1. Youth

For his French contemporaries François-René de Chateaubriand was the greatest writer of the time—“le plus illustre [said Sainte-Beuve in 1849] de nos écrivains modernes”;88 and another paragon of literary learning, Émile Faguet, wrote, about 1887 (forgetting Voltaire): “Chateaubriand is the greatest date in the history of French literature since the Pléiade” (c. 1550);89 nearness lends enchantment to the view. Certainly his reign over French letters had been equaled only by Voltaire’s. His ascendancy marked the triumph of religion over philosophy, just as Voltaire’s had meant the triumph of philosophy over religion; and he lived long enough to see unfaith reborn. So one mood, passionately sustained, wears out its welcome, begets its opposite, and is revived, across the generations, through the embattled immoderation of mankind.

“My life and drama,” he wrote, “is divided into three acts. From my early youth until 1800 I was a soldier and traveler; from 1800 till 1814, under the Consulate and the Empire, my life was devoted to literature; from the Restoration to the present day [1833] my life has been political.”90 There would be a fourth and subsiding act (1834–48), in which the triple hero was to be a living but fragile memory, sustained by kindly women, but fading in the mist of time.

“My name was first written Brien, … then Briand … About the beginning of the eleventh century the Briens gave their name to an important château in Brittany, and this château became the seat of the barony of Châteaubriand.”91 When the proud family lost almost everything but its château and its pride, the father went to America, and made a modest fortune. Returning, he married Apolline de Bedée, who gave him so many children that he withdrew into a somber introversion which passed down to his last and only remembered son. The mother soothed her labors and illnesses with an intense piety. Four of her children died before René was born, September 4, 1768, at St.-Malo, on the Channel coast. He later remarked that “after being born oneself, I know no greater misfortune than that of giving birth to a human being.”92 His sister Lucile, ever ailing, mingled her mal-de-vie with his in an intimacy so intense that it left them cold to marriage. The fog coming from the Channel, and the waves that beat upon their island and home added to their somber spirit, but became dear in memory.

When he was nine the family moved to an estate in Combourg, which brought with it the title of comte, and made René a vicomte. Now he was sent to a school at nearby Dol, taught by priests who, at his mother’s urging, sought to inspire in him a vocation to the priesthood. They gave him a good grounding in the classics; soon he was making his own translations from Homer and Xenophon. “In my third year at Dol… chance put into my hands … an unexpurgated Horace. I obtained insight into… charms of an unknown nature in a sex in which I had seen only a mother and sisters…. My terror of the infernal shades… affected me both morally and physically. I continued, in my innocence, to fight against the storms of a premature passion and the terrors of superstition.”93 His sexual energy, without any known contact with the other sex, developed in him an image of an idealized woman, to whom he became mystically devoted with an intensity that may have diverted him from a normal development.

As the time for his First Communion neared, he feared to admit his secret agitations to his confessor. When he found courage to do so, and the kindly priest gave him comfort and absolution, he felt “the joy of the angels.” “The next day … I was admitted to the sublime and moving ceremony which I vainly endeavored to describe in Le Génie du christianisme…. The Real Presence of the Victim in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar was as manifest to me as my mother’s presence by my side. … I felt as though a light had been kindled within me. I trembled with veneration.”94 Three months later he left the Collège de Dol. “The memory of these obscure teachers will always be dear to me.”95

That exaltation subsided as his reading raised questions to his faith. He confessed to his parents that he felt no vocation to the priesthood. At seventeen he was sent for two years to the Collège de Rennes to fit him for appointment to the Naval Guard at Brest. In 1788, aged twenty, he reported there for tests, but the prospects of life and discipline in the French Navy so frightened him that he returned to his parents at Combourg, and, perhaps to quiet their reproaches, agreed to enter the Collège de Dinan and prepare for the priesthood; “the truth is that I was only trying to gain time, for I did not know what I wanted.”96 Finally he joined the Army as a commissioned officer. He was presented to Louis XVI, hunted with him, and saw the taking of the Bastille; he sympathized with the Revolution until, in 1790, it abolished all ranks, titles, and feudal rights. When his regiment voted to join the Revolutionary Army he resigned his commission, and—fortified by a modest income left him at his father’s death—he left on April 4, 1791, for the United States. He announced that he would try to find a northwest passage through Arctic America. “I was an ardent freethinker at the time.”97

