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Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

French writer (1768-1848)

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Chateaubriand, FRANCOIS-RENE DE, French writer, b. at Saint-Malo, Brittany, September 4, 1768; d. at Paris, July 4, 1848. He studied at Dol., then at Rennes, and later at Dinan. Although at first destined for the navy, for a while he believed himself called to the ecclesiastical life, but finally, in 1786, obtained a commission as lieutenant in the regiment of Navarre, then quartered at Cambial. Meanwhile the young officer spent much of his time in Paris, where his brother and one of his sisters resided. Upon the fall of the monarchy, he embarked at Saint-Malo for America, April 8, 1791. The American wilderness was indeed a revelation to his poetic mind, and furnished it with an inexhaustible supply of imagery. However, when King Louis XVI was arrested at Varennes, Chateaubriand believed it his duty to place his sword at the service of imperilled royalty and, returning to France, landed there January 2, 1792. He married, emigrated, joined the army of Conde, was wounded and left for dead during the expedition against Thionville, and succeeded in escaping to England in 1793. Here he lived in London in the most abject misery, being unable to return to France until 1800, and even then only under an assumed name.

“Le genie du Christianisme” (Paris, 1802) soon afterwards made him famous, and Bonaparte appointed him secretary of the embassy at Rome and then minister at Valais, Switzerland, a post which he resigned even before occupying it. Admitted to the French Academy to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Marie-Joseph Chenier, he refused, despite the entreaties of Napoleon, to withhold his opinion on the revolutionary ideas of his predecessor, and this retarded his reception until after the fall of the Empire. Thenceforth he was plunged into party strife. His political life has been divided into three distinct parts: () the purely Royalist period up to 1824; (2) the Liberal period from 1824 to 1830; (3) the period of Royalism and ideal Republicanism between 1830 and the time of his death. Appointed Minister of State after Waterloo, he eloquently and energetically opposed the Decazes ministry (1816-1820), became ambassador successively in Berlin and in London, plenipotentiary to the Congress of Verona, and finally Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Villele ministry. In 1824 the king dismissed him for the haughtiness of character that had rendered him intolerable to his colleagues. Chateaubriand from that time on waged a merciless war for Liberal principles against all the ministerial departments, sparing not even royalty itself. Made ambassador to Rome in 1828, he resigned upon Polignac’s accession to office next year, and when, in 1830, Louis-Philippe ascended the throne, he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new regime. This was the end of his active political career.

Chief among the writings of Chateaubriand are the “Essai historique, politique et moral sur les revolutions anciennes et modernes” (London, 1797); “Atala” (Paris, 1801), an episode from “Le genie du Christianisme” (Paris, 1802, 5 vols., 8vo); “Rene”, which, like “Atala”, belonged to “Le genie du Christianisme”, and was published separately by the author in 1807—a morbid romance exhibiting a picture of fatal melancholy and foolish dreams; “Les martyrs” (Paris, 1809), a prose poem intended to prove by example the superiority of Christianity over Paganism as a source of poetic inspiration. With a literary scrupulosity, rare indeed in those days, Chateaubriand made a point of visiting the places which he was to describe in the last-named work. In fact it was this tour that brought forth the “Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem” (Paris, 1811), a delightful and accurate book of travels. After that there appeareda series of political works: De Buonaparte et des Bourbons” (Paris, 1814), a famous brochure said by Louis XVIII to have been worth a whole army to the Restoration; “De la monarchie selon la charte” (Paris, 1816), a brochure which deprived the author of both the title and income of Minister of State; “De la restauration et de la monarchie elective” (Paris, 1831), in which Chateaubriand made the following profession of faith: “I am Bourbon as a matter of honor, royalist according to reason and conviction, and republican by taste and character”; “Etudes, ou discours historiques” (Paris, 1831, 4 vols., 8vo), a work replete with original views and not wanting in erudition. Writings in which the author’s own personality figures are his “Voyage en Amerique” (Paris, 1827) and his great posthumous work, “Les memoires d’outre-tombe” (Paris, 1849-1850, 12 vols. in 18mo), a vast panorama of the events which made up his life or with which he was identified.

In the perusal of this long series of works one easily discovers the author’s diversified talent. Chateaubriand’s style is marvellously varied. In his prose poems, such as “Les martyrs”, or his romances, like poems, or his poetic descriptions, such as occur in “Le genie du Christianisme”, his coloring is vivid and peerless, and his phraseology most harmonious. “He plays the harpsichord on all my heartstrings”, said a great lady of the early nineteenth century (Il joue du clavecin sur toutes mes fibres). Without apparent effort he gives to his thoughts a luxuriant opulence of expression, richness, and elegance, even also a certain grandiloquence which may now appear somewhat antiquated. On the other hand, upon opening one of his political books one will find him bright, crisp, and incisive. Nor must it be said, as indeed it has been, that Chateaubriand’s delightful and masterly style only serves to conceal deplorable poverty of thought, like a gorgeous drapery thrown over a feeble and insignificant body. Chateaubriand has beautiful ideas; on the past, in his historical pages; on the present, in his political writings, though the latter may not be free from error; and he has abundant views on the future, particularly on the subject of religion and the social role which he believed it called upon to play. His influence on literature is unanimously acknowledged. Romanticism may be traced back to him, and it may even be said that the whole literary movement characteristic of the nineteenth century begins with him. Admitting that he had predecessors, and that his style is reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he undoubtedly inaugurated a new literature.

