Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Rene's Volcano, Creative Center and Gendered Periphery

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Rene's Volcano, Creative Center and Gendered Periphery

Article excerpt

The Romantic attitude toward life and self is immortalized in Chateaubriand's Rene (1801) which features a scene rich in symbolic meaning--"un jeune homme plein de passions, assis sur la boucne d'un volcan" (200). The hero's climb to the summit of Mount Etna occurs toward the end of his narrated journey in search of meaning in life (following the death of his father) and just before his return to France where he withdraws into isolation, suffers the psychological pain of "ennui," and is tempted by suicide (215). Within this personal context, one of many possible "monuments de la nature" (199) is transformed into "le monument imaginaire" (Riffaterre 78-79) whereby a correspondence is established between subject and object, between the external landscape and its internal counterpart, and where the present moment meets eternity. Moreover, the volcano scene takes the form of a reverie, a kind of "waking dream" which distances the reveur from the physical world and which allows inner contents to show themselves rising to the surface (Eliade 1991, 33). Rene's altered state of consciousness in the reverie and the archaic symbolism inherent in the volcano motif lend themselves to an explanation by myth and archetype which probes much more deeply than the externalized approaches of genre, history, and ideology.

Rene's climb to the summit of Etna and his meditation seated at "the mouth of a volcano" poses the question of reality or, at least, the reality of a young Romantic hero who becomes a literary archetype in the history of French literature. For example, does the volcano of Rene represent primarily a physical place and a literary object which can be explained generically as a scene belonging to travel literature with an English literary precedent in Brydone who was inspired in turn by the Greek philosopher, Empedocles? If genre is the key consideration, then one cannot compare the "deux infinis" of Pascal's metaphysical treatise with Rene's vision of "une creation h la fois immense et imperceptible, et un abime ouvert a mes cotes" (201).(1) However, one is free to think literally in terms of physical geography and to question the feasibility of sitting on the edge of a volcanic crater.(2)

This "external" reading contrasts with an "internal" one which views Rene's volcano as a metaphor which incarnates a view of the world--highly subjective but having universal appeal--made at a moment in literary history but reaching far beyond.(3) The narrator's repeated references to tableau and its counterpart in image supports an "internal" reading: "mais, quoi que vous puissiez penser de Rene, ce tableau vous offre l'image de son caractere ..." (201). At the same time, Chateaubriand's framing of the volcano scene complicates the question of critical approach. On the one hand, the narrator-hero refers to "ce recit de mes voyages" while addressing his audience. More important than his generic designation is the introductory statement regarding time. Rene's travels and study of monuments, ancient and modern, leave him dissatisfied: "Le passe et le present sont deux statues incompletes: l'une a ete retiree toute mutilee du debris des ages; l'autre n'a pas encore recu sa perfection de l'avenir" (199). Self-identification with the volcano as a living symbol of being outside of time serves Rene as the medium for the internal phase of his life journey. His turning inward in a particular setting requires more commentary from the standpoint of geography, both the standard form and its internalized/psychological counterpart.

Rene relates very differently to the cultural monuments of Italy, mostly cathedral architecture, than to the natural monument of Etna. On the one hand, a reasoned intention governs his voyage; for, Rene has a purpose which puts modern Western civilization on trial: "Je voulus voit si les races vivantes m'offriraient plus de vertus, ou moins de malheurs que les races evanouies" (195). His itinerary is set by the external facts of cultural geography, a return to the origins of European civilization in "les debris de Rome et de la Grece" (194). …

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