march 2011

François-René, viconte de Chateaubriand

Of Bells

By Chateaubriand

[Note: Politician, soldier, devout Christian, writer, historian and thorn in Napoleon’s side--the Little General threatened to slice and dice him with his saber on the steps of the Tulieries Palace but instead merely banished him from Paris--Chateaubriand, the father of Romanticism in French literature, was acclaimed by Lord Byron, Victor Hugo [who wrote a note to himself in his notebook: “To be Chateaubriand or nothing”] and Stendhal, among others. Like his idol John Milton, whose Paradise Lost he translated into French, Chateaubriand’s writings connect the spiritual with the natural world in profound and provocative ways. His 1802 book, The Genius of Christianity, a defense of the Christian religion written while Chateaubriand was in exile in England in the 1790s, sparked a religious revival in France, and was even admired by Napoleon. In the following excerpt from that book, its author considers the larger import, the greater glory--indeed, the grandeur--of pealing bells.]

It seems from the outset a rather remarkable thing that a means could be found to awaken by one hammer stroke a single emotion at the same moment in a thousand different hearts, and so compel the winds and the clouds to carry the thoughts of man. Then, considered as harmony, bells undoubtedly possess a beauty of the first order--that which artists call grandeur. The sound of thunder is sublime solely because it has grandeur, magnitude. And thus it is with the winds and the sea, with volcanos, waterfalls, or the voice of a whole people.

With that pleasure would Pythagoras, who gladly heard the blacksmith’s hammer, have listened to our bells on the eve of a religious ceremony! The soul may be melted by the string of a lyre, but it is not fired with enthusiasm as when aroused by the thunderbolts of battle or by an imposing peal that proclaims in the realms above the glory of the Lord of Hosts.

The Bell of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria: ‘It was God himself who commanded the angel of victory to fling into the ether the peals that proclaim our triumphs, and the angel of death to toll for the leave-taking of the soul He is summoning to Him.’

And yet this is not the most wonderful characteristic of the sound of bells, which has so many secret links with our being. How often, in the silence of the night, has not a distant ringing of bells, a faint reverberation, as of a heart expiring in agony, struck and amazed the ear of the adulteress? How often have these echoes not reached even the atheist who, in his impious vigil, was perhaps daring to write that there is no God? The pen falls from his hand as he hears the dreadful knell of death which seems to be saying, “Is there indeed no God?” Oh, why did not such sounds disturb the sleep of our oppressors! Mysterious religion that by the sole magic of sounding bronze can change the pleasures into torments, shake the atheist, and make the assassin drop his knife!

Softer feelings are also linked with the sound of bells. When at dawn, in harvest time one hears together with the lark the soft tinklings that arise from our hamlets, one thinks the guardian angel of the crops is rousing the toilers by breathing into some Hebrew instrument the stories of Zipporah or Naomi. It seems to me that were I a poet, I should not disdain the “bell rung by ghosts” which hangs in the old chapel by the wood, nor that which out of a sacred fear resounds in our villages to avert lightning, nor again that which is heard at night in certain seaports to guide the helmsman through the reefs.

‘The bells are ringing/for me and my gal…’ Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, ‘For Me and My Gal,’ from the movie For Me and My Gal (1942), Kelly’s movie debut, directed by Busby Berkeley.

On feast days the carillon adds to the general gladness. But in calamity these same sounds become dreadful to hear. The hair upon the head still rises at the very thought of the days of flame and carnage accompanied by the clangor of the tocsin.  Who of us can have lost the memory of the cries, howls, and screams, broken by intervals of silence during which scattered shots on some solitary lamenting voice could be heard, and above all the deep hum of the bell tolling the alarm, or the quiet strokes of the cathedral clock marking the spent hour?

Had bells been attached to any other monument but our churches, they never would have touched the moral sympathies of our hearts. It was God himself who commanded the angel of victory to fling into the other the peals that proclaim our triumphs, and the angel of death to toll for the leave-taking of the soul. He is summoning to Him. Thus does a Christian society communicate by a thousand secret voices with Divinity, and its roots lose themselves mysteriously at the source of all mystery.

Let then the bells call together the faithful; the voice of man is not pure enough to bring to the foot of the altar repentance, innocence, and sorrow.

The Genius of Christianity, 1802 

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