14 July, 2008

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe

I come to the town of Nancy. It is a place of quiet souls, like my older self, Ulysse, not at all the sort I have been accustomed to meeting on my travels, the sort who would have found Achille, my younger years, far more to their liking.

Stanislas, the King, is a man of contentment. He knows how to gaze: an art, I fear, we have all too often forgotten. I have spoken to him on more than one occasion. He treats me with great respect, for my father was among those brave of Saint-Malo who fought for him in Danzig. From his pedestal he is willing to provide informations, the result of observation, or of private thought; and indeed, he has had time to think, to become. The cursus of the sun affords him the opportunity for every kind of vision: because he faces north, the glare never blinds him, except, of course, for the scintillae of windows, coated or shuttered, burning in reflection. The shadows, always quite sombre, begin long, grow short, and grow long again, as the works of history. But the shadow of his index, pointing out the north, remains always the same length.

We discuss posterity. That devil Diderot, I mention, said that posterity for the philosophe was the same as the afterlife for the religious man. We who have an afterlife—must needs we have posterity also? Ah yes, says the King, who was a friend of Diderot. It transpires that he has composed an essay on the subject, which he recites to me in a stertorous voice from his plinth. It is a thirst for posterity that makes us perform miracles to humanity. His words swell:
That which we desire for our descendants, Nature and Reason make us desire for ourselves. Down here we live, if I might put it thus, two sorts of lives: the one we have in common with the animals—it is only a simple vegetation, it begins again each day, it makes us last for years, we hold on to it without merit, and we should have as little regret to lose it as we had to acquire it. But there is another life more essential to man, that makes him appear with éclat on the world stage, or that at least makes it pleasant by a sweet and beneficent humour, by a scrupulous probity, a constant application to all the duties of society. This man lives in the esteem of others, and his life, for the advantages he derives from it, is more precious to him than that by which he simply exists, and through which he would be no more than a creature destined to consume the fruits of the earth, a breathing automaton who, forever useless, would be in effect buried even before his death.
I can certainly appreciate his sentiment. All my years I struggled not only to exist, but to live, and moreover to be remembered with fondness and admiration. Stanislas enjoys posterity here in Nancy and perhaps in Poland, but not elsewhere. He has been subsumed by the currents of history. I myself retain a little fame, but the memories of my glory are swiftly fading.


I have petitioned the King to release me. I would find my tomb again, and remember the sweep and stave of my great mother. Nancy is too far from the waves! When I brought my case before him he would only point. The north! Oui, le Nord, mais aussi l'Ouest, n'est-ce pas? He is not generous with words today. Just then the sun turns in its course, and for the first time the shadow of his index is distended along the square. It is an auspicious dawn.

By late morning I arrive in Verdun-sur-Meuse. There is a great wailing among my comrades, as if the last shocks of a catastrophe. Ils ne passeront pas, said Nivelle—or was it Petain?—and so, ILS N'ONT PAS PASSÉ. Death did conquer man; and man, death. Le Mort-Homme, a greater king even than Stanislas, was already here, a little colline near the town, before the War broke out; that I have learnt in my travels. I am familiar with him, of course. I have met him many times, only to evade him. Ah, loss! In the future some exquisite critic will write,
Chateaubriand-Achille should have died in Combourg, when he tried in vain to commit suicide, or in Rennes, when his comrade Saint-Riveul was massacred before his eyes, taking the place which should have been his, or in Le Havre, when he was spared at the last minute by a shipwreck that should have been fatal, or in Thionville, where the manuscript of Atala stopped the bullet that should have struck his heart, or even in London, where he was only an outcast, promised death. . . This Achille watched in sympathy the Chateaubriand-Ulysse who sought to regain Ithaca in 1800, and who, from career to career, found himself in the end growing old, with everyone else, under the rule of usurpers, and reduced to memories.
Now I am doomed to remaining an old man, an Ulysse, for eternity. But there has been plenty for me. I did venture into the land with my winnowing-oar, and now I am returning to the sea.