Despite lamentable moral infirmities, Chateaubriand was a sincere Christian from the time of his conversion until his death. For he had need of conversion. Not, indeed, that his education was not religious. He himself relates with what pious zeal he prepared for his First Communion, and what memorable emotions that solemn day awakened within his heart. Some sixteen years later, in 1796, he published the sceptical “Essai sur les revolutions”. In the interval Chateaubriand’s youthful mind had been contaminated by the anti-Christian spirit then pervading France, by the reading of dangerous books, especially those of J.—J. Rousseau, and by his association with the infidel literary men of Paris between 1787 and 1791. When, at the age of twenty-one, he sailed for America, his faith was but a flickering flame likely to be extinguished at any moment. Finally, the miserable life that he was afterwards obliged to lead in London so harassed his soul as to turn him against everything, both institutions and men.

It was indeed a rude shock that awoke his dormant religion. On the 1st of July, 1798, his sister, Mme de Farcy, wrote him of his mother’s death, adding that, grief-stricken at his abandonment of the Faith—a condition sadly manifest in his “Essai sur les revolutions”—she had made it her dying request that he would become reconciled to it. Chateaubriand heeded the appeal. It seemed to come as a last prayer, a tear-laden supplication from the tomb that enclosed the mortal remains of one who had loved him devotedly, and whose anguish he had so ruthlessly augmented. His heart was touched by the recollection of his childhood’s days, by the pious memories with which the picture of his mother was inseparably connected, and, comparing the awful void made within his soul by false philosophy with the ineffable peace with which his religion had formerly filled it, his cruel doubts were suddenly submerged in a flood of tears. “I wept”, said he, “and I believed” (Preface to the first edition of “Le genie du Christianisme”). This change of heart is the more easily explained as it was brought about by the progress of his ideas. His “Essai” is not the work of a confirmed infidel. If occasionally the author speaks like an eighteenth-century philosopher, he also speaks as a Christian; he believes and doubts by turns. The mind is not always the dupe of the heart, it is sometimes its debtor. Chateaubriand’s mind oscillated between the faith of the Christian and the incredulity of the sceptic, but his heart, never wholly indifferent, threw its entire belief into the scale, and faith triumphed forever.

On the strength of Chateaubriand’s moral short-comings Sainte-Beuve has insinuated that he was not genuinely Christian; but this is a calumny. Chateaubriand, unfortunately, was not the only man who, though strong in his faith, was weak in his conduct. His religious sincerity is a well-established fact, and the critic of the day does homage to it. Indeed, this sincerity must be acknowledged, even though his word was not strictly reliable in less serious matters. For instance, J. Becher tried to prove that the “Voyage en Amerique” was a mere fiction, maintaining that the traveller had not the means of accomplishing such a tour within the five months spent on the American continent. But this position cannot be accepted. In a work entitled “Sainte-Beuve et Chateaubriand” it has been demonstrated that the illustrious writer had all the time required for the journey, which he actually made and did not merely imagine, as Bedier had claimed.

Having had the misfortune to attack the Faith, Chateaubriand craved the honor of defending it, and in various parts of his writings he realized this ambition, but most especially in “Le genie du Christianisme”. His defense of religion presented in this celebrated book is invested with a new character. Moreover, the sub-title of the first edition clearly indicates that the writer’s intention was to point out the “Beauties of the Christian Religion“. The apology is based on the aesthetic, and the fundamental argument of the work is thus expressed in its closing lines: “Though we have not employed the arguments usually advanced by the apologists of Christianity, we have arrived by a different chain of reasoning at the same conclusion: Christianity is perfect; men are imperfect. Now, a perfect consequence cannot spring from an imperfect principle. Christianity, therefore, is not the work of men.” This argument certainly has great intrinsic weight, but it must be admitted that here and there the writer insists on details which contribute nothing to its strength, while, on the other hand, he omits views which might have established it more solidly. Besides, considered apart from its literary merit, the real apologetic value of “Le genie du Christianisme” is but relative. It was due to circumstances; the work came at the right moment and was what it should have been at that moment; hence its success. In his “Memoires” the author was clear-sighted enough to see this and courageous enough to admit it. The eighteenth century had sought to destroy Christian dogmas by holding them up to ridicule, and had thus deluded cultivated minds. Chateaubriand took up the challenge; he proved that this derided religion was the most beautiful of all, and likewise the most favorable to literature and the arts. It was just then that Bonaparte was rebuilding overthrown altars, and the author of “Le genie” and the victorious general worked towards the same end, each in his own way

Chateaubriand’s influence is incontestable. The Abbe Pradt, a writer who was hostile to his book, said in 1818: “He reinstated religion in the world, establishing it on a better footing than it had occupied, for until then it had followed, so to speak, in the wake of society, and since then it has marched visibly at the head.” This apology, moreover, exercised a great influence upon the apologists. In the course of the nineteenth century Chateaubriand’s idea was taken up; the beauty of Christian doctrine and its profound harmony with the inspirations of humanity were no longer studied from a merely a Esthetic, but from a social and moral point of view. It is the glory of pioneers to open up productive ways in which others go farther than they, but where they still retain the merit of having boldly taken the first steps.


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