Chateaubriand on Life in a Society Dissolving

François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a French historian, diplomat, and writer. Long recognized as one of the first French Romantics, he was, in his lifetime, celebrated for his novellas. Today, however, he is best remembered for his posthumously published memoir, Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, which will be republished by New York Review Books Classics as Memoirs from Beyond the Grave in February. In the selection below, Chateaubriand observes Parisian society dissolving and recomposing itself in the aftermath of the French Revolution.


Paris, December 1821

When, before the Revolution, I read the history of public disturbances among the different nations, I could not conceive of how people had lived in such times. I was astonished that Montaigne could write so cheerfully in a castle that he could not so much as stroll around without running the risk of being abducted by bands of Leaguers or Protestants.

The Revolution made me understand how possible it is to live under such conditions. Moments of crisis redouble the life of man. In a society that is dissolving and recomposing itself, the struggle of two spirits, the clash of past and future, the intermingling of old ways and new, makes for a transitory concoction that leaves no time for boredom. Passions and characters set at liberty are displayed with an energy unimaginable in a well-regulated city. The breaches of the law, the freedom from duties, customs, and good manners, even the dangers intensify the appeal of this disorder. 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. 

I can think of no better way to describe the society of 1789 and 1790 than to compare it to architecture from the days of Louis XII and François I, when the Greek orders began to be combined with the Gothic style, or, rather, by likening it to the collection of ruins and tombs of all the centuries, piled up pell-mell after the Terror in the cloisters of the Petits-Augustins—except the ruins of which I speak were alive and constantly changing. In every corner of Paris, there were literary gatherings, political meetings, and theater shows; future celebrities wandered in the crowd unknown, like souls on the banks of the Lethe before they bask in the light. I saw Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr play a part in Beaumarchais’s La Mère coupable at the Théâtre du Marais. People went from the Club des Feuillants to the Club des Jacobins, from balls and gambling houses to the crowds at the Palais-Royal, from the gallery of the National Assembly to the gallery of the open air. Popular delegations, cavalry pickets, and infantry patrols marched every which way in the streets. Beside a man in French dress, with powdered hair, a sword at his side, a hat under his arm, leather shoes, and silk stockings, walked a man with unpowdered hair cropped close to his skull, dressed in an English frock coat and an American cravat. In the theaters, actors announced the latest news, and the pit burst into patriotic song. Topical plays drew the crowds: a priest would appear on stage, and the people would shout, Calotin! Calotin! and the priest would reply, Messieurs, Vive la Nation! Everybody hastened to hear Mandini and his wife, Viganoni, sing with Rovedino at the Opéra-Buffa, only minutes after hearing “Ça ira” howled in the street; they went to admire Madame Dugazon, Madame Saint-Aubin, Carline, little Olivier, Mademoiselle Contat, Molé, Fleury, and the young sensation Talma, fresh from seeing Favras hanged.

The promenades on the boulevard du Temple and the boulevard des Italiens—nicknamed “the Coblentz”—and all the paths in the Tuileries Garden were inundated with fashionable women. Grétry’s three young daughters shone there, as white and pink as their dresses. All three of them would soon be dead. “She fell asleep forever,” Grétry said of the eldest, “sitting on my lap, as beautiful as she was in life.” A multitude of carriages plowed the muddy crossroads where the sansculottes splashed, and the beautiful Madame de Buffon could be seen sitting alone in a phaeton belonging to the Duc d’Orléans, parked outside the door of some club.

Everything elegant and tasteful in aristocratic society gathered at the Hôtel de La Rochefoucauld, at the soirees of Mesdames de Poix, d’Hénin, de Simiane, and de Vaudreuil, or in those few salons of the high magistracy that still remained open. In the houses of M. Necker, M. le Comte de Montmorin, and the various other ministers gathered (together with Madame de Staël, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, Mesdames de Beaumont and de Sérilly) all the icons of the new France and all the liberties of the new manners. A cobbler in the garb of the National Guard knelt down to measure your foot; a monk, who dragged a black or white robe along the ground on Friday, on Sunday wore a round hat and a layman’s coat; a clean-shaven Capuchin read the newspaper in a tavern; and in a circle of frivolous women sat a grave-looking nun, an aunt or sister turned out of her convent. Crowds now visited these monasteries open to the world as travelers in Granada walk through the abandoned halls of the Alhambra, or as they linger, in Tivoli, beneath the columns of the Temple of the Sybil.

