Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 6

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XXIV, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 7

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 6
Bonaparte’s character

Monstrous pride and incessant affectation spoilt Napoleon’s character. At the time of his supremacy, what need had he to exaggerate his stature, when the Lord of Hosts had furnished him with that chariot ‘with living wheels’.

He had Italian blood; his nature was complex: great men, a very small family on earth, unfortunately find no one but themselves to imitate them. At once a model and a copy, a real person and an actor playing that person, Napoleon was his own mimic; he would not have believed himself a hero if he had not decked himself out in a hero’s costume. This curious weakness imparted something false and equivocal to his astonishing reality; one is in fear of mistaking the King of Kings for Roscius, or Roscius for the King of Kings.

Napoleon’s qualities are so adulterated in the gazettes, pamphlets and verses, and even the popular songs imbued with Imperialism, that those qualities are completely unrecognizable. All the touching things attributed to Bonaparte in the Anecdotes about prisoners, the dead, the soldiers are nonsense, given the lie by his life’s actions.

The Grandmother of my illustrious friend Béranger is merely an admirable ballad: Bonaparte had nothing good-natured about him. Tyranny personified, he was cold; that frigidity formed an antidote to his ardent imagination, in himself he found not words but a reality, and a reality ready to be irritated by the least show of independence: a midge that flew without his permission was to his mind a rebellious insect.

It was not enough to fill the ears with lies, it was necessary to fill the eyes also: here, in an engraving, we see Bonaparte taking his hat off to the Austrian wounded; there we have a little soldier-boy preventing the Emperor’s passage; farther on Napoleon touches the plague-victims at Jaffa when he never touched them in fact; or he crosses the St Bernard Pass on a high-spirited horse in snowy weather, when in fact it was as fine as could be.

Is there not a wish now to transform the Emperor into a Roman of the early days of the Aventine, into a missionary of liberty, a citizen who instituted slavery only through love of its virtuous opposite? Judge from two actions of the great founder of equality: he ordered his brother’s, Jérôme’s, marriage to Miss Patterson to be annulled, because Napoleon’s brother could only ally himself with the blood of princes; and later, on his return from Elba, he invested the new democratic Constitution with a peerage, and crowned it with the Supplementary Act.

That Bonaparte, continuator of the Republic’s success, disseminated principles of freedom everywhere, that his victories helped to loosen the bonds between nations and their kings, freeing those peoples from the force of old customs and ancient concepts; that, in this sense, he contributed to social emancipation, I do not pretend to deny: but that he deliberately worked for the civil and political deliverance of countries, of his own free will; that he established the strictest of tyrannies with the idea of giving Europe, and France in particular, the widest possible constitution; that he was really a tribune disguised as a despot, that is a supposition I find impossible to accept.

Bonaparte, like the race of princes, wished for and sought only the arbitrary, arriving there however on the back of liberty, since he arrived on the world scene in 1793. The Revolution, which was Napoleon’s wet nurse, quickly seemed to him an enemy; he never ceased opposing it. The Emperor, moreover, was well aware of evil when the evil did not emanate directly from the Emperor; since he was not lacking in moral sense. Sophisms advanced regarding Bonaparte’s love of liberty prove only one thing, how one can abuse reason; now it lends itself to any argument. Has it not been established that the Terror was a time of humanity? Indeed, was not the abolition of the death-penalty demanded, while everyone was being killed? Have not great civilisers, as they are called, always murdered human beings, and is it not for that reason, as has been proved, that Robespierre was the heir of Jesus Christ?

The Emperor involved himself in everything; his mind never rested; he had a sort of perpetual agitation of ideas. With his impetuous nature, instead of steady and continuous progress, he advanced by leaps and bounds, threw himself at the world and shook it; he wanted none of that world, if he was obliged to wait for it: an incomprehensible being, who found a way to abase his loftiest actions, by disdaining them, and who raised his least elevated actions to his own level. Impatient of will, patient by nature, incomplete and as it were unfinished, Napoleon possessed lacunae in his genius: his understanding resembled the sky of that other hemisphere beneath which he was to die, that sky whose stars are separated by empty space.

One asks oneself by means of what influence Bonaparte, so aristocratic, such an enemy of the people, came to win the popularity he enjoyed: since that forger of yokes has assuredly remained popular with a nation whose pretension it was to raise altars to liberty and equality; this is the solution to the enigma:

Daily experience shows that the French are instinctively attracted to power; they have no love for freedom; equality alone is their idol. Now, equality and tyranny are secretly connected. In those two respects, Napoleon took his origin from a source in the hearts of the French, militarily inclined towards power, democratically enamoured of the levelling process. Mounting the throne, he seated the people there too; a proletarian king, he humiliated kings and nobles in his ante-chambers; he levelled social ranks not by lowering them, but by elevating them: levelling down would have pleased plebeian envy more, levelling up was more flattering to its pride. French vanity was inflated too by the superiority Bonaparte gave us to the rest of Europe; another cause of Napoleon’s popularity stemmed from the confinement of his last days. After his death, as people became better acquainted with what he had endured on St Helena, they began to pity him; they forgot his tyranny, remembering only that after first conquering our enemies, and subsequently drawing them into France, he had defended us from them; today we conceive that he might have saved us from the disgrace into which we have sunk: we were reminded by his misfortune of his fame; his glory profited by his adversity.

Finally his miraculous feats of arms have bewitched the young, in teaching them to worship brute force. His incredible good fortune has left every ambitious man with the conceited hope of reaching his heights of achievement.

And yet this man, popular as he was for levelling France with his egalitarian roller, was the mortal enemy of equality and the most powerful of organisers of an aristocracy within a democracy.

I cannot acquiesce in the false praise with which Bonaparte has been insulted, by those wishing to justify everything about his conduct; I cannot abrogate my reason, nor wax lyrical about things which arouse my horror or pity.

If I have succeeded in conveying what I have felt, my portrait of him will remain that of one of the premier figures in history; but I will have none of that fantastic creature composed of lies; lies which I saw born, which were recognised at first for what they were, but which have, in time, attained the status of truth, due to the infatuation and mindless credulity of mankind. I refuse to be a silly goose, and fall headlong into a fit of admiration. I endeavour to depict people conscientiously, without robbing them of what they possess, and without granting them what they do not. If success came to be equated with innocence; if, by corrupting posterity, it loaded it with its chains; if that suborned posterity, a slave hereafter, engendered by a slavish past, became the accomplice of whoever was to be victorious, where would the right lie, what would be the point of sacrifice? Good and evil rendered only relative, all morality would be effaced from human action

Such is the problem that glittering fame causes an impartial writer: he ignores it as far as possible, in order to lay bare the truth; but the glory returns like a radiant mist and hides his picture in an instant.