His youthful solitude and wild desire produced a suicide attempt with a hunting rifle, although the weapon failed to discharge. Chateaubriand was educated in Dol , Rennes and Dinan. For a time he could not make up his mind whether he wanted to be a naval officer or a priest, but at the age of seventeen, he decided on a military career and gained a commission as a second lieutenant in the French Army based at Navarre. Within two years, he had been promoted to the rank of captain.
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It is , a year of insurrections. Marius has been battling against the National Guard at Les Halles. The republican rebels have gone down to defeat; the monarchy will stay in power; the guardsmen have broken into the tavern that serves as rebel headquarters; the massacre is about to begin. And Jean Valjean—who is present at the barricade only because he has discovered that his adopted daughter, Cosette, is in love with young Marius, and Marius has decided to sacrifice his life to the doomed revolution, and Jean Valjean, who detests the young man, will do anything for his daughter and therefore is determined to rescue the barricade fighter from his chosen martyrdom—what a plot!
Jean Valjean pulls the grill back into place above his head. It respires. It procreates. And there, in the viscous murk of the pages devoted to sewage and tunnels, you can glimpse, bubbling in the mud, a few telling signs of the procreative power at work.
At each of the transition points in the giant book, when the story is about to turn a corner, Hugo interrupts his recitation to launch into long-winded disquisitions on historical and social-scientific themes. By this point in the book Hugo has already made clear at preposterous length that he advocates the grandest of social reforms, beginning with a reform of the human heart.
He has shuddered in horror at medieval superstitions; has abominated the police; has throbbed with sympathy for the downtrodden. Here and there he has made the case for specific ameliorative policies.
Against capital punishment. Higher wages: a good idea. Where will the money come from? No explanation. In the years since , when the book came out, not a single person has rummaged its pages in hope of discovering a ten-point program. Still, Hugo himself evidently felt the lack, and in the chapter on the Leviathan and its intestines he presents at last a detailed and practical-sounding proposal.
He explains that, under Napoleon, the state undertook a public-works project to modernize the medieval sewage tunnels and cesspools, with admirable results. But progress cries out for more. The sewers, as of , release their wastes into the Seine and the sea. Parisian guano will raise the agricultural yield.
The tubular apparatus will recycle the pristine waters of the countryside back into the city, and the entire setup will attenuate the problem of poverty—this, together with a new economic policy. Or dismaying. Or risible. The recycling of shit and the emancipation of the human race do not join together in a happy phrase.
Yet shit is insistently his theme, and not just this once. But it is not immediately obvious how we readers are supposed to respond. Just now I have stumbled across one possible response, proposed by Paul Claudel in Wine with alcohol!
My own response many years ago was pretty much the same, except for the part about Catholicism. I wanted Hugo to bang the table on their behalf. The sewer passages, examined anew, seem to me a feat of genius. Then again, on second reading, I discover that, through a miracle of aging, my sympathies have switched. He is the anti—Jules Verne, even if he is gazing underground.
And he chooses to make this point aggressively, as if poking you in the chest. You bookish young barflies who pine for Jacobin uprisings, you Occupiers with your sleeping bags: you suppose, do you, that a passion for social justice requires shocking gestures? Outrages against public civility? Kindly incline your nose toward the page, says Victor Hugo. He not only agrees, he has outdone you. The sewer passages descend yet again, into substrata lower than politics itself. Jean Valjean, with Marius still on his back, wanders blindly from one tunnel to the next, unable to tell where he might find an exit; and, in his meanderings, he willy-nilly traces a subterranean map of Paris.
Underground Paris turns out to have a history. Jean Valjean stumbles across a remnant of the medieval sewer vaults. Cadavers from the religious wars lie strewn about. Their specters sweep through the caverns. The shroud of Marat, Friend of the People, rests in the sewer.
The tunnels are the repository of crime, and not just of sewage. Fungus covers the walls, as if the stones themselves were sick. We begin to suspect that Jean Valjean has made his way into the shadow world, and not just a world of shadows. And here in the obscure tunnel, we run across, as if tripping over one more ancient stone, the genuinely religious or spiritual motives that propel Hugo forward—the impulses that turn out to be odder and more ingenious than anything Paul Claudel ascribed to him.
A wispy Romantic religion of nature—yes, Hugo clings to that idea. It was the doctrine of the age. For Paris is two, instead of one. It is a city of vaulted arches overhead, and also underfoot.
The soaring, and the sordid; metropolis, and necropolis. So Jean Valjean, too, lowers himself into the black ooze, and slogs onward, and the shores of light yield to shores of darkness, and the sewers are real, but we are no longer in the zone of social realism. But then, Hugo, too, as a stylish young man, was a stalwart of the counter-revolution and the restoration—even if, in his twenties, his royalism began to soften, and one political position gave way to the next, and maturity, in his case, pushed him to the left.
Chateaubriand was a royalist because he came from a long line of Breton aristocrats, and fidelity to tradition was the family culture. The French Revolution exacted a price on people with that sort of fidelity. His mother and sister were jailed by the Jacobins, and never recovered from the experience. Chateaubriand himself fought in the counter-revolutionary army and then fled to England, where he spent most of the s working up enormous theories to account for the terrible events.
