“Pass on now, reader; wade the river of blood that separates forever the old world, which you are leaving, from the new world at whose beginning you shall die.” The writing of François-René de Chateaubriand is full of startling, gnomic passages like this. It would be easy to let them wash over you as mere rhetoric, a river of ink that never manages to leave a mark. But Chateaubriand knew about blood. Born into the last decades of the ancien régime, he died in the summer of 1848, when Parisians tore up the streets and fought hand-to-hand atop the barricades.
His Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe) has been newly translated by Alex Andriesse, complete with careful footnotes. The Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe appeared posthumously from 1849 to 1850, in forty-two volumes of recollections, history, anecdote, and prose poetry. Andriesse’s translation includes the first twelve of those volumes, unabridged in English for the first time.
Roberto Calasso, the polymath editor and mythographer, once described Chateaubriand’s writing as an attempt to “steep the common psyche in a new liquid,” a serum of “nameless sunsets, misty cataracts, hollow resonances.” Now and then, the Mémoiresbreaks out in a page or so of romantic description—the thundering roar of the sea, the clattering of dirt on the lid of a coffin, the hellish maw of coal-blackened London.
His closest analogue in English style is somewhere on the continuum between Thomas De Quincey and Vladimir Nabokov; from sentence to sentence he delights in excess and fancy, but he also knows that poetry thrives on particulars. On their own, Chateaubriand writes, words are merely “rubble,” and he specializes in assembling striking mosaics. Andriesse brings Chateaubriand into English without sacrificing his peculiarity, but he also refuses to embalm the man known as the “Grand Sachem” of French literature.
Even before his death Chateaubriand had already become a reputation. The youthful Gustave Flaubert plagiarized him; the teenaged Victor Hugo wrote in his diary that he aimed to “be Chateaubriand, or nothing”—this some thirty years before Chateaubriand’s death. He was perhaps most famous for The Genius of Christianity, his defense of Catholicism’s timeless truth. He tried to rescue faith from a century of doubt; he praised its beauty, its poetic grandeur and contradiction. The book was a weird extravaganza (it included two romantic novellas about Native Americans), and it proved more influential among poets and novelists than theologians.
Born to a landed family, and raised in a castle seven centuries old, he grew into a poetic and pious young man. The French Revolution began just as he entered manhood, and he quickly left for America, disgusted and unnerved. He longed to pursue “an enterprise for which I had prepared nothing but my imagination and my courage”: the search for the Northwest Passage. It was already a quaint ambition.
However, hearing that Louis XVI had been arrested, he returned to France, and enlisted in a counterrevolutionary army. Seriously wounded in battle, he became discouraged with the royalist cause and left France again. The present volume ends with him in London, scribbling away at his first book and thus beginning the career that would make his name.
These twelve books chronicle the last thirty years of the eighteenth century, when Europe was torn apart by the most radical eruption since the Reformation—the French Revolution. During these decades, Chateaubriand writes, “the human race on holiday strolls down the street, rid of its masters and restored for a moment to its natural state; it feels no need of a civic bridle until it shoulders the yoke of the new tyrants, which license breeds.”
The Revolution promised to strip away artifice, and to reveal a new race of humanity, thoroughly civilized by the goodness of their nature. But Chateaubriand was unconvinced. Instead of the noble “conquerors of the Bastille,” he saw “happy drunks,” “escorted by prostitutes and sans-culottes.” Like many aristocrats, he claims to have been initially sympathetic to the revolution’s aims. However, he witnessed a mob toting the decapitated heads of two government ministers on pikes, which he describes in vivid detail: “An eye in one of those heads, gouged from its socket, hung over the dead man’s darkened countenance; the pike came through the open mouth so that the teeth chomped down on metal.”
It is no apology for mob violence to say that mobs do not form out of thin air
He was “horrified by these cannibal feasts,” which forever “changed my political leanings.” But his pen is powerful enough that he should not be read in isolation. Foulon, the decapitated minister, was reviled in France. He represented the worst of the ancien régime: devouring public funds for his own benefit while being snide and cruel to the commoners. So hated was he that he fled to the countryside and spread rumors of his own death so the angry mobs would be thrown off his scent. Foulon’s decapitation shows up in A Tale of Two Cities, where Charles Dickens uses it as an instance of how enraged the peasants had become. But Chateaubriand cannot be bothered to ask how common people come to lynch and mutilate a public official. It is no apology for mob violence to say that mobs do not form out of thin air, or to note that sudden outbreaks of murder often answer long decades of slow torment.
