A Head on a Pike: François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand on the Revolution

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Anne-Louis Girodet (1767 – 1824): François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand Contemplating the Ruins of Rome (1804)

Along with Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) rightfully takes his place as one of the most prominent of the early Catholic pro-monarchical Francophone critics of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand’s authorial career began in 1797 with the publication in England, where he had gone into exile, of his Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leur rapport avec la révolution française.  Chateaubriand, like Maistre, had witnessed the Revolution directly and experienced its devastating effects personally.  His younger sister died in a Jacobin dungeon; his elder brother and his sister-in-law lost their lives to the guillotine.  Chateaubriand himself fell, seriously wounded, during the Siege of Thionville while fighting as a private soldier in the Émigré Army in late August 1792.  He managed to make his way to Brittany, his home, from there to the sanctuary of Jersey, and finally to London where he commenced the impoverished ordeal of his long recuperation.  The Essai, which runs to nearly six hundred pages, reveals its author’s erudition, which its successors such as The Genius of Christianity (1802) and The Martyrs (1809) would further attest.  Chateaubriand proposes to study in detail the five revolutions that he can identify in antiquity and the seven in modernity with the twin aims of discovering the revolutionary causality and of applying that causality to an analysis of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand remarks that, according to the legends, Greek monarchy suffered a general catastrophe in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  Even before Agamemnon’s ill-fated enterprise, however, the stories of Oedipus, of the Seven against Thebes, and even of Theseus suggest a crisis or weakening of kingship.  The chaotic aftermath of the Greek victory in the Troad saw the demise of dynasties, such as that of the Atreids in Mycenae.  Darkness descends over Hellas.  When affairs once again emerge into the light, monarchy has vanished, its place taken by the turbulent poleis or as Chateaubriand calls them, not without prejudice, les républiques.

Chateaubriand makes the point, in his discussion of the historical poleis, that these democracies rarely in fact heeded the popular will.  Rather, clever power-seekers manipulated opinion for selfish ends.  Competition among power-seekers generated factionalism, which periodically broke out into open conflict.  Laws intended to enrich the ruling class exacerbated the resentment of the poor against the rich.  As Chateaubriand writes, “The poor in the state are infinitely more dangerous than the rich, and often they are worth less than them.”  Chateaubriand never indicts the poor; he indicts those who create poverty.  Once the difference between rich and poor exists, however, and especially when the manipulators have sabotaged the inherited social order, violent convulsion becomes inevitable.  Chateaubriand cites the history of Athens from Codrus, the self-sacrificing last king of Attica, to Solon as a near-perpetual cycle of mobilized factions, tyranny, counter-tyranny, and, on exhaustion, attempts to repair political order through the writing of new constitutions.  The Athenian project of acquiring an empire led to the city’s defeat and to decades of chaos until, at last, the Macedonian phalanx imposed a new order.  A republic, in Chateaubriand’s assessment, is an inherently unstable type of polity.

No one, regrettably, has ever translated the Essai into English.  Those who can handle French and who interest themselves in the irony that Reaction arises from Revolution will find a reward in examining it.  Fortunately, Chateaubriand treated of the Revolution elsewhere, as in his autobiographical Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, composed in the last ten years of his life and issued after his death; and he alludes to the Revolution in the final section of The Genius of Christianity.  The tableaux of revolutionary France that Chateaubriand paints in the Memoirs exercise a powerful compulsion over the reader, revealing as they do the anti-civilizational ferocity of an insurrectionist campaign to establish, all in the name of reason, the regime of liberté, égalité, et fraternité.