He reached Baltimore July 11, 1791, drove to Philadelphia, dined with President Washington, amused him with his grandiose plans, made his way to Albany, hired a guide, bought two horses, and rode proudly westward. He marveled at the grandeur of the scenery, which mingled mountains, lakes, and streams under a summer sun. He reveled in these open spaces and their natural art, as a refuge from civilization and its cares. He recorded his experiences in a journal which he later polished and published as Voyage en Amérique, and which already displayed the scented beauty of his style:

Liberté primitive, je te retrouve enfin! Je passe comme cet oiseau qui vol devant moi, qui se dirige au hazard, et n’est embarrassé qu’au choix des ombrages. Me voilà tel que le Tout-Puissant m’a créé, souverain de la nature, porté triomphant sur les eaux, tandu que les habitants des fleuves accompagnent ma course, que les peuples de l’air me chantent leurs hymnes, que les bêtes de la terre me saluent, que les forêts courbent leurs cimes sur mon passage. Est-ce sur le front de l’homme de la société ou sur le mien qu’est gravé le sceau immortel de notre origine? Courez vous enfermer dans vos cités, allez vous soumettre à vos petites lois, gagnez votre pain à la sueur de votre front, ou dévorez le pain du pauvre; égorgez-vous pour un mot, pour un maître; doutez de l’existence de Dieu, ou adorez-le sous des formes superstitieuses; moi j’irai errant dans mes solitudes; pas un seul battement de mon coeur ne sera comprimé; pas un seul de mes pensées ne sera enchainée; je serai libre comme la nature; je ne reconnaîtrai de souverain que celui qui alluma la flamme des soleils, et qui, d’un seul coup de sa main, fît rouler tous les mondes.*98

Here are all the paraphernalia of the Romantic movement: freedom, nature, friendship for all living things; scorn of cities and the struggle of man against man for bread or power; rejection of atheism and superstition; worship of God in nature; the escape from every law except that of God … It did not matter, for literature, that Chateaubriand had lost his religious faith, or that many of his descriptions were imaginary rather than factual, or that a hundred inaccuracies, exaggerations, or impossibilities were soon discovered in his Voyage by French or American critics;99 here was a prose that set aflutter all female—many male—breasts; not since Rousseau or Bernardin de Saint-Pierre had French prose been so colorful, or nature so splendid, or civilization so absurd. All that the Romantic movement now awaited was a persuasive presentation of the American Indian as the lord of Eden and wisdom, and a panorama of religion as the mother of morals, art, and salvation. Chateaubriand would soon provide the one in Atala andRené, the other in The Genius of Christianity.

The poet-explorer rode on through New York State, received hospitality from some Onondaga Indians, slept primitively on Mother Earth near Niagara, and heard the muffled roar of the falls. The next day, standing hypnotized by the river that hurried to its end, “I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in.”100 Eager to see the falls from below, he clambered down a rocky slope, lost his footing, broke an arm, and was hoisted to safety by Indians. Sobered, he surrendered his dream of a northwest passage, turned south, and reached the Ohio. At this point his narrative becomes dubious. He tells us that he followed the Ohio to the Mississippi, this to the Gulf of Mexico, then, over a thousand miles and a hundred mountains, to Florida. Critics, comparing distances, conveyances, and time, have judged his story incredible, and have branded his description of fauna and flora as quite unlike the landscapes and vegetation of those regions a hundred years later;101 however, a century could have drastically changed the wildlife, and even, through cultivation and mining, the contour of the earth.

After a stay with the Seminole Indians, Chateaubriand made his way northwest to Chillicothe, in what is now Illinois. There he saw in an English journal news of Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes (June 22, 1791). He worried that the captured King would now be daily in danger of his life. “I said to myself, ‘Go back to France,’ and abruptly brought my travels to a close.”102 On January 2, 1792, he reached France after an absence of nine months. He was still but twenty-three.

2. Development

He had exhausted nearly all his funds, and remained uncertain and insecure in a country hostile to viscounts and moving toward war and September Massacres. His sisters advised him to marry money, and found for him a moderately dowered bride, Céleste Buisson de La Vigne, aged seventeen. They married (February 21, 1792). The modest Céleste remained loyal to him through all his vicissitudes and mistresses, and through his decade of conflict with Napoleon, whom she admired; and after many years he learned to love her. They went to live in Paris, near his sisters Lucile and Julie. Part of his wife’s fortune, invested in church securities, was lost in the confiscation of ecclesiastical property by the revolutionary government; part of it René gambled away in the casinos.

