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The Paradox of Change


Malcolm Scott

This reassessment of Chateaubriand’s literary and political achievements, offered as an intellectual biography of the writer, is centred on the concept of change and Chateaubriand’s emotional suspicion of change, arising both from mistrust of his own inconstancy and from the personal and collective suffering of the French Revolution. His aversion to change spread beyond politics to religion and literature, but conflicted with his intellectual fascination with historic change in all three areas. The paradox of his fluctuating attitude to change allows a challenge to traditional views of Chateaubriand’s status. Was he truly a committed founder of French Romanticism? Was he an unswerving right-wing legitimist? Was he an insincere and ‘aesthetic’ Christian? The book provides new answers to these questions, presenting a very different Chateaubriand both through an analysis of his preference for the epic literature of Greece and Rome and its Christian heritage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and by its account of his subtle pleading for constitutional monarchy. Malcolm Scott argues that the failure of Chateaubriand’s political aspirations led him, again paradoxically, to the espousal of change and to a final dramatic reversal of his literary and religious standpoint, expressed in the writings of the last few years of his life.
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CHAPTER 3: Apostle of Religious Change


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Apostle of Religious Change

A Change in the Man?

Chateaubriand’s discretion in writing about his personal life was consistent. Not for him, he declares at the outset of his memoirs, the frank disclosure of ‘secrets inutiles’ by which writers often indulge their pursuit of ‘la vanité et le plaisir’.1 He refers here, evidently, to confessions of a sexual nature and is undoubtedly thinking of Rousseau. But he is equally reserved in describing his religious life. It is usually through the narration of events, rather than descriptions of feelings, that he provides information, which tends to be of an external kind, reflecting his sensitivity to the wishes of others rather than any religious impulses on his own part. As a young child, he was placed by a pious and well-meaning governess under the protection of the Virgin, whom he imagined as a sort of guardian angel.2 A few years later came the date of his first communion; in describing this, he makes it clear that such events were decided and arranged by his elders.3 When he adds that to his teachers, his piety at this time appeared sincere and heartfelt – so much so that he was advised to temper his fervour by adopting a more ‘enlightened’ approach to his religious practice – he does not indicate whether their fears that he nourished an unusual vocation were justified, preferring to leave this to their perceptions; the anecdote casts ironic light on late...

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