Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 10

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XIII, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIII, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 10
The years 1802 and 1803 – Le Génie du Christianisme – Disaster predicted – The reason for ultimate success

Meanwhile I completed Le Génie du Christianisme: Lucien asked to see various proof sheets; I sent them to him; he added some commonplace notes in the margins.

Although the success of my large work was as brilliant as that of little Atala, it nevertheless provoked more opposition: it was a serious work in which I was no longer attacking the principles of classical literature and philosophy by means of a novel, but by reason and faith. The empire of Voltaire gave the alarm, and rushed to arm itself. Madame de Staël was mistaken about the prospect for my religious writings: they brought her the work uncut; she riffled her fingers through the pages, stopped at the chapter on Virginity, and said to Monsieur Adrien de Montmorency, who happened to be with her: ‘Oh! My goodness! Our poor Chateaubriand! This will fall flat on its face!’ The Abbé de Boulogne, having had access to parts of my work before submitting them to print, replied to a bookseller who consulted him: ‘If you wish to ruin yourself, publish it.’ Yet the Abbé de Boulogne has since pronounced an overly magnificent eulogy regarding my book.

Everything, in fact, seemed to predict disaster for me: what hope could I have, I without a name and without patrons, of countering the influence of Voltaire, dominant for more than half a century, of Voltaire, who had raised the enormous edifice completed by the Encyclopedists and consolidated by all the distinguished men of Europe? What! Were Diderot, D’Alembert, Duclos, Dupuis, Helvétius, Condorcet spirits without authority? What! Must the world return to the Golden Legend, renounce its admiration acquired through the master-works of science and reason? Could I win a cause that Rome in its wrath, the clergy with all its power, could not protect: a cause defended in vain by the Archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, supported by Parliamentary decrees, by armed force and in the King’s name? Was it not as ridiculous as rash for an obscure individual to oppose a philosophical movement so overwhelming that it produced the Revolution? It was a curiosity to see a pygmy flexing his little arms to stifle a century’s progress, arrest a civilisation, and set the human race moving backwards! By God’s grace, it would only take a word to crush this madman: for Monsieur Ginguené, savaging Le Génie du Cristianisme, declared in La Décade, that the criticism came too late, since my repetitious harping was already forgotten. He said this, five or six months after the publication of a work that the assault of the whole FrenchAcademy, on the occasion of the Decennial Prize, could not kill.

It was amongst the ruins of our temples that I published Le Génie du Christianisme. The faithful believed themselves rescued: there was a need then for faith, avidity for religious consolation arising from the long years during which those consolations were denied. What supernatural powers were needed to overcome so many adversities suffered! How many shattered families were forced to search for their lost children in the bosom of the Father of Mankind! How many broken hearts, how many isolated souls, called for a divine hand to heal them! They ran to the house of God as one hurries to the doctor’s house during a plague. The victims of our troubles (and what an array of victims) hastened to the altar; suffering shipwreck they clung to the rock on which they sought salvation.

Bonaparte, desiring at that time to establish his power on the deepest foundations of society, came to an arrangement with the See of Rome: initially he placed no obstacle in the way of a work that increased the popularity of his intentions; he had to struggle with those surrounding him, and against the declared enemies of religion; he was happy then to be defended from without by the opinions which Le Génie du Christianisme expressed. Later, he repented of his error: traditional ideas of monarchy entered with these religious ideas.

One episode from Le Génie du Christianisme, which made less noise then than Atala, fixed a typical character from modern literature; however, if René did not already exist, I would no longer choose to write it; if it were possible for me to destroy it, I would destroy it. A whole hive of René poets and René prose-writers has swarmed: one hears nothing but appalling, disjointed phrases; it has seemed nothing but winds and storms, unspecified ills delivered over to clouds and the night. There is not a single puppy leaving college who has not dreamed himself the most unfortunate of men; not a stripling of sixteen who is not tired of life, who does not think himself tormented by genius; who, in the depths of his thoughts, is not given to waves of passion; who has not clasped his pale, tousled forehead, who has not amazed astonished men with an illness whose name he knows no more than they.

In René, I exposed the sickness of my era; but it was a different folly of the novelists to render affliction present beyond everything else. The common feelings which are the foundation of humanity, paternal and maternal affection, filial piety, friendship, love, are inexhaustible; but unique modes of feeling, individualities of character and spirit cannot be broadened and multiplied in vast and numerous tapestries. The little undiscovered corners of the human heart are a narrow field; there is nothing left to gather from that field after the first hand has reaped there. A malady of the soul is not a permanent or natural state: one cannot reproduce it, to create a literature, by taking advantage of universal feeling continually modified at the hands of artists who mould it to shape its form.

