Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVII - Chapter 3
A journey to Vichy, through Auvergne, to Mont-Blanc



In the summer of 1805, I rejoined Madame de Chateaubriand at Vichy, where Madame de Coislin had conducted her, as I have said. I discovered no sign of Jussac, Termes and Flammarens, whom Madame de Sévigné found preceding and following her, in 1677; for a hundred or twenty years and more they had been sleeping. I left my sister, Madame de Caud, behind in Paris, where she had been living since the spring of 1804. After a short stay at Vichy, Madame de Chateaubriand suggested to me that we travel in order to be absent during a period of political trouble.

In my collected works are two small Voyages which I then made through Auvergne and to Mont-Blanc. After thirty-four years away, people, strangers to me, have just welcomed me at Clermont as one greets an old friend. He who concerns himself with principles that the human race enjoys communally, has brothers, sisters and friends in every family: for if man is ungrateful, humanity shows gratitude. To those who feel bound to you by your kindly reputation, and who have never met you, you are always the same; you always possess the age they have attributed to you; their feeling for you, which is not troubled by your presence, always sees you as young and handsome, like the sentiments they admire in your writings.

When I was a child, in Brittany, and heard talk of the Auvergne, I imagined it as a far, far country, where one would see strange things, which one could not visit without great peril, travelling under the protection of the Holy Virgin. It is not without a kind of sympathetic curiosity that I encounter little Auvergnats who go seeking their fortunes in this wide world with a little fir-wood casket. They have hardly anything but hope in their box, as they descend from their rocky heights; happy if they return with it!

Alas! Madame de Beaumont had been resting on the banks of the Tiber for nearly two years, when I trod her native soil, in 1805; I was only a few miles from Mont Dore, where she came seeking that lease of life she extended a little in reaching Rome. Last summer, in 1838, I travelled through that very same Auvergne again. Between those dates, 1805 and 1838, I could detect a transformation in the society around me.

We left Clermont, and, returning to Lyons, passed through Thiers and Roanne. This route, then little frequented, follows the banks of the Lignon, here and there. The author of L’Astrée who is not a great spirit, nevertheless invented places and people who are alive; so much fiction when it is appropriate to the age in which it appears has creative power! Moreover there is ingenious fantasy in that resurrection of nymphs and naiads mingling with shepherds, ladies and knights: those varied worlds go well together, and one readily accepts mythological fables joined with the inventions of the novel: Rousseau has mentioned how he was deceived by d’Urfé.

At Lyons, we met Monsieur Ballanche again; he made the trip to Geneva and Mont-Blanc with us. He went everywhere he was taken, without having the slightest business there. At Geneva, I was welcomed at the town gate, but not by Clotilde, Clovis’ fiancée: Monsieur de Barante, the father, had been appointed Prefect of Léman. I went to Coppet to see Madame de Staël; I found her alone in the depths of her château, which embraced a gloomy courtyard. I spoke to her of her wealth and solitude, as precious means of maintaining independence and happiness; I pained her. Madame de Staël loved society; she regarded herself as the most unfortunate of women, in an exile with which I would have been delighted. What misfortune could it be, in my eyes, to live on her estate, with all the comforts of life? What pain could it be to have glory, leisure, peace, in a fertile retreat with a view of the Alps, given the thousands of victims without bread, fame, or support, banished to the four corners of Europe, while their relatives died on the scaffold? It is wretched to suffer from an evil of which the crowd knows nothing. Moreover this evil is only the sharper in that it is not diminished by confrontation with other evils, one cannot judge another’s pain; what is an affliction to one person is a joy to another; hearts hold their separate secrets, incomprehensible to other hearts. Let us not dispute their sufferings with anyone; sorrows are like countries, everyone has their own.

Madame de Staël visited Madame de Chateaubriand the following day in Geneva, and we left for Chamonix. My opinion regarding mountainous landscapes has caused it to be said that I was seeking to draw attention to myself; there is nothing in that idea. You will see when I speak of Saint-Gothard, that my opinion is unchanged. You can read in the Journey to Mont-Blanc, a passage which I will repeat here as tying together past events of my life with those that still lay in the future, and which today are equally past.

‘There is only one circumstance in which it might be true that mountains inspire forgetfulness of earthly troubles: that is when one retires far from the world to dedicate oneself to religion. An anchorite who devotes himself to the service of humanity, a saint who wishes to meditate on God’s grandeur in silence, can find joy and peace among wildernesses of stone; but then it is not the tranquillity of those places that occupies the souls of those solitaries, on the contrary, their souls spread serenity in a region of storms……………………………………………………………………........

