by Farah Abdessamad
Through the eyes of an eight-year-old, the world beyond a high window is both an unattainable promise and a terrifying or mesmerising mystery. I tried to remember what the view looked like at this young age, wishing to be taller, drawing shapes of familiar constellations on a clear night with my index finger in the air. In front of me, high walls regrettably obstructed the lake-facing scenery. At a boy’s height, the minuscule slice of blue sky failed to brighten the room I stood in. If one adds the quirky mummy of a cat opposite the bed, the gloom gave the claustrophobic illusion of being trapped in a shrinking sarcophagus.
The gaze I was attempting to inhabit was the one of François-René de Chateaubriand, the 19-century French writer and precursor of the European Romantic literary movement. I visited his childhood room in the Chateau de Combourg, a place he hated and from which, throughout the vicissitudes of his tumultuous life, he couldn’t entirely part. I could relate.
Pages devoted to life in Combourg are among the most evocative and lyrical of his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, a majestic oeuvre where the deeply personal, at times autofictional, intertwines with the greatly historical and sixty critical years of French records. His life was as colourful as the era dictated – young liberal infused with ideals of the American Revolution and constitutional monarchy, writer, émigré-rebel later pardoned, ambassador of France, lover with one constant and faithful object of desire, the end of his eventful life, conceptualised as a bliss to the unfathomable pain of his existence.
Combourg, now a medieval town of around 6,000 inhabitants nearly 400kms west of Paris with several boulangeries, PMUs serving beer and spirits at 10am and a Carrefour, holds a special place in Chateaubriand’s gushing memories and the pantheon of locations where he once daydreamt. “It’s in the woods of Combourg that I became who I am, that I began to feel the first assault of this ennui I dragged along my life, of this sadness which made my torment and my felicity,” he writes and later adds, “It is a long way from Combourg to Berlin, from a youthful dreamer to an old minister.” Combourg marks an initiation and in these beginnings, I sought clues about the writer’s character and Romanticism.
In Memoirs, Chateaubriand recalls typical evenings in Combourg’s dim dining hall. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, the medieval castle was decisively austere. He remembered how the hard whistling of the wind used to break the deafening silence of an uncomfortably cold family meal. After supper, young Francois-René would first accompany his mother and beloved sister Lucile back to their rooms, located in another part of the castle. With a single candle, he would then walk past the ramparts to his ascetic room – which his taciturn father expressly chose to forge his character. There, birds projected haunting shadows against the walls. The ghosts of an amputated ancestor and a cat troubled his sleep. From a recent discovery, maybe there was some truth to the boy’s fright. A black cat had indeed been interred within the tower walls to conjure bad luck in accordance with the folk traditions of the time.
Chateaubriand’s father moved the family from coastal Saint-Malo to Combourg in 1777-1778 after years of hard work and renovation to reconstitute an estate and give cachet to his household. The property is an aristocratic investment to socially elevate and overcome financial hardships. Looted during the Terror, vacant and abandoned for 80 years following the French Revolution, the Chateau was later restored by descendants of the great writer. It served as a military hospital during World War I and was briefly occupied by the Nazis during World War II.
Between an emotionally detached father and an over-pious mother, Chateaubriand developed an intense relationship with his sister Lucile. In his persisting loneliness, he contemplated an inner pain, a malady of the soul core to his character formation. This mal du siècle, which was to never leave him, went on to inspire countless of writers and artists after him and contributed to shaping the idea of the “Romantic man”.
I could absorb the weight of secluded hours in his room and the longing for more. Without siblings and not a stranger to solitude, I spent a good part of my childhood at home staring outside my bedroom window, following the trail of planes approaching the nearby Paris airport in the sky from my banlieue. I envied the passengers; I envied the magpies, their feathers and resoluteness that propelled them up and out to a vague but fortunate elsewhere. Sunsets painted stunning warm colours against such a narrow canvas, even more so in the pellucidity of a wintry afternoon, and I couldn’t wait to leave the perimeters of this house, this school, this life, to be out in the world I had been thrown in, knowing that reconciling its brevity and shallowness would be futile at best and a lifelong misery. I felt a pain of existence; every day stretched into an infinite sorrow and every night brought insufferable sadness. It only got worse with age.