Memoirs d'outre tombe

Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb

I. Anno Domini 1789. In the chapter of the Memoirs entitled “Soldier and Courtier,” Chateaubriand explains how, in 1787 and for lack of any other career prospect, he had joined the army with the rank of second lieutenant. He was enjoying a six-month leave in Fougères in Brittany when the Revolution declared itself. Two years earlier, at the behest of his elder brother, he had traveled to Paris to be presented to the court.  He twice met the king, once at Versailles, where Louis’ shyness prevented them from speaking, and once out hunting in the adjacent park where to ease the young man’s embarrassment over an accidental violation of field etiquette, Louis absolved him with a witticism.  During the same visit, Chateaubriand came to the notice of the queen.  It belongs to the conscious pattern of the Memoirs that Chateaubriand links such innocent recollections to dire events that were to follow.  He remarks, for example, that at the time of his awkward debut at court, Louis stood but “six years from the scaffold.”  He adds that, “This new courtier at whom he scarcely glanced… would one day be presented, upon proof of fidelity, to [the king’s] dust.”  When Marie Antoinette smiles at him, this too augurs for ill.  In 1815 Chateaubriand would serve on the commission assigned to identify the newly exhumed remains of the deceased royals, at which time “the recollection of that smile enabled me to recognize the jaw-bone of the daughter of kings.”  Revolution, it seems, has the uncanny power to affect the past – to reach back into time and alter the character of events, as memory rehearses them.  Chateaubriand eventually left Fougères to join friends and relatives in the metropolis.  “I was unable to leave the province until rather late, and did not reach Paris,” he writes, “until after the sack of the Maison Réveillion, the opening of the States General, the constitution of the Third Estate as a national assembly, the Tennis Court oath, the Royal Speech of 23 June, and the joining of the clergy and the nobles to the commons.”

The memoirist emphasizes the public spectacle of the Revolution in its early stages, the sudden assumption of authority by people hitherto without office and unqualified for office, and the ubiquitous mobilization.  “In the villages,” Chateaubriand writes, “the peasants were stopping coaches, asking to see passports, and interrogating passengers.”  The activity designs to intimidate; it abrogates, or better yet, it extra-legally appropriates, an official process.  Shoddy novelty intrudes into the former graceful arrangement of things: “Passing through Versailles, I saw troops quartered in the orangery, artillery trains parked in the courtyards, the temporary hall of the National Assembly erected in the Place du Palais, and deputies coming and going among groups of sightseers, palace servants, and soldiers.”  The boulevards and alleys of Paris “were blocked by crowds waiting outside the bakers’ shops”; while “at the Palais-Royal, agitators gathered together.”  The reference to the shops hints at the disruption of ordinary commerce and the onset of scarcity.  During Revolution people starve.  When he glimpses Camille Desmoulins, an early enthusiast of extreme policy whose later repentance earned him the death penalty, the sight of him forecasts the inevitable cannibalism of the Terror.  The Royal-Allemand Regiment chases a mob into the Tuileries, incapacitating one of the rioters.  Immediately, “the sword-cutlers’ shops were broken into, and thirty-thousand muskets taken from Les Invalides.”  The Jacobins incorporate this armed mob as their new “National Guards.”

Chateaubriand witnesses the Storming of the Bastille, which he describes as an “attack on a few pensioners and a timid governor.”  He judges the assailants as cowardly and without conscience.  Once the crowd had seized Governor De Launey, it perpetrated on his person “a thousand outrages,” dragging him through the streets to the Hôtel de Ville where it murdered him.  Chateaubriand adds that the same mob accosted a certain Flesselles, a representative of the merchants association, who “had his brains blown out,” a deed which the “heartless optimists” of la foule applauded.  “In the midst of these murders,” Chateaubriand attests, “the mob indulged in wild orgies, as in the troubles in Rome under Otho and Vitellius.”  The “prostitutes and sans-culottes,” the “happy drunkards,” had achieved “the beginning of their reign.”  King Louis went to the very place where the rabble had murdered De Launey and made a speech in an attempt to reconcile order with anarchy.  The radicals shouted over him, but he convinced some, if only in the moment, of his honorable intentions.  People whispered that Louis was “a good man, Father of the French, and King of a free people.”  The sentiment ran thin, however, for this so-called free people, “by virtue of its freedom, was preparing to cut off the head of that good man, its father and its king.”  Chateaubriand, a good Latinist, would have been aware of the ambiguity of the French word liberté, which his modern translator Robert Baldick puts into English as freedom.  Liber was a counterpart of Bacchus, a demonic patron of inebriation and licentiousness – extending to the homicidal.


