Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVIII - Chapter 4
Reflection on my Travels – The Death of Julien



The sites of Syria, Egypt and the Punic lands were merely places which suited my solitary nature; they pleased me regardless of their antiquity, art and history. I was struck less by the grandeur of the Pyramids than by the desert above which they loomed; Diocletian’s Column held my gaze less than the fringes of sea along the sands of Libya. At the sea-mouth of the Nile, I should have needed no monument to recall this scene depicted by Plutarch:

‘The ex-slave searched up and down the beach until he found the decayed remains of a small fishing boat, sufficient to make a pyre for a poor naked corpse. As he was gathering and assembling it, an old man appeared, a Roman who had served as a youth under Pompey in the wars. “Ah,” said the Roman, “you shall not have this honour all to yourself, I beg you, let me be your companion in so saintly and pious a task, since I shall have no cause for regret after all, owning this recompense for all the hardship I have endured, knowing at least this good fortune, to be able to touch with my hands and help in the burial of the greatest general Rome has known.”’

Caesar’s rival no longer has a tomb in Libya, but a young slave, a Libyan girl, has received, from the hand of a female Pompey, a grave not far distant from that Rome from which the great Pompey was banished. In the face of these vagaries of fate, one understands why the Christians went and hid themselves in the Thebaid.

‘Born in Libya, buried in the flower of my youth beneath the Italian dust, I lie near Rome by this sandy shore. The illustrious Pompeia who raised me with a mother’s tenderness, mourned my death and placed me in a tomb that rivals, I a poor slave, those of free Romans. The torches of my funeral have forestalled those of marriage. Proserpine’s flame has quenched my hopes.’ (Palatine Anthology)

The winds have scattered those individuals of Europe, Asia, and Africa, amongst whom I appeared and of whom I have spoken: one wind blew from the Acropolis of Athens, another from the shores of Chios; this one poured from Mount Sion; that one will no longer escape the waves of the Nile or the wells of Carthage. The places have also altered; towns rise, just as in America, where I saw forests, an empire likewise is being created among the sands of Egypt, where my eyes met only horizons naked and round as the boss of a shield, as Arabic poetry says, and jackals so thin that their jaws are like a split stick. Greece has regained that freedom that I desired for her when I traversed her beneath the janissary’s gaze. But does she enjoy a national liberty or has she only changed her yoke of servitude?

I am in some ways the last visitor to the Turkish Empire in its previous form. The revolutions, which have immediately preceded or followed my steps, everywhere, have extended to Greece, Syria and Egypt. Is a new Orient about to be created? What will emerge? Will we receive due punishment for having taught the art of modern warfare to nations whose social structure is founded on slavery and polygamy? Have we exported civilisation to the outside world or have we imported barbarity to the heart of Christendom? What will result from these new interests, from these new political relationships, from the creation of powers which may suddenly surge through the Levant? No one can say. I do not allow myself to be dazzled by steamships, and railroads; by the sale of manufactured products or the wealth of French, English, German and Italian soldiers enlisted in the service of some Pasha or other: all that is not civilisation. Perhaps we will again see, in the disciplined troops of future Ibrahims, the dangers which menaced Europe in the time of Charles Martel, and from which, much later, Polish sacrifice saved us. I pity the travellers who will follow me: the harem will not conceal its secrets from them: they will not see the old sun of the Orient, or the turban of Mohammed. The little Bedouin cried out to me in French when I was travelling in the mountains of Judea: ‘Onward march!’ The order has been given, and the Orient is on the march.

What became of Julien, Ulysses’ friend? He requested of me, in submitting his manuscript to me, that he might become the concierge of my house on the Rue d’Enfer: that situation was occupied by an old doorman and his family whom I could not dismiss. The will of heaven having made Julien self-willed and a drunkard, I supported him for a long time; finally, we were obliged to part. I gave him a small sum of money and allowed him a tiny pension from my privy purse, a light enough one, but always copiously filled with excellent mortgage receipts from my castles in Spain. I made Julien enter the Hospice for the Old according to his own wish: there he completed the last and greatest voyage. I will soon occupy his empty bed, as I once slept, in the Khan of Demir-Capi, on the mat from which they had just removed a plague-ridden Muslim. My calling is definitely to be found in some hospital or in the midst of the old society, which makes a semblance of being alive and is none the less involved in its own death-pangs. When it expires, it will decompose in order to reproduce itself in new forms, but it must first succumb; the primary necessity for nations, like men, is to die: ‘By the breath of God the frost is given’, says Job.