On April 20 the Legislative Assembly declared war upon Austria. French émigrés formed a regiment to join Austria in overthrowing the Revolution. Chateaubriand, though not quite certain that he desired this, felt bound to join his fellow nobles. Leaving wife and sisters in a Paris that would soon imprison and then massacre hundreds of the aristocracy, he rushed to Coblenz, enrolled in the émigré army, and shared in the abortive siege of Thionville (September 1, 1792); he was wounded in the thigh, and was honorably discharged. Unable to get back through mobilized France to his wife, he made his way, mostly on foot, to Ostend, found passage to the island of Jersey, was nursed back to health by an uncle, and, in May, 1793, crossed to England.

There he learned the ways of poverty, and bore them well despite “the sickly temperament to which I was subject, and the romantic notions of freedom which I cherished.”103 He refused the allowance offered to émigré nobles by the British government; he survived by teaching French privately and in a boarding school. He fell in love with a pupil, Charlotte Ives; she returned his affection; her parents proposed that he marry Charlotte; he had to confess that he already had a wife. Meanwhile his wife, his mother, and his sisters had been imprisoned in France; his elder brother, with his wife and her heroic grandfather Malesherbes, were guillotined (April 22, 1794); his own wife and his sisters were not released till the end of the Terror with the fall of Robespierre.

Lucile had often noted his facility with words, and had urged him to be a writer. During these years in England he began a vast prose epic, Les Natchez, into whose 2,383 pages he poured his romantic dreams and his idealization of the American Indian. Anxious to win fame as a philosopher, he published in London (1797) an Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes. This was a remarkable performance for a youth of twenty-nine; poor in organization, rich in garnered ideas. Revolutions, Chateaubriand argued, are periodic outbursts following always the same curve from rebellion through chaos to dictatorship. So the Greeks deposed their kings, established republics, and then submitted to Alexander; the Romans deposed their king, established a republic, and then submitted to the Caesars;104 here, two years before the 18th Brumaire, was Chateaubriand’s forecast of Napoleon. History is a circle, or an enlarged repetition of the same circle, with frills that make the old seem new; the same good and the same evil survive in men despite such mighty overturns. There is no real progress; knowledge grows, but merely to serve instincts that do not change. The faith of the Enlightenment in the “indefinite perfectibility of mankind” is a childish delusion. Nevertheless (a conclusion that startled most readers) the Enlightenment had succeeded in undermining Christianity; there is no likelihood that the religion of our youth can ever recover from that century of political peace and intellectual war. What religion, then, will replace the Christian? Probably none (the young skeptic concludes). Intellectual and political turmoil will undermine European civilization, and return it to the barbarism from which it emerged; peoples now savage will rise to civilization, go through successive grandeurs and revolutions, and sink into barbarism in their turn.105

The book made Chateaubriand famous in émigré circles, but shocked those who felt that aristocracy and religion must stand together or die divided. These criticisms left their mark on Chateaubriand, whose later works were largely an apology for this one; but he was now deeply moved by a letter sent him from France July 1, 1798, by his sister Julie:

My friend, we have just lost the best of mothers. … If you knew how many tears your errors have drawn from our honorable mother, and how deplorable these errors seem to all who make profession not merely of piety but of reason—if you knew this pledge it would help to open your eyes, to make you give up writing; and if a Heaven touched by our prayers should permit our reunion, you would find, among us, all the happiness that we can taste on earth.106

When Chateaubriand received this letter it was accompanied by another to the effect that this sister Julie too had died. In the preface to Le Génie du christianisme he ascribed to these messages the complete change displayed by the later book: “These two voices from the tomb, this death serving to interpret death, were a blow to me; I became a Christian. … I wept, and I believed.”

So sudden and dramatic a change invited skepticism, but in a less than literal sense it could be sincere. Probably Chateaubriand, in whom the philosopher was never distinct from the poet, ascribed to a moment, as by a figure of speech, the process by which he passed from unbelief to a view of Christianity as, first, beautiful, then morally beneficent, finally deserving, despite its faults, of private sympathy and public support. He was moved, in the last years of the dying century, by letters from his friend Louis de Fontanes, describing the moral disintegration then corroding France, and the rising desire of the people to return to their churches and their priests. Soon, in Fontanes’ judgment, this hunger would compel a restoration of Catholic worship.