Afternoon by the rocks of the shore near Cognac. Here, by the land we call 'Groies', full of chalk and clay, walk Achille and Ulysse, the young man and the old, the cut short and the livelong, competing in posterity. Stanislas had changed his mood after his first discourse; in his second address he had said—
Does history not teach us that dreadful chasms, in which the monuments and stories of our times are swallowed up forever, yawn open before those ages in which we flatter ourselves to live by our reputation? All has perished, as far as the memory of most of the nations that precede ours. The chain binding their time to ours has been smashed by floods, earthquakes, violent tremors that have knocked over the universe. All totters, all ends, all is lost in the immense spaces of eternity—and one man, one simple atom, the chance product of the nothingness that begat him, flatters himself that he might bear his name to the final extremities of Time, which has no limits at all!
After his peroration I teased him—I said he should stop reading Cicero before bedtime. If I was Scipio, he was my Manius Manilius. But the King would not be teased, and remained solemn. I still think of his words. We have our afterlifes, and perhaps he and I should be content with a diminishing posterity.

The most marvelous thing about the Grand Bé, other than its name, is the smell, its scents and aromas of hyssop and uncut thyme, and bergamot, and the almost incessant petrichor, and the smell of great noise and tumult, quieted, a romantic caesura facing out into the unknown. When I first arrived at Saint-Malo from Le Havre, just after the revolution, I had cause to remark on the divisions and misfortunes of France: the châteaux were burnt or abandoned, and their owners vanished. The place retains even now the same mood of ruination. But now, as I return again, it is the most brilliant of dusks, and the grand cour of the heaven is full of birds, coming from nowhere to swoop and glide over the edge of the black rocks, to be transmuted into waves. Les ondes, rondes, surrondent, rebondent, surabondent, sarabandent.

Here, where I was born, I am again almost among the living. François, René. The whole world is speaking of my life. And neither am I alone now. Maclou is here with me, the great traveller, who, they say, has seen the Isles of the Blest and the Paradise of Birds. His pockets are overflowing with precious stones. I have no pockets. It must be the perquisite of a saint.

And here again, by my six feet of sand, I vividly recall the ceremony in which I left. On ensevelissait souvent les morts fameux au bord de la mer. My friend M. Ampère, the son of the celebrated scientist, related the event to his confrères and colleagues in the Académie.
When we had arrived on the beach, shuffling between the ramparts and the sea towards the funeral rock, the magnificence of this unequalled mourning, the incredible poetry of the spectacle, just for a moment veiled the sadness of death beneath the pomp and the glory, and the funeral assumed the character of a Christian apotheosis. At the foot of the Grand Bé, the coffin was raised up by the marines and carried to the top, against a gust of wind like a tempest—the ocean's supreme caress of that man who had so loved the noise of the waves and the winds.
I found it an admirable tribute. It sealed my death, as my life, in the ears of his listeners, as it will in the eyes of his readers. The sea is the source of mythology, as the ocean, which tides twice a day, is that abyss of which Jehovah said, You will go no further. And so in the face of the sea, endlessly ruffled in detail, but perfect in smoothness from horizon to horizon, I can think only of posterity. I have, I believe, bequeathed myself appropriately.


All our life is spent circling our tomb; our various maladies are the winds that approach us from the harbour. I was near death from the moment I entered the world; the roar of the waves, whipped up by a squall heralding the autumn equinox, prevented my cries being heard. There is never a day that I do not see again in my mind the rock on which I was born, and the chamber in which my mother inflicted life upon me.

