Albert Sorel.

Madame de Staël online

. (page 5 of 14)
Online LibraryAlbert SorelMadame de Staël → online text (page 5 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


she poured forth still more, never economizing
either a word or an idea.

In this manner the book on "■ The Passions "

was composed ; it appeared in the autumn of

1796. Critics have dwelt on the insufficiency

of fundamental studies, the lack of method,

6



82 Madame de StdeL

and the volatile and fugitive character of the
thought in it. They lay too much stress on
the compass of it, which is artificial, and on
the ensemble y which is defective. The value
of the work lies in the treatment of detail.

Madame de Stael conceived this work under
the spell of the great disenchantments of 1793,
and it bears this impress. " I will stifle
within me," she said at that time, " everything
that distinguishes me among women, — natural
thoughts, passionate emotions, and generous
impulses of enthusiasm; but I shall evade sor-
row, dreadful sorrow." Where find a refuge?
Man knows but few, — amusement for the
frivolous, resignation for the strong, faith for
the pious.

Faith was a quality lacking in Madame de
Stael. She had a certain vague aspiration in
her heart, a restlessness of imagination, a sort
of undefined and instinctive religiosity which
left a place open in her soul for faith. But
she evaded the thought of it, fearful of find-
ing only a vacuum. Roederer composed in
1796 an essay on ** Funereal Institutions." In
it he asked, if the whole raison d'etre of the
belief in the immortality of the soul does not
proceed from a " natural desire for a perpetua-
tion of oneself in the memory of mankind. '^
Madame de Stael wrote to him : " There is an



The Book on " The Passions T 83

analysis of the desire for immortality which I
dread to find true. Upon all these great sub-
jects I have never had but one very positive
thought. I have always believed that religious
ideas should contribute toward the happiness
of mankind, and I have treated myself as I
suppose one should treat others ; I am afraid
to take them away from myself" They were
like a prop to one who lives in fear of vertigo,
rather than succor to a drowning soul.

And what of amusement? She made use
of this undoubtedly, say her enemies ; but she
never pretended to be either satisfied or as-
suaged by it. She might try to forget herself
in it, but she never esteemed herself frivolous,
and would never have made forgetfulness a
moral remedy. There remains only stoicism,
therefore, as a retreat for the soul left to itself;
the classic consolations of the philosophers, —
friendship, study, benevolence. Friendship she
finds but a pale-faced consolation. Study is
for her more effective; and benevolence she
finds more helpful even than study. But, after
all, there is but one efficacious means of sal-
vation, — flight. To fear the passions, which
are the soul's bonds, to evade them, to get
free from them, even at the price of rending
oneself; to be resigned to receive life " drop
by drop," like infants and wise men; to say



84 Madame de StdeL

to oneself that the only true happiness lies in
repose of soul, and that there is but one sen-
timent in the world that is not deceptive,
namely, pity, — there, she says, ** is a good,
final cause in the moral order."

I have sought its effects, but it is not at
Coppet that I have been able to see them.
There passion rules. It was then that the
author, in some letters which are a strange
commentary on her book, wrote to a relative
of Benjamin Constant : ^' Oh ! I have felt
strongly that upon him alone depends the
fate of my life." This is the weak side of
this moral treatise. But whoever knows the
book finds in it a confession which is sincere
and which forms its chief interest. Passion
triumphs in it under all disguises, always over-
stepping the mark, always absorbed by itself,
even in despair, and glorying in its wounds,
" It cost me dear," says the writer, *' to say
that to love passionately was not true happi-
ness." Madame de Stael said so, indeed, but
she never believed it.

"At those altars on which I had kindled a flame
I gave all to that God whom I trembled to name." ^

This is all there is to the book, and it is
what Madame de Stael made it in spite of her-

1 "Meme au pied des autels que je faisais fumer
J'offrais tout a ce Dieu que je n'osais nommer."



The Book on " The Pass ions ^ 85

self. What she intended to make it is quite
another thing. She would like to hav^e con-
founded her calumniators by a very grave and
austere production. " Condemned to celebrity
without being understood, I feel the necessity
of making myself judged by my writings. . . .
Calumniated continually, and finding myself of
too little importance to talk about myself, I
have yielded to the hope that in publishing
this fruit of my meditations I may give a true
idea of my habits of life and of the nature
of my character." Then follows this majestic
introduction of the book, which appears to be
a sort of '' Spirit of the Laws " applied to the
passions: "Governments should minister to
the real happiness of all, and moralists should
teach individuals to dispense with happiness."
The part concerning the duties of governments
remained in project, and one cannot regret it;
the part called " Of Moralists " is the one part
completed. She persuaded no one, the au-
thor least of all women in the world, and
least of all at the time when the book was
brought forth.

