Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVIII - Chapter 3
From Tunis to my return to France via Spain



Julien tells briefly of our voyage from Tunis to the Bay of Gibraltar; from Algeciras, he quickly reaches Cadiz, and, from Cadiz, Granada. Indifferent to Blanca, he merely remarks that the Alhambra and other buildings rise from the rocks to an immense height. My Itinerary does not enter into much more detail regarding Granada; I content myself with saying:

‘The Alhambra seems to me worthy of note, even after the ruins of Greece. The valley of Granada is delightful and much resembles that of Sparta: one can understand that the Moors regret their second country.’

In Le Dernier des Abencérage, I describe the Alhambra. The Alhambra, the Generalife, and Sacromonte are etched on my mind like those imaginary countries that one half-sees, often at break of day in the beautiful first light of dawn. I still feel Nature deeply enough to describe the Vega; but I would not dare attempt it, for fear of the Archbishop of Granada. During my stay in the city of sultanas, a guitarist, driven by an earthquake from a village which I happened to travel through, attached himself to me. Deaf as a post, he followed me everywhere: when I sat among the ruins in the Palace of the Moors, he stood by my side and sang, accompanying himself on his guitar. The harmonious indigent might not have composed a Creation oratorio, perhaps, but his sunburnt chest showed through the tatters of his jersey, and he had great need of writing as Beethoven did to Mademoiselle Breuning: ‘Venerable Eleonore, my very dear friend, I would dearly wish to be fortunate enough to possess a jacket of angora rabbits’ wool knitted by you.’

From one coast to the other, I traversed that Spain where, sixteen years later, heaven reserved a great role for me, in helping to stifle anarchy amongst a noble people, and liberating a Bourbon: the honour of our arms was re-established, and I would have saved the Legitimacy, if the Legitimacy could have understood the conditions for its survival.

Julien does not let go of me until he has brought me back to the Place Louis XV, on the 5th of June 1807, at three in the afternoon. From Granada, he had conducted me to Aranjuez, to Madrid, to the Escorial, from which he leaps to Bayonne.

‘We left Bayonne,’ he says, ‘on Tuesday the 9th of May for Pau, Tarbes, Barèges and Bordeaux, which we reached on the 18th, very weary, each with a bout of fever. We left on the 19th, and travelled to Angoulême and Tours, arriving at Blois on the 28th, where we slept. On the 31st, we continued our route to Orléans, and then made our last overnight stop at Angerville.’

I was there, five miles from a château whose inhabitants my long voyage had not caused me to forget. But the gardens of Armida, where are they? Twice or thrice, returning to the Pyrenees, I have seen the column at Méréville from the highway; like Pompey’s Pillar it told me of the wilderness: like my fortunes at sea, everything has altered.

I arrived in Paris before the news I had sent about myself: I had overtaken my existence. As insignificant as those letters are, I glance through them as one looks at poor sketches of places one has visited. These letters are dated from Modon, Athens, Zea, Smyrna, and Constantinople; from Jaffa, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Tunis, Granada, Madrid, and Burgos; these lines traced on all sorts of paper, in all sorts of ink, brought by all the winds, interest me. I not only delight in unrolling my firmans (passports etc): I touch their vellum with pleasure; I am revealed in elegant calligraphy and am dumbfounded by the pomp of their style. I was a very great person, then! We are such miserable devils, with our letters for three sous and our passports for forty, next to those lords of the turban!

Osman Said, Pasha of the Morea, thus addresses ‘whomever it may concern’ on my firman for Athens:

‘Rulers of the towns of Mistra (Sparta) and Argos, cadis, nabobs, effendis, whose wisdom grow greater yet; honoured by your peers, and our greatness, vaivodes, and you by whom your master sees, who represent him in each of your jurisdictions, men of stature and business, whose credit cannot but grow;
We advise you that one of the noblemen of France, a nobleman (in particular) from Paris, furnished with this order, accompanied by an armed janissary and a servant as escort, has requested permission and explained his intention of travelling through various places and sites which are under your jurisdiction, in order to reach Athens, which is beyond the Isthmus, outside your jurisdiction.
You effendis, vaivodes, and all others specified above, therefore, are to take great care when the above mentioned person arrives within your jurisdiction, that he is shown respect and all the measures which friendship makes lawful, etc., etc.
Year 1221 of the Hegira.’

