In the early 1960′s, Chateaubriand received a tribute that demonstrates in its very extravagance, his enduring power. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre visited Saint-Malo on one of their many excursions. They liked the town, but Chateaubriand’s tomb, with its ”false simplicity” seemed to them ridiculous in its pomposity. Sartre, she reported, showed his contempt by urinating on it . It is amusing to wonder just what Chateaubriand would have made of this gesture, but more than likely he may have been amused. Such a man cannot leave anyone indifferent. He was a giant or a monster, anything but ordinary. Sartre’s gest proves, no matter how wrily, that he had not been forgotten, and that he was, in his own way, immortal.
Chateaubriand was the greatest lover, greatest lover, greatest writer, and greatest philosopher of his age; at least in his own mind. The public was also inclined to fall victim to this delusion. Charles Mackay’s ”Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, was a treatise on humanity’s herd mentality and showed that mass delusion can strike wherever people gather, no matter their degree of intelligence, and Chateaubriand seems to pull the right levers to make this happen. Chateaubriand, was sensitive and intelligent, but his work has not endured. His novels are exotic and, at their best, moving, but they generally fall into sentimental gush and sheer absurdity. More of a cultural oddity today.
His religious apologetics were mediocre in reasoning and in doubtful taste, yet at heart, were earnest and compelling arguments for creationism, despite being partially a posture:”Chateaubriand debated against the notion of the Enlightenment that humanity is by nature rational, as he said, “Man’s heart is the toy of everything, and no one can tell what frivolous circumstance may cause its joys and its sorrows (Chateaubriand, 1899, p.124). He vehemently disagreed with the idea that rational reforms would solve humanity’s problems because he saw the inhuman violence of the French Revolution.Chateaubriand believed it was his mission to show that Chris- tianity was a divinely inspired religion. He argued that the aesthetic beauty of Christianity including the mystical rituals and the ornate cathedrals proved that only God could have inspired Christianity. Through his writings Chateaubriand called France to return to its Christian faith, values and traditions.” Chateaubriand incarnated his defense of Christianity through women characters in order to defend the idea that God’s transcendental truths, fall into the metaphysic, mystical, magical, and cannot be revealed through human reason and rationality. The aesthetic of perfection was thus merged with Christianity. This Counter-Enlightenment appraoch remains the source of his popular acclaim.
His political conduct, though courageous, rested on archaic and chaotic principles or, rather, on a sheer nostalgic feeling for a past that had never existed. His famous autobiography, written in a lush style about the great men and events he was witness to, is dreary, maudlin and riddled with faults, inaccuracies, and triviality mixed in with a few passages of real weight.But, the posing had some purpose when he resigned from the French Embassy in Rome in 1803 after Bonaparte executed Duc d’Enghien as a pointed warning to other potential conspirators.
Yet, how to explain this uneven writer dominating the French literary scene in the first half of the 19th century? He was a child of the Old Regime, achieved fame and influence in the time of Napoleon and long survived him to remain a towering figure in the Restoration and July Monarchy. He died a national institution in the midst of the revolutionary violence of 1848. How could such flawed work secure him such celebrity? Chateaubriand was a man a superb tact and shrewdness who represented his age rather than transcending it. He was an expert at giving the public what it wanted. It appeared that what the French public wanted in the aftermath of the Revolution was a turning back of progress, a repudiation of the Enlightenment, a celebration of Chrisitian values and a glorification of what would be termed Romanticism; darkness, doomed love and the primitive, and a concomitant renunciation of clarity and reason. Much the same terrain covered by Heinrich Heine: A reaction to industrialization and the employment of emotion and the powers of the imagination as an authentic source of aesthetic experience.
On November 9,1799- the 18 th Brumaire, a tottering regime collapsed. Bonaparte, rescued from disaster by his loyal supporters, superintented the coup that was to make him First Consul of France. By may, 1800, Chateaubriand was back in Paris,after seven impoverished years in London, and now ready to conquer the literary field. In 1801, he published ”Atala” which brought him instant fame. It is a tale of love of the young Chactas Indian for the Indian maiden Atala, a devout and pious Christian.It is a tale of love in the overwhelming presence of nature, told by an old man remembering the past through a veil of tears. It climaxes as it must; in the pious death of the maiden and in the melancholy afterthoughts of the author. It was the romantic spirit in rebellion against the Enlightenment. It represented something new: popular entertainment of the bittersweet variety that reflected traditional values with a strong undercurrent of melancholia, where ennui and misery is deemed as part of the natural and inevitable.