Be that as it may, literature was dyed with the colours of my religious painting, as public affairs have retained the phraseology of my writings on the city; La Monarchie selon la Charte, has been the basis of our representative government, and my article for the Conservateur, on moral interests and material interests endowed politics with those two designations.

Writers did me the honour of imitating Atala and René, just as the pulpit followed my tales of Missions and Christian good works. The passages in which I demonstrate that in driving out the pagan gods of the woods, our religion broadened so as to return nature to solitude; the paragraphs where I handle the influence of our religion on our ways of seeing and depicting, where I examine the changes which occurred in poetry and oratory; the chapters that I dedicated to research into the alien feelings introduced into dramatic roles in antiquity, contained the seeds of the new criticism. Racine’s characters, as I said, are and are not Greek characters, they are Christian characters: that had not been at all understood.

If the effect of Le Génie du Christianisme had been no more than a reaction against the doctrines to which were attributed our revolutionary ills that effect would have ceased when its cause vanished; it would not have lasted until this moment in which I write. But the effect of Le Génie du Christianisme on opinion was not limited to a momentary resurrection of religion, as if pretended to on the point of death: a more lasting metamorphosis occurred. If there was stylistic innovation in the work, there was also a change of doctrine; the foundations were altered like the form; atheism and materialism were no longer the basis for belief or unbelief in young minds; the idea of God and the immortality of the soul reclaimed their empire: from then on, there was an alteration in that chain of ideas which linked one with another. One was not nailed in place by antireligious prejudice; one was no longer obliged to remain a mummy of non-existence, wound round by philosophical bindings; one allowed oneself to examine each system however absurd one might find it to be, even were it a Christian one.

Besides the faithful who returned to the voice of their Pastor, other faithful were formed a priori, by this right of free examination. Establish God as a principle, and the Word follows: the Son is born inevitably of the Father.

The various abstract schemes only serve to substitute more incomprehensible mysteries for the Christian ones: pantheism, which moreover takes two or three different forms, and which it is today’s fashion to ascribe to enlightened intellects, is the most absurd of Eastern daydreams, brought back to light by Spinoza; regarding this subject it suffices to read the article by a sceptical Bayle on Amsterdam’s Jewish philosopher. The peremptory tone with which some people speak about all this appals one, unless it is due to lack of study: they are struck by words they cannot understand, and imagine them to be those of transcendental genius. How easy it is to believe that Abelard, Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas Aquinas brought to metaphysics an intellectual superiority which we cannot match; that the systems of Saint-Simon, Fourier’s Phalansterianism, and Humanism had been discovered and practised already by sundry heretics: that what are held up to us as products of progress, as new discoveries, are the outdated concepts trailed for fifteen centuries through the schools of Greece and the colleges of the Middle Ages. The trouble is that the first sectarians were unable to found their Neo-Platonist republic, such as Gallienus consented to Plotinus attempting in Campania: so, much later, we encounter the crime of burning sectarians for wishing to establish communal possessions, and declaring prostitution holy, asserting that a woman could not, without sin, refuse a man who demanded casual union with her in Jesus Christ’s name: to arrive at this union, they claimed, it was only necessary to relinquish the soul, and allow it to rest for a moment in God’s breast.

The spiritual shock that Le Génie du Christianisme gave, thrust the eighteenth-century out of its rut, and pushed it one and for all onto a new track: people began once more, or rather for the first time, to study the sources of Christianity: on re-reading the Fathers (assuming they had ever read them in the first place) they were struck by a plethora of interesting facts, scientific philosophy, beauties of style in every genre, ideas, which, by a more or less obvious gradation, created the transition from ancient society to modern society: a unique and memorable era of humanity, when heaven communicated with earth through the souls of men of genius.

In the past, beside the crumbling world of paganism, another world was created, as if outside society, a spectator of those great spectacles, poor, secluded, solitary, not mixing in life’s affairs except when its teachings or help were needed. It is a marvellous thing to behold those first bishops, almost all honoured by the name of saint or martyr, those simple priests watching over their relics and catacombs, those monks and hermits in their monasteries and grottos, creating their rule of peace, morality and charity, when all was war, corruption and barbarity: journeying to the tyrants of Rome and from them to the leaders of the Tartars and the Goths, in order to prevent the injustices of the former and the cruelties of the latter, halting armies with a wooden cross and the word of peace: the weakest of men, yet defending the world against Attila; set between two universes in order to connect them, in order to solace the last moments of a dying society and support the first steps of a society fresh from its cradle.