Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 11

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XXXV, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 12

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 11
Journal from Paris to Lugano

Basel, 12th of August 1832.

Many men die without losing sight of their neighbouring steeple; I cannot find the steeple which will see my death, In quest of a sanctuary in which to finish my Memoirs, I set off again, dragging behind me an enormous trunk full of papers, diplomatic correspondence, confidential notes, and letters from Ministers and Kings; it was History carried pillion by Romance.

I saw Monsieur Augustin Thierry at Vesoul, in retirement at his brother the Prefect’s house. As he has previously sent me, in Paris, his History of the Norman Conquest, I went to thank him. I found a youngish man in a room with half-closed blinds; he was almost blind; he tried to rise to welcome me, but his legs no longer bore his weight and he fell into my arms. He blushed when I expressed my sincere admiration for him: it was then that he told me that his work was based on mine, and that it had been while reading the Battle of the Franks in Les Martyrs that he conceived the idea of a new way of writing history. When I took my leave of him, he tried hard to follow me and dragged himself as far as the door by leaning on the wall: I left moved by so much talent and such misfortune.

Via Vesoul, Charles X, had returned after his long exile, he who was now making sail towards a fresh exile which would be his last.

I passed the frontier without incident with all my clutter: let us see whether, on the far side of the Alps, I cannot enjoy Swiss freedom and Italian sun, needed by my opinions and my years.

On entering Basel, I encountered an old Swiss, a customs officer; he made me undergo un bedit garandaine d’in guart d’hire: a little quarantine for a quarter of an hour; my luggage was taken into a cavern; something was set in motion which sound like a loom down below; a smell of vinegar arose, and thus free of French contagion, the good Swiss released me.

I said, in the Itinerary, while speaking of the storks of Athens: ‘From the heights of their nests, that revolution cannot touch, they saw the human race changing beneath them: while impious generations rose on the tombs of religious generations, the young storks always fed their aged fathers.’

I found a stork’s nest at Basel which I had left behind six years previously; but the hospital on whose roof the stork had built its nest was no Parthenon, and the sun over the Rhine is not that which shines on the Cephisus, the Council House is not the Aeropagus. Erasmus is not Pericles: yet there is something Roman and Germanic about the Rhine, the Black Forest, and Basel. Louis XIV extended the borders of France to the gates of this city, and three hostile monarchs passed through it in 1813 in order to sleep in Louis le Grand’s bed, defended in vain by Napoleon. Let us go and view Holbein’s The Dance of Death; it expresses human vanity.

The Dance of Death (if there was not already an accurate painting of it by then) took place in Paris, in 1424, in the Cemetery of the Innocents: it came to us from England. The representation of the spectacle was set down in fresco paintings; they were on view in the cemeteries of Dresden, Lübeck, Minden, La Chaise-Dieu, Strasbourg, and Blois in France, and Holbein’s pen immortalised those funereal delights in Basel.

These danses macabres by great artists have in turn been carried off by Death, who spares not its own follies: of the work in Basel there only remain six truncated sections, on the walls of the cloister and deposited in the University library. A watercolour has preserved the overall design of the work.

These grotesques, in essence terrifying, have a Shakespearean quality, a mixture of the comic and the tragic. The characters display vivid expressions: rich and poor, young and old, men and women, Popes, Cardinals, priests, Emperors, Kings, Queens, Princes, Dukes, nobles, magistrates, soldiers, all struggle and argue with and against Death; none accept it with a good grace.

Death is infinitely varied, but always a farce like life, which is merely a grave comedy. This Death satirically painted is minus a leg like the wooden-legged beggar he accosts; he affects a mandolin at his bony back, like the musician he drags along. He is not always bald; strands of hair, blond, brown, grey hang down the skeleton’s neck making it more dreadful by rendering it more lifelike. In one of the panels Death almost has flesh, is almost a young man, and carries a young girl away with him who gazes at herself in a mirror. In his satchel Death has a schoolboy’s jeering tricks: he cuts a cord with scissors by which a dog leads its blind owner, and the blind man is two steps away from an open ditch; elsewhere, Death in a little cloak, approaches one of his victims with satirical gestures, like a Pasquin. Holbein was able to capture the idea of the very essence of this tremendous mockery: in reliquaries skulls always seem to be smirking because their teeth are revealed; it is a smile without lips to frame it and form the smile. What do they smile at: nothingness, or life?