Tout fut difficile dans ma vie. I long wanted to be buried here, and wrangled incessantly to have it. They came to me as I lay gasping, finally, and petitioned me—What words will you have upon your tomb? I brushed them away. Let me think on the matter. Give me two days. And so I considered the problem. What words could carry the weight of a whole life? For the first time in my life, I, a wit, a brazen pen, a great doyen of the language, could not muster a single phrase. What could be more ironic, than that I should fail to devise my own epitaph? They returned in two days. M. Chateaubriand, what will you have upon your tomb? I looked up from my circles, and said, Give me four days. They went away, barking and mooksing. I shut my eyes tight and toyed with abstracts—Liberty, and Poetry; Immortality and Eternity. It was no use. Le Mort-Homme was mocking himself of me. I scribbled down some rhymes and rearranged them into some semblance of a poem. Gribouilleur. In disgust I could only fling the wretched papers across the room for the servants to tidy up. What words could possibly carry the weight of a whole life? My window, which opened west over the gardens of the Foreign Missions, was open: it was six in the morning, and the moon I could see was pale and gravid, sinking over the spire of the Invalides, scarcely reveiled by the first golden ray from the East. Finally those cagotz and magotz descended upon me, carrion birds, and demanded of me, with the most appalling obsequy, Grand Seigneur Chateaubriand, what will you have graven on your tomb? All I could pronounce, by now, and with a grave laughter already on my lips, was: A week longer. The next morning I was dead.


[Update: The charming Peony comments, kindly. I would like to take this opportunity to assure her that in conversation I am not in the habit of dropping anecdotes about Cicero's Dream of Scipio or Chateaubriand's (fictional) deathbed—some things are best left for the desk with its array of books, real or virtual—and that, were I to manage a salon, or even a memory palace, she would be most welcome.]


British Sceptic said...

notice your into scepticism,

I cordially invite you to take a look at my forum




Chateaubriand said...

Monsieur l'Anglois, je pense que vous avez tort. Je ne suis point un Sceptique!

Lily Roth said...

My dear Mr. Roth,

I cannot fathom why more of your readers are not flocking to comment upon this delightful post. It easily ranks amongst my favourite of your essays.
Ah, I remember looking over these postcards when you first found them. What lovely memories.

Your own Lily Roth

Shawn Thuris said...

This is fine writing indeed, and matched to a fine sensibility. I would have remarked on it earlier, but after spending time away from the computer to celebrate an anniversary, I began wading the next day through my newsreader, and bolted 335 nuggets of information before reaching this. Only statues have time enough, and I wonder if even they don't grow a bit furred and friable by the time they establish a clear and equanimous view of things. Again, this is truly excellent writing.

Peony said...

I too agree with Lady Lily, this is truly a beautiful post.

Thinking about your post and how our deeds will live on (or not)into posterity, I added this to the end of a rather long post at my place (Of course, you win First Prize for world's longest posts):

"As I write this meditation on Red Cliffs and Heian period salons; far, far away on another island nation across the galaxy, a certain mysterious Mr. Roth similarly writes of this task of not just existing but of truly living-- and this he hints is something that can be meaningful not just in life but in death as well.

Yes, Diderot's Posterity.

So beautifully, he writes:

Grand Seigneur Chateaubriand laying on his death bed is asked: what will you have graven on your tomb?

All he could pronounce, and with a grave laughter already on his lips, was: A week longer.

What else could he say?

(I hope you get a chance to listen to the lectures-- you were, I suggest, being unfair to Herr Heidegger. You should have at least read a bit more since those later essays really were not meant to stand alone...)


Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, friends. (And wife.) (Who is also a friend.) Shawn: Might I suggest subscribing to fewer feeds?

Amanda J. Sisk said...

It may be that a measure of silence is not a sign of disinterest, but a thing born of respect. I go back to the upper right corner of the first card and wonder if the stains in life merely contribute to the weight of an existence or if the splotches (and how we wear them) are actually the marks which redeem our lives. After all, the variety verdigris creates can be far more pleasing than pure bronze untouched by the elements.

My joyful regards to both Mr. & Mrs. Roth.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I listened for the echo and I heard only praise." -- Nietzsche.

I am glad you (and especially you) appreciate that stain. It delights me too (along with blotches half way down the card, raining through his pedestal). Someday I'd like to go through France and take modern photos from the same places.