For the rest, there were many duels and love affairs, prison liaisons and mysterious trysts among the ruins, under a tranquil sky, in the peace and the poetry of nature; many far-flung, silent, solitary walks punctuated by undying oaths and unutterable affections, to the dull tumult of a fleeing world, to the distant noise of a crumbling society, which threatened to fall and crush every chance for happiness placed at the foot of events. When a person was lost from sight for twenty-four hours, no one was sure of seeing him again. Some went the Revolutionary route; others contemplated civil war; others left for Ohio, sending ahead plans for châteaux to be built among the savages; others went to join the princes: all of them blithely, often without a sou in their pockets, the Royalists alleging that one of these mornings an act of parliament would bring everything to an end, and the patriots, just as heedless in their hopes, declaring a reign of peace, happiness, and liberty. They sang:

La sainte chandelle d’Arras,
Le flambeau de la Provence,
S’ ils ne nous éclairent pas,
Mettent le feu dans la France;
On ne peut pas les toucher,
Mais on espère les moucher.

And this was how they thought of Robespierre and Mirabeau! “It is as little within the power of any earthly faculty to keep the French from talking,” says L’Estoile, “as it is to bury the sun in the earth or drown it in a well.”

The Tuileries Palace, transformed into a great jailhouse filled with prisoners, towered over these festivals of destruction. Even the condemned enjoyed themselves while awaiting the cart, the shears, and the red shirt that had been hung up to dry. From the windows they could gaze out at the dazzling illuminations of the queen’s circle.

Pamphlets and newspapers proliferated by the thousands. Satires, poems, and songs from the Actes des Apôtres responded to the Ami du peuple or the Modérateur, put out by the Royalist club and edited by Fontanes. In the political section of the Mercure de France, Mallet-Dupan wrote in opposition to La Harpe and Chamfort, who contributed to the literary section of that same paper. Champcenetz, the Marquis de Bonnay, Rivarol, Boniface Mirabeau the Younger (a Holbein of the sword who, in the Rhineland, raised a legion called the Hussars of Death), and Honoré Mirabeau the Elder—all these men amused themselves drawing caricatures over dinner and composing a Little Almanack of Great Men. After dinner, Honoré would go and declare martial law or seize the clergy’s property. He would spend the night with Madame le Jay after having announced that he would not leave the National Assembly except under the prodding of bayonets. Equality conferred with the devil in the Montrouge quarries and then went back to the Jardin de Monceau to preside over orgies organized by Laclos. The future regicide had not at all degenerated from his forefathers: twice prostituted, debauchery drained and delivered him into the hands of ambition. Lauzun, already wrinkled and withered, dined in his little house at the Barrière du Maine with dancers from the opera, who sat carelessly intertwined with Messrs. de Noailles, de Dillon, de Choiseul, de Narbonne, de Talleyrand, and some other elegant men of the day, of whom two or three mummies still remain.

Most of the courtiers famous for their immorality at the end of Louis XV’s reign and during the reign of Louis XVI had enrolled under the tricolor flag: almost all of them had fought in the American war and bedaubed their ribbons with Republican colors. The Revolution made use of them so long as it was only of middling stature, and they even became the first generals of its armies. The Duc de Lauzun—the romantic lover of Princess Czartoryska, a woman chaser of the high roads, a Lovelace who had had this one and had that one, according to the chaste and noble jargon of the court—this Duc de Lauzun became the Duc de Biron, who commanded the forces of the convention in the Vendée Wars. What a pity! The Baron de Besenval, the mendacious and cynical revelator of corruption in high society, a fly buzzing around the puerilities of the old dying monarchy, this tedious baron, compromised by the business of the Bastille, was saved by M. Necker and Mirabeau only because he was Swiss. What miserable stuff! Why had such men become involved in such events? As the Revolution grew, it disdainfully abandoned these frivolous apostates of the throne. It had needed their vices and now it needed their heads. No blood was above contempt, not even the blood of Madame du Barry.

From Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768–1800, by François-René de Chateaubriand, translated by Alex Andriesse. Published with permission of NYRB Classics.

François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a writer, historian, and diplomat, and is considered one of France’s first Romantic authors.

Alex Andriesse is a writer and translator. He lives in the Netherlands.

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