My passport issued in Constantinople for Jerusalem, reads:

‘To the sublime tribunal of His Highness the Kadi of Kouds (Jerusalem), most excellent Sherif, effendi:
Accept, most excellent effendi, whom Your Highness has appointed to his august tribunal, our sincere blessings and affectionate greetings.
We advise you that a noble person, of the French Court, named François-Auguste de Chateaubriand, is travelling presently towards you, to accomplish the holy pilgrimage (of Christians).’

Do we protect foreign travellers in this way, in regard to the mayors and gendarmes who inspect his passport? Equally one can read in these firmans the transformation of nations: what freedom must God have given to empires, for a Tartar slave to impose his orders on a vaivode of Mistra, that is to say a magistrate of Sparta: for a Muslim to recommend a Christian to the Cadi of Kouds, that is to say of Jerusalem!

The Itinerary is one of the elements which make up my life. When I left in 1806, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem seemed a great enterprise. Now that a crowd have followed me, and the whole world is on board, the wonder has vanished; Tunis alone barely remains my own: less people head for that coast and it is acknowledged that I have identified the true location of the harbours of Carthage. This fine letter proves it:

‘Monsieur le Vicomte, I have just received a plan of the site and ruins of Carthage, giving the exact contours and the relief map; it was measured trigonometrically from a 1500 metre base, and is supported by barometric observations made with matched barometers. It has been a work requiring ten years patience and precision: it confirms your opinion on the harbours of Byrsa.
With this exact plan, I have gone over all the ancient texts again, and I have determined, I think, the exterior enclosure and the other areas of Cothon, Byrsa and Megara, etc, etc. I now render you the justice due you in so many respects.
If you are not afraid of me swooping down upon your genius with my trigonometry and my weighty erudition, I will appear at your house at the first indication on your part. If my father and I follow you, in literature, longissimo intervallo (at a very great distance), at least we will try to imitate you in the noble independence of which you have given France such a fine model.
I have the honour to be, and boast of being, your honest admirer,
DUREAU DE LA MALLE.’

A corresponding identification of the sites would have sufficed in former days to make my name as a geographer. Henceforth, If I still had a mania for speaking about myself, I know not where I might not have run off to, in order to catch the public’s attention: perhaps I might have taken up my old project once more of discovering the North-West passage; perhaps I might have ascended the Ganges. There, I would have seen the long dark straight line of trees that defends the Himalayas; if, after reaching the col that connects the two principal summits near the Gangotri glacier, I were to discover the immeasurable amphitheatre of eternal snow, if I were to ask my guides, as Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta did, the name of the other mountains to the East, they would reply that they border the Empire of China. Well and good! But to return to the Pyramids, now, is as if one were merely returning to Montlhéry. A propos of that I recall that a pious antiquary of the neighbourhood of Saint-Denis in France wrote to me to ask if Pontoise did not resemble Jerusalem.

The page which terminates my Itinerary seems to have been written at that very moment, it so reflects my true feelings.

‘It was twenty years ago,’ I wrote, ‘that I dedicated myself to study among all the dangers and sorrows; diversa exilia et desertas quaerere terras: searching out differing exiles in different deserts: a large number of leaves from my books have been traced in my tent, in the desert, among the waves; I have often grasped my pen without knowing how many moments longer my existence might be prolonged…If Heaven grants me a peace I have never enjoyed, I will attempt in silence to raise a monument to my country; if Providence refuses me that peace, I can only think to spend my last days sheltering from the cares that poisoned my first. I am no longer young, I no longer love noise; I know that literature whose business is so sweet when it is secret, only draws us into the storm, outside. In any case, I have written enough if my name should live on; far too much if it should die.’

It is possible that my Itinerary will last as a manual for the use of my kind of Wandering Jew: I have marked out the stages scrupulously and sketched a road map. Every voyager to Jerusalem writes to me to congratulate me and thank me for my exactitude; I will cite an example:

‘Monsieur, you did me the honour, some weeks ago, to receive me at your house, with my friend Monsieur de Saint-Laumer: in bringing you a letter from Abou-Gosch, we happened to mention how many new merits one finds in your Itinerary when reading it in the locations themselves, and how one appreciates even in its very title, such a humble and modest choice of yours, when seeing it justified at every step by the scrupulous accuracy of its descriptions, still true today, except for a few ruins more or less, the only change in those countries, etc.

