Chateaubriand, Trauma of Rundjuq, and Letters from Penang

By Windu Jusuf


Chateubriand, frequently known as the Father of French Romanticism used to write about Tanah Runcuk. The story was started when he joined French ocean expedition team in 1790. This encounter would have never been figured out if in 1961 some French literary critics and historians did not have a debate about three pieces of letters that were just discovered in a library in Penang around the same period. “Francois”, the writer of those letters, was quickly identified as Chateubriand. While Rundjuq, as the place referred to in the first letter, until the polemic was over, remained unknown. Here is the speculation: Rundjuq is the name of a place in Southern part of the United States in which Chateubriand once visited.

These letters, known as “Letters from Penang”, were published in 1969 by publisher Gallimard, in Chateubriand’s chrestomathy: Oeuvres romanesques et voyages. Hitherto, there has been no extensive discussion on what Chateubriand called as “Rundjuq”. Unfortunately, Chateubriand himself did not write in detail how his stopover looked like. However, in conjunction with the discovery of ethnographic records on Runcuk written by Ludwig Stern Jr. and Kreuzer Wallach on the Land in Weimar, the discussion on “Rundjuq” seemed to find the silver lining.

This writing does not intend to discuss the state of Chateubriand’s presence in Tanah Runcuk that still needs a further research. Instead, this writing discusses the content of the Letters from Penang, within which Tanah Runcuk was presented as a geographical imagination of the writer who connected it to the experience of a European man being far away from his homeland within the period of a political upheaval.


Glimpses of Chateubriand

“Chateubriand! What pictures do not rise before us with this sonorous name? A magnificent series of attitudes and of costumes. A child-dreamer, in the tickets near an old castle. A young French officer among the red skins, among the charming savage-women, in the virgin forest.  A book that opens the church-doors and sets processions in motion. Moonlight, the indeterminate haze of the forest, the amber odor of crocodiles. A writer jealous of Napoleon’s glory. A royalist who serves the king with the most disdainful loyalty. A deaf old man near the armchair of an old lady, beautiful and blind. A tomb in the rocks of the sea.” – Jules Lemaitre

In the 20th century, France had someone like Andre Malraux: a novelist, a humanist, and a minister in the era of de Gaulle who wrote about the history of art. Chateubriand was Malraux of the transition from the 18th to 19th century. Both were raised by great political turmoils of their age; Malraux by the Spanish Civil War and the revolution in Tiongkok, while Chateubriand by the French Revolution. Both went for adventure at a great distance out of France and wrote their travel testimonies and memoirs. Both also took a sharp turn in their political lives, from symphatizers of progressive ideas into the conservatives: Malraux served as the minister of culture under the reign of de Gaulle, meanwhile Chateubriand who was disappointed with the French Revolution turned to support the monarchists—and in the end Napoleon. Born in Saint-Malo, in southwestern France, on 4 September 1768, François- René de Chateaubriand was often titled as the person who spawned the Romanticism of French literature. Chateubriand’s style of speech, content of writing, and adventurous life style contributed to shape French literary traditions throughout the 19th century until the early 20th century, from Hugo to Proust. His magnum opus is Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave), the 42-volumes memoir published after the author’s death, between 1848 and 1850. Other works published in his lifetime were among others short novels Atala and René, two religious pamphlets Genie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity) and Les Martyrs, ou le triomphe de la réligion chrétienne (The Martyrs, or the Triumph of Christianity). It was through these works Chateubriand pioneered a new tradition in French literature in post-Revolution era, particularly through memoirs.

Many of French barons enthusiastically supported the Revolution, but later they became discontented when it was entering a more radical phase. There was no exception, even for Chateubriand, who was born within a marginalized aristocrat family. In 1790, he decided to go for a sail to several places—the one recorded is America—and just set foot in France two years afterwards. His homecoming soon continued to an episode of war: he joined a troop of Royalist armies in Colbenz (now part of Germany), aiding the remnants of the Bourbon Dynasty to fight against the Revolution from the frontier. Due to the extremely gruesome defeat, Chateubriand fled to England, where he embraced English literature.