Chateaubriand resolved to be the voice of that movement. He would write a defense of Christianity in terms not of science and philosophy but of morals and art. No matter if those fascinating stories that were told us in our youth were legends rather than history; they entranced and inspired us, and in some measure reconciled us to those Hebraic Commandments upon which our social order, and therefore Christian civilization, had been built. Would it not be the greatest of crimes to take from the people the beliefs that had helped them to control their unsocial impulses and to bear injustice, evil, suffering, and the fatality of death? So Chateaubriand, in his final Mémoires, expressed both his doubts and his faith: “My spirit is inclined to believe in nothing, not even in myself, to disdain everything—grandeur, miseries, peoples, and kings; nevertheless it is dominated by an instinct of reason that commands it to submit to everything evidently beautiful: religion, justice, humanity, equality, liberty, glory.”107

Early in 1800 Fontanes invited Chateaubriand to return to France. Fontanes was persona grata with the First Consul, and would see to it that the young émigré should not be harmed. Napoleon was already thinking of restoring Catholicism; a good book on the virtues of Christianity might help him meet the inevitable gibes of the Jacobins.

On May 16, 1800, Chateaubriand rejoined his wife and Lucile in Paris. Fontanes introduced him to a literary circle that gathered in the home of the frail but beautiful Comtesse Pauline de Beaumont, daughter of Comte Armand-Marc de Montmorin, once minister of foreign affairs under Louis XVI, and then guillotined. Soon she became Chateaubriand’s mistress. It was in her country house, and under her prodding, that he finished Le Génie. He did not think the time ripe for the complete publication of a book so contrary to the skepticism prevailing in intellectual circles; but in 1801 he offered Paris a 100-page extract from it as an unpretentious idyl of Christian virtue and romantic love. It made him at once the talk of literate France, the idol of the women, and the favorite son of the reviving Church.

He called it Atala, or The Loves of Two Savages in the Desert. The initial scene is in Louisiana as peopled by the Natchez Indians; the narrator is the blind old chieftain Chactas. He tells how, in his youth, he was captured by a hostile tribe, and was sentenced to be burned to death, but was saved by the Indian maid Atala. They flee together through marshes and forests, over mountains and streams; they fall in love by force of propinquity and through dangers shared; he seeks—she refuses—consummation, having pledged lifelong virginity to her dying mother. They meet an old missionary, who supports her piety by satirizing love as a form of inebriation, and marriage as a fate worse than death.108 Torn (like history) between religion and sex, Atala solves her dilemma by taking poison. Chactas is desolate, but the missionary explains that death is a blessed release from life:

“Despite so many days gathered on my head, … I have never met a man who had not been deceived by dreams of happiness, no heart that did not hold a hidden wound. The spirit apparently most serene resembles the natural wells of Florida’s savannas: their surface seems calm and pure, but when you see to the bottom… you perceive a large crocodile, which the well nourishes with its waters.”109

Chateaubriand’s description of Atala’s funeral—priest and pagan mingling their hands to cover her corpse with the soil—became a famous passage in the literature of romance; it inspired also one of the great paintings of the Napoleonic period—The Burial of Atala, with which Girodet-Trioson brought half of Paris to tears in 1808. But the classical tradition was too strong in the France of 1801 to win for the tale the full acclaim of critics. Many of them smiled at the purple passages, and the ancient use of love, religion, and death to stir hearts broken or young, and the conscription of nature to serve, with her various moods, as an obbligato to human joys and woes. But others praised—and a multitude of readers enjoyed—the simple words and quiet music of the style; the sounds, forms, and colors of the fauna and flora; the mountains, forests, and streams that supplied a living background to the tale. The mood of France was ready to hear a good word for religion and chastity. Napoleon was planning a reconciliation with the Church. It seemed a good time to publish Le Génie du christianisme.

3. The Genius of Christianity

The book appeared in five volumes on April 14, 1802, in the same week that saw the promulgation of the Concordat. “As far as I can judge,” wrote Jules Lemaître in 1865, “the Génie du christianisme was the greatest success in the history of French literature.”110Fontanes greeted it with a Moniteur article praising it with friendly superlatives. A second edition appeared in 1803, dedicated to Napoleon. From that moment the author felt that Bonaparte was the only man of the age whom he had to surpass.