During his trip to America, he leaves most of his doubts behind. Suddenly he is full of enthusiasm for the infant republic, “a republic of a hitherto unimaginable type heralding a change in the human spirit.” America is the future and the past; it is a place where new life can begin, but it is also archaic: as ancient and pliable as the world given to Noah and his family to repopulate.
He describes at length the republican sobriety of Washington’s conversation, the delicate modesty of Native American women, the half-barbaric state of American architecture, which is in its way a signal of moral virtue. He goes into manic raptures in the woods of upstate New York, where “there are no more paths, no more cities, no more monarchies, no more republics, no more presidents, no more kings, no more men!” But in the midst of this “wilderness,” he finds a crowd of Iroquois, dancing to the screeching violin of a French cook, left over from Rochambeau’s army. He had hoped, as “a disciple of Rousseau,” for a glimpse of the untaught wild Indian; but civilization gets there first, as it tends to do.
Even his death is a kind of bitter joke. He says he wrote the Mémoires in order to “pawn my tomb,” to leave a succès de scandale whose royalties would support his wife. But more profound motives were at work. At one point, nearly smothered by doubt, he cries out: “Is a book enough for God? … What does it matter if I have traced more or less brilliant images of religion if my passions cast a shadow on my faith?” If he mortgaged his soul, the credit might buy back some of God’s good will.
But did he borrow in good faith? How much honesty has Rousseau’s disciple packed into his confession? Less than a hundred years after his death, scholars were already picking apart Chateaubriand’s claims to find that most of his writings about America had been lifted from a variety of sources, European and American. For instance, despite describing a long, intimate conversation with Washington, it seems they never met. Washington even confirmed, in writing, that he “did not see” Chateaubriand.
He wrote that he met Washington because it was simply the kind of thing that Chateaubriand would have done. He liked to imagine himself as contemporary to the ruins of Rome, the castles of Brittany, the Indians of North America: that is, a shipwreck of humanity, a remnant of another time beached on the bare strand of modern life. Modern life is crowded with generations of New Men, but Chateaubriand would never find a companion.
He could, however, be a witness. The Bourbon Restoration fostered a powerful nostalgia for the ancien régime and Chateaubriand offered himself up as the “last surviving witness of the feudal ways.” In his telling, the years before the Revolution have a Gothic piquancy. He writes about castles with rattling doors and ghostly apparitions, aristocrats play-acting their way through a ceremonial royal hunt, the delicate grace of Marie Antoinette.
This France existed only in memories, recounted by survivors and expatriates. From this era derive all the great, apocryphal sayings. “Après nous, le déluge” might have been said by any number of people: it is an era speaking.
“Alexander created cities wherever he roamed: I have left dreams wherever I have dragged my weary days.”
Chateaubriand would never accept Republican France, and he knew that the pockets of royalism abroad would never do more than pass around polished baubles and dusty aperçus. Whether he clings tightly to the past or tumbles into the Revolution, “all my days are goodbyes.” If the Revolution had sealed off the past, that was only one outrage among many performed by the supreme revolutionary: time. Exiled from his home, from his contemporaries, he would stitch together a new homeland, a patchwork of history and imagination—even if it occasionally strayed from strict honesty. The new world and the old were splitting apart, as explosively as continents breaking apart. It is hard to fault him for trying to sew them back together in the binding of a book. Trying to sum up his life, he writes that “Alexander created cities wherever he roamed: I have left dreams wherever I have dragged my weary days.”
And yet Chateaubriand found himself a perch. He survived the Revolution and the French Empire, despite Napoleon’s threat to strike him down with a saber on the steps of the Tuileries Palace. After the return of the Bourbons, he became a government minister, serving in diplomatic posts abroad. He began the Mémoires during these years, enriched with fine clothing, gilded mansions, and opulent state dinners.
He wanted to float above history and accident on the wings of poetry. But Chateaubriand ended up creating a new kind of persona: the romantic refugee, exiled by political strife but anointed with aristocratic glamour. Becoming a refugee meant that he had to scrounge for a living, using the only resource available to the penniless and educated: his style. It was inevitable that he would become a writer, and not surprising that his first book would be A Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern. Nor was it surprising that the first words of this book would be “Who am I?” For the arch-reactionary, the painful truth was that he could not exist without the Revolution.
Having waded into the river of blood, he found himself baptized in history.
Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.