The Engine of the Revolution

Many of Chateaubriand’s comments on the events of 1789 in Paris anticipate Gustave Le Bon’s theory of the crowd from a hundred years later.  The Memoirs no doubt supplied Le Bon with good research material.  In Chapter IV of The Crowd (1895), under the title of “A Religious Shape Assumed by All the Convictions of Crowds,” Le Bon asserts that crowds “only entertain violent and extreme sentiments, that in their case sympathy quickly becomes adoration, and antipathy almost as soon as it is aroused is transformed into hatred.”  Le Bon understands the motile sentimentality of the crowd as a type of spontaneous and primitive religion.  “A person is not religious solely,” Le Bon writes, “when he worships a divinity but when he puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will, and the whole-souled ardor of fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes to goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.”  Thus, “the crowd demands a god before everything else.”  The Revolution had, in parody of the Christianity that it despised, its trinity of homogenizing abstractions; and it had its Cult of Reason, the vulgarity of which it installed on the profaned altars of the cathedrals and churches.  In one way, however, Chateaubriand puts himself in advance of Le Bon.  Chateaubriand sees well enough the parody of religion in the de-differentiating usurpation of the civilized order – hence his invocation of the orgiastic cults of antiquity.  But he also grasps that in addition to a god, and perhaps even more than a god, the mobilized masses need a scapegoat-demon to be sacrificed to the idol of its divinity, whichever of them holds sway in the moment.  They found one in De Launey.  They would soon find hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands, including siblings of the Vicomte.  The real religiosity of the Revolution expresses itself, savagely, in the bloody immolation of the scapegoat-demon.  The idols absorb what life they have from the spilled blood of the victims.

Some few days after King Louis’ visit to the Hôtel de Ville, Chateaubriand entertained his sisters and some Breton friends in his lodgings, “when,” as he writes, “we heard shouts of ‘Bolt the doors, bolt the doors!’”  The memoirist now relates an incident in which his accumulated themes come together: The orgiastic, the Bacchic, the sacrificial, and the atavistic cultism of the rioters.  A throng of sans-culottes had appeared in the street below.  “As they came nearer,” Chateaubriand records, “we made out two disfigured heads, which Marat’s forerunners were carrying, each at the end of a pike: they were the heads of MM. Foullon and Bertier.”  Characteristically, Chateaubriand gives names where he can.  The victims of the uprising are not generic victims; they are individual people and martyrs for the sanctity of life.  The Vicomte’s guests retreated from the window so as not to be seen by the lynch-mob.  Chateaubriand remained at his station.  “The murderers stopped in front of me and stretched the pikes up towards me, singing, dancing, and jumping up in order to bring the pale effigies closer to my face.”  Emphasizing the grotesque horror, “one eye in one of these heads had started out of its socket [and] the pike was projecting through the open mouth.”  Chateaubriand declares that had he possessed a pistol, he would have fired down on the crowd, which he compares to “a pack of wolves” and to savages at their “cannibal feasts.”  On the Champs Élysées Chateaubriand witnesses another parade of heads brandished on pikes.  In the National Assembly, the galleries shout demands for mass-murder.  “There was always some scheme of destruction on the agenda.”  A dour man occupies the tribune and reads a tedious report to which no one listens.  Chateaubriand asks who it is – it is Robespierre.

As conditions in metropolitan France worsened, Chateaubriand resigned his commission and returned to Saint-Malo in Brittany.  From there he left for the New World, where he spent a year in New York among the Onondaga and in the Louisiana Territory among the Natchez before returning to France.  These anthropological expeditions generated his two novellas, René and Atala, early items of the French school of Romanticism, which Chateaubriand in effect instigated.  During his American sojourn, Chateaubriand thought through his relation to the Revolution.  A liberal by persuasion and at the time a free thinker vaguely hostile to religion, he at first felt some sympathy for the revolutionaries.  “The Revolution would have carried me with it,” he writes, “if only it had not begun with a series of crimes”; and he adds that “in my eyes murder will never be an object of admiration or an argument for freedom.”  Chateaubriand criticizes Louis as “weak,” but, perhaps out of stubborn adherence to feudal loyalty, he remained a Royalist.  The National Assembly’s declaration of war against Austria on 20 April 1792 signaled a new wave of hostility against the aristocracy, such that “no Royalist could stay at home without being considered a coward.”  Chateaubriand, his newly-wed wife, and his sisters Lucile and Julie said farewell to Saint-Malo and prepared to make their way to Paris.

