Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 16

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XXXV, 15 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 17


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXV, chapter 16
The mountains – Trips around Lucerne – Clara Wendel - Peasant prayers



I left Lugano without sleeping there; I re-crossed the Saint-Gothard, I saw once more what I had seen: I found nothing to add to my sketch. At Altdorf, everything had altered in twenty-four hours: the storm was no more, and there was no apparition in my lonely room. I have just spent the night at the inn in Fluelen, having twice covered a route whose extremities touch the two lakes and are held by two nations tied by the same political knot, and separated by every other relationship. I crossed LakeLucerne, which has lost to my eyes a portion of its merit: it is to LakeLugano what the ruins of Rome are to those of Athens, the fields of Sicily to the gardens of Armida.

Anyway, I have tried in vain to achieve the alpine exaltation of writers on mountain scenery, I am wasting my time.

As for the physical effects, that pure and balsamic air which should revive my powers, rarefy my blood, clear my weary brain, and give me an insatiable hunger and dreamless sleep, produces none of them. I breathe no more freely, my blood circulates no faster, and my head is no lighter under Alpine skies than in Paris. I have as good an appetite on the Champs Élysées as at Montenvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on Mount Saint-Gothard, and if I have dreams on the delightful plain of Montrouge, they are such as sleep needs.

As for morality, I climb the rocks in vain, my spirit is no more elevated, my soul no purer: I bring the cares of the earth and the burden of human turpitude with me. The tranquillity of the marmot’s sub-lunar region does not communicate itself to my wakened senses. Wretch that I am, through the mists that flow beneath my feet, I always see the surface of the earth appear. A thousand heights scaled in space do not alter my view of the heavens one iota; God is no less great to me in the depths of the valley than on the summit of the mountain. If it is only necessary to look down from the clouds to become a healthy man, a saint, or a superior genius, why do so few invalids, miscreants and imbeciles go to the trouble of climbing the Simplon? They must be committed to their infirmities indeed.

A country is created only by the sun; it is light which makes a landscape. A Carthaginian beach, a tract of the Sorrento coast, a belt of dry reeds in the Roman Campagne lit by the flames of the rising or setting sun are more magnificent than all the Alps on this side of Gaul. So much for these holes called valleys, where you can see nothing at midday; these tall anchored screens called mountains; these torrents which bellow like the cattle on their banks; these purple faces, goitred necks, dropsical bellies!

If the mountains of this region justify their admirers’ praise, it is only when they are enveloped in night whose chaos they increase: their angles, ledges, projections, their mighty sweep, their immense shadowy ranges, add to the effect of moonlight. The starlight engraves and carves them, in the sky, into pyramids, cones, obelisks, alabaster architecture, now throwing a gauzy veil over them and merging them in endless shadows, lightly washed with blue; now sculpting them individually, and separating them, with major refinements of line. Each valley, each lake-filled corner, with its rocks, and forests, becomes a temple of silence and solitude. In winter, the mountains present a likeness to the polar zones; in autumn, beneath a rainy sky, with their different tints of shadow, they resemble lithographs, grey, black, and yellowy-brown: storms too suit them, as do the vapours, half fog-half-cloud which roll at their feet or hang from their flanks.

But are mountains not favourable places for meditation, freedom, poetry? Do not the profound and beautiful solitudes of the sea receive something from the soul, and add to its pleasures? Is not a sublime nature rendered more susceptible to passion, and is not passion better equipped to comprehend sublime nature? Is not an intimate love increased by a vague love of all the beauties of intellect and the senses which surround it, just as similar constituents attract and merge with one another? Does not our feeling for the infinite, penetrating our narrower feelings as we experience an immense spectacle, increase, and extend to the boundary where eternal life begins?

I know all that; but listen carefully: those are not the existing mountains that you believe you once saw; they are the mountains whose lines passion, talent, and the Muse have traced, colouring their skies, snows, peaks, iridescent waterfalls, misted atmosphere, soft and fleeting shadows: the landscape is that of Claude Lorraine’s palette not that of the Campo-Vaccino. Let me be in love, and you will see that an isolated apple-tree, blown by the wind, bent crooked among the wheat-fields of La Beauce; a sagittaria flower in a marsh; a little stream of water over a road; a moss, a fern, a maidenhair frond on the flank of a rock; with a mild damp sky; a blue-tit in a presbytery garden; a swallow flying low, on a rainy day, beneath a thatched barn or along the length of a cloister; even a bat instead of the swallow, round a rural steeple, its translucent wings flickering in the last glimmer of twilight; all those little things, attached to memories, will be enchanted by the mysteries of my happy days or the sadness of my regrets. In essence, it is the days of our youth, and people, who alone make places beautiful. The ice in Baffin Bay may appear delightful, with a companion after one’s heart, the banks of the Ohio or the Ganges miserable, in the absence of all affection. The poet once wrote:

The homeland is a place where the heart is enchained.’

It is the same with beauty.

Here is more than enough about mountains; I love them as great solitudes: I love them as a frame, a border and backcloth to a fine picture; I love them as a rampart and refuge for liberty; I love them as adding something of the infinite to the soul’s passions: fairly and reasonably, that is all the good one can say of them. If I am not to locate myself beyond the Alps, my journey to Saint-Gothard will remain a fact without connections, an isolated scenic view among the paintings in my Memoirs: I have extinguished the lamp, and Lugano returns to the darkness.

Scarcely had I arrived at Lucerne when I hurried off again to the Cathedral or Hofkirche, built on the site of a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of bargemen: that primitive chapel also served as a lighthouse, since during the night it was seen shedding light in supernatural fashion. It was Irish missionaries who preached the Gospel in the almost empty country round Lucerne; they brought to it the liberty which their unfortunate country lacks. As I returned to the Cathedral, I saw a man digging a grave; in the church, a service was being held around a coffin, and a young woman was blessing a child’s bonnet at an altar; she placed it, with a visible expression of joy, in a basket which she carried on her arm, to be entrusted with her treasure. Next day, I found the grave in the cemetery had been filled in, a beaker of holy water set on the freshly-turned soil, and fennel-seed scattered for the little birds: they were already solitaries, around yesterday’s dead. I made several trips round Lucerne through magnificent pine forest. The bees, whose hives sheltered by the overhanging roofs are placed above the farm doors, live alongside the farmers. I have seen the famous Clara Wendel, going to Mass behind her fellow prisoners, in a prison uniform. She is quite commonplace; I found her appearance like that of all those French creatures present at so many murders, but no more notable for that than wild beasts, despite those who would dress them in a ‘theory’ of crime, and show admiration for their throat-slitting. A plain huntsman, armed with a rifle, led the convicts to their day’s work and returned them to their prison.

This evening I pursued my walk along the Reuss as far as a chapel built by the roadside: one enters by a little Italian portico. From this portico I saw a priest praying alone on his knees in the interior of the oratory, while on the heights of the mountains I watched the last rays of the setting sun. On the way back to Lucerne, I heard women in their wooden cabins telling their rosaries; children’s voices responded to their maternal prayers. I stopped: I listened, through the tracery of vines, to those words addressed to God from the depths of a thatched cottage. The young, elegant and pretty girl who waits on me at the Golden Eagle also says her Angelus quite regularly when closing the shutters of the casement windows in my room. On my return I give her a few flowers I have collected; she blushes and says to me, touching her hand gently to her breast: ‘For me?’ I reply: ‘For you.’ Our conversation ends there.