I have the impression that no one reads The Genius of Christianity today, outside of a coterie of Chateaubriand enthusiasts. Even the historians seem to remember the book mostly for its title.
Or they take the book to be an apology for Catholic reaction. And because Chateaubriand was a man of the eighteenth century, the poetics rested on ideas about universal history and human progress. His notion of progress was unusual, though. Progress, in his estimation, consisted of an ever-deepening appreciation of sadness, a single emotion—which was, in any case, his own emotion, given what had happened to his family.
Christianity introduced mankind to the contemplation of this one emotion, and in the Christian centuries writers and artists applied themselves resolutely to its study. The greatest and most powerful of the resulting works he judged to be epic poetry. And the greatest of the epic poets was the author of The Aeneid—who may have been a Roman pagan, but whose poetry nonetheless implied and presaged the arrival of Christianity, which made him a sort of Christian, even if he was not.
And so the poetics of Chateaubriand, as laid out in The Genius of Christianity, amounted to a cult of moral progress, which was also a Catholic and Romantic cult of Virgil. Chateaubriand considered that, in European literature, the Virgilian tradition had flourished in Italy with Dante and Tasso, and in England with Milton, and in other countries, too. In France, however, the tradition was slow in getting started.
Epic poetry was a matter of theme and purpose, and not of cadence. The purpose of epic poetry was the propagation of Christian understandings through instruction and ornamentation: a didactic enterprise from start to finish.
Either way, Chateaubriand observed that, over the course of the eighteenth century, Christianity in France had undergone a literary and intellectual collapse, and next came the guillotine.
Nobody has ever attributed greater weight to the influence of poetry over world affairs than Chateaubriand. But he also recognized that, if poets in their triumphs and failures were responsible for shaping the course of history, he himself, as a poet, could exercise a powerful and revivifying effect on the woeful fate of France, of Christianity, and of the whole of Christendom, if only he could summon the skill and energy. He produced two of these epic poems—his Les Natchez , some six hundred pages written in the s about the defeat of the American Indians and their conversion to Christianity; and his Les Martyrs , equally long-winded, about the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire under Diocletian.
As for Les Martyrs, the magazine critics ridiculed the book as soon as it appeared, in , and its reputation never recovered. And yet, when I took Les Martyrs to the beach, I was surprised to discover myself more than a little moved, if only because, in the climactic scene, the hero and the heroine get eaten alive by lions at the Coliseum, and—what can I say?
But never mind how those books seem to us today. Hugo loved those books. He invoked Les Martyrs in his poems as if shaking a fist at prevailing opinion. Nobody in the history of literature has demonstrated an easier fluency at composing verse than Hugo; and, even so, he elected to write his poem in prose.
Mostly he remained loyal to the Virgilian spirit of grandeur. These giant poems were grandiose celebrations of grandiosity itself, and the grandiosity in the case of both writers turns out to be an appreciation of the truest, most beautiful, most divine, and most progressive of emotions, which is sadness. And they have set the verse to music. I do not admire the verse itself, by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, with its iambic four-beat showiness and its poverty of images.
Or maybe the chanted verse in the movie version could have sufficed, if only the camera had come up with supplementary images for the screen, which ought to have been possible. Virgilian poetry is nothing if not an extravaganza of visuals. Cameramen ought to worship him.
Not these cameramen. Still, the new movie sets a mood. The extra twist is central to the plot, though. Chateaubriand in The Genius of Christianity paid the kind of attention to the problems and the prospects of the very poor that you might expect of someone who regarded Louis XVI as Christ, which is to say, none.
He did sympathize with the sufferings of whole populations: the American Indians, the Africans who were sold into slavery, the Russians who were invaded by Napoleon, the Levantine Shia slaughtered by the French. He was not without compassion.
The Genius of Christianity
Sometime in the late s, Chateaubriand had reverted to the Catholic faith of his childhood. He felt that France had lost its way during the Enlightenment period, when leading intellectuals, such as Voltaire , were hostile to traditional religion. In the work, Chateaubriand aims to prove "Christianity comes from God, because it is excellent". With that objective in mind, he is particularly interested in the artistic contributions of the Christian religion, comparing them with ancient and pagan civilizations. The principal theme of the book is that "only Christianity is able to explain progress in arts and letters". Chateaubriand accuses the writers of the eighteenth century of misunderstanding God. He makes an exception for Jean-Jacques Rousseau , who had "a shadow of religion".
François-René de Chateaubriand
It is , a year of insurrections. Marius has been battling against the National Guard at Les Halles. The republican rebels have gone down to defeat; the monarchy will stay in power; the guardsmen have broken into the tavern that serves as rebel headquarters; the massacre is about to begin. And Jean Valjean—who is present at the barricade only because he has discovered that his adopted daughter, Cosette, is in love with young Marius, and Marius has decided to sacrifice his life to the doomed revolution, and Jean Valjean, who detests the young man, will do anything for his daughter and therefore is determined to rescue the barricade fighter from his chosen martyrdom—what a plot! Jean Valjean pulls the grill back into place above his head. It respires. It procreates.
Berlioz’s “Te Deum” & Chateaubriand’s “Genius of Christianity”
The genius of Christianity