”The figure of the noble savage constitutes one of the defining features of French Romanticism. As contemporary criticism points out, this figure is riddled with ambivalence. While savage cultures may epitomize an innocent state of nature by way of contrast to a dissolute Western civilization, they also represent a less developed social organization that makes Western societies appear superior by comparison. Rousseau’s works perhaps best capture the philosophical ambivalence of early Romantic representations of savage cultures. On the one hand, Rousseau praises the supposed moral innocence of the noble savage. …On the other hand, Rousseau maintains, the noble savage cannot be considered either moral or immoralWhile Rousseau may be the best known philosopher of the early Romantic dichotomy between nature and culture, Chateaubriand gives this distinction its most popular literary voice. Unlike Rousseau, however, in his descriptions of the contrast between “l’homme sauvage” and “l’homme civilisé” Chateaubriand is concerned with the moral status of both. He assumes that, whatever their differences may be, so-called civilized and primitive societies are not ethical opposites. The recognition of all cultures as forms of civilization may be attributed, in part, to Chateaubriand’s travels throughout the world. More specifically, in 1791 Chateaubriand visited North America. Upon his return to France, he wrote a travel narrative that he subsequently transformed into the novels Atala (1801) and René (1802). Atala in particular, … challenges a representation of Western and Native American cultures as ethical opposites. While beginning Atala with the familiar contrast between savage nature and European culture, by the end of the novel Chateaubriand transforms thi
larity into a more complex model of hybrid cultural identity.”( Claudia Moscovici )
Ladies declared themselves enchanted with Chateaubriand, and proved it by throwing themselves at him. The literary and erotic patterns of his existence were set early. The protagonist, a metaphor for his own narcissistic character, were generally weary, melancholy yearning Europeans face to face with the seductions of primitive cultures such as the noble savages in America or sufferings and triumphs of early Christians. All in all, Chateaubriand had an overriding preoccupation with a single subject-Himself. For many readers, for his adoring female admirers and male imitators, Chateaubriand was the arch-romantic, particularly in his late life pose as an omnicompetent Renaissance man. Romanticism has many variants; from Shelly to Byron to Victor Hugo to Goethe,to Poe, but Chateaubriand was a romantic in the populist sense of the term; when the ordinary reader, unaware of the bewildering complexity inherent in romanticism, uses the word ”romanticism” he likely refers to the mood that Chateaubriand produced. These always include, such as in ”Rene’,’ a main character patterned after himself, the bitterness of childhood memories, aimless adventures, misery and above all else , a nameless disappointment that haunts the hero and sets the tone of the book. A disappointment that is unappeasable precisely because it is the obverse of limitless desire. No human situation could be imagined that would rub it out. The hero wants what he cannot have; and even if he had it, it is likely he would call for something else that he could, in turn, never obtain.
It all works. In ensuing generations, the template has been handed from writer to writer like the Olympic torch. The mood Chateaubriand skillfully evokes is morose, indeterminate, and guilt ridden. Clarity and logic are the enemy and the possibility of a happy resolution appears as a kind of insult. To love is to be a criminal. In fact, Chateaubriand mixes love and crime with great frequency. He tapped into this emotional motherlode, an endless literary and emotional terrain of guilt, longing and anxiety mixed with titillating pleasure. The literary problems of Chateaubriand begin when psychological penetration is reduced to lyrical self-indulgence and when sentiment overflows into exaggerated sentimentality. Its a willful irrationalism when critical dissection of reason becomes an assault on it,and that is Chateaubriand’s undoing. As an unapologetic defender of medieval Christendom, this put Chateaubriand in an opposite tact to that of a comparable influence, Dostoevsky. Instead of trying to escape the despair of this world like Chateaubriand, Dostoevsky attempted to understand it through a profound examination of himself, those around him, and their environment. As a result, Dostoevsky developed as a post-Romantic or Romantic-Realist writer.
”Their longings to find truth drew them to learn about the current ideologies of their age. For example, Chateaubriand embraced some of the ideas of Rousseau and Dostoevsky became involved in a Utopian-Socialist group. Their romantic quests, however, left both Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky feeling disappointed and disillusioned when they realized these current ideologies did not bring them to the truth.Chateoubriand and Dostoevsky developed different Christian world-views. Chateaubriand developed a dualistic view of Christianity. The fallen world, which is ruled by Satan, remains separated from God’s spiritual world, the kingdom of heaven. Thus life in this sinful world is utterly painful, despairing and meaningless. The ideals of Christianity, including love, peace and joy, will only be realized in heaven. Chateaubriand believed that “the Christian always looks upon himself as no more than a pilgrim travelling here below through a vale of tears and finding no repose till he reaches the tomb” (Chateaubriand, 1976, p.297). Only Christians can be hopeful that they will die soon and enter into heaven, where they will experience redemption and the eternal bliss of communing With God.Dostoevsky, in contrast to Chateaubriand, developed a reconciled view of Christianity. This world is fallen and Christians will ultimately experience the full abundance of the kingdom of heaven when they die. However, a Christian can begin to experience communion with God even while living in a sinful world. For Dostoevsky, Christ’s statement, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) meant that a reconciliation with God began once a person repented and accepted Christ’s sacrificial death for their sins. Dostoevsky believed Christians could begin to experience the kingdom of heaven within their hearts. God’s spirit, love and power can begin to sanctity and transform the hearts of those who have faith.( Andrea Link )
The problem with Chateaubriand was his obvious efforts to seduce readers into becoming Christians for aesthetic reasons, under the stated pretext that unbelief is a principal cause of decay of taste and of genius. His articulation of the Gothic medieval Christian past was ultimately irrelevant to the truth of the Christian faith he was trumpeting. Chateaubriand stretched plausibility beyond any realm of credibility by claiming that since Christianity was beautiful, it had, by extension, had to be true as well. Furthermore, its beauty also proved Christianity’s value; with religion, the romantic’s unhappiness could be overcome and his yearning channeled toward eternal verities and salvation.It was almost a strain of European theocracy and self-colonization. All said with a small ”a” amen. Sort of.
” ….it was only much later that critics began to wonder whether this defense was a defense or a vulgarization; whether by making Christianity picturesque and poetic, Chateaubriand had not also made it irreligious, a kind of comfortable, romantic, pagan festival”.