Basel Cathedral pleased me, and especially the ancient cloisters. Walking around the latter, dense with funeral inscriptions, I found the names of various reformers. Protestantism chose its time and place badly when it located itself among Catholic monuments; what is has reformed is less visible than what it has destroyed. Those dry pedants who thought to recreate primitive Christianity, within a Christianity that has moulded society for fifteen centuries, proved unable to erect a single monument. What would such a monument have echoed? How could it relate to its time? Men in the age of Luther and Calvin were not made like Luther and Calvin; they were formed like Leo X with the spirit of Raphael, or Saint Louis with a Gothic spirit; a minority believed in nothing, the majority believed in everything. Has not Protestantism for temples only schoolrooms, and for churches the cathedrals it has devastated? There its nakedness is revealed. Jesus Christ and his apostles doubtless failed to resemble the Greek and Romans of their era, but they did not come to reform an ancient religion; they came to establish a new religion, to replace gods by the One God.

Lucerne, 14th of August 1832.

The road from Basel to Lucerne through Aargau, offers a series of valleys some of which resemble the valley of Argèles, without the skies of the Spanish Pyrenees. At Lucerne, mountains variously grouped, tinted, stacked in tiers, outlined against the heavens, end by retiring behind one another and vanishing into the distance, in the neighbouring snows of Saint Gothard. If you removed Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus, but retained the hills clothed with greenery and fir trees which immediately border the Lake of the Four Cantons (Lake Lucerne), you would create an Italian lake.

The arcades of the cemetery cloister with which the Cathedral is surrounded are like boxes from which you enjoy this view. The cemetery monuments have as standard a little iron cross carrying a gilded Christ. In the sun’s rays they are like so many points of light escaping from the tombs; at intervals there are fonts of holy water in which branches are soaking with which one can bless the ashes of the departed. I wept for no one in particular there, but I made the purifying dew descend on that silent community of unfortunate Christians, my brothers. One epitaph told me: Hodie mihi, cras tibi: I today, you tomorrow; another: Fuit homo: this was a man; another: Siste Viator, abi, viator: stop passer-by; go passer-by. And I wait on tomorrow; and shall have been a man; and passer-by I halt; and passing by I go. Leaning against an arcade of the cloister, I gazed for hours at William Tell’s and his companions’ theatre of action: the theatre of Helvetic freedom so well sung and pictured by Schiller and Johannes von Müller. My eyes searched that vast picture for the presence of the most illustrious dead, and my feet trampled the ashes of the most anonymous of them.

Seeing the Alps again four or five years ago, I asked myself what I had come for: how would I answer today? How would I answer tomorrow or the next day? Pity me who cannot grow old and is forever ageing!

Lucerne, 15th of August 1832.

The Capuchins have gone this morning, according to custom on this Day of Assumption, to bless the mountains. These monks profess the religion under whose protection Swiss independence was born: that independence still endures. What will become of our modern liberty, cursed as it is by the blessings of philosophers and executioners? It is only forty years old and has already been sold and re-sold, rigged out and traded on every street-corner. There is more freedom in a Capuchin’s habit as he blesses the Alps than in all the frippery of the legislators of the Republic, Empire, and Restoration, and the Usurpation of July.

The French traveller in Switzerland is moved and saddened; our history, to the misfortune of the people of these regions, is linked too closely to their history; Swiss blood has flowed for us and through us; we have borne fire and the sword into William Tell’s cottage; we have involved their peasant warriors, who guarded the throne of our kings, in our civil wars. Thorwaldsen’s genius has set a remembrance to the 10th of August at the entry to Lucerne. The Swiss lion expires, pierced by an arrow, covering with his lowered head and one of his paws the French escutcheon, of which only a single fleur-de-lis is visible. The chapel consecrated to the victims, the clump of green trees which stands near the bas-relief sculpted in the rock, the soldier who escaped the massacre of the 10th of August who shows visitors the monument, the note from Louis XVI ordering the Swiss to lay down their arms, the altar screen offered by Madame la Dauphine to the expiatory chapel, and on which that perfect model of grief embroidered the sacrifice of the Divine Lamb!... By what device of Providence, after the recent fall of the Bourbon throne, have I been led to seek a sanctuary close to this monument? At least I can contemplate it without blushing; I can place my hand, feeble but not perjured, on the escutcheon of France, while the lion grasps it with his powerful claws, though extended in death.

