Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 25

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter25
The exhumation of the remains of Louis XVI – My first 21st of January at Saint-Denis



On the 30th of December 1814, the Legislative Chambers were adjourned until the 1st of May 1815, as if they had been summoned to Bonaparte’s ceremony on the Champ-de-Mai. On the 18th of January the remains of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI were exhumed. I was present at that exhumation in the cemetery where Fontaine and Percier have since raised, at the pious command of Madame la Dauphine and in imitation of a sepulchral chapel at Rimini, perhaps the most remarkable monument in Paris. This church, formed of linked mausoleums, seizes the imagination and fills it with sadness. In Book IV of these Memoirs, I spoke of the exhumations of 1815: among the bones I recognised the queen’s skull from the smile that head had bestowed on me at Versailles.

On the 21st of January the first stone of the plinth was laid for the statue which ought to have been raised in the Place Louis XV, and which has not yet been raised. I have written about the funeral ceremony on the 21st of January; I said: ‘Those monks, who carried the Oriflamme before Saint Louis’ reliquary, will not receive the sacred King’s descendant. In those subterranean places where those vanished kings and princes slept, Louis XVI will find himself alone! ....How can so many dead have risen? Why is Saint-Denis deserted? Let us ask rather why its roof has been restored, why its altar is standing? Whose hand reconstructed the arches of these cellars, and prepared these empty tombs? It was the hand of that very man who sat on the throne of the Bourbons. O Providence! He thought he was preparing sepulchres for his race, and he was merely building a tomb for Louis XVI.’

I had long desired a statue of Louis XVI to be placed on the very site where the martyr shed his blood: I am no longer of that opinion. One must praise the Bourbons for having thought of Louis XVI, at the first moment of their return; they had to bow to his remains, before placing the crown on their head. Now I presume they do not feel obliged to do anything more. There was no Commission in Paris, as in London, to try the King, the whole Convention did so; from that stems the annual reproach that a repeated funeral ceremony would seem to represent with respect to the nation, displayed in the form of a mass gathering. Every people has appointed anniversaries for the celebration of its triumphs, its disturbances or its misfortunes, for all equally have wished to preserve the memory of such things; we have had solemnities for the barricades, hymns for St Bartholomew’s Day, festivals for the death of Capet; but is it not remarkable that the law is powerless to create days of remembrance, while religion has kept the most obscure saints alive from age to age? If the fasts and prayers instituted for Charles I’s martyrdom still endure, that is because in England the State unites supremacy in religion to supremacy in politics, and in virtue of that supremacy the 30th of January 1649 has become a public holiday. In France, there is nothing of that sort: Rome alone has the right to command in matters of religion; consequently, what power does some ordinance published by a prince have, some decree promulgated by a political assembly, if another prince, another assembly, has the power to efface it? So now I consider that a symbol of a remembrance that might be abolished, that a testament to a tragic event, not consecrated by religion, would not be appropriately sited in a thoroughfare crowded with people going carelessly and distractedly about their pleasures. At the present time, it is indeed to be feared that a monument raised with the aim of advertising the horrors of popular excess might give the populace the desire to imitate it: evil is more tempting than good; in wishing to perpetuate grief, one often perpetuates the precedent. The centuries do not espouse a legacy of mourning; there are enough contemporary subjects for weeping without needing to turn to hereditary tears.

Watching the catafalque, containing the remains of the king and queen, leaving Desclozeaux’s cemetery, I felt stricken; I followed it with my eyes with a fatal presentiment. At last Louis XVI would rest at Saint-Denis; Louis XVIII, for his part, slept at the Louvre, the two brothers together began a new era of kings and legitimate spectres: idle this restoration of thrones and tombs whose twin power time had already swept aside.

Since I am speaking of funeral ceremonies which so often recur, I will tell you of the nightmare which oppressed me, when, the ceremony over, I walked at night in the half-obscured basilica: that I might think of the vanity of human greatness among those destroyed tombs, that goes without saying: an everyday observation flowing indeed from that sight; but my mind did not stop there; I looked into the nature of man. Is it all emptiness and absence in the realm of sepulchres? Is there nothing in that nothing? Is there no being from nothingness, no thought from the dust? Do those remains have some mode of existence we know nothing of? Who knows the passions, the delights, the embraces of the dead? The things they dreamed of, believed, waited for, are they like them ideal entities, swallowed pell-mell with them? Dreams, prospects, joy, grief, freedom and slavery, power and weakness, crime and virtue, honour and infamy, wealth and poverty, talent, genius, intellect, glory, illusions, love, are you perceptions of an instant, perceptions lost with the shattered skull in which you were engendered, with the vanished breast where a heart once beat? In your eternal silence, O tombs, if you are tombs, is there only an eternal mocking laughter to be heard? Is that laughter God, the sole ironic reality, which will survive the imposture of this world? Let us close our eyes; let us fill the despairing abyss of existence with those great and mysterious words of the martyr: ‘I am a Christian.’