When the French Directory was ousted and Napoleon ascended, many former supporters of the Revolution enlisted therein, including Chateubriand who, after receiving amnesty, went back to his own country. Napoleon, who was organizing his authority, was astounded by Chateubriand’s work, Genie du Christianisme, a pamphlet that defended the Church in the middle of increasing sentiment upon Catholic Church. It was said that this work contributed to the rise of the Catholic Church after the Revolution.

Hence, Chateubriand thrived into a political adventurer up to his advancing years. He used to stand side by side with the Royalists during the Bourbon Restoration era, when he once occupied the position of an ambassador in Prussia and England; but he also switched to the liberal opposition when the ultra-Royalists dominated the government.

Chateubriand passed away in July 1848, a month after the citizens of Paris overthrew the Orleans monarchy which was also brought up by Chateubriand. His last letter says:

“In my three careers respectively, I have always carried great tasks for myself: as an adventurer, I consistently wanted to explore a new world; as a humanist, I have attempted to rebuild religion from its rubble; as a statesman, I strived to establish a representative monarchical system, with varying freedoms it might offer; and in the end I took part in conquering the freedom that had shifted all other freedoms … the freedom of the press.”(1)


French Revolution in Tanah Rundjuq

Chateubriand’s letters found in Penang were the letters published during the era of the French Revolution, which further conduced to European political correspondence in the following centuries. In that turbulent times. “… wherever the eyes could see outside the fence, men and women immediately saw bayonets lining,” the critic George Steiner wrote.(2) Frietzsche mentioned that the habit of writing letters and memoirs reflected a massive culture shock in the time when changes took place rapidly in a daily basis, since both were considered compatible with the need to deliver the sense of ‘here and now’ at the time “the entire human race confronted a great disaster or exploitation and plague.”(3) It can be said that, letters—and memoirs—functioned as what photography would do in the later centuries: it recorded the social reality with all its distortions of the restless author.

Stephan noted that the volume of mail delivery in Europe increased significantly in that era(4). Considering the literacy rate, the most common case was well-documented correspondences, namely the letters of the aristocrats and haute bourgeoisies whose contents were complaints upon uncertain situations and daily anxieties, such as the scarcity of primary need goods in the market—or frequently, letters about secret contracts on the smugglings of coffee, sugar, and bread. In the latter case, most of those letters were dated Ventôse in the second year(5), when the policy of General Maximum was in force(6).

Another well-documented letters were the correspondences from outside of Europe. It is necessary to notice that the letters neatly stored in archives were the letters sent to Europe, instead of the ones from Europe to the explored land(7). Just as the expedition notes of the sailors, these letters became the sources of anthropological researches in their time, where many anthropologists described certain society without even once met the people they wrote about.

Some writer-philosophers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and particularly Rousseau frequently utilized these correspondence sources as the raw materials of their didactic scripts (e.g. L’Ingénu, Confession, Lettres persanes), specifically to construct non-European mythical characters with wise, sapiential, and more civilized images than the Europeans.

Letters from Penang contained those elements(8). Addressed to Mme Desbaresdes, Letters from Penang are basically long love letters, reporting the experiences of a journey, the longing for a woman to whom the letters were addressed, and also the experiences during some layovers. Mme Desbaresdes was Chateubriand’s youth lover who was revealed just recently. Desbaresdes, a Hungarian noblewoman, was the wife of a French marine assigned in the Mediterranean Sea.