XY2-1967546 - © - Classic Vision

A Head on a Pike

II. Anno Domini 1792. In 1789 – 1790, people could still live in the metropolis although toward the end of that period, as Chateaubriand affirms, friends and acquaintances on taking leave of one another never knew with any sureness that they would meet again. “Paris in 1792 no longer looked the same as in 1789 and 1790,” Chateaubriand writes; “this was no longer the Revolution in its infancy, but a people marching drunkenly to its destiny, across abysses and by uncertain roads.”  The circus atmosphere had dissipated.  A pervasive “threatening” mien replaced it.  “In the streets one met only frightened or ferocious faces, people hugging the walls so as not to be seen or roaming around in search of their prey.”  Chateaubriand again anticipates Le Bon.  The latter notes, in his study, how crowds tend toward homogeneity, not only in their restricted horizon of consciousness and limited repertory of notions, but also in behavior and even in appearance.  The latter refers to “the law of the mental unity of crowds.”  Chateaubriand reports that in Paris in 1792 “variety of dress was a thing of the past”; rather, “men had donned the uniform cloak of the new world, a cloak which as yet was merely the last garment of the victims to come.”  The concepts of mobilization and uniformity belong together.  Chateaubriand “could sense the approach of a plebeian tyranny… much more formidable than the decaying despotism of the old monarchy: for, since the sovereign people is ubiquitous, when it turns tyrant the tyrant is ubiquitous; it is the universal presence of a universal Tiberius.”  He remarked also the presence in Paris the numerous “cut-throats” from Marseilles, imported by Danton to be the agents of the impending massacres.  Chateaubriand, his wife, and a friend managed to cross over into Flanders from Lille.  When the Jacobins learned of the flight, they sentenced the Vicomte’s older brother and his wife to death on a charge of complicity.

Chateaubriand eventually joined the Princes’ Army, another name for the Émigré Army, as a private soldier.  He saw combat, as previously noted, during the Siege of Thionville, where he fell wounded.  By luck that could only have been Providential, he managed to make his way to England, where he lived for almost a decade.  News reaching him from France, especially intelligence concerning his family, tended to grimness: A toll of relatives – the execution of the Royal Family – the massacres in the Vendée.  Despite this, and despite his straightened circumstances, Chateaubriand disciplined himself to write, the Essai being the first fruits of his new career.  He began his encyclopedic Genius of Christianity in England, in which, while never addressing the Revolution directly, he subtly alludes to it and, as it were, traces its remote origins.  In the Memoirs, Chateaubriand underscores the atavistic character of the Revolution, using images and metaphors that characterize revolutionary behavior as a crisis of savages.  Revolution acts in a disintegrative manner on everything, including itself.  The historical record demonstrates rather generously, as Chateaubriand argues in his Essai, that Revolution invariably destroys rather than constructs.  Now in The Genius Chateaubriand devotes a chapter – the very last – to the following topic: “What would the present state of society be if Christianity had not appeared in the world?”  The discussion in this chapter furnishes another of those instances in which its author joins Maistre in establishing an early genuine anthropology while at the same time anticipating thinkers of a century later and more.  The name of Le Bon has already been mentioned.  The name of René Girard should be added to it.  Chateaubriand anticipates Girard in formulating a theory of pre-Biblical religion as a perpetual sacrificial crisis.

Chateaubriand consecrates (so to speak) the majority of his discussion to an analysis of Roman society in the Imperial Centuries.  His opinions concerning those centuries and their roster of dramatis personae have about them a degree of heterodoxy.  Disdaining the slogans of the Imperial Cult, which retain their force to this day, Chateaubriand writes that, “Augustus attained imperial power by the commission of a crime and reigned under a garb of virtues.”  As for the Pax Romana that Augustus allegedly established – whereas the former Octavian “gave long repose to his subjects,” nevertheless “an immense focus of corruption became stagnant, and the prevailing calm was called prosperity.”  The successor-emperors qualified to a man as moral monsters, the supposedly philosophical Claudius as much as the psychopathic Nero.  Chateaubriand extends his indictment by noting that “Rome loved Nero.”  But then “the Roman people was always an odious people” subject to “natural perverseness and some innate defect in the heart.”  There follows a catalogue of instances – Cato resigning his pregnant wife to Hortensius and then taking her back again when she becomes the latter’s widow and heir; Nero and Heliogabalus “marrying” their homosexual lovers; and not least the gory entertainments of the arena.  “A Roman,” Chateaubriand writes, “on quitting the arms of a strumpet, went to enjoy the spectacle of a wild beast quaffing human blood.”  These observations tie themselves to the remark in the Memoirs that “murder must never be an object of admiration or an argument for freedom.”  Factions ever divided Rome.  Factional violence ever bloodied its streets.  Rome never enjoyed freedom under polytheism, Chateaubriand argues; it endured perpetual bondage to a cycle of conflict, a “sanguinary religion,” that it failed to understand or even to perceive.

