In the late 1790s, the poet François-René de Chateaubriand languished in his London exile. He had journeyed to America at the beginning of the decade in hopes that the New World sun would burn off the lingering clouds of his morose childhood in the dank and gloomy family castle in Brittany but had returned to Europe, summoned by the call to arms against the French revolutionaries. After suffering a wound, he retreated to England. As he recalled in his Memoirs, in the summer of 1798 he had just dodged an engagement with one Charlotte Ives that would have “buried” him “in an English county,” leading the life of a “hunting gentleman,” when a letter from his sister Julie interrupted his navel-gazing. “My dear,” wrote Julie from Saint-Servan, “we have just lost the best of mothers: I grieve to inform you of this fatal blow. When you cease to be the object of our solicitude, we shall have ceased to live. If you knew how many tears your errors had caused our venerable mother to shed, how deplorable they appear to all who think and profess not only piety but reason—if you knew this, perhaps it would help to open your eyes, to induce you to give up writing.”
Chateaubriand’s “error” was his first published book, a lengthy essay voicing the combative hostility toward organized religion that had become stock-in-trade for French advocates of enlightenment in the twilight years of the eighteenth century. Cast into despair by this account of the torment he had caused his dying mother, written by a sister who herself had died by the time it reached him, Chateaubriand went back to navel-gazing with a vengeance. He underwent a conversion. “I became a Christian. I did not yield, I admit, to any mighty supernatural illumination. My conviction came out of my heart. I wept and I believed.” Instead of yielding to Julie’s plea to cease writing, he resolved to expiate his sin by composing another work, a religious one. The poet’s most famous book, The Genius of Christianity, appeared fortuitously just days after Napoleon mended relations with Pope Pius VII in 1802. Perhaps because he was all too familiar with the withering power of skepticism, Chateaubriand did not deign to meet the critics of religion on their chosen battlefield by arguing rationally for the doctrinal truth of Catholicism. Instead he tried to bring the rationalists to tears. He poured his literary gifts into sumptuous descriptions of the power and beauty of ritual and the sensual and emotional satisfactions of faith. Madame Fortunée Hamelin expressed a common response to Chateaubriand’s book when she exclaimed, “What, this is Christianity? But it is delicious!”
What a contrast to Sigmund Freud’s depiction of religion as the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity. Religion, conceded Freud, has performed vital functions within civilization, offering us an imaginary compensation for our helplessness in the face of nature through fantasies of a controlling intelligence and an illusion of our capacity to summon that power through rituals and prayer. Above all, Freud saw religion as a mechanism of repression, channeling instinctual drives into socially acceptable forms. Chateaubriand’s lush Catholicism does not at all fit this notion of religion as the ultimate form of renunciation, but Freud’s portrayal of the austere and sublime legalism of Mosaic Judaism certainly does. Ultimately, however, Freud and Chateaubriand may not have disagreed entirely on the essence of religion. Freud was, shall we say, too Freudian not to recognize that human instincts will have their due. Renunciation only works if it actually satisfies the instincts it represses, even if the paths to satisfaction may be unexpected and devious.
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