The two last points, longing and experiences of layover in a certain place, were critical parts in the Letters from Penang. Sainte-Beuve stated that the two parts informed a gradual conversion process from the young Chateubriand who was optimistic and drifted by the turmoil of his time (the French Revolution), to the old Chateubriand, a pessimist and opportunist—even though he was still a supporter of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror (La Terreur) had not been established at the time he went back to France. His political discontentments within the Letters from Penang can be compared to an excerpt from a chapter of Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, titled “Danton – Camille Desmoulins – Fabre d’Églantine”:

“The Jacobin were plagiarists; even when they beheaded Louis XVI, such action imitated the death penalty upon Charles I. Since viciousness had known to be attached to a great social movement, it was often mistakenly imagined as the result of the Revolution’s grandeur. In fact, such viciousness was a mere cheap imitation: in a wondrous yet ill nature, the passionate or systematic souls only admired the shocks.”(9)

Considering the relationship between the author’s cultural background and what he wrote, the Letters from Penang were part of a tradition that recorded how the changes of perception upon the eastern world shaped by the author finally provided a sort of mirror into which he could see his being Europe and the progress within himself. In the case of Chateubriand, the Letters from Penang talked about what it meant to be a European, middle-class citizen, with all fear and other typical psychological tendencies, in a certain distant place at a certain period of time.


Rundjuq in the Letters from Penang

Ironically, Chateubriand only encountered the first period of the Revolution and he perceived the impact just recently. He caught up with the progress in Paris through a routine correspondence, including the letters sent by Mme Desbaresdes. It is where the theme of longing becomes the key point. On one hand, the revolutionary process he assisted from afar raised his worry about Desbaresdes’ safety. It was from those expressions of longing, the description of the places he visited (in the first letter) found its significance. Chateubriand invited his lover to live in Rundjuq, which he mentioned only twice, solely in the first letter.

“Madame Desbaresdes, the weather in Rundjuq is intensely hot.  You are going to writhe lika lizard. Rundjuq will certainly amaze you. We will see a Caribbean-skinned Colossus and a European soul mingling with the tropical comeliness.”

In Sainte-Beuve’s explanation, these lines show young Chateubriand’s greenness, who in his adulthood was more known as a big-time Don Juan. In terms of his erudition, wit, and seduction skills implied within these letters, it was different from, let’s say, his famous correspondences with Mme de Duras or Mme de Staël in the future, when Chateubriand was more mature and his political attitude far more conservative(10). However, his talent of having scandal with high-class married woman, description on adventures in a foreign land, and cynicism had been obvious within the letters. Chateubriand’s view reports could merely be a part of his flattery. However, even as a flattery, it had a palpable utilitarian function: by exposing his adventure in a foreign land, Chateubriand wanted to show a self image which was entirely in contrast with Desbaresdes’ husband’s nature: Chateubriand the adventurer, Chateubriand the supporter of the Revolution, and Chateubriand the aesthete who was capable of appreciating non-European cultures—a certain mode among French intellectuals.

The first letter found its resonance at least in two other works of Chateubriand, the short novel Atala (1801) and Genie du Christianisme (1802). Atala was written, according to Chateubriand’s claim, based on his journey to a remote land in southern America, to be exact Louisiana, where his encounter with “civilized” Indians was narrated. In his unique statement, Chateubriand told that his stopover was “the true former city of Chartage”. He wrote: “We used to own such a passion of these indigenous and we will have it once again in the twilight of Louis Capet(11)…” and it was ended with an excerpt from Rosseau’s work, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, “Nature is the only thing capable of radiating absolute human virtue and independence out of the tyranny.”

However, there were some strong arguments that annulled the author’s claim based on the absence of proof that Chateubriand once indeed travelled to the place he wrote. Moreover, the background of the story he uncovered in Atala was no longer unique in its age. Just as many authors in his time, it was typical of the 18th century persons to find their wisdom through the imagination about non-European society. It can be seen from the poor detail as well as the lack of specific nuance of natural landscape and culture. Instead, the authors of the century paid more attention to the narration of subjective experiences whose setting just currently changed into the non-European foreign land. Summarizing the tendency of exoticism in his fellow Romantic authors’ imagination, the novelist Victor Hugo said: “In the age of Louis XVI, they were all Hellenists; now, we are Orientalists.” Thus, despite the debate on whether Chateubriand was indeed once in Louisiana, the descriptions of place and society in Atala were more proper to be considered as the aestheticization of Chateubriand’s personal experiences instead of the references of a concrete situation he truly encountered.

