Genius and Decrepitude: Baudelaire Reads Chateaubriand

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C'est une belle chose, mon ami, que les voyages; mais it faut avoir perdu son pere, sa mere, ses enfants, ses amis, ou n'en avoir jamais eu, pour errer par etat sur la surface du globe. [...] [Le voyageur] est sans morale, ou il est tourmente par une espece d'inquietude naturelle qui le promene malgre lui.

--Denis Diderot, on the ruin paintings of Hubert Robert, Salon de 1767

Style is a matter to which Baudelaire insistently returns when evoking his long-standing admiration for Chateaubriand. Style in writing and being in style. In reading Les Martyrs (1809), Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem (1811) and Les Natchez (1826), Baudelaire is struck by Chateaubriand's ability to recapture an essential kind of beauty, a beauty just as likely to manifest itself in the forests of the New World as in the remotest provinces of the ancient Roman Empire. The melancholy or "tristesse languissante" ((Euvres completes 2: 635) that he admires in Chateaubriand's writing draws its inspiration not only from Homer and the Bible, as is stated in the preface to Atala, but also from Virgil and the tradition of Christian eloquence. (1) Les Natchez sets the tone with its own version of the Virgilian Arma virumque cano: "A l'ombre des forets americaines, je veux chanter des airs de la solitude tels que n'en ont point encore entendu des oreilles mortelles; je veux raconter vos malheurs, o Natchez, o Nation de la Louisiane, dont il ne reste plus que des souvenirs" (73). Baudelaire, who deems Chateaubriand "un des maitres les plus surs et les plus rares en matiere de langue et de style" (OC 2: 152), variously refers to these qualities as "le ton du revenant [...] presque etranger a l'humanite, moitie terrestre et moitie extra-terrestre" and "la note eternelle, le style eternel et cosmopolite" (OC 1: 496, 661). As regards Chateaubriand's stature, Baudelaire is unequivocal. He towers over the nineteenth century. He is the quintessential aristocrat of letters, "le grand gentilhomme des decadences" (OC 2: 195), whose influence as "pere du dandysme" or "chef du dandysme dans le monde moral" Baudelaire hoped to explore in an essay (Correspondance 2: 108, 472), or possibly a book on dandyism in nineteenth-century literature.(2) The poet's admiration also goes to the political maverick in Chateaubriand--the perpetual exile and unwavering opponent of Buonaparte. (3) This trait is underscored in a letter of September 1859 to the exiled Hugo, in which Baudelaire declares: "Je savais bien que les poetes valaient les Napoleon, et que Victor Hugo ne pouvait pas etre moins grand que Chateaubriand" (Correspondance 1: 598). In this letter, to which be adjoined the final proofs of "Les Petites Vieilles" and "Les Sept Vieillards," Baudelaire asks Hugo publicly to endorse the new edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, recently augmented through the addition of "Tableaux Parisiens." Although the good faith of his request is not in question--after all, Baudelaire tells Hugo that some of the new poems are written in his manner, "en vue de vous imiter," and salutes in the exiled poet a symbolic resistance to the imperial authorities--his expression of praise comes across as duplicitous, for the negative turn of phrase to which be resorts also makes clear that it is Chateaubriand, not Hugo, who, in his view, ultimately sets the standards of poetic resistance: "Victor Hugo ne pouvait pas etre moins grand que Chateaubriand" (emphasis mine).

That 1859 marks the revival of Baudelaire's interest in Chateaubriand is confirmed by another letter addressed only a few weeks earlier to his friend and publisher Auguste Poulet-Malassis. Baudelaire writes: "Sachez que, pour remettre mon cerveau a l'endroit, je viens de relire (pour la premiere fois depuis vingt-cinq ans peut-etre) La Grandeur et decadence des Romains, Le Discours sur l'histoire universelle, et Les Natchez! Je deviens tellement l'ennemi de mon siecle que tout, sans en excepter une ligne, m'a paru sublime" (Correspondance 1: 568). …