Roman Decadence II

Hollywood Today

Chateaubriand’s phrase “natural perverseness” acquires especial significance through its linkage to his other phrase, “sanguinary religion.”  The latter, as Chateaubriand appears to have intuited, is the degree zero of culture in a fallen world.  One might extend Chateaubriand’s discussion.  The Romans pretended to have abjured human sacrifice, but the pretence was always a lie.  Livy, in his History, rehearses the story of the death of King Romulus, who supposedly ascended into godhead through the medium of a tornado.  Livy adds, however, that another story clung to the event: The senators, having grown envious of Romulus, attacked him in a mob and tore him to pieces.  Before that, Romulus had killed his fraternal rival Remus.  Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators effectively founded the Empire by their collective murder of Caesar, which repeated the senatorial assault on Romulus.  What is the function of sacrifice?  It is a means of preempting incipient violence in the tribe or polity by focusing the pervasive irritation and anxiety of the people on a single alleged malefactor – or a conspicuous group of malefactors.  The plebes verged continuously on riotousness – so the municipality offered them the famous panem et circenses.  Gladiatorial spectacle constituted the cynosure of the circus.  The spectacle takes the essential premise that those condemned to spill their blood on the sands have committed unspeakable crimes and have thus made themselves enemies of the people.  Chateaubriand adds infanticide to his catalogue of ancient vices from which only Christianity could deliver the lynch mob.

In a manner reminiscent of Maistre, Chateaubriand speculates that the physical and moral aspects of the universe interweave with one another such that “a subversion of the latter necessarily occasions a change in the former.”  In that case, the galloping moral consumption of the Lower Empire, with its frequent outbursts of civic unrest, makes a kind of karmic or providential sense.  “It may be, then,” Chateaubriand writes, “that the corruption of the Roman empire drew forth from the recesses of their deserts the barbarians, who, unconscious of the secret commission that was given to them to destroy, instinctively denominated themselves the scourge of God.”  It is no coincidence, in the Vicomte’s judgment, that when the Goths fell upon the Western Provinces the missions had already half-Christianized them.  If Chateaubriand condemns Augustus, he regards Theodoric, by contrast, as “a great prince,” adding “but then he was a Christian.”  He has an answer, as well, for those who condemn Christianity, precisely because of its early popularity among the Goths, as a religion of the barbarians.  The monastic movement in the West, which “powerfully contributed to the preservation and the revival of learning,” took place under the sponsorship of the Gothic princes, many of whom, like Theodoric, could lay claim not only to knowledge of theology, but also to a wider literary and philosophic familiarity.  Continuing in his mood of counterfactual history, Chateaubriand imagines what might have happened had the Gospel never appeared and had the Goths not quitted their forests: “After protracted civil wars and a general commotion which might have lasted several centuries, the human race would have been reduced to a few individuals wandering among the ruins.”

That last remark is consistent with the Vicomte’s appraisal of polytheism as essentially sacrificial and of Christianity as essentially something else.  An earlier paragraph remarked that Brutus and the conspirators “founded” the Roman Empire, quite against their intention, by their murder-sacrifice of Caesar.  The statement requires some qualification.  Except in its first instance, sacrifice never really founds anything.  The cycle of crisis-and-sacrifice runs downhill, gradually losing its power to prevent the critical mass of invidia from detonating in a war of all against all.  Sacrifice arises from social crisis but it also produces social crisis through its declining effectiveness.  One might take up again the consideration of little details in Chateaubriand’s account of the Revolution in his Memoirs.  The Revolution follows the law of entropy.  It brings not order, but disorder.  It is always and everywhere as patched-up, dirty, and lewd as it is vicious and homicidal.  It rallies prostitutes and thugs.  The Revolution pits itself against the Gospel, against Christ, and, therefore, against God.  No wonder that it reestablishes the gross immorality of the Roman decadence.  Chateaubriand’s assessment of the Revolution implies two laws: That the advocates of progress lie through their teeth and that the hubristic attempt to push “beyond” Christianity, conceived of as a barrier to enlightenment and prosperity, can bring about nothing but an atavism into sacrifice.  If the Jacobin insurrection failed to establish this twofold hypothesis, the Twentieth Century, with its toll of tens of millions, will have provided for it a ghastly Q.E.D.