My visit continued in the castle’s so-called archives room. Chateaubriand’s repatriated Parisian deathbed and white linen featured alongside royal laissez-passers and handwritten ministerial appointments. A frieze reproducing Nicolas Poussin’s enigmatic painting The Arcadian Shepherds graced a fireplace. A monochromatic post-mortem esquisse of the writer showed his tired traits, half-seated in the bed – the exhibited white canopy bed. He seemed to finally enjoy the peace of an eternal rest; his semi-open mouth ostensibly sighs at the conclusion of a long, full and taxing life.
I found it revealing that the same house should concurrently host remnants of childhood and death. Both stages of life are juxtaposed on different floors and wings of the same residence as a perceptible incarnation of organicity in the stone. One moves between rooms in a parabolic nod to the mortal body and the inexorable, linear motion of human existence.
Peter Sloterdijk offered further reflections on movement, graves and the characterisation of one’s life via its ending, in his essay “The Plunge and the Turn” (Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger, 2016) which I’d recently picked up. The German philosopher recalls the time he stumbled upon Hannah Arendt’s laconic tombstone at Bard College where she taught, in upstate New York. His initial surprise (who wants to be buried in one’s “provincial” workplace?) quickly faded when he compared her resting choice with the one of her former teacher Martin Heidegger. Arendt remained cosmopolitan in the sense of belonging to a near-universal “universitas”, while Heidegger chose to stay local, rustic even, and removed in his countryside, as if in stasis, in an apparent contradiction to his kinetic philosophy of being.
Chateaubriand, who spent time in the young federation of the United States, England, Italy, Palestine, Sweden, Switzerland and more, passed away in Paris in 1848, shortly after the revolution which would end the reign of king Louis-Philippe and proclaim the Second Republic (and elect Napoleon’s nephew as France’s first President). Yet I’d like to believe that Combourg represents a quasi-sepulcher, something sacred, perhaps more so than the physical tomb he designed.
Decades before his death while still living in Paris, Chateaubriand reached out to the Mayor of Saint Malo to acquire a small plot on an island off the walled city. The Mayor refused. A local author interceded on Chateaubriand’s behalf a few years later (by then a new mayor had been appointed) unlocking a modest concession and funeral plans. Upon the writer’s final wishes, his body was returned to his native Saint-Malo, as a perfect – and slightly daunting – closed loop. Childhood is an itch and a late afternoon shadow.
Grand Bé Island, where Chateaubriand is buried as he so desired facing his native sea, is only accessible by foot during low tides. I used to be acquainted with the tide schedule of the Atlantic coast. As a kid, I’d sometimes go fishing on foot with my grandparents who had retired to the seaside. The texture and scent of the mud and ocean traced a smile of hundreds of years on my face; it had been a while since I dusted this memory off from my shelf of lost evanescent moments of joy. I meandered my way through the medieval city streets of Saint-Malo until I climbed stony stairs down a beach where young people played football and volleyball and older people sunbathed. On that late September afternoon, the last hours of summer were kind and offered a different vista than the regular storms and restless waves which had lulled Chateaubriand to sleep before his encounter with Combourg’s nightly, spectral terrors.
A man in a yellow vest who carried a loudspeaker told me I had 15 minutes left. High tide will come shortly, everyone needs to vacate, don’t linger, he told me. In biblical fashion, the sea had parted leaving a tiny trail up to Grand Bé Island exposed. I followed the path and it wasn’t long before I, too, faced the immensity of the emerald sea.
By a cliff off the island’s western tip, I stayed silent next to the grim granite slab. Bé means tomb in Breton language. West is a cardinal point long associated with the underworld. The location and its symbolism were simply perfect. Despite an outward pact with the maritime and the free, the tomb – a phantasmal stage – looks nonetheless constrained by a fence. I appreciated that in our days one side of it stays open towards the sea, respecting Chateaubriand’s wish. Before being accidentally shelled during World War II and rebuilt, the original neo-gothic grille channelled unnecessary gloom. The short, thick cross mounted on the slab didn’t match with the aesthetics I’d imagined yet it fell perhaps as a convenient artistic choice in exchange for sturdiness and longevity. Imagining the English Channel taking up its mood upon the island, I’d see his windswept hair meditating on the storm ahead. Caspar David Friedrich’s roaring Romantic painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, came to mind in its depiction of the polysensorial experience of an agitated sea inasmuch as a troubled mind.
