Monday, July 11, 2011

Atala, The Drama

The Funeral of Atala, ca. 1811, oil on canvas, Anne-Louis De Roussy Girodet Trioson, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America

"If my dream of happiness was yet alive, it was also of short duration, and my awakening awaited me at the Hermit’s cave. I was surprised, on arriving there at midday, not to see Atala running to meet our steps. Some sudden horror seized me. Approaching the cave, I hardly dared to call to Lopez’s daughter: my imagination was equally terrified, as to whether sound or silence would succeed to my cries. Even more afraid of the darkness which prevailed at the rocky entrance, I said to the missionary: ‘O you, whom the heavens support and strengthen, penetrate these shadows.’
          How weak is the man whom passions dominate! How strong the man who trusts in God! There was more courage in that religious heart, burdened by its seventy-six years than in all my youthful ardour. The man of peace entered the cave, and I stood outside filled with terror. Soon a low murmur, like a complaint, issued from the depths of the rock, and struck my ear. Heaving a cry, and regaining my strength, I rushed into the darkness of the cavern ...Spirits of my Fathers: you alone know the sight that met my eyes!
   The Hermit had lit a torch of pine; he grasped it with a trembling hand over Atala’s bed. That lovely young woman half-raised on one elbow, appeared pale and dishevelled. Drops of sweat, the product of agony, glistened on her forehead; her eyes half-extinguished still seeking to express her love for me, and her mouth attempting to smile. Struck as if by a lightning-bolt, staring, arms outstretched, lips parted, I remained motionless. A profound silence reigned for a moment among the three personages at this scene of sorrow. The Hermit was first to break it: ‘This,’ he said, ‘is merely a fever brought on by fatigue, and if we resign ourselves to the will of God, he will take pity on us.’
          At these words, the flow of blood, which had seemed suspended, resumed its course through my heart, and with the adaptability of the Savage, I passed suddenly from excessive fear to excess trust. But Atala allowed me but a moment. Her head swaying sadly, she beckoned us to approach her bed.
          ‘My father,’ she said, in a faint voice, turning to the priest, ‘I am near to death. O Chactas! Listen without despair to the fatal secret I have concealed, in order not to render you wretched too, and to show obedience to my mother’s memory. Try not to interrupt me with expressions of sorrow, which would hasten the few moments I have left to live. I have many things to tell, with a heart whose beat is fading ... with an icy burden that my breast can scarcely bear … I feel I cannot be too swift.’
          After a few moments silence, Atala continued:
‘My sad fate began almost before I had seen the light. My mother conceived me in misfortune; I exhausted her womb, and her flesh was torn in giving birth to me: they despaired of my life. To preserve it, my mother uttered a vow: she promised to the Queen of Angels that I would dedicate my virginity to her, if I escaped death ... A fatal vow that sends me onwards to the tomb!
          I had just turned fifteen, when I lost my mother. A few hours before she died she called me to her bed. “My daughter,” she said, in the presence of the missionary who was bringing consolation to her last moments, “my daughter, you know the vow I made for you. Would you deny your mother? Oh, my Atala! I leave you in a world that is not worthy of possessing a Christian amidst all these idolaters, who persecute the God of your father and mine, that God who, after having granting you life, saved you by a miracle. Ah, my dear child, by accepting the virgin’s veil, you will simply be abandoning the cares of the wilderness and the fatal passions that have troubled your mother’s womb! Come, my beloved, come; swear on this picture of the Saviour’s Mother, held in the hands of this holy priest, and between those of your dying mother, so as not to compromise me in the sight of heaven. Remember that I gave a promise on your behalf in order to save your life, and if you do not keep my promise, you will plunge your mother’s soul into eternal torment.”
          O my mother! Why did you speak thus! O Religion that brings me both pain and happiness, that destroys and consoles me! And you, dear and sad object of a passion that consumes me to the very point of death, you see now, O Chactas, what has determined the severity of our fate! ... Bursting into tears, and throwing myself into my mother’s arms, I promised all that I was asked to promise. The missionary pronounced the terrible words over me, and handed me the scapular that binds me forever. My mother threatened me with her curse if I ever broke my vows, and after having recommended me to keep that secret hidden inviolably from the heathen persecutors of my religion, she died, while holding me in her embrace.
          I did not at first realise the danger of my oaths. Full of enthusiasm, and a true Christian, proud of the Spanish blood flowing through my veins, I could see only men around me who were unworthy to receive my hand; I congratulated myself on having no other spouse but my mother’s God. I saw you, a young handsome captive, I was moved by your fate, I dared to speak to you at the stake in the forest; thus I felt the whole weight of my vows.’
          As Atala finished speaking these words, clenching my fists, and glaring at the missionary with a menacing expression, I exclaimed: ‘This then is the religion you praised so highly! Have done with this vow that snatches Atala from me!" Excepts from  Chateaubriand's Atala 

The Funeral of Atala, ca. 1811, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson, Louvre

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