Monday, April 14, 2008

Notes on Chateaubriand's "Génie de Christianisme"

Do we really need Chateaubriand? His Itinerary to Jerusalem… etc. tells you very little about Jerusalem and a lot about the biases of 19th century Catholic Romantics in regards to Muslims. His Martyrs is really just a repeat of Madame de Staël’s ideas about literature. And his novel René is just a lesser version of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is itself hard to read all the way through without wanting to hit young Werther with a croquet mallet. If I had to pick one work by François-René de Chateaubriand to keep around, it would be the Mémoires d’outre-tombe; lucky for him that it’s so damned long.

The Génie de Christianisme suffers the same problem as his other works in that it’s extremely dated. If you’re writing a thesis on 19th century French Romantic Catholicism, again, this would be in the reading list. But, it doesn’t really succeed in convincing us to become Christians, which is his goal. Somewhat strangely, Chateaubriand uses things like bird migration patterns and the calls of wild animals to convince us that God is great. His idea is to avoid abstract arguments and, instead, focus on “poetic reasons and reasons of sentiment, this is to say marvels of nature and moral evidence.” The problem is that it’s not always clear what his nature stories have to do with Divinity. And his argument against atheism, which is pleasingly vehement, boils down to the fact that it’s depressing. Okay, and…?

The other major problem with the Génie de Christianisme is that, when Chateaubriand focuses on scripture, he winds up with entire chapters telling us about how great another book is. His point is that scripture is great because it has a certain emotional and aesthetic effect on the reader; “not to prove that Christianity is excellent because it comes from God; but that it comes from God because it is excellent.” This illustrates the interesting thing about Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime- what Burke did was to turn the sublime from a cause to an effect: that is, instead of dealing with it as a property of literature, he dealt with it as an aesthetic response to literature. Chateaubriand is applying this idea to scripture. But, after a while, you just want to read the Bible and forget about Chateaubriand. So, perhaps in that sense, he is successful.

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