There is a possibility, that the voyage to Tanah Runcuk—instead of his layover in the Continent of America—contributed building blocks for Atala. Still within his first letter, Chateubriand narrated the culture of Rundjuq people as wise and literate, tolerant, as well as living a belief similar to monotheism. Chateubriand repeated the discussion on the latest matter in Genie du Christianisme, an apologetic pamphlet that defends the truth of Christian religion, neither from a theological perspective nor scientific one, but through an aesthetic reasoning. The phrase “du Nouveau Monde” was written in the end of the letter in order to emphasize “a new beginning” that automatically reminds us of the myth of human genesis. He also put more insistence with the phrase “La nouvelle France” (“New France”), opposing to “La vieux France” (“Old France”).

Being read along with Chateubriand’s life story in the later days, particularly at his homecoming to France and supporting Napoleon, the first part of Chateubriand’s letters described a hope of revolution from a distant place on one side, while on the other side, suggested the seeds of reconciliation between Chateubriand and the monarchists. From the fantasy about the foreign land, Chateubriand situated a pastoral scenery with peaceful citizens, as the resolution of the conflict in Paris(12).

At the same time, it is also important to notice that the expressions referring to nature and a life in harmony     were in fact—even in the years towards 1789—developed by the revolutionaries (instead of the Reactionaries) for the sake of translating abstract political ideas such as virtu (political wisdom), Human Rights, and Republic into natural terms(13). Such articulations were also used to fight against the monarchy absolutism whose legitimization was manifested into Christian expressions, where—as formulated by the monarchy thelogist, J.B. Bossuet—the authority of the empire had four basic characteristics, namely “holy”, “paternal”, “absolute”, and “guided by reason”(14).

What makes Chateubriand exceptional is that he utilized this ‘natural articulation’ to fight the Revolution in the future, precisely by affirming that nature is a double-edged sword; it restores humans to their primitive nature which is kind but yet frequently reveals their ferocious nature, that can only be subdued by the authorities of king and church which—as implied in Genie du Christianisme—were rooted to and gained their strength from the nature instead of reason!


The “Death” of Chateubriand and the Contribution of Tanah Runcuk

Trying to find Chateubriand’s complete description on the land he called Rundjuq is futile. Most probably, it exists. But considering the intervals of three or four months between the three letters, it is clear that there are several missing letters. The second letter was even interrupted in the middle.

“Not long after we got back from the remote land, came the hearsay that the horses were dead. I am clueless about how much those horses were worthy. You know, the horses are more precious when they are dead. They deserved to die. Men of Rundjuq process horse’s heart for their ritual, and fight over its head that is unable to find anywhere for ….. [manuscript interrupted]

Barberis predicted the presence of external pressures that caused some missing or interrupted letters(15). Gouhier mentioned an internal influence within Chateubriand; it was probably malaria or opium consumption that was common—and celebrated—among the creative process of French poets of the following century(16).

However, Barberis also added an important note by comparing some Chateubriand’s paragraphs to the motives of the ‘journey to the remote land’ commonly found within colonial travel literatures. Fear is prominent within those letters(17). According to Barberis, Chateubriand met “his fellow”, a Dutch man named Pieter (in other line he called him Pierre) who had been living in the remote land for a longer period of time. The information on how such a mysterious figure was present therein is unclear. The second letter says:

“In the end, Pierre fathomed what was truly happening upon him—and only at the very end he could do. But the wild executed a vicious vengeance towards him for entering the remote land. The jungle whispered things about him he was unaware of, opaque matters that he eventually demanded for advices from such an outright loneliness—and the whisperings were proven to be fuddling.”