Well, a member of the Diet has proposed to demolish that monument! What does Switzerland want: Freedom? She has enjoyed it for four centuries: Equality? She has it: A Republic? That is her mode of government; the alleviation of taxes? She pays almost no duty. What does she want then? She wants change: that is human nature. When a nation, altered by time, can no longer remain where it is has been, the first symptom of its malady is hatred of the past and its own ancestral virtues.

I returned from the monument of the 10th of August across a large covered bridge, a sort of wooden gallery suspended above the lake. Two hundred and thirty-eight triangular paintings, placed between the roof-beams, decorate this gallery. They are popular illustrations from which the Swiss, as they pass by, learn the history of their religion and their freedom.

I saw tame water-fowl; I preferred the wild waterfowl on the lake at Combourg.

In the town, the sound of a choir met me; it was emerging from a chapel of the Virgin: entering the chapel, I thought I had been transported back to my childhood. Before four altars, decorated devotedly, women were reciting the rosary and the litanies with the priest. It was like evening prayers at the edge of the sea in my poor Brittany, and I was at the edge of Lake Lucerne! A hand thus raises the two ends of my life in order to make me feel more deeply all that has been lost in the chain of my years.

On Lake Lucerne, 16th of August 1832, noon.

Alps, lower your summits, I am not worthy of you: young, I would have been solitary; old, I am merely isolated, I can still describe nature effectively; but for whom? Who would care about my pictures? What arms, other than those of time, would press my genius to a bare brow in recompense? Who would repeat my songs? To what Muse would I dedicate them? Beneath the vault of years as beneath that of the snowy peaks around me, no ray of sunlight will come to warm me. How pitiful to drag my weary steps, which no one would follow, over those mountains! What misfortune to find myself free to wander only at the end of my life!

Two p.m.

My boat reached the jetty of a house on the right-hand shore of the lake, before the entrance to the Bay of Uri. I climbed through the orchard below this inn and am sitting beneath two walnut trees which shelter a cow-shed. Before me, a little to the right, on the opposite shore of the lake, spreads the village of Schwytz, among orchards, and the smooth slopes of those pastures called alps in this country: it is overlooked by a semi-circle of jagged rock whose two peaks the Mythen and the Haken (the Mitre and the Cross) take their names from their form. This horned cornice sits above the meadows, like the enduring crown of Swiss freedom on the brow of a nation of shepherds. The silence around me is only interrupted by the little tinkling bells on the necks of two heifers penned in a nearby stall: they seem to me to sound the glory of the pastoral liberty that Schwytz has given, with its name, to a whole nation: a little canton in the neighbourhood of Naples, called Italia, likewise, but with less sacred rights, gave its name to the land of the Romans.

Three p.m.

We are leaving; we are entering the Bay or Lake of Uri. The mountains rise higher and darker. Here is Grutli’s grassy rump and the three springs where Fürst, Melchtal and Stauffacher swore independence for their country; here, at the foot of the Achsenberg, is the chapel which marks the place where Tell, leaping from Gessler’s boat, drove it into the waves with a blow from his foot.

But did Tell and his companions really exist? Are they not Northern characters, born from the chants of the Skalds, and of whom the heroic tradition is found on Swedish shores? Are the Swiss today what they were at the time when they won their freedom? Those bear trails, those rocks of groaning (hackenmesser: heel-cutters) see carriages roll by where Tell and his companions leapt, crossbow in hand, from precipice to precipice: am I a traveller myself in harmony with these places?

Luckily a storm has just assailed me. We land in an inlet, a few steps from Tell’s chapel: it is ever the One God who raises the winds, and our trust in that same God which reassures men. As before, crossing the Ocean, the American Lakes, and the waters off Greece, and Syria, I wrote on sopping-wet paper. The clouds, the waves, the claps of thunder combine more fittingly with Alpine liberty than the voice, effeminate and degenerate in nature, that my century has lodged in my throat despite me.