JULES FOLENTLOT

Rue Caumartin, no 23.’

My accuracy is due to my plain commonsense; I am of the race of Celts and tortoises, a pedestrian race; not of the blood of Tartars and birds, races equipped with horses and wings. Religion, it is true, sometimes ravished me in its embrace; but when it returned me to earth, I walked on, leaning on my stick, resting by a milestone to eat my olives and brown bread. If I often rode in the wood, as many a François gladly did, I have never, despite that, loved change for change’s sake; travel bores me; I only love a voyage because of the freedom it grants me, as I incline towards the countryside, not for the countryside, but for the solitude. ‘All the heavens are one to me,’ says Montaigne, ‘to live among our own people, to go and murmur and die among strangers.’

I have some other letters from those Eastern lands, which reached their address several months after they were dated. Fathers of the Holy Land, Consuls and families, supposing me to have some power under the Restoration, claimed from me the rights of hospitality: from afar, one is deluded, and believes it to be meaningful. Monsieur Gaspari wrote to me, in 1816, to ask for my help in favour of his son; his letter is addressed: To Monsieur le Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Grand-Master of the Royal University, at Paris.

Monsieur Caffe, not losing sight of what was happening around him, telling me news of his world, sends word from Alexandria: ‘Since your departure, the country has not improved, though peace reigns. Though your Leader has nothing to fear from the Mamelukes, still refugees in Upper Egypt, he must yet be on his guard. The Abd-el-Ouad are still up to their tricks in Mecca. The Manouf canal is to be finished; Mehemet-Ali will be remembered in Egypt for having executed that project, etc.’

On the 13th of August 1816, Monsieur Pangalo, the son, wrote to me from Zea:

‘Monseigneur,
Your Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem has reached Zea, and I have read, in the midst of my family, what Your Excellency obligingly chose to say of it. Your stay among us was so short that we do not really merit the praise Your Excellency has bestowed on our hospitality, and the overly familiar manner with which we received you. We have also realised, with the greatest satisfaction, that Your Excellency, has been re-appointed due to the latest events, and that you occupy a rank due to your merit as much as your birth. We congratulate you on it, and we hope that, at the pinnacle of greatness, Monsieur le Comte de Chateaubriand will gladly choose to remember Zea, and the numerous family of old Pangalo his host: that family in whom the French consulate has resided since the glorious reign of Louis-le-Grand, who signed our ancestors’ patent. That old man, so enduring, is no more; I have lost my father; I find myself, in mediocre circumstances, charged with supporting the whole family; I have my mother, six sisters to marry off and several widows and their children in my charge. I have recourse to Your Excellency’s goodness; I beg you to come to the aid of my family, in ensuring that the Vice-Consulate of Zea, which is extremely necessary for harbouring the King’s boats, has a salary like the other Vice-Consulates; being agent, as I am, I might be Vice-Consul, with the salary attached to that rank. I believe Your Excellency would find it easy to obtain this request because of my ancestors’ long service, if he would deign to pursue it, and that he will excuse the importunate familiarity of his Zea hosts, who rely on your generosity.
‘I am with the most profound respect,
Monseigneur,
Your Excellency’s
Very humble and very obedient servant,
Monsieur –G Pangalo.
Zea, the 3rd of August 1816.’

Every time a little laughter rises to my lips, I am punished for it as if it were a fault. This letter made me feel remorse when re-reading a passage (softened, it is true, by expressions of gratitude) regarding the hospitality of our Consuls in the Levant: ‘Mesdemoiselles Pangalo,’ I wrote in the Itinerary, ‘sang in Greek:

Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman?

Monsieur Pangalo, gave little cries, the cockerels crowed, and the memories of Ioulis, Aristaeus, Simonides were completely erased.’