Bizarrely, Chateubriand imagined himself like a man nearly insane and moribund in Rundjuq, who then regretted the state of being far away from his own land. Praises for Rundjuq were no longer there. Word by word, it got more intense and less lovely compared to the first letter. The name Pieter/Pierre could be a mere parable representing all white people (similar to John Doe or John Smith in English language), that actually referred to somebody or himself instead. Such imagination of a nearly insane and moribund self is very typical of Chateubriand, particularly throughout his memoirs. He was obsessed with death and the conviction that his writings (especially the memoirs) would exceed his death. In his essay “L’immortalité mélancolique”, Jean Starobinski wrote:

“Denial of life for the sake of a personal work is the peak of narcissism. The misery on the bed of death upholds the dreams of consolation on the fragility of the effort to survive through writings. Simultaneously, this moribund style is a way to protect one’s self from death, which is by approaching the limits. The eternity that Chateubriand dreamt of was hiding behind the mourning clothes.”(18)

Later, Chateubriand indeed once wrote in Memoires, “Mais j’ai les cheveux blancs; j’ai plus d’un sibcle, en outre, je suis mort;” (“But my hair is gray, I age more than one century, and moreover, I am dead”)(19). The description of consolation through a narration on death just appears clearly in the third letter, when Rundjuq is missing from within. He only wrote a brief clue on what he planned to do after his homecoming. But in the second paragraph, it is said that:

“It had been nearly a year of my residence in this foreign land before the lovers of the death shoved into the coast. Now, far I have been from those ghosts, after plunging myself to Hell, the memory of worms slithering on the Kokytos river bank withered(20): they completed the dreams of my life, and their names were written on my diary behind the door of the tomb.” 

It has been mentioned before that there might be other letters written between the first and the second letters, and between the second and the third as well. What remains vague is the details of events the author might tell about his layover in Tanah Runcuk. However, the changing content, tone, and use of metaphor within the letters seem to allude to Chateubriand’s traumatic experiences in Tanah Runcuk—and such trauma is related to his encounter with Pieter/Pierre who had changed his perception on many things.

As what have been mostly recorded, the contract between the people of Tanah Runcuk and foreigners has been a familiar thing since the presence of trade(21). Chateubriand himself acknowledged the comeliness of the creole race (mixed race) in the first letter. But the explanation on how the two parties—the white people living in that remote land and the descendants—were related each other was absent in the letter. Examining this motive of death in accordance with Starobinski’s interpretation, it is unrisky to say that the figure of Pierre/Pieter is an imagination of self, a twin, or a Doppelgänger, created by Chateubriand to illustrate an episode of his life that was vibrant but then dead(22). Chateubriand also gained a new selfhood identity, a ‘new man’ who managed to elude death and barbarism, who always reiterated death in order to insist on his disconnectedness from the past. Regarding Chateubriand’s political career as an opportunist, in the end he indeed performed as a new man every time the regime changed.

A drastic change of his perception of self occurring in Rundjuq also turned significant because Chateubriand’s loss was at once a loss over an ideal image of the virgin land he used to praise within the first letter. Such discontentment was rooted to an excessive conviction over an ideal figure of society whom the restive people of France should learn from. Therefore, it was reasonable that at his homecoming to Paris while witnessing guillotine everywhere, the experiences in Rundjuq became his primary reference immediately. In other words, the episodes of Tanah Rundjuq had armed Chateubriand with a pair of new eyes to look at his own homeland.

Rundjuq, as a metaphor of a New World as well as a geographical truth, was a disappointment for Chateubriand. Such disappointment was completely developed within the narration about white people becoming king/god in the remote land, for instance in Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899). The figure of Pieter as the author’s mirror in the foreign land also reversed what had been a trend in French literature, particularly after the publication of Montesquieu’s work, Lettres persanes (Persian Letters). In Lettres persanes, non-European people acted as innocent characters whose wisdoms were greater than the European. In Chateubriand’s work, the reversal reads: European people would be more barbaric when they live in a non-European land.




Penang from the sea.Watercolour & Pencil. Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. 1854


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