Disembarking at Flüelen, and reaching Altdorf, a lack of horses detains me at the foot of the Bannberg for the night. Here, William Tell shot the apple from his son’s head: the bow-shot was the distance which separates these two springs. Let us believe it, despite the same story being told by Saxo Grammaticus, which I first cited in my Essai sur les Révolutions; let us have faith in religion and liberty, the only two things regarding humanity that are great: glory and power are brilliant, not great.

Tomorrow, from the heights of the Saint-Gothard, I will greet that Italy again that I greeted from the summit of the Simplon and Mont-Cenis. But what good is this last glance at the regions of the south and the dawn! The pine-tree, among glaciers, cannot go down to the orange-trees he sees below him in the flower-filled valleys.

Ten at night.

The storm begins again; lightning twists among the rocks; echoes increase and prolong the noise of thunder; the roar of the River Reuss and of the Schächen torrent welcomes the Armorican bard. It is a long while since I have been free and alone; no one else in the room I am enclosed by: two beds for an ageing traveller who has neither love to cradle, nor dreams to make. These mountains, this storm, this night are treasures lost to me. What life, though, I feel in the depths of my soul! Never, not even when the most ardent blood pulsed from my heart to my veins, have I uttered the language of passion with such energy as I could achieve at this moment. It seems to me I see my sylph of the Combourg woods emerging from the flanks of the Saint-Gothard. Do you seek me once more, delightful phantom of my youth? Have you taken pity on me? You see, I am only altered in face; ever dreaming, devoured by a fire without cause, without fuel. I am leaving the world, and I entered it as I created you, in a moment of ecstasy and delirium. This is the hour when I invoke you in turn. I will open my window then, to let you enter. If you are not content with the graces I blessed you with, I will make you a hundred times more seductive; my palette is not exhausted; I have seen more of beauty and know better how to paint it. Come and sit on my knee; do not be frightened by my grey hairs, caress them with your fingers, those of a fairy or a shade; let them darken again under your kisses. This brain, which these falling locks do not calm, is as foolish as it was when I gave you being, eldest daughter of my illusions, sweet fruit of my secret passions and my first solitude! Come, let us climb through the clouds, together still; we will travel with the lightening, criss-crossing, illuminating, flaring above the precipices where tomorrow I will go. Come! Carry me with you as before, and never bring me back.

There is a knock at the door; it is not you! It is the guide! The horses are here, we must leave. Of this dream, only the wind and rain remain, and I, a dream without end, an eternal storm.

17th of August 1832 (Amsteg)

From Altdorf to here, a narrow valley between mountains, as one sees everywhere: the Reuss roaring in its midst. At the Stag Inn, a young German student coming from the glaciers of the Rhône, said to me: ‘Du com from Altdorf zis morning? Qvick vork!’ He thought I was on foot like him; then, seeing my wagon with its bench-seats: ‘Oh! Horzes! That’s anodder ting.’ if the student had wished to exchange his young limbs for my wagon and worse still my chariot of glory, with what pleasure I would have accepted his stick, his grey tunic, and golden hair. I would cross the Rhône glaciers; I would speak the language of Schiller to my mistress, and I would dream deep on German liberty; he would travel, aged like the times, bored like the dead, disillusioned by experience, having round his neck, like a bell, a fame which he will be more weary of after a quarter of an hour than the Reuss in torrent. The exchange will not take place; those goods are not for me. My scholar is leaving; he speaks to me while doffing and replacing his German cap, with a little nod of the head: ‘Permit me!’ Then, a shade, he vanishes. The scholar does not know my name; he will have met me, and never know it: I am delighted with that idea: I aspire to the shadows with more ardour than I once wished for the light: the latter irks me either by illuminating my miseries or by showing me objects I can no longer enjoy: I hasten to pass the torch to my neighbour.

Three little boys drawing their crossbows: William Tell and Gessler are everywhere. Free nations retain memories of the source of their independence. Ask a little ragamuffin in France if he has ever thrown an axe in memory of King Hlowigh or Khlowig or is it Clovis!