There are mountains nevertheless which I would still visit with extreme delight: those of Greece and Judea. I would love to travel the places which my latest studies force me to occupy each day; I would willingly go and find, on Thabor or Taygetus, different colours, different harmonies, having painted the nameless mountains and unknown valleys of the New World.’ That final phrase announced the journey I undertook in reality the following year, 1806.

On our return to Geneva, without having been able to see Madame de Staël again at Coppet, we found the inns full. Without the help of Monsieur de Forbin, who appeared and secured us a wretched dinner in a dark ante-chamber, we would have left Rousseau’s homeland without eating. Monsieur de Forbin was then in a state of bliss; he displayed in his glances the internal joy which filled him; he floated above the earth. Buoyed up by his talent and his felicity, he descended from the mountain as if from heaven, his painter’s smock like a leotard, his thumb through his palette, and his paintbrushes in a quiver. A fine fellow nevertheless, despite his excessive happiness, he was preparing to imitate me one day, when I should make a journey to Syria, even wishing to travel as far as Calcutta, to re-awaken love by extraordinary means, since he had lost it on the beaten track. His eyes revealed patronising pity; I was poor, humble, somewhat unsure of myself, and I did not hold the hearts of princesses in my powerful hands. In Rome, I have had the good fortune to repay Monsieur de Forbin his lakeside dinner; I had the merit then of having became an ambassador. At that time, he met once more, king for an evening, the poor devil he had left behind in the street one morning.

The noble gentleman, a painter by command of the Revolution, led that generation of artists who present themselves as sketches, grotesques, caricatures. Some wear fearful moustaches, as if they were off to conquer the world; their brushes are halberds, their scrapers are sabres; others have enormous beards, their hair hanging down or puffed up; they smoke cigars disguised as volcanoes. These cousins of the rainbow, as old Régnier called them, have their heads full of floods, seas, rivers, forests, waterfalls, tempests or massacres, torments and scaffolds. In their rooms are human skulls, fencing foils, mandolins, Spanish helmets and Turkish robes. Boastful, enterprising, rude, generous (as to touching up the portraits of tyrants they paint), they aim to form a species apart somewhere between monkey and satyr; they are determined to have it understood that the secrets of the studio have their risks, and that there is no safety for models. But how they make amends for these follies by their exalted existence, their suffering and feeling nature, a complete abnegation of self, an uncalculated devotion to the miseries of others, a manner of feeling delicate, superior, idealistic, a fierce poverty welcomed and nobly sustained: finally, on occasions by immortal talent, sons of work, passion, genius and solitude!

Leaving Geneva at night to return to Lyons, we were stopped at the foot of Fort L’Écluse, while waiting for the gates to open. During this halt of Macbeth’s witches among the heather, strange things were happening within me. My past years revived and surrounded me like a crowd of phantoms; my burning seasons returned in their sorrow and flame. My life, made void by the death of Madame de Beaumont, remained empty: aerial forms, dreams or houris, escaping from that abyss, took me by the hand and led me back to the days of my sylph. I was no longer among the places I inhabited, I revisited other shores. Some secret influence urged me towards Aurora’s realm, to which the plan of my latest work and the voice of religion drew me, waking again the vow of that villager, my nurse. Since all my faculties had been developed, since I had never abused life, it was over-abundantly filled with the sap of my intellect, and art, triumphant in my nature, added to the inspirations of a poet. I had what the Desert Fathers of the Thebaid called ascents of the heart. Raphael, (if one will forgive the blasphemy of the comparison), Raphael, in front of The Transfiguration as yet only a sketch on his easel, could not have been more electrified by his masterpiece than I by that Eudore and that Cymodocée, whose name I did not yet know and whose image I glimpsed through an atmosphere of love and glory.

So the native genius that troubled me in my cradle, sometimes retraces its steps after having abandoned me; so my former sufferings are renewed; nothing is healed in me; if my wounds close instantaneously, they suddenly re-open like those of the crucifixes of the Middle Ages, which bleed on the anniversary of the Passion. I have no other resource, to ease me during these crises, than to allow free rein to the fever in my thoughts, just as one pierces a vein when blood rushes to the heart or mounts to the head. But what do I speak of? O religion, where then is your power, your curb, your balm! Is it as though I had not written any of those works of the innumerable years since the hour when I yielded the day to René? I had a thousand reasons to believe myself dead, and I live! It is a great sorrow. These afflictions of the lonely poet, condemned to suffer the spring despite Saturn, are unknown to those who are never far from communal existence; for them, the years are always young: ‘Now the young kids,’ writes Oppian, ‘watch over the author of their being; when the latter falls prey to the hunter’s net, they offer him sweet flowery grass in their mouths, which they have gathered from afar, and carry fresh water, drawn from the nearby stream, to his lips.’