Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 9

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XVIII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIX, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVIII - Chapter 9
L’Essai sur les Révolutions – Les Natchez

This mixture of anger against me and attraction for me which Bonaparte displayed was curious and persistent: he wished me imprisoned for the rest of my days at Vincennes, then suddenly asked the Institute why he had not spoken to me on the occasion of the Decennial Prize. He did more, he declared to Fontanes that, since the Institute did not find me worthy enough to compete for the prize, he would give me one, by nominating me as general superintendent of all the libraries in France; an appointment with the same status as an ambassador of the first rank. Bonaparte had not relinquished his first idea of employing me in a diplomatic career: he refused to admit, since he well knew, that I had ceased to belong to the Foreign Office. And yet, despite these generous plans, his Prefect of Police invited me, on the contrary, to absent myself from Paris, and I went off to continue my Memoirs in Dieppe.

Bonaparte fell into the role of a tormenting schoolboy; he dug out the Essay on Revolutions and delighted in the battle he drew me into on that subject. A Monsieur Damaze de Raymond became my champion: I went to the Rue Vivienne to thank him. On his chimneypiece among the good-luck charms he had a skull; some time later he was killed in a duel and his charming face went to join the terrifying visage which seemed to have called to him. Everyone fought then: one of the informers charged with arresting Georges Cadoudal received a bullet in the head from him.

In order to cut short my powerful adversary’s attacks of bad faith, I addressed myself to that Monsieur de Pommereul whom I mentioned on my first arrival in Paris: he had become Director-General of Censorship, responsible for printing and book-selling: I asked his permission to reprint the Essai in its entirety. My correspondence and the result of that correspondence can be seen in the preface to the 1826 edition of L’Essai sur les Révolutions, in the second book of my complete works. Moreover, the Imperial government had the best of reasons for refusing a reprint of the entire work; the Essay was, neither in relation to liberty, nor the legitimate monarchy, a book which ought to have been published while despotism and usurpation reigned. The police showed an air of impartiality in allowing something to be said in my favour, and they laughed while preventing me doing the one thing which could have protected me. On the restoration of Louis XVIII, the Essai was exhumed once more; as they had chosen to use it against me during the Empire, on the grounds of freedom, they chose to deploy it against me, after the Restoration, on religious grounds. I have made such complete and honourable amends for my errors in the notes to the new edition of the Essai historique, that there is nothing left to reproach me with. Posterity will arrive, and make its pronouncements on the book and the commentary, if these old matters still interest it. I dare to hope it will judge the Essai as my grey head judges it; since in advancing through life, one acquires the impartiality of that future which one nears. The book and the notes set me before mankind such as I was at the start of my career, such as I am at the end of that career.

Moreover, that work which I have treated with merciless rigour offers a compendium of my existence as poet, moralist and politician of the future. The work’s sap overflows, the audacity of its opinions is taken as far as it might go. I am forced to recognise that, in the diverse paths I took, prejudice did not lead me, I was not blinded by any cause, no interest guided me, that the decisions I made were my own choice.

In the Essay, my independence in religion and politics is total; I question everything: a republican, I serve the monarchy; a philosopher, I honour religion. These are in no way contradictions, they are consequences determined by the vagueness of theory and the precision of practice among men. My spirit, created to believe in nothing, not even myself, created to scorn everything, grandeur and wretchedness, nations and kings, has nevertheless been dominated by an instinct for reason which commands it to yield to whatever has been recognised as fine: religion, justice, humanity, equality, liberty, glory. Whatever one dreams now of the future, whatever the present generation imagines it has revealed of a new society, founded on quite different principles to the old society, all that is announced positively in the Essay. I have anticipated for thirty years what those who proclaim it have to tell of an unknown world. My actions have been those of the old civilisation, my thoughts of the new; the former arose from duty, the latter from my very nature.

The Essay was not an impious book: it was a book of doubt and sadness. I have already spoken of it.

Besides, I was forced to exaggerate my faults, and re-purchase with ideas of order all those passionate ideas spread throughout my work. At the start of my career I feared I had led the young astray; I have to atone for it to them, and I owe them at least one more piece of advice. If only they knew that one can struggle successfully with a troubled nature; moral beauty, divine beauty, superior to all earthly dreams, that I have seen; it only needs a little courage to reach out and grasp it.

In order to complete what I have to say regarding my literary career, I must mention the work which began it, and which remained in manuscript until the year when I added it to my Complete Works.