The génie of the title did not quite mean genius, though it meant that too. It meant the distinctive character, the inherent creative spirit, of the religion that had begotten and nurtured the civilization of postclassical Europe. Chateaubriand proposed to annul the eighteenth-century Enlightenment by showing, in Christianity, such understanding tenderness toward human needs and griefs, such multifarious inspiration to art, and such powerful supports to moral character and social order, that all questions as to the credibility of the Church’s dogmas and traditions became of minor importance. The real question should be: Is Christianity an immeasurable, inseparable, and indispensable support to Western civilization?

A more logical mind than Chateaubriand’s might have begun with a picture of the moral, social, and political deterioration of that Revolutionary France which had divorced itself from Catholic Christianity. But Chateaubriand was a man of feeling and sentiment, and probably he was right in assuming that most of the French, of either sex, were more like him than like Voltaire and the other philosophes who had labored so ardently to “crush the infamy” of an authoritarian religion. He called himself an anti-philosophe; he carried far beyond Rousseau the reaction against rationalism, and he reproved Mme. de Staël for defending the Enlightenment. So he began with an appeal to feeling, and left reason to fall in line after feeling had led the way.

He proclaimed at the outset his belief in the fundamental mystery of Catholic doctrine, the Trinity: God as the Father creating, God as the Son redeeming, God as the Holy Spirit enlightening and sanctifying. One must not worry here about credibility; the important thing is that without a belief in an intelligent God, life becomes a merciless struggle, sin and failure become unforgivable, marriage becomes a fragile and precarious association, old age a somber disintegration, death an obscene but inescapable agony. The sacraments of the Church—baptism, confession, Communion, confirmation, matrimony, extreme unction (deathbed anointment), and sacerdotal ordination—transformed the chapters in our painful growth and ignominious decay into advancing stages of spiritual development, each deepened with priestly guidance and solemn ceremony, and strengthening the infinitesimal individual with membership in a powerful and confident community of believers in a redeeming and lovable Christ, a sinless and interceding Mother, a wise, omnipotent, watchful, punishing, forgiving, and rewarding God. With that faith man is redeemed from the greatest curse of all—to be meaningless in a meaningless world.

Chateaubriand proceeded to contrast the virtues recommended by the pagan philosophers with those taught by Christianity: on the one hand fortitude, temperance, and prudence—all directed toward individual advancement; on the other, faith, hope, and charity—a creed that ennobled life, strengthened the social bond, and made death a resurrection. He compared the philosopher’s view of history as the struggle and defeat of individuals and groups with the Christian view of history as the effort of man to overcome the sinfulness original to his nature and to achieve a widening caritas. Better to believe that the heavens declare the glory of God than that they are accidental accumulations of rock and dust, persistent but senseless, beautiful but dumb. And how can we contemplate the loveliness of most birds and many quadrupeds without feeling that some divinity lurks in their resilient growth and their enchanting forms?

As for morality, the matter seemed to Chateaubriand painfully clear: our moral code must be sanctioned by God, or it will collapse against the nature of man. No code of confessedly human origin will carry sufficient authority to control the unsocial instincts of men; the fear of God is the beginning of civilization, and the love of God is the goal of morality. Moreover, that fear and love must be handed down, generation after generation, by parents, educators, and priests. Parents with no God to transmit, teachers with no support in religious creed and garb, will find the infinite inventiveness of selfishness, passion, and greed stronger than their uninspired words. Finally, “there can be no morality if there is no future state”;111 there must be another life to atone for the tribulations of virtue on the earth.

European civilization (Chateaubriand argued) is almost entirely due to the Catholic Church—to her support of the family and the school, to her preaching of the Christian virtues, to her checking and cleansing of popular superstitions and practices, to the healing processes of the confessional, to her inspiration and encouragement of literature and art. The Middle Ages wisely abandoned the unguided pursuit of truth for the creation of beauty, and they produced in the Gothic cathedrals an architecture superior to that of the Parthenon. Pagan literature has many excellences for the mind, many pitfalls for morality. The Bible is greater than Homer, the Prophets are more inspiring than the philosophers; and what fiction can compare, in tenderness and influence, with the life and teaching of Christ?

