Chateaubriand's memoirs, XI, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XI - Chapter 5
Le Génie du Christianisme – A letter from the Chevalier de Panat



London, April to September 1822.

When, after the sad news of Madame de Chateaubriand’s death, I resolved to make a sudden change of course, the title Le Génie de Christianisme, which I thought of instantly, inspired me; I set to work; I laboured at it with the ardour of a son building a mausoleum to his mother. My material was that which my previous studies had been gathering and rough-hewing for some time. I knew the works of the Fathers better than they are known these days; I had studied them in order to oppose them and having entered on that path with ill intentions, instead of leaving it as victor, I left it vanquished.

As to history proper, I had occupied myself with it specifically in composing the Essai sur les Révolutions. The Camden antiquities I had recently examined had made me familiar with the institutions and manners of the Middle Ages. Finally my daunting manuscript of Les Natchez, of two thousand three hundred and ninety-three folio pages contained all the Génie du Christianisme might need in the way of nature description: I could draw heavily on that source, as I had already for the Essai.

I wrote the first part of the Génie du Christianisme. Dulau, who had become booksellers to the émigré French clergy, agreed to publish it. The first sheets of the first volume were printed.

The work thus begun in London in 1799 was only completed in Paris, in 1802: see the different prefaces to Le Génie du Christianisme. A species of fever consumed me during the whole time of its writing: no one will ever know what it was like to carry Atala and René at the same moment in one’s brain, blood and soul, and to involve in the painful birth of those passionate twins the effort of composing the remaining parts of Le Génie du Christianisme. The memory of Charlotte penetrated and warmed it all: moreover a first longing for glory inflamed my exalted imagination. This longing arose in me from filial tenderness; I wanted to create a great stir, so that the sound of it would rise to where my mother was, and the angels would bring her my solemn expiation.

As one item of study leads to another, I could not occupy myself with French scholarship, without taking account of the people and literature amongst which I was living; I was drawn towards this other research. My days and nights were spent in reading, writing, taking lessons in Hebrew from a knowledgeable priest, the Abbé Caperan, consulting the libraries and men of learning, roaming the fields with my endless daydreams, and in making and receiving visits. If there are retroactive effects, ones symptomatic of future events, I ought to have been able to detect the noise and tremor of the work which was to make me famous, in the seething of my spirit and the palpitations of my muse.

A few readings of my first sketches served to inform me. Readings provide excellent input, as long as they do not involve the obligation to flatter for money. As long as an author is honest, he soon knows, from other’s instinctive reaction, the weak parts of his work, and especially whether the work is too long or too short, whether he has kept to, fallen short of, or exceeded the just measure. I received a letter from the Chevalier de Panat concerning readings of the as yet unknown work. The letter is delightful: the sharp wit and mockery of the slovenly Chevalier had not seemed open to addressing itself to poetry in this way. I do not hesitate to give you this letter, documenting my history, though it is smeared from end to end with praise, as if the shrewd author had taken pleasure in spilling his inkwell over his letter:

‘This Monday.
‘Goodness! What a fascinating reading, this morning, which I owe to your extreme kindness! Our religion has counted among its defenders great geniuses, illustrious Fathers of the Church: those athletes handled all the weapons of reason with vigour; unbelief was vanquished; but that was insufficient; it was necessary to demonstrate all the charms of that admirable religion; it was necessary to show how suited it is to the human heart, and reveal the magnificent pictures it offers to the imagination. It is not here a theologian of the schools, but a great painter and man of feeling who reveals a fresh horizon. Your work was missed, and you were called to do it. Nature has endowed you liberally with the fine qualities it demanded: you belong to another century…
Ah! If the truths of feeling come first in the order of nature, no one will demonstrate those of our religion more adequately than you; you will confound impiety at the door of the temple and you will introduce sensitive spirits and feeling hearts to the inner sanctuary. You picture again for me those ancient philosophers who gave out their teachings their heads crowned with flowers and their hands full of sweet perfumes. That is indeed a weak representation of your spirit, so tender, classical and pure.
I congratulate myself every day on the happy circumstance that brought me close to you; I cannot ever forget that it was through Fontane’s generosity; I love him the more, and my heart will never distinguish between two names which fame must unite, if Providence should open for us the gates of our country.
Chevalier de Panat.’

The Abbé Delille also heard the reading of several extracts from Le Génie du Christianisme. He seemed surprised, and he did me the honour, a little later, of versifying the prose that had pleased him. He naturalised my savage flowers of America in his various French gardens, and cooled my wine, which was a little too heated, in the icy water of his clear fountain.

The incomplete edition of Le Génie du Christianisme, which I had begun in London, differs somewhat in its order of contents from the edition published in France. The Consular Censor, who soon became the Imperial one, showed himself to be extremely touchy on the question of kings: their person, honour and virtue were already dear to him in anticipation. Fouché’s police could already see the white dove with the sacred phial descending from the sky, symbols of Bonaparte’s ingenuousness and of revolutionary innocence. The sincere believers in the Republican processions at Lyon forced me to cut a chapter entitled the Royal atheists, and to disseminate the paragraphs of it here and there in the body of the work.