Monday, May 25, 2009

Chateaubriand, Washington, and the keys to the Bastille

This week, I've been reading François-René de Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe for the chapter of my dissertation that most directly involves his Levant voyages. It's a fairly long work, but I'd say it's the best thing he ever wrote, and well-worth reading. Anyway, I came across an interesting story in Book 6, Chapter 8, which recallsChateaubriand's voyage to North America in 1791.

He had left Paris to travel through the woods of North America, with the hopes of finding a Northern passage to the West coast, and thereby making a name for himself as a great explorer. This never actually happened, but he did get the material for some of his mostrenowned works, including Natchez, Rene and Atala . Eventually, he would enter the literary scene as the great writer of Romantic voyage narratives, inspiring a whole new genre of writing.

A secondary reason for making this trip in early 1791 was that he had witnessed the events unfolding in Paris and believed that it was not the best place to be for someone with an aristocratic background. Chateaubriand leans towards republicanism in many of his works, but he doesn't lean very far. While he was never as committed a monarchist as he was accused of being (and he was opposed to all forms of tyranny, especially Napoleonic), Chateaubriand still saw the Revolution as acaesura, splitting the past from the future with what he called a river of blood. Once crossed, the past was irretrievable ; but he also saw modernity as a crisis of identity and meaning, and longed for a religious revival in France. We might call Chateaubriand a part of the religious right.

The story goes that Chateaubriand dined with George Washington upon arriving in the Chesapeake Bay in 1791. This meeting has never been fully verified, although Chateaubriand did carry a letter of recommendation from Charles ArmandTuffin, the marquis de la Rouërie. It still makes a good story. Chateaubriand claims that Washington chuckled good-naturedly at his plans for exploring the Northern passage and discussed the Revolution with him. At one point, Washington shows off a key from the Bastille that had been sent to him from Paris.

Chateaubriand is unimpressed:
"If Washington had seen in the gutters of Paris those vainqueurs de la Bastille, he would have less respect for this relic. The seriousness and the force of the Revolution did not come from these bloody orgies. Upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the same populace of the faubourgSaint-Antoine demolished the temple protestant inCharenton with as much zeal as they devastated the church of Saint-Denis in 1793." (translation mine)

I like the passage because it suggests that one's interpretation of historical events is shaped as much by distance of place as by distance of time. On the ground, history moves in ways that are rough and jagged, and hard to comprehend; they only take on the aura of heroism with distance. Does this suggest that Washington's reading of the Revolution was less accurate than Chateaubriand's? It's hard to say, and yet it must be noted that the heroic image of the storming of the Bastille, with a touch of that bloody image, is the one that most French remember today.

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