tiistai 13. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Genius of Christianity – Christian poetry

In the second part of Genius of Christianity Chateaubriand begins the tactic that will have most repercussions in the history of ideas. Ironically, this inheritance has little to do with philosophy of religion and more with aesthetics, which is in line with the topic of the second part – poetry. While attempting to uphold Christianity, Chateaubriand influenced the romantic movement of literature.

Chateaubriand's tactic plays on many levels, but his main line of offence is simple – Christian poetry simply is better than pagan poetry. Of course, this strategy also fails on many levels. For instance, Chateaubriand fails to take into account all poetry that falls outside either Greek or Jewish influence – there's no mention of e.g. Indian or Chinese poetry.

Chateaubriand suggests, firstly, that Bible itself is somehow deeper and more beautiful poetry than anything produced by Greeks – for instance, Chateaubriand praises the simplicity of the beginning of Genesis story of creation, which with few phrases creates a fantastic image of a world coming into being. One might answer that Homer has his beautiful phrases as well, but the most telling objection to Chateaubriand's tactic is irrelevance – who cares if Bible is more beautiful than Iliad, if we want to know which is truer?

The worth of Chateaubriand's suggestion lies more in his general opinion that all Christian poetry is beautiful. Here he is emphasising especially the usefulness of Christianity – Christian religion has the characteristic of bringing forth more beauty in the world. This is, undoubtedly, more of a pragmatic justification of the practice of believing its tenets, but quite in line with the general stance of Chateaubriand's book.

One might really question the selection of poetic works Chateaubriand takes to be representative of Christian poetry. It is surprising that Dante's Divine Comedy is barely mentioned, while Milton's Paradise Lost is given ample attention. Equally mysterious from modern viewpoint seems the negligence of Shakespeare's literary work and the inclusion of so many French tragedies from authors barely remembered today.

A more interesting line of criticism lies in Chateaubriand's peculiar reason for upholding the greatness of Christian poetry. Chateaubriand appears to say that Christian poetry has a better mixture of characters and topics to use. For instance, Chateaubriand sets the Homeric heros against the knights of the chivalric poetry. While the former are merely self-serving barbarians, the latter fight for a greater cause, namely, the honour of God. Similarly, the Paradise is according to Chateaubriand a mythologically more moral place than Elysian Fields, since getting to former lies not so much in heroics, but in living a good life.

Chateaubriand's argumentation seems here equally shaky. Sure, one could say that Christian poetry deals with more moral topics and has morally better characters. Still, this is no guarantee that a work dealing with such moral matters would itself be aesthetically more worthwhile. We'll see if Chateaubriand's case is more convincing with other arts and literature.

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