The requests for assistance almost always arrived in the midst of my discredit and woe. Even at the very beginning of the Restoration, on the 11th of October 1814, I received this quite different letter dated from Paris:

‘Monsieur l’Ambassadeur,
Mademoiselle Dupont, of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, who had the honour of meeting you in those islands, is desirous of obtaining a brief audience with Your Excellency. Since she knows you live in the country, she begs you to let her know a day when you will be coming to Paris, on which you might grant her that audience.
I have the honour to be, etc.
DUPONT’

I had forgotten that young lady, from the epoch when I voyaged over the ocean, so ungrateful is memory! Yet, I had retained a perfect remembrance of the unknown girl who sat by me in those sad frozen Cyclades:

‘A young fisher-girl appeared on the upper slopes of the hill; she had bare legs, despite the cold, and was walking through the dew; etc.’

Circumstances, independent of my will, prevented me from seeing Mademoiselle Dupont. If, by chance, she was Guillaumy’s fiancée, what had been the effect on her of a quarter of a century? Had she suffered from the winters of the New World, or preserved the springtime of those bean-flowers, that sheltered in the moat of Saint-Pierre’s fort?

In the introduction to an excellent translation of the Letters of Saint Jerome, Messieurs Collombet and Grégoire are pleased to discover in their summary, a resemblance between that saint and myself, apropos of Judea, which with respect I reject. Saint Jerome, in the depths of his retreat, painted a picture of his inward struggles; I would not have found the expression of genius of the inhabitant of that cave in Bethlehem; at the very most, I might have been able to sing with Saint Francis, my patron saint in France and my host at the Holy Sepulchre, his two hymns in Italian of the epoch preceding Dante’s Italian:

‘In foco l’amor mi mise,
In foco l’amor mi mise
(Love sets me in the flames)

I like to receive letters from overseas; these letters seem to bring me a murmur of their breezes, a ray of their suns, some emanation of the diverse destinies that waves part, and the memories of hospitality bind.

Would I revisit those distant countries? One or two, may be. The skies of Africa produced an enchantment in me which has not vanished; my imagination is still perfumed with the myrtles of the temple of Aphrodite of the Gardens and with the irises of the Cephisus.

Fénelon, on leaving for Greece, wrote the letter to Bossuet you are about to read. The future author of Télémaque reveals himself there with the ardour of a missionary and a poet.

‘Various little incidents kept delaying my return to Paris until now; but at last, Monseigneur, I am leaving, and very nearly airborne. At the prospect of this journey, I meditate on a greater. The whole of Greece is open to me, the wary Sultan retreats; already the Peloponnese breaths in freedom, the Church of Corinth is about to flower again; the voice of the Apostle makes itself heard there still. I feel myself transported to those lovely places among those precious ruins, to sample there, along with the most curious monuments, the very spirit of antiquity. I seek that Areopagus, on which Saint Paul announced the unknown God to the world’s sages; but the profane follows the sacred, and I do not disdain to descend to Piraeus, where Socrates planned out his Republic. I climb to the summit of Parnassus, I gather the laurels of Delphi and I taste the delights of Tempe.
When will the blood of Turks mingle with that of the Persians on the plains of Marathon, and leave all of Greece to religion, philosophy and the fine arts, which regard it as their country?
Arva beata
Petamus arva, divites et insulas.
(let us seek out the fields,

the golden fields, the islands of the blest)

I will not forget you, O island consecrated by celestial visions to the Beloved Disciple, O happy Patmos, I will go and kiss the footsteps of the Apostle on your soil, and I believe I will see the heavens open. There, I will feel myself filled with indignation against the false prophet, who wished to expand the oracles of truth, and I will bless the All-Powerful, who far from throwing down the Church like Babylon, bound the dragon and rendered the Church victorious. I already see the schism ending, East and West reuniting, and Asia seeing the dawn anew after so long a night; earth sanctified by the Saviour’s footsteps and watered with his blood, delivered from those who profane it, and clothed in a fresh glory; and the children of Abraham, scattered through all the earth, and more numerous than the stars of the firmament, who, assembling, at last, from its four corners, will come, en masse, to recognise the Christ they crucified, and reveal a resurrection at the end of time. Enough, Monseigneur, you will be pleased to know that this is my final letter, and an end to my enthusiasm, which bothers you perhaps. Forgive such, in my desire to speak to you from afar, impatient until I might do so from nearer to you.

FR. de FÉNELON.’

Here is the true modern Homer, alone worthy of singing Greece and recounting its beauty to a new Chrysostom.