François-René de Chateaubriand, “The Genius of Christianity” (1801) (translated from the French by Charles White) – This is, arguably, one of my “less essential” readings on the right. No one’s going around making Chateaubriand memes these days. But I had heard of him, and knew he was important at one point, and I’m going to have to get to grips with the whole religious-conservative thing one of these days. Classic me, I jump to this instead of just choking down some Rushdoony, or better yet, just YouTubing megachurch seminars or something… like trying to figure out the “altright” from essays and novels instead of memes and YouTube comments…
Anyway! I do think this was educational and worth reading. Chateaubriand came from an aristocratic family that escaped the guillotine. Young Franky-Rennie took the obligatory Enlightenment-leaning young aristo trip to the nascent United States to see what the noble savages were up to. At one point, the two epic poems he wrote inspired by having a look at the deep woods from out of his carriage were included in “The Genius of Christianity,” but the fussy American (one suspects Irish-) Catholic editors of this English translation decided to leave those out of the translation I read.
Either way, between the revolution and whatever else, Chateaubriand left the Enlightenment behind and embraced the Catholicism of his birth. Being young, inspired, and something of a hustler, he saw what a lot of his peers failed to see- you gotta propagandize. The old church really didn’t, not in Europe anyway, not after the wars of religion burned out over a century before. They were around and hegemonic and had been for a long time. What did they need clever essays in vernacular languages for? “To counter Voltaire and co,” Chateaubriand would say. It probably all seems a little pointless now, but this was then. You needed that little slice of the population that read clever essays, or anyway, enough of them to make the machines of modernizing society work.
The main thing about Chateaubriand is he’s not too clever. There were other, cleverer lights on the emerging anti-revolutionary right circa the turn of the nineteenth century. Many of them, including the brilliant and sinister Joseph de Maistre, also defended mother church. But Maistre, with his rhapsodies for the hangman as the holy spirit in the earthly trilogy of throne, altar, and gallows, is not for mass consumption, even educated mass consumption. Chateaubriand was no theologian (though he read, or at least skimmed, many), no Jesuit logician. What Chateaubriand seems to have been was a bridge figure between the French counter-enlightenment, Catholicism, and romanticism. A three way bridge, like the Triboro!
So Chateaubriand barely concerns himself with proving Christianity true. He mostly talks about it as beautiful, mysterious, and of course he doesn’t use the word but comes close to the concept, cool. Atheism and deism are for nerds, Catholicism has rad buildings, historicity, etc. He provides the sort of skein of rationale that a literate audience that doesn’t want to think of itself as stupid, but still wants to believe whatever it wants uncritically, like to have, and then gets on with the business of talking about how beautiful and life-affirming the whole Christian deal is. You might think “hey, that sounds like tradcaths!” Meaning online reactionary Catholic converts. Sure- they’re definitely more in it for the aesthetic than anything else. But Chateaubriand, while he gets his licks in at the lumieres, isn’t as resentful and scared as they are (is anyone?). If anything, the whole thing reminded me more of people closer to the left that I know, who agree with Chateaubriand that Catholicism is pretty and that maybe something is missing in their lives without it, or some equivalent. Chateaubriand hadn’t really figured out the irony-kitsch thing, but, hey, progress matches on, I suppose. ***