Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 8

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XXIV, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 8
The uselessness of the truths revealed above

Vain words! I feel their uselessness more than anyone. Hereafter all comment, however moderate, will be considered sacrilegious: it takes courage to brave the popular outcry, to ignore the fear of being considered narrow-minded and incapable of sensing or appreciating Napoleon’s genius, solely because despite the true and lively admiration you profess for him, you still cannot sing the praises of his imperfections. The world belongs to Bonaparte; what the destroyer could not manage to conquer, his fame has usurped; living he lost a world, dead he possesses it. You can complain all you like: generations will pass without listening to you. Antiquity had the shade of Priam’s son say: ‘Do not judge Hector by his petty tomb: the Iliad, Homer, the Greeks in flight, those are my sepulchre: I am interred within all those great actions.’

Bonaparte is no longer the real Bonaparte, but a legendary figure fashioned from the poet’s whims, soldiers’ tales, and popular legend; it is a Charlemagne or Alexander of medieval epic we behold today. This hero of fantasy will become the real individual, the other portraits will vanish. Bonaparte was so strongly wedded to absolute domination, that after enduring his tyranny in person, we now have to endure the tyranny of his memory. This latter despotism is more oppressive than the former, since if he was sometimes opposed while he was on the throne, there is universal agreement in accepting the chains he throws around us now he is dead. He is an obstacle to future events: how could power emerging from the army establish itself after him? Has he not killed all military glory in surpassing it? How could a free government arise, when he has corrupted the principle of freedom in men’s hearts? No legitimate power now can drive that usurping spectre from the mind of man: soldier and citizen, republican and monarchist, rich and poor alike place busts and portraits of Napoleon in their homes, whether palace or cottage; the former vanquished agree with the former vanquishers; one cannot move a step in Germany without coming across him, since in that country the younger generation which rejected him has gone. Usually, the centuries sit down before the portrait of a great man, and complete it by lengthy, successive efforts. On this occasion the human race refused to wait; perhaps it was in too much haste to engrave the drawing.

And yet can a whole nation be in error? Is there not a true source from which all the lies emerged? It is time to compare the defective part of the statue with the finished part.

Bonaparte was not great by virtue of words, speeches, writings, or a love of liberty which he never possessed and never intended to foster; he is great in that he created firm and powerful government, a code of laws adopted in various countries, courts of justice, and schools, and a strong, active and intelligent administration which we are still living under; he is great in that he revived, enlightened, and governed Italy superlatively well; he is great in that, in France, he restored order from the midst of chaos, rebuilt the altars, reduced to working for him the savage demagogues, proud scholars, anarchic men of letters, Voltairean atheists, crossroads orators, cut-throats from the streets and prisons, starvelings from the tribune, clubs and scaffolds; he is great in that he curbed an anarchical mob; he is great in that he put an end to the familiarities of a shared fate, forcing soldiers who were his equals, and captains who were his superiors or rivals to bend to his will; he was above all great in that he was born of himself alone, able, with no other authority than his genius, to compel thirty six millions subjects to obey him in an age where no illusions surrounded the throne; he is great because he overthrew all the kings who opposed him, because he defeated all the armies however varied in discipline and courage, because he taught his name to savages as well as to civilised peoples, because he surpassed all the conquerors who preceded him, because he filled ten years with such prodigious deeds that we find it hard today to comprehend them.

The famous delinquent is no longer a subject for triumphs, and the few men who still appreciate noble sentiments can do homage to his glory without fearing it, without repenting of having proclaimed what was fatal regarding that glory, and without being forced to recognise a destroyer of freedom as the father of emancipation: Napoleon has no need for borrowed merit; he was sufficiently endowed at birth.

So now that, severed from his age, his story is ended and his myth is beginning, let us go and watch him die: let us leave Europe; let us follow him beneath the skies of his apotheosis! The tremor of the sea, where his ships furled their sails, will indicate to us the place where he vanished: ‘At the extremity of our hemisphere,’ says Tacitus, ‘one hears the sound of the sun sinking beneath the waves: sonum insuper immergentis audiri.