Obviously a book like the Génie could appeal only to those who, through the excesses of the Revolution or the trials of life, were emotionally ready to believe. So the philosopher Joubert, Chateaubriand’s friend, said that he sought in Catholicism a refuge from a revolutionary world too horrible to bear.112 Such readers may have smiled at the childish teleology which taught that “the song of birds is ordained expressly for our ears. … In spite of our cruelty [to them] they cannot forbear to charm us, as they are obliged to fulfill the decrees of Providence.”113 But those readers were so carried along by the elegance and music of the style that they passed over the use of the Three Graces to explain the Trinity, or of the Malthusian fear of overpopulation to defend ecclesiastical celibacy. If the arguments were sometimes weak, the charm was strong; even Nature would have been pleased if, after some earthquake, flood, or hurricane, she had heard Chateaubriand’s litany of her loveliness.

Did he really believe? From 1801 to late in life, we are told,114 he omitted his “Easter duty” of confession and Communion—the Church’s minimal demand upon her children. Sismondi reported a conversation with him in 1813:

Chateaubriand observed the universal decadence of religions both in Europe and in Asia, and compared these symptoms of dissolution with those of polytheism in the time of Julian…. He concluded from this that the nations of Europe would disappear along with their religions. I was astounded to find him so free a spirit…. Chateaubriand talked of religion; … he believes it [religion] necessary to sustain the state; he thinks that he and others are bound to believe.115

No wonder that, carrying with him through sixty years such a burden of secret doubt, he never recovered from the youthful pessimism that he described in René. In old age he said, “I ought not to have been born.”116

4. René

The Genius of Christianity was a major expression of the Romantic movement in the religious field: it formulated the return of faith and hope, if not of charity; it exalted medieval poetry and art, and stimulated the revival of Gothic architecture in France. Within its five volumes it originally included not only Atala but, till 1805, René. This forty-page paean to pessimism reflected the despondency of émigrés, and Chateaubriand’s youthful infatuation with his sisters. It became the fount and standard of a thousand moans of melodious despair.

René is a young French aristocrat who has fled from France and has joined the Natchez Indian tribe in the hope of forgetting an incestuous love. His adoptive father, Chactas, having told him the tale of Atala, persuades him to tell his own story. “Timid and constrained before my father, I found ease and contentment only with my sister Amélie.” When he realized that his love for her was nearing incest, he sought release by losing himself in the Paris crowd—”vast wilderness of men”; or he sat for hours in an unfrequented church, begging God to free him from the crime of his love or from the incubus of life. He looked for solitude amid mountains and fields, but nowhere could he drive from his thoughts the tenderness and loveliness of Amélie. Tormented with desire to go to her and declare his love, he decided, in shame, to kill himself. Amélie divined this decision when she learned that he was making his will. She hurried to Paris, found him, embraced him wildly, and “covered my forehead with kisses.” Three months of comradeship and restrained happiness followed. Then, overcome with remorse, she fled to a convent, leaving him a word of comfort and all her fortune. He sought her and begged permission to talk with her; she would not see him. When she was about to take the vows he made his way into the chapel, knelt near her, heard her, prostrate before the altar, begging, “God of mercy, let me never rise from this somber bed, and cover with your favors the brother who never partook of my criminal passion.” They never saw each other again. He resumed his thoughts of suicide, but decided to bear the greater pain of life. “I found” (and this passage became a locus classicus of romantic grief) “a kind of satisfaction in my suffering. I discovered, with a secret movement of joy, that sorrow is not, like pleasure, a feeling that wears itself out…. My melancholy became an occupation which filled all my moments; my heart was entirely and naturally steeped in ennui and misery.”117 Sick of civilization, he decided to lose himself in America and live the simple life of an Indian tribe. A missionary reproved him for his self-centered mood, and bade him return to France and cleanse himself by services to mankind. However, “René perished afterward, with Chactas,… in the massacre of the French and the Natchez Indians in Louisiana.”

It is a story well told, except that the events are improbable and the sentiment is overdone. But sentiment had been starved for a decade; grief had been dangerous and too deep for tears; now, the Revolution ended and security restored, sentiment was free, and tears might flow. The melancholy of René, echoing Werther’s across a generation, became a pose for René de Chateaubriand, was echoed in Sénancour’s Obermann in 1804, and was carried on in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1813); Chateaubriand reproached Byron for not acknowledging his debt.118 The little book infected a generation with mal de siècle—the characteristic “illness of the time”; it became the model of a thousand, perhaps a hundred thousand, melancholy tales (romans); its hero was called a “storyteller,” un romancier; so, perhaps, the Romantic movement derived its name. For half a century now it would dominate the literature and art of France.

