Dinner With Chateaubriand
Fred gave us a wonderful literary anthology, “Americans In Paris,” which is a collection of short essays by, well, Americans who have been in Paris, about their experiences here. The list of authors run from Benjamin Franklin to Jack Kerouac. I just read an astonishing piece from a brilliant American academic named George Ticknor, who was only 25 when he made his one and only visit to Paris, in 1817. Adam Gopnik, editor of the anthology, writes that Ticknor was one of the first Americans to experience Paris without a political or diplomatic cast to the visit, but rather “there for the conversation.” Here is his recollection of a dinner with the gloomy Chateaubriand; imagine having been at the great man’s table, and being present for this moment:
During the beginning of the evening the conversation turned upon the condition of Europe, and he burst upon the discussion by saying, “Je ne crois pas dans la societe Europeene,” [“I do not believe in European society”]and supported his ominous proposition with a kind of splendid declamation, to which argument would have lent no force. “In fifty years,” said he, “there will not be a legitimate sovereign in Europe; from Russia to Sicily, a foresee nothing but military despotisms; and in a hundred — in a hundred! the cloud is too dark for human vision; too dark, it may almost be said, to be penetrated by prophecy. There perhaps is the misery of our situation; perhaps we live, not only in the decrepitude of Europe, but in the decrepitude of the world”; and he pronounced it in such a tone, and with such a look, that a dead silence followed it, and every person felt, I doubt not, with me, as if the future had become uncertain to him. In a few moments, from a natural impulse of selfishness, the question arose, what an individual should do in such a situation. Everybody looked to Chateaubriand. “If I were without a family, I would travel, not because I love travelling, for I abhore it, but because I long to see Spain, to know what effect eight years of civil war have produced there; and I long to see Russia, that I may better estimate the power that threatens to overwhelm the world. When I had seen these I should know the destinies of Europe, I think; and then I would go and fix my last home at Rome. There I would build my tabernacle, there I would build my tomb, and there, amid the ruins of three empires and three thousand years, I would give myself wholly to my God.” Now there was not much fanaticism in this; it was the out-breathed despair of the heart of a poet, whose family has been exterminated by one revolution, and who has himself been sacrificed to another; and though I don not think of the destinies of Europe and the world very much as he does, yet I shall, as long as I live, respect him for what I saw of his feelings to-night.
Of course things didn’t turn out exactly as Chateaubriand prophesied, but it’s worth remembering that a hundred years after that night in 1817, a war that nearly destroyed European civilization raged on in its third year (in 1939, it would resume after a 21-year interval), and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. The start of the war and the Russian Revolution were the signal events that began the bloodiest epoch in human history — a time that was indeed “too dark for human vision,” even for eyes that had seen the depredations of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s despotism.