dust before his time: the skeleton, a relic on which he bore down, interrogates him and masters him through divine necessity.

Domesticity and the army, the antechamber and the tent, had their representation on St Helena; a servant, estimable in his loyalty to his chosen master, placed himself beside Napoleon like an echo in his service. Foolishness imitated fable, by giving him a tone of sincerity. Bonaparte was Destiny; like her the outward form deceived enchanted minds; but at the root of these impostures, one heard that inexorable truth ring out: ‘I am!’ And the universe felt the weight of it.

The author of the most reliable work concerning St Helena exposes a theory Napoleon invented for the benefit of murderers; the voluntary exile held as Gospel truth a murderous chatter with pretensions to profundity, which alone could explain the life of Napoleon, such as he wished to arrange it, and as he pretended it had been written. He left instructions for his neophytes: Monsieur le Comte de Las-Cases learnt his lessons without being aware; the prodigious prisoner, wandering in solitary walks, drew his credulous adorer after him with lies, as Hercules suspended men from his mouth by golden chains.

‘The first time,’ says the honest chamberlain, ‘that I heard Napoleon pronounce the name of the Duc d’Enghien, I blushed with embarrassment. Happily, I was walking behind him on a narrow path or he could not have missed seeing it. Nevertheless, when, for the first time, the Emperor developed his whole account of that event, its details and secondary incidents; when he revealed his various motives with his strict logic, luminously, carried away, I must confess the affair seemed to acquire a somewhat new appearance…The Emperor often dealt with this subject, which allowed me to remark in his person those characteristic nuances which were so pronounced. I was able to see in him very distinctly on that occasion, and many other times, the private man debating with the public man, and the natural sentiments of his heart grappling with his pride and the dignity of his position. In the un-guardedness of intimacy, he showed himself not indifferent to the unfortunate Prince’s fate; but as soon as it was a question of the public, it was altogether another thing. One day, after having spoken to me of the fate and youth of the unfortunate man, he ended by saying: – “And I have learnt since, my dear friend, that he regarded me favourably; they tell me he never spoke of me without admiration; and yet this is the justice handed out down here!” – And these latter words were spoken with a significant expression, all the lines of his features appearing so harmonious, that if the man Napoleon pitied had been in his power at that moment, I am quite sure that, whatever his intentions and acts had been, he would have been pardoned with ardour…The Emperor was accustomed to consider that affair under two quite distinct headings: that of common law or established justice, and that of natural law or a violent lapse.

Between us and in confidence, the Emperor said that the fault, at root, could be attributed to an excess of zeal in those around him, or to private designs, or ultimately to mysterious intrigues. He said that he been under unexpected pressure, that his thoughts had been so to speak taken by surprise, his action precipitated, the outcome pre-determined. “Assuredly,” he said, “if I had been made aware at the time of certain particulars concerning the Prince’s nature and opinions; if above all I had seen the letter he wrote to me which was not passed to me, God knows with what motive, until after he was no more, I should certainly have pardoned him.” And it was easy for us to see that his nature and feelings alone dictated these words of the Emperor, and to us alone; for he would have felt himself humiliated that anyone could believe for an instant that he sought to blame others, or descended to self-justification; his fear in that regard, or his susceptibility, was such that in speaking to strangers or dictating for the public on this subject, he restrained himself from declaring that, if he had known about the Prince’s letter, perhaps he would have pardoned him, seeing the great political advantages that he could have accrued from doing so; and, tracing his last thoughts with his own hand, which he assumed must be sacred to his contemporaries and posterity, he pronounces on this subject, which he regards as one of the most delicate in his memoirs, that if it was to do again, he would still do it.’

This passage, like the writer, shows all the signs of perfect sincerity; it is fine up to the phrase in which Monsieur le Comte de Las-Cases declares that Bonaparte would have pardoned with ardour a man who was not guilty. But his leader’s theories are subtleties by the aid of which he tries hard to reconcile the irreconcilable. In drawing a distinction between common law or established justice, and natural law or a violent lapse, Napoleon appears to accept a sophism which, at heart, he does not accept; he could not subdue his conscience in the way in which he had subdued the world. A natural weakness of both superior and lesser men who have committed a crime is to wish it to be taken for an act of genius, a vast complexity that the vulgar cannot understand. Pride says these things, and stupidity believes them. Bonaparte doubtless regarded as the mark of a dominant spirit that sentence which he churned out with the self-importance of a great man: “My dear friend, and yet this is the justice handed out down here!” True philosophic tenderness! What impartiality! How readily it justifies, in laying to destiny’s account the evil which derives from we ourselves! Nowadays they think everything is excused when they cry: ‘What can one do? It was my nature, it was human infirmity.’ When one has killed one’s father, one reiterates: ‘I was made that way!’ And the crowd stand with gaping mouths, and they feel the bumps of this mighty skull and recognise that it was made that way! And what does it matter to me that you are made that way! Must I submit to the manner of your being? The world would be in a fine state of chaos, if all the men who were made that way, happened to wish to impose their will on one another. When they cannot remove their errors, they deify them; they make a dogma of their wrongs, they change their sacrilege to religion, and think themselves apostates if they renounce the cult of their iniquities.