Chateaubriand wished to unite with the autochthonous and it likely meant for him to stay true to himself through chapters of displacement, tragedy, upheavals and the uncertainty of revolutionary France. He lamented the tightness and inescapable nature of sublunary permutations, yearned for liberation in death only to lie in a cage of sorts for eternity in Saint-Malo. I recognised in this irony the impossibility of an impasse and the significance of enclosures, bolstering a reactionary Romantic urge towards the wild and untamed.
I walked back after my special 15 minutes, scanning the island’s rugged beauty. Shrubs, thorny bushes. The sea licked the borders of the trail like a wound; they would soon be swallowed and with it, any traces of vulnerability.
The liminal actuality of a place and the potentiality of an idea converge in Combourg. Right next to the Chateau’s main entrance is a small private chapel where François-René’s mother would spend hours. I wondered about its placement and what it meant. The necessity of purifying one’s self after encountering the outside world, or an attempt at forgiving darkness before stepping into the garden’s external luminosity?
A home means comfort for most people but in Chateaubriand’s case, save for the tender jealousy of Lucile, it was a carcass he dragged along and as such, an emblematic ruin. For a book research I was undertaking several months ago, one article had led me to five more, then several others which pushed me after many internet rabbit holes to zoom in on the Gulf of Tunis to my family’s seaside town using Google Street View. Despite not having visited for over a decade, I instinctively found a white rectangle with a large backyard and knew this had to be it. I enlarged the frame.
Unexpected anger and confusion overtook the nostalgic pleasure of resurrecting a pixelated memory. The date trees were gone. The jasmine shrubs were gone. The roof seemed to collapse. The garden had not been tended for some time. The house, where my father and his siblings were born, the house of several summer holidays, was short of being a decrepit, abandoned and unspecified wreck. And I couldn’t help but feel a larger resonance beyond architecture and personal irresponsibility on the wickedness of transience, on my own frailty, me, a living and breathing ruin. In front of Combourg I understood his despair and sentimental attachment to the fleeting satisfaction of owning rocks and dreams. Chateaubriand’s frozen memories of Combourg were not only a time capsule for a literary masterpiece but the scaffoldings of a nascent memento mori. The castle was gone as soon as Chateaubriand left it and on its grounds, I stepped into an ellipsis where the past swings into the present, obliterating a desirable future.
I walked around the chateau’s estate and the woods. I strolled along the lindens and chestnuts, and the shaded alleys. A 250-year-old Lawson False Cypress with torturous trunk and branches and an eroded cross, marks the location where Lucile is said to have encouraged her brother to become a writer.
During lockdown, my apartment became my island. The gingko tree outside my living room window told me about passing seasons. The swaying of its leaves sketched the reinvented hands of an immutable clock. It indicated that something was respectively growing and decaying, and after a frosty stillness, life miraculously sprung again and the cycle began anew. I couldn’t tell whether this offered a hopeful comfort or conversely painted the allegory of an inescapable fortress. At what point did I notice the phone vibrating less, the distance between my ex and I growing wider, and silence becoming my preferred refuge? When life itself felt like a simulacrum, only memories – real, imagined, new, reconstructed, desired – remained what I wanted to latch on to.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in Combourg on all fours looking for four-leaf clovers in the estate. I enjoyed this spontaneous lightness and I enjoyed the welcomed serenity. Intermittent clouds protected me from an uncharacterising blinding sun. Chateaubriand had wanted his Memoirs to be a magic mirror. A breeze animated tree leaves which led me to reflect on planting roots and primitively aspiring to celestial heights; the depth of our nourishment intimately connects with the cosmisation of our surroundings. Combourg’s geography suggested other magic mirrors. The nearby pond and the Lac Tranquille around the castle echo with Celtic beliefs and the legend of the Lady of the Lake. Centuries ago, Combourg bordered the enchanted and expansive Brocéliande Forest, a site where Celtic myths such as the Arthurian tales of Merlin the Magician, Lancelot, Percival, the fountain of youth and fairies coexist. Nature forms an escapism, an essentialised landscape, a stochastic resonance. Chateaubriand’s magic mirror should also be apprehended under the lens of botanical wanderlands and hierophanies, with the divine permeating through the observed and experiential.
