Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 11

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XIII, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIV, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIII - Chapter 11
Le Génie du Christianisme, continued – The faults of the work



It was impossible for the ideas developed in Le Génie du Christianisme not to contribute to an alteration in ideas. It is still that work which present taste turns to in order to discover the edifices of the Middle Ages: it is I who woke the new century to an admiration for the ancient temples. If my view has been carried too far; if it is untrue that our cathedrals match the beauty of the Parthenon; if it is false that those churches teach us forgotten facts in documents of stone; if it is foolish to maintain that those granite memoirs reveal to us things which escaped the Benedictine savants; if by dint of repetition of the Gothic everyone is dying of boredom, it is not my fault. As for the rest, in relation to the arts, I know what is lacking in Le Génie du Christianisme; that section of my work is defective, because in 1800 I did not understand the arts: I had not seen Italy, Greece, or Egypt. Similarly, I had not taken sufficient account of the lives of the saints and the legends; yet they offered me wonderful stories: selecting from them with taste, one could have reaped an abundant harvest. This rich field of the imagination of the Middle Ages surpassed in fecundity Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Milesian fables. There are, moreover, false or facile judgements in my work, such as those I held concerning Dante, to whom I have since rendered shining homage.

Among my more serious works, I completed the task of Le Génie du Christianisme in my Études historiques, one of my works less talked of and less stolen from.

The success of Atala delighted me, because my spirit was still fresh; that of Le Génie du Christianisme was tiresome to me: I was obliged to give my time to useless correspondence and compliments from abroad. Admiration, so-called, did not compensate me for the disgust that seizes a man whose name the crowd has retained. What benefit can offset the peace you have lost by allowing the public to invade your privacy? Add to that the difficulties that the Muses delight in inflicting on those who follow their cult, the embarrassment of an easy-going character, the inability to deal with good fortune, time-wasting, unstable moods, lively affections, sadness for no reason, joy without cause: who would wish, if he were in charge, to purchase on these conditions, the uncertain advantages of a reputation that one is not sure of achieving, which will be challenged during one’s lifetime, which posterity will fail to confirm, and from which your death will render you forever remote?

The literary controversy regarding novelties of style which Atala generated was renewed on publication of Le Génie du Christianisme.

A characteristic trait of the Imperial school, and even the Republican school, is to observe: while society advanced, for good or ill, literature remained stationary; a stranger to the change in ideas, it failed to be involved in its times. In comedy, the lords of the manor, Colin, Babet, or the intrigues of those salons that are no longer known, were played (as I have already remarked) in front of rough and blood-stained men, destroyers of those manners whose portrait was displayed to them; in tragedy the plebeian stalls were entranced by the families of nobles and kings.

Two things held literature frozen in the eighteenth century; the impiety that Voltaire and the Revolution had brought to it, the despotism with which Bonaparte controlled it. The Chief of State found it advantageous to subordinate literature which he had confined to barracks, where it presented arms, and emerged when he cried: ‘On parade!’; marched in ranks, and manoeuvred like an army. Any independence seemed like a rebellion against his authority; he no more desired a riot of words and ideas than he wished to experience insurrection. He suspended Habeas corpus with regard to thought as with regard to individual liberty. We also recognised that the public, weary of anarchy, willingly accepted their rulers’ yoke once more.

The literature which expresses the new era has only held sway for forty or fifty years from the moment whose idiom it became. During this half century it has only been employed by the opposition. It was Madame de Staël, Benjamin Constant, Lemercier, Bonald, and, finally, I who first spoke that language. The changes in literature, which the nineteenth century boasted of, arose from emigration and exile; it was Monsieur de Fontanes who hatched these birds of another species than his own, because, returning to the seventeenth century, he had acquired the strength of those times, and forsaken the sterility of the eighteenth. One aspect of the human mind, that which deals with transcendental matters, advances alone at the same rate as civilisation; unfortunately the glory of knowledge is not without its stains: Laplace, Lagrange, Cuvier, Monge, Chaptal, Berthollet, all those prodigies, once fierce democrats, became Napoleon’s most obsequious servants. One must say this in honour of literature: the new literature was liberated, science was servile; character had not bowed to genius, yet those in whom thought had mounted to the heights of heaven, could not raise their souls above the level of Bonaparte’s feet: they claimed to have no need of a God, because they had need of a tyrant.