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863): Liberty Leading the People (1831)

III. Anno Domini 1830. That colossal ambiguity Napoleon, in making himself Consul and then Emperor, brought an end to the excesses of the Jacobin insurrection – although the Revolution continued in its second chapter, on the island of Saint-Domingue, where it assumed a racial character.  It was Napoleon who invited the émigrés to return to France under amnesty, and it was Napoleon who, having read The Genius of Christianity, and having seen the advantages of a Catholic revival, would eventually appoint Chateaubriand his emissary to the Holy See and would nominate him ambassador to Valais in Switzerland.  The Vicomte first met Napoleon at a soirée organized by his younger brother Lucien Bonaparte.  He records details of the experience in his Memoirs.  “There was as yet,” Chateaubriand writes, “no charlatanism in his glance, nothing theatrical or affected”; and yet, the Vicomte can refer to him in the next sentence as “that cold-blooded politician.”  In any case, “Bonaparte saw me and recognized me, I do not know how.”  The Consul greeted the Memoirs author and broached a number of topics, including that of religion.  He concocted a spontaneous witticism that mocked Voltaire’s slogan of écrasez l’infâme!”  He wondered out loud and humorously why “the ideologists” had not yet reduced Christianity to a mere picturesque myth of celestial motions.  He told Chateaubriand: “If Christianity is the allegory of the movement of the spheres, the geometry of the stars, the free-thinkers may say what they please: in spite of themselves, they have still left a considerable measure of greatness to the infamous thing.”  In later chapters of the Memoirs, the Vicomte would vehemently excoriate Napoleon for the megalomania and Dionysiac self-destructiveness of the Russian campaign, but he would also condemn the British for their refusal to grant asylum to the Emperor after the Hundred Days and for their having shanghaied him to exile on St. Helena.

Chateaubriand would break with Napoleon eight years before the Russian campaign, on 21 March 1804.  A bulletin appeared on a signboard in the Tuileries gardens: “Verdict of the special military commission convened at Vincennes, sentencing to death the man known as Antoine-Henri de Bourbon, born on the 2nd of August 1772 at Chantilly.”  The Vicomte had maintained a lifelong friendship with Antoine-Henri, Le Duc d’Enghien.  Napoleon, declining into paranoia, suspected Antoine-Henri, then living in Baden, of participating in a seditious conspiracy.  The Consul sent French soldiers illegally across the Rhine to seize Antoine-Henri and return him to Paris.  The military court had already issued a condemnation of death.  Chateaubriand immediately resigned his position.  By so doing, as he writes, he “placed himself on [Bonaparte’s] level,” that is, he challenged Napoleon morally and potentially incurred the Consul’s fatal wrath.  The Memoirs compare Napoleon with Nero.  Chateaubriand grasps that the Revolution had poisoned Napoleon with its “contagion.”  While “his great qualities remained… his good dispositions became impaired and no longer supported his great qualities.”  As Chateaubriand puts it, “Corrupted by that original stain, his nature had deteriorated.”  The coinage original stain calls to mind, as no doubt its author meant it to do, the religious concept of original sin.  The ultimate origin of the Revolution lies in original sin, which propagates itself by contagion.  Like all the victims of the Revolution, early or belated, Antoine-Henri qualified himself as a martyr.

Chateaubriand welcomed the Bourbon restoration and served under Louis XVIII and Charles X.  In July 1830 the Vicomte would witness a second revolution, marred by senseless violence and destruction but less violent and destructive overall, because much less protracted, than the first.  It lasted only three days.  In the Memoirs, indeed, the July Revolution comes across as something of a revolutionary parody.  That violence spreads itself contagiously Chateaubriand again attests by describing the trigger-event that loosed the mobs against the gendarmerie and the military.  A certain Mr. Folks, an Englishman, fired from the window of his hotel room in the Rue des Pyramides at officers of the National Guard.  The guards returned fire, killing Folks and two of his servants.  The dead man was apparently a radical opportunist.  “If anything could bring discredit on the July fighting,” Chateaubriand writes, “it would be that it was started by an English bullet.”  If it were started by an English bullet – then it was started by a foreign bullet.  There is always something foreign in a revolution.  Once the first shot is fired, moreover, it is extraordinarily difficult to break the retaliatory cycle.  The streets resounded with shouted slogans, including, “Long live the Black Prince!”  That would be, in Chateaubriand’s gloss, “the mysterious Prince of Darkness who appears to the popular imagination in all revolutions.”  The fighting lasted for three days.  Charles X averted a bloodier outcome than what actually occurred when he wisely abdicated his throne and exiled himself in England.  Louis-Philippe, le Duc d’Orléans, became the new sovereign in a constitutional monarchy that would last until the next revolution in 1848.  Chateaubriand’s account reflects the attitude, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Serra The Plague