This dialogue and reinterpretation of medieval and chivalric heritage deeply influenced the Romantic Age, the artistic movement which culminated from the late 18th century to the 1850s in response to religious, political, and socioeconomic insecurities. Romanticism stands as a sweeping, flamboyant consolation against the rational and the idea of a blind progress.
Chateaubriand spoke about the decrepitude of the world, the erosion of religious devotion and traditional values subjugated, to him, to the tyranny of Reason. What percolated from a life of revolutions, exiles, returns, losses, restorations and accusations was a lingering disillusion – with faith, with men, with systems – turning ideas such as absolute good, truth, and optimism (“tomorrow will be better than yesterday”) into outdated notions. To the universal, the Romantics replied with singularity, localism, and Volksgeist, understood as the spirit or character of specific peoples. To the horrific battlefields and pauperised urban dwellings, they yearned for they considered to embody a noble primitive lifestyle.
Chateaubriand was my age and in Rome when he first decided to write his memoirs. He structured the text in parts corresponding to the major phases of his life: as a soldier, a writer, and a politician. Memoirs were supposed to be published 50 years after his passing to let controversies be forgotten and for the revolutionary dust to settle. Less than four months after his death, the newspaper La Presse published them as a feuilleton forcing him (in anticipation) and his executors to edit, censor and tinker with the initial format and content.
I first read Memoirs from Beyond the Grave in an overnight train in Western China then in Yemen at war and finished them in the Horn of Africa in Somalia four years later. To say that the books kept me company in times of brutal sadness is an understatement – it was often a lifeline. Like other foreigners and immigrants during this pandemic, I longed for that special time when we would be able to travel again and reconnect with a suspended life. I didn’t have to think hard before settling on Combourg after 20 months without leaving New York State, to fuse my melancholy with Chateaubriand’s mid-tonal reverberation 180 years after his last entry.
Memories form companionship, a remedy against an alienating solitude, a reply to the crushing waves of an abysmal vacuity. In Combourg, the “cradle of Romanticism”, I saw the opportunity to outline the physiognomy of melancholy.
Before traveling to Combourg, a recent reading of László Földényi’s Melancholy (2016) helped me to reflect – conceptually, historically and philosophically – on what I’d so far considered a burdensome trait of my personality. In this book, Földényi retraces the historicity of melancholia, starting with the belief of pre-Socratic thinkers and Aristotle that melancholics possessed a singular distinction, a sort of brilliant madness which was poised to curse their ability to be in the world. Detached from an earthly quotidian and not quite divine, they live in-between and nowhere, and their destiny is to “experience the destructive forces of intermediacy, homelessness, and elusiveness”, a frenzy and alienation peculiar for non-melancholics. “Having sunk in perpetual silence, recognising transience in becoming deficiency in completeness, they are irretrievably lost for the rest of mankind,” Földényi explains, providing depth and complexity to the contemporary view which favours a medical approach to melancholy, and tends refer to it as another manifestation of depression.
“If my works survive me, if I am to leave a name behind, perhaps one day, guided by these Memoirs, some traveller will visit the places I have described,” Chateaubriand writes. I surveyed in Combourg the smell of melancholia, its hues, the texture and shape of memories, the brush strokes they painted with the heart as a black canvas to which color is added and subtracted in a generous creation of prismatic intensity. As a phenomenology, melancholia is an internal and external performance of sadness and close pain. Chateaubriand’s sensual, intimate, visceral description of a fragile flame presents melancholia as a supreme form of nostalgia in response to primeval and unrelenting loss. Combourg encapsulates the cradle in the grave and the grave in the cradle, a distinct desolation, an unbearable monotony and an élan-of-nothing which ultimately, contains an unexpected, striking whole.
About the Author
All photographs courtesy the author. The frontpage photogrpah is View of Saint-Malo from Grand Bé Island.