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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 28-39

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Chateaubriand and the Politics of (Im)mortality

Marie-hélène Huet

In the twenty-sixth book of his Mémoires d'outre-tombe, Chateaubriand recounts his 1821 arrival at the French embassy in Berlin. He cites a flattering portrait of him written by the Baroness of Hohenhausen and published in the morning press on March 22: "M. de Chateaubriand is of a somewhat short, yet slender, stature. His oval face has an expression of reverence and melancholy. He has black hair and black eyes that glow with the fire of his mind." 1 At this point, Chateaubriand flatly adds: "Mais j'ai les cheveux blancs; j'ai plus d'un siècle, en outre, je suis mort" ("But I have white hair; I am more than a century old, besides, I am dead") [2:39]. 2 Of course, those startling words, "en outre, je suis mort" do not refer to the year 1821, nor to the time Chateaubriand is writing this account. Rather, they refer to the time we, readers, turn to this specific page of the Mémoires: as you are reading this, Chateaubriand reminds us, I am dead. The words wrest us away from the event he is relating, his arrival in Berlin, to remind us in the most direct terms that our reading of these words necessarily entails the death of their author. Moreover, the French en outre brings us back to the very title of the Mémoires d'outre-tombe: outre-tombe, from beyond the grave.

In 1836, Chateaubriand signed a contract with a society of shareholders: in exchange for an immediate payment of 156,000 francs and a life annuity, he sold "the literary ownership of his Mémoires as they existed and as they would exist at his death." 3 Commenting on this transaction, Maurice Levaillant notes: "With this agreement, Chateaubriand bought material security at the price of a concession that he never got over: instead of appearing after a period he had first prescribed as fifty years after his death, his Mémoires would suddenly appear, so to speak, live from his grave" [xv]. As Chateaubriand put it in his avant-propos, the publication would take place "as soon as my bell tolls!" [1:1].

The contract for the Mémoires is described as a painful necessity: "No one can know how much I have suffered from having been required to mortgage my grave" [1:1]. The formula "mortgage my grave" is suggestive in that it metonymically shifts the object of economic exchange from the work being sold, that is, the Mémoires, to the grave, which Chateaubriand always associated with literary creation. Indeed, the association between memoirs and tomb that provides the title of the work is echoed and amplified by a constant relation within the text between the grave and the act of writing. [End Page 28]

In the avant-propos, a few lines after lamenting the mortgaging of his grave, Chateaubriand also reports that he has secured an islet in the bay of Saint-Malo, the Grand-Bé, to serve as his burial site. 4 Proposing an arrangement rigorously parallel to the desired legal agreement for the Mémoires, he adds that, should he die outside of France: "I wish that my body not be brought back to my homeland until fifty years after an initial burial" [1:3]. A half-century of silent mourning seemed to be the ideal length of time for the public to wait before discovering, and possibly disturbing, both his mortal remains and his immortal work.

Not that this intimate relationship between death and writing resulted from the specific circumstances of the Mémoires. Twenty years earlier, in the second preface to the Essai sur les Révolutions, Chateaubriand had already described himself as "a writer who believed he had reached the end of his life, and who, in the destitution of exile, had nowhere to write, but upon his own gravestone" [7]. The tomb stands for death, just as it stands for Chateaubriand's creative works. In an essay...