Daniele Serra (Contemporary): Pestilence

The chapter that follows the one devoted to plus ça change in July 1830 gives an account of the cholera epidemic that reached Paris in 1832.  “The Plague in Paris” elaborates a series of metaphors that merge the concepts of Revolution, imperial concupiscence, and contagious disease.  Chateaubriand compares the plague-vector to a military campaign.  The disease spread itself by commerce on land and sea from the Ganges delta, starting in 1817.  It expanded itself geographically “over an area measuring 5,500 miles from north to south and 8,750 miles from east to west.”  Meanwhile, “it has plunged fourteen hundred towns into mourning and reaped a harvest of forty million people.”  It has traveled “as fast as Bonaparte,” who “took almost the same number of years to go from Cadiz to Moscow, and he caused the deaths of only two or three million men.”  The cholera resembles a great Juggernaut come from the subcontinent to smash the Parisians under its wheels on the banks of the Seine.  Like the Revolution, the pestilence summons the lumpen-proletariat.  “I have seen the drunkards at the city gates,” Chateaubriand writes, “sitting drinking at a little wooden table outside a pot-house, saying as they raised their glasses, ‘Here’s to your health, Morbus!’”  This Morbus blends with the Prince of Darkness whose visage mesmerizes the people in the phase of insurrection.  Scarcity reappears – in this circumstance a too-small number of hearses: “There were not enough of them to satisfy the demand.”  The disease is a pagan deity, “Vishnu,” whose mere glance can kill.

Chateaubriand, remembering Thucydides and Lucretius, invokes the superstition concerning a sudden outburst of sickness – and with this invocation comes also the theme of scapegoating.  The Vicomte tells how “In Athens, the people believed that the wells near the Piraeus had been poisoned; in Paris, the tradesmen were accused of poisoning their wine, spirits, sweets, and foodstuffs.  Several individuals were man-handled, dragged in the gutter, and thrown in the Seine.”  Like Maistre in his Elucidation on Sacrifices, Chateaubriand mixes his political and anthropological analyses in the Memoirs with proto-science-fictional tropes.  “If all mankind were stricken with a universal contagion, were to die, what would happen? –

Nothing: the depopulated world would continue its solitary course without need of any other astronomer to plot its passage than Him who has measured it through all eternity; it would present no sign of change to the eyes of the inhabitants of the other planets; they would see it performing its accustomed functions; on its surface, our little works, our cities, our monuments would be replaced by forests restored to the sovereignty of lions; no void would appear in the universe.  And yet there would be lacking that human intelligence which knows the stars and which has even attained an awareness of their Creator.

The image is one to humble the Revolution’s Promethean claim that it will make a new world.  But then the Revolution is nothing less than a universal contagion that, metastasizing, culls men en masse and issues in endless unmarked graves.  In The Genius, Chateaubriand addresses the effects of Republicanism, which in his view is merely an attempt to institutionalize the Revolution.  Chateaubriand’s sentences beg their application to Anno Domini 2020:  “It is high time to be alarmed at the state in which we have been living for some years past.  Think of the generation now springing up in our towns and provinces; of all those children who, born during the revolution, have never heard anything of God, nor of the immortality of their souls, nor of the punishments and rewards that await them in a future life: think what may one day become of such a generation if a remedy be not speedily applied to the evil.”  We slide down the declivity of so-called progress into a polytheistic – or, as it proudly denominates itself, a diverse and intersectional – anti-regime which amounts to nothing less than, and nothing more than, the revival of a hoary, murderous cult.  And long live Morbus, the drunkards shout!

4 thoughts on “A Head on a Pike: François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand on the Revolution

  1. Pingback: A Head on a Pike: François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand on the Revolution | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 06/16/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  3. Pingback: Woke: Cthulhu Awakens – The Orthosphere

  4. Pingback: Traditionalism: A Primer – The Orthosphere


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