5. Chateaubriand and Napoleon

The Genius of Christianity, said Napoleon, “is a work of lead and gold, but the gold predominates…. Everything great and national in character ought to acknowledge the genius of Chateaubriand.”119 For his part he welcomed the book as admirably concordant with the Concordat. He arranged a meeting with the author, recognized him as a valuable property, and appointed him (1803) first secretary to the French Embassy in Rome. The author recorded the meeting with modesty and pride: “It mattered little to him that I had no experience of public affairs, that I was entirely unfamiliar with practical diplomacy; he believed that some minds are capable of understanding, and have no need of apprenticeship.”120 He was soon followed to Rome by his mistress; however, she died in Rome (November 5), with Chateaubriand at her side, and after bidding him return to his wife.

He was soon persona grata to the Pope, and ingrata to the ambassador, Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, who complained that the brilliant author was assuming ambassadorial authority. The Cardinal was not the man to allow this; he asked to be relieved of his aide; Napoleon recalled the Viscount by appointing him chargé-d’affaires in the little Swiss republic of Valais. Chateaubriand went to Paris to consider; but on hearing of the Duc d’Enghien’s execution he sent to Napoleon his resignation from the diplomatic service.

By daring to leave Bonaparte I had placed myself on his level, and he was turned against me by all the force of his perfidy, as I was turned against him by all the force of my loyalty. … Sometimes I was drawn to him by the admiration with which he inspired me, and by the idea that I was witnessing a transformation of society and not a mere change of dynasty; but our respective natures, antipathetic in so many respects, always gained the upper hand; and if he would gladly have had me shot, I should have felt no great compunction about killing him.121

No immediate harm came to him. He was distracted from politics by the illness of his wife (whom he loved between liaisons) and the death of his sister Lucile (1804). Meanwhile he had taken as mistress Delphine de Custine. In 1806 he sought to replace her with Natalie de Noailles, but Natalie made her favors conditional on his undertaking a journey to the holy places in Palestine.122 Leaving his wife in Venice, he went on to Corfu, Athens, Smyrna, Constantinople, and Jerusalem; he returned via Alexandria, Carthage, and Spain, and reached Paris in June, 1807. He had shown courage and stamina on this arduous tour, and on the way he had sedulously gathered material and background for two books that reinforced his literary fame: Les Marytrs de Dioclétien(1809), andItinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811).

While preparing these volumes he carried on his feud with Napoleon (then negotiating peace at Tilsit) by an article in the Mercure de France for July 4, 1807. It was ostensibly about Nero and Tacitus, but it could readily be applied to Napoleon and Chateaubriand.

When, in the silence of abjection, no sign can be heard save that of the chains of the slave and the voice of the informer; when all tremble before the tyrant, and it is as dangerous to incur his favor as to merit his displeasure, the historian appears, entrusted with the vengeance of the nation. Nero prospers in vain, for Tacitus has already been formed within the Empire; he grows up unknown beside the ashes of Germanicus, and already a just Providence has delivered into the hands of an obscure child the glory of the master of the world. If the historian’s role is a fine one it often has its dangers; but there are altars such as that of honor, which, though deserted, demand further sacrifices.

… Wherever there is a chance for fortune there is no heroism in trying it; magnanimous actions are those whose foreseeable result is adversity and death. After all, what do reverses matter if our name, pronounced by posterity, makes a single generous heart beat two thousand years after we have lived?123

On his return from Tilsit Napoleon ordered the new Tacitus to leave Paris. The Mercure was warned to take no further articles from his pen; Chateaubriand became a passionate defender of a free press. He retired to a property that he had bought in the Vallée-aux-Loups at Châtenay, and devoted himself to preparing Les Martyrs for publication. He deleted from the manuscript such passages as might be interpreted as derogatory of Napoleon. In that year (1809) his brother Armand was arrested for having transmitted dispatches from the émigré Bourbon princes to their agents in France. René wrote to Napoleon asking mercy for Armand; Napoleon found the letter too proud, and threw it into the fire; Armand was tried and found guilty, and was shot on March 31. René arrived a few moments after the execution. He never forgot the scene: Armand lying dead, his face and skull shattered by bullets, “a butcher’s dog licking up his blood and his brains.”124 It was Good Friday, 1809.