Napoleonic classicism was the genius of the nineteenth century decked out in Louis XIV’s wig, or curly-haired as in the time of Louis XV. Bonaparte wished the men of the Revolution only to appear at his court in formal dress, sword at side. One was not seeing the France of the time; it was not about rank, it was about discipline. Also, nothing was more tedious than that pallid resurrection of previous literature. That frigid copy, that unproductive anachronism vanished when the new literature made its thunderous appearance with Le Génie du Christianisme. The death of the Duc d’Enghien had the benefit for me, in setting me apart, of allowing me to follow my individual aspirations in solitude and prevented me from enlisting in the regular infantry of old Pindus: I owe my intellectual liberty to my moral liberty.

In the last chapter of Le Génie du Christianisme, I consider what might have happened to the world if the faith had not been preached at the moment of the Barbarian invasion; in a further paragraph, I mention an important study to be undertaken on the changes that Christianity brought in the law after the conversion of Constantine.

Supposing that religious opinion existed as it does now at the moment when I am writing, Le Génie du Christianisme being yet to do, I would create it quite differently than it is: instead of recalling the benefits and institutions of our religion in the past, I would show that Christianity is the thought of the future and of human liberty; that its redemptive and messianic thought is the sole basis for social equality; that it alone can establish it, because it sets the necessity of duty, the corrective to and regulator of the democratic instinct, alongside that equality. The law is not sufficient to control equality, because it is not permanent; it acquires its powers from legislation; but legislation is the work of men who change and vanish. A law is not always mandatory; it can always be altered by another law: morality on the other hand is permanent; its power is within, because it arises from the immutable order; that alone can give it durability.

I would show that wherever Christianity has been a dominant force, it has altered ideas, it has corrected our notions of justice and injustice, replaced doubt with affirmation, embracing all of humanity with its doctrines and precepts. I would try to estimate the distance we have yet to go to totally accomplish the message of the Gospels, while calculating the number of evils erased and improvements achieved in the eighteen centuries passed this side of the Crucifixion. Christianity acts slowly because it acts universally; it does not involve itself with the reform of a particular society, it works on society in general; its philanthropy extends to all the sons of Adam: it is what it expresses with marvellous simplicity in its commonest orisons, in its daily prayers, when it says to the crowd in the temple: ‘Let us pray for all those on earth who are suffering.’ What other religion has ever spoken in that way! The Word was not made flesh in a man of joy, but in a man of sorrows, in order to liberate all, in a universal fraternity and an immense salvation.

If Le Génie du Christianisme had only given birth to such new investigations, I would congratulate myself for having published it: it is impossible to know whether, at the time when the book appeared, a different Génie du Christianisme, created on this new plan, that I have barely outlined, would have obtained the same success. In 1803, when nothing was accorded the old religion, when it was an object of disdain, when the first word on the subject was not understood, would one have been welcomed in speaking of future liberty descending from Calvary, when people were still wounded to excess by the freedom of the passions? Would Bonaparte have countenanced such a work? Perhaps it would have been useful in exciting regret, in interesting the imagination in a cause so poorly known, in drawing the gaze towards the object scorned, rendering it delightful, before showing how weighty, powerful and salutary it was.

Now, assuming that my name leaves some trace behind, I will owe it to Le Génie du Christianisme: without any illusions in regard to the intrinsic value of the work, I recognise an accidental value in it; it came just at the right moment. For that reason, it has given me my place in one of those historical epochs which, involving an individual with events, forces a remembrance of him. If the influence of my work is only limited to the changes that, for forty years, it has produced in the present generation; if it still serves to revive in the latecomers a glimmer of civilised truth on earth; if the slight traces of life that one thinks one detects are maintained in the generations to come, I will be full of hope in the divine mercy. Reconciled Christian, do not forget me in your prayers, when I am gone; perhaps my errors may detain me in front of those doors where my charity has cried out on your behalf: ‘Open, ye everlasting doors! Elavimini, portae aeternales!’

Revised in December 1846.