09 September, 2008
François-René de Chateaubriand, founder of the French romantic movement, is the first author my French Literary Traditions class is covering this semester. He wrote at the very beginning of the 19th century, only a few years after the French Revolution.
He seems to have been a rather interesting chap. He grew up in what he describes as having been a very dark, gloomy castle in Brittany where he developed a close friendship with his sister Lucille and a fairly dysfunctional relationship with his father. When the Revolution broke out, he was initially sympathetic, but, disillusioned by its violence, he went off to America. It appears that American culture - and more importantly the "American myth" of independent man (particularly exemplified by the Indians) in nearly the state of nature - influenced him deeply, because the country is the setting of several of his works (Atala and René) This trip also reveals him as a bit of a liar: he makes a fair number of outrageous claims in his writing, swearing that he met George Washington, lived with the Indians, visited Niagra Falls, and encountered a fair number of other stereotypically American entities (Niagra Falls, by historical records of his journey is the only of these things he had any likelihood of having seen). Rather lovable.
Almost all of his work is (so I read) strongly autobiographical. He wrote, in fact, that "We are convinced that the great writers have told their own story in their works. One only truly describes one's own heart by attributing it to another, and the greater part of genius is composed of memories" (Génie du christianisme). There are two characteristic elements of his writing which would influence the Romantic movement as a whole quite strongly. First of these is the plethora of stirring, detailed descriptions of nature and emphasis on the purity of the world unmarred by the noise of human society. Second but just as important is the attention he pays to human emotions: these he analyzes practically to a pulp in places, and that's exactly what his many successors and admirers would be doing for quite a few years to come.
On his return to France, he had a rather odd but apparently sincere reconversion to Christianity. It seems that much of his reasoning is quite tied up in his aesthetic responses to the beauty of Christianity - the beauty which formed the central argument for the Catholic religion in his book Génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity). Hopefully he found a bit more to value in Catholicism than its aesthetic value eventually; he probably did: God can build on much stranger foundations.