Chateaubriand buried his grief in his valley solitude and in preparing his Mémoires d’outre-tombe. He began these reminiscences in 1811; he worked on them intermittently as a sedative from travel, liaisons, and politics; he wrote their last page in 1841, and forbade their publication till after his death; hence he called them Memoirs from the Tomb. They are bold in thought, childish in sentiment, brilliant in style. Here, for example, the parade of Napoleon’s appointees hurrying to swear their eternal loyalty to Louis XVIII after Napoleon’s collapse: “Vice entered leaning on the arm of crime [le vice appuyé sur le bras du crime]—Monsieur de Talleyrand walked in, supported by Monsieur Fouché.”125 In those leisurely pages are descriptions of nature rivaling those in AtalaandRené; and colorful episodes like the burning of Moscow.126 Pages of sentiment abound:

The earth is a charming mother; we come forth from her womb; in childhood she holds us to her breasts, which are swollen with milk and honey; in youth and manhood she lavishes upon us cool waters, her harvests and her fruits;… when we die she opens her bosom to us again, and throws a coverlet of grass and flowers over our remains while she secretly transforms us into her own substance, to be reproduced in some new and graceful shape.127

And now and then a flash of philosophy, usually somber: “History is only a repetition of the same facts applied to diverse men and times.”128 These Mémoires d’outre-tombe are Chateaubriand’s most enduring book.

He remained rurally quiet until 1814, when the successes of the Allied armies brought them to the frontiers of France. Would their advance, as in 1792, arouse the French people to heroic resistance? On the fifth anniversary of Armand’s execution Chateaubriand issued a powerful pamphlet, De Buonaparte et des Bourbons, which was scattered through France as Napoleon retreated, fighting for life. The author assured the nation that “God himself marches openly at the head of the [Allied] armies, and sits in the Council of the Kings.”129 He reviewed the offenses of Napoleon—the execution of Enghien and Cadoudal, the “torture and assassination of Pichegru,” the imprisonment of the Pope …; these “reveal in Buonaparte” (spelled in the Italian way) “a nature foreign to France”;130 his crimes must not be charged to the French people. Many rulers had suppressed freedom of print and speech, but Napoleon had gone further, and had commanded the press to praise him at whatever cost to truth. The tributes to him as an administrator are undeserved; he merely reduced despotism to a science, turned taxation into confiscation, and conscription into massacre. In the Russian campaign alone 243,610 men died after experiencing every manner of suffering, while their leader, well sheltered and well fed, deserted his army to flee to Paris.131 How noble and humane, by comparison, had Louis XVI been! As Napoleon had asked of the Directory in 1799, “What have you done with the France that was so brilliant when I left you?,” so now the whole human race

accuses you, calls for vengeance in the name of religion, morality, freedom. Where have you not spread desolation? In what corner of the world is there a family so obscure as to have escaped your ravages? Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia demand of you the sons that you have slaughtered, the tents, cabins, châteaux, temples that you have put to flame… The voice of the world declares you the greatest criminal that has ever appeared on the earth,… you who in the heart of civilization, in an age of enlightenment, wished to rule by the sword of Attila and the maxims of Nero. Surrender now your scepter of iron, descend from that mound of ruins of which you have made a throne! We cast you out as you cast out the Directory. Go, if you can, as your only punishment, to be witness of the joy that your fall brings to France, and contemplate, as you shed tears of rage, the spectacle of the people’s happiness.

How now replace him? With the King who comes sanctified by his birth, a noble by his character—Louis XVIII, “a prince known for his enlightenment, his freedom from prejudice, his repudiation of revenge.” He comes bearing in his hand a pledge of pardon to all his enemies. “How sweet it will be, after so many agitations and misfortunes, to rest under the paternal authority of our legitimate sovereign!… Frenchmen, friends, companions in misfortune, let us forget our quarrels, our hates, our errors, to save the fatherland; let us embrace over the ruins of our dear country, and call to our help the heir of Henry IV and Louis XIV… Vive le roi!”132 Is it any wonder that Louis XVIII later said that those fifty pages had been worth to him 100,000 troops?133

Let us leave Chateaubriand here for a while. He was by no means finished; he still had thirty-four years of life in him. He was to play an active role in Restoration politics, was still to gather mistresses, ending at last in the arms of a Récamier who was graduating from beauty to benevolence. He spent more and more of his time on his Mémoires; and now that his enemy was immured in a distant island, itself imprisoned by the sea, he could write of him—as he did for 456 pages—in a mood made milder by time and victory. He lived till 1848, having seen three French Revolutions.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!