From July 1806 to June 1807, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), member of the Académie Française, writer, diplomat and politician, went on a long journey, considered to be the first “journey to the Orient” of 19th-century French literature, on the cusp between the “antiquarian” and romantic sensitivity: the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811).

This fact can seem doubly paradoxical: the author, from an old Breton family, saw himself as a Northerner; he was not attracted by the inhabitants, customs or religions of the Orient, nor by the picturesque which Choiseul-Gouffier, the ambassador in Constantinople, who was also an antiquities enthusiast, had highlighted in his Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (1782-1822). However, Chateaubriand, who had gone to North America in 1791, was naturally adventurous. As a legitimist, he had fought against the Republican forces before joining the Émigrés in London in 1793, where he was to stay until the end of the century, and where he started to draft his Le Génie du christianisme (1802), which he found more favourable to the arts and freedom than paganism or the Enlightenment. It was with this in mind that he planned his journey. As Jean-Claude Berchet observed in his edition of the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (Gallimard, 2005), “his journey to the Orient was programmed like a voyage back in time, in other words an anamnesis which was not to lead him to encounter any form of fallacious otherness, but on a quest for what had forged his own identity from the very start.” Chateaubriand was interested above all in stones, and historical landscapes dominate, or rather relegate, any views of nature: as he himself admitted, he was writing a “survey of ruins”. For, while exalting Christianity, Chateaubriand was an antiquarian at heart and saw himself as having almost divinatory powers. In particular, he flattered himself on being complimented for his historical intuition, when, in front of the ruins of Carthage, he claimed to have “put back the gates of Dido in their right place” and, in the Peloponnese, identified the site of ancient Sparta. Such boasts did not fail to bring a smile to the lips of Fauvel, the former assistant of Choiseul-Gouffier, the vice-consul of France in Athens, famous for his archaeological expertise, and to annoy Doctor Avramiotti, his host in Argos, who in 1816 published a devastating brochure denouncing Chateaubriand’s errors. But what did such small-mindedness matter? As Pouqueville wrote: “in vengeance the Muses have inscribed Chateaubriand in the temple of Memory”.

Chateaubriand knew little about the populations he frequented: they interested him less than himself. The passage in which he drew water from the Jordan in a leather vase has remained famous: Victor Hugo remembered it in his Odes et Ballades (“the water of the sacred river filled his traveller’s flask”), while the novelist and publicist Edmond About recalled his horse, Epaminondas, in La Grèce contemporaine (1854): “This animal had the same passion as M. de Chateaubriand: he wanted to take with him the waters of every river he crossed”.

With the fatuousness which cannot dissociated from his genius, in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Chateaubriand reproduced a letter from the Bishop of Alais, Cardinal de Bausset, who wrote to him about the Arabs in Egypt: “How grateful I am to you, Sir, for having so rightfully condemned to execration, down the centuries, this stupid ferocious people who, for twelve hundred years, has been devastating the most beautiful lands in the world! We smile with you in the hope of seeing them vanish into the desert whence they came”. Lamartine, in his Voyage en Orient, corrected this rather biased scorn: by denouncing oriental despotism, Chateaubriand was also attacking that of the First Empire. At the end of the 19th century, the essayist Émile Deschanel was right to compare the two authors’ journeys to the Orient, the more Christian of whom was not the one we might expect: “Despite his rationalist outbursts, Lamartine remained more Christian, by nature or thanks to his early education, than the author of Les Martyrs. Although he made great claims for his faith, the latter remained a pagan in his soul and to the marrow”.

The Itinéraire was an immediate triumph. Chateaubriand delighted in this in his Mémoires: “The year 1811 was one of the most remarkable ones in my literary career. I published the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, I replaced M. de Chénier at the Institute, and I started to write my Mémoires which I am completing today. The success of the Itinéraire was as total as that of Les Martyrs had been controversial”. However, the definitive edition remains that of 1826, completed by the Note sur la Grèce, in favour of the emancipation of the Greeks from Ottoman rule, at a time when all of Europe’s Hellenophiles were up in arms about this war of independence.

Just as Lamartine had done to compose his Jocelyn, Chateaubriand left for the Orient in 1806 to look for inspiration for a prose epic, Les Martyrs (1809), exalting the resistance of Christians persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He travelled in the company of his valet, who kept his own journal, whose style comes over as a prosaic counterpoint to his master’s lyrical gushes: the manuscript of Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem par Julien, domestique de M. de Chateaubriand, was published by Édouard Champion in 1904. On returning from the Orient, Chateaubriand collaborated on the Itinéraire descriptif de l’Espagne (5 vol., Paris, Nicolle, 1808) with his friend the Marquis Alexandre de Laborde, before publishing the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, et de Jérusalem à Paris en allant par la Grèce, et revenant par l’Égypte, la Barbarie et l’Espagne. There was nothing exceptional about such a long title at the time. For example, Eusèbe de Salle published his Pérégrinations en Orient ou Voyage pittoresque, historique et politique en Égypte, Nubie, Syrie, Turquie, Grèce pendant les années 1837-38-39. Parodies were to attest to the success of this text, which all Chateaubriand’s successors followed as their guide, or else tried to contradict: there thus blossomed various acrimonious and envious Itinéraire de Pantin au Mont-Calvaire, en passant par la rue Mouffetard, le faubourg Saint-Marceau, le faubourg Saint-Jacques, le faubourg Saint-Germain, les quais, les Champs-Élysées, le bois de Boulogne, Auteuil et Chaillot, etc, ou Lettres inédites de Chactas à Atala ; ouvrage écrit en style brillant et traduit pour la première fois du breton sur la 9e édition par M. de Châteauterne (alias René Perrin) as early as 1811 and, in 1812, a certain Itinéraire de Lutèce au Mont Valérien, en suivant le fleuve Séquanien et en revenant par le mont des Martyrs (by Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt, in which Chateaubriand lurks under the name Maisonterne). In 1884, Edmond About, invited to inaugurate the Orient-Express, which for the first time connected Paris to Constantinople by rail, once again parodied the title of this archetype of journeys to the Orient, by entitling his journey De Pontoise à Stamboul. Right through the 19th century, the Itinéraire stood as a model that was as permanent as it was cumbersome.

Image caption : Chateaubriand