At the start of Les Natchez, the preface tells how the work was retrieved from England through the care and kind investigations of Messieurs de Thuisy.

A manuscript from which I was able to extract Atala, René, and several descriptions for Le Génie du Christianisme was not altogether sterile. That first manuscript was written continuously, without sections; all the subjects were jumbled together; travel, natural history, dramatic parts, etc; but besides this manuscript with its single outpouring there existed another divided into books. In this second work, I had not only proceeded to divide the material up, but I had also altered the nature of the composition, in transmuting it from a novel into an epic.

A young man, who heaps up his ideas, inventions, studies, and reading, pell-mell, must produce chaos; but also in that chaos there is a certain fecundity which belongs to the powers of youth.

What happened to me has never perhaps happened to any other author: the re-reading after thirty years of a manuscript that I had totally forgotten about.

I had one danger to fear. In passing the brush over the painting once more, I might dim the colours; a surer hand, but a less rapid one, ran the risk of making the least correct traits vanish, but the most lively touches of youth too: it was necessary to leave the foam on the young courser’s bit. If there are things in Les Natchez which I would not chance today without trembling, there are also things I could no longer write, notably René’s letter in the second volume. It is in my early manner, and reproduces René exactly: I am not sure if the Renés who have followed me could have made any better an approach to speaking of madness.

Les Natchez opens with an invocation to the wilderness and the starry night, the supreme divinities of my youth:

‘In the shade of the American forests, I will sing the songs of solitude, such as have never been heard by mortal ears; I will tell of your travails, O Natchez, O nation of Louisiana of whom only the memories remain! Do the misfortunes of an obscure inhabitant of the woods have less right to our pity than those of other men? And are the mausoleums of kings in our churches more moving than an Indian’s grave beneath his native oak-tree?

And may you, light of my meditations, star of the night, be Pindar’s star for me! Move before my footsteps, through the unknown regions of the New World, that I may discover by your light the delightful secrets of these wildernesses!’

My twin natures are merged in this strange work, particularly in the primitive original. There one finds political incident and a novelistic plot; but throughout the narration one hears everywhere a singing voice, which seems to rise from some unknown region.


From 1812 to 1814, a mere two years saw the end of the Empire, and those two years, the prospect of which has been anticipated somewhat, I employed in research regarding France and the composition of several books of these Memoirs; but I printed nothing. My life of poetry and erudition was finally brought to an end with the publication of my three great works, Le Genie du Christianisme, Les Martyrs, and L’Itineraire. My political writings commenced at the Restoration; my active political career began with those writings also. So here my literary career can be properly said to terminate; carried along by the tide of years, I have neglected it; it is only this year, 1839, that I recall the days of 1800 to 1814, now left behind.

That literary career, as I have tried to persuade you, was no less difficult than my careers as traveller and soldier; it equally involved effort, battles and blood in the arena; it was not all a matter of the Muses and the Castilian spring; my political career was even stormier.

Perhaps ruins will mark the place occupied by my grove of Acadame. Le Génie de Christianisme began the religious revolt against the philosophism of the eighteenth century. I inaugurated at the same time that revolution which menaces our language, since it is not possible to have a renewal of ideas without stylistic innovation. Will there be other forms of art after me at present unknown? Can we forsake our current projects in order to advance, as we have forsaken past projects in order to take a step forward? Are there boundaries one cannot cross, because one will come up against the very nature of things? Are not those boundaries located where modern languages separate out, in the obsolescence of those same languages, in the human vanities that the new society has turned them into? Languages only track the movements of civilisation in the moment before they reach perfection; reaching their apogee, they hang motionless for a moment, then fall without being able to rise again.

Now, the tale I am telling rejoins those first chapters of my political life, written previously at different dates. I feel a little more courage in returning to the completed parts of my edifice. When I set to work again, I trembled lest the ancient son of Coelus might find the golden trowel of Troy’s builder turning into a leaden trowel. Yet it seems to me that my memory, charged with shedding its remembrances upon me, has not failed me completely: have you felt the iciness of winter pervade my narration? Do you detect a vast difference between the dead ashes that I have tried to revive, and the living people I have led you to envisage in recounting my early days to you? My years are my secretaries; when one or other of them dies, she passes the pen to her younger sister, and I continue to dictate; as they are sisters, they have almost the same hand.