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Chateaubriand's Ruins Loss and Memory after the French Revolution Peter Fritzsche On 17 May, "in the year of grace 1793," the acclaimed memoirist Chateaubriand arrived at Southhampton from Jersey. The next day British authorities handed him a "way-bill," a legal document drawn up under the Alien Bill, which permitted the refugee of the French Revolution to go to London. It described the man as follows: "François de Chateaubriand, French officer in trie emigrant army, five feet four inches high, thin shape, brown hair and whiskers."1 This is one of the few portraits Chateaubriand leaves ofhimself. Five feet four inches, thin, whiskers—we see him, perhaps a bit short but nevertheless fixed in the mind's eye. Yet this summation, which Chateaubriand laconically adds "ran in English," is scarcely recognizable. From Southhampton, he remembered traveling in virtual obscurity, in trie company of errant sailors; in London, he took a garret room "at the end ofa little street off the Tottenham Court Road." "Poor, sick and unknown," Chateaubriand was undistinguished as he entered that "wealthy and famous city." Recollecting his impoverished condition thirty years later, when he returned to London as French ambassador, he found his present, muchcelebrated selfcompletely estranged from its past counterpart. Succession to fame and fortune was "incongruous"; his brothers in emigration were long scattered, alone, unhappy or dead; even the old cemetery that had lain beyond his dormer-window had disappeared beneath a newly laidout factory terrain.2 Chateaubriand's Memoirs acknowledged the extent to which the links of continuity had been broken; five feet four inches, 102 Chateaubriand's Ruins thin, whiskers—the "way-bill" can get Chateaubriand from Southhampton to London, but not from 1793 to 1822. Chateaubriand is famously known for kinking and breaking lines of time. His Mémoires d'outre-tombe (1848) turn over again and again shipwrecks, revolutions and accidents which separate various parts ofhis life. Saint-Malo, Combourg, Kentucky, London, Rome, Vallée-auxLoups , finally Paris: "There is always a time when we possessed nothing ofwhat we now possess, and a time when we have nothing of what we once had," he concluded. "Man does not have a single, consistent life: he has several laid end to end, and that is his misfortune."3 To be sure, no part of one life was completely closed to another. In London, we know, Ambassador Chateaubriand could not take a single step without thinking of the hopes that Emigré Chateaubriand had once cherished, the pages he had written, the friends he had possessed.4 But there is a notable lack of transparency; enough friends have been lost, enough youthful ambitions mistaken. The souvenirs Chateaubriand fingered as he wrote and rewrote his memoirs are ruins. They are incomplete or forgotten trajectories. The ruins are definitively there—he walked around London, he remembered Charlotte Ives (the fetching daughter of the family with whom he boarded in the 1790s), he composed his Memoirs —but the souvenirs do not arrange themselves into a past that anticipates the present. They are disorderly: Chateaubriand came to find the "way-bill" and the London way-of-life it had commenced unfamiliar. He acknowledged a basic disconnectedness with his émigré past. The disruption to memory-work is even more serious than simply a sense of alienation from a remembered past. The melancholic sense of loss, which is the foundation ofso much of Chateaubriand's thought, is itselfvulnerable to decay since this or that ruin, this or that memory, is itselfin a state ofcontinuous ruin. "On a beautiful evening ofthe month ofJuly last"—Chateaubriand wrote from Rome, ten years later (1803)— "I visited the Coliseum." At that time, the effect of the setting sun, the barking of dogs, the striking of a clock had generated a series of stark images and illuminating ironies, but these could not be summoned up the following January when he returned and saw before him a mere "pile ofdreary and misshapen ruins." Thus, the work ofmeditating over "the wreck ofempires" is impaired by the fact that the meditator himselfis a wreck, with "his lukewarm hope, his wavering faith, his limited charity, 103 Peter Fritzsche his imperfect sentiments, his insufficient thoughts, his broken heart." For...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 102-117
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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