The analysis which Madame de Stael makes
of the passions is diffuse, and at times its style
of rhetoric is rather odd. One smiles at this
beginning of a dissertation — one might almost
call it a fantaisie brillante — " On Suicide" :



86 Madame de StdeL

" He who will include suicide in the number
of his resolutions may enter upon the career
of the passions." Madame de Stael deals with
love in limited and absolute monarchies and
in republics. She speaks of ambition like a
person who has never observed its effects ; it
seems as though she had never known either
Mirabeau or Narbonne, or even Necker. She
speaks of love, on the other hand, like a woman
consumed and penetrated by those fiery pas-
sions of which Pascal treats. On this theme
she is inexhaustible. She seems to have in
herself no conception either of lassitude or,
with stronger reason, of the nausea of a pas-
sion that is spent. The bitter restlessness of
'' Adolphe " is absent from her writings. But
love unsatisfied, love misunderstood, love be-
trayed, all the crises of neglect and the aban-
donment of love, all the dolorous repertory of
Phedre and Hermione, are poured forth from
her pen in infinite lamentations, always elo-
quent and moving. There is heard amid them
a note which announces new harmonies in lit-
erature. The happiness of love is sad, not
merely because of vanity or the satiety of
pleasure, but because of the thought of death,
which is inseparable from it. '^ Love when a
passion always brings melancholy. There is
an inward conviction that all that comes



The Book on " The Passions T Sy

after love is as nothing; . . . and this con-
viction makes one think of death even in the
happiest moments of love." We feel that
Chateaubriand is about to appear, and that
Lamartine is born. Then follow real heart-
cries which let her secret escape: ''Brilliant
successes would seem to offer the proudest
gratification to the friend of the woman who
obtains them; but the enthusiasm to which
these successes give birth is perhaps less last-
ing than the attraction founded upon the most
frivolous advantages. A woman's face, be the
strength or extent of her intellect what it may,
... is always either an obstacle or an advan-
tage in the history of her life ; men have
always chosen to have it so!'

Along with these avowals Madame de Stael
introduces here and there in her book some
souvenirs of the Revolution, and some master-
ful pages which reveal the historian. We may
well compare them with those which Joseph
de Maistre wrote about the same time in his
'* Considerations on France." ** We think,"
says Madame de Stael, ^' that we may influ-
ence revolutions, that we may influence or be
the cause, yet we are only a stone thrown aside
by the turning of the great wheel; another
might have taken your place, a different means
might have produced the same result; the



88 Madame de StdeL

name of chief signifies the first to be precipi-
tated by the crowd that marches behind, al-
ways pushing to the front." She had already
written in 1795 : ** When Robespierre tried to
separate himself from his companions and
make his own destiny, he was lost; he had
no personal force, he only ruled when he put
himself at the head of all the crimes."

The treatise on "The Passions " made a great
sensation. Madame de Stael desired this heart-
ily, and hoped that success would reopen to
her the gates of Paris. '•' Commend the book,"
she wrote to Roederer, *' so that the author
be not persecuted." It was indeed persecution
which then began and continued for eighteen
years, with more or less brief intervals of
truce. " Her conduct in Paris has afflicted the
friends of liberty very much," wrote Delacroix,
the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the minister-
resident at Geneva, in December of 1795. The
resident had orders to watch the relations of
Madame de Stael with strangers and exiles,
notably with Wickham and Narbonne. They
were suspected of fostering rebellion in the
East. From that time Madame de Stael had
the police in pursuit, and her record in the
hands of the police. When Narbonne ap-
proached from the frontier, the Directory
ordered " that he be carried off with all his



The Consulate. 89

papers." They accused ^Madame do Stael,
'* always garrulous and intriguing by nature,"
of serving as emissary to conspirators. If she
tried to go into France, she was to be stopped.
She exposed herself to no risks, however, and
remained provisionally at Coppet. But she
made every endeavor to obtain a passport.
She alleged the necessity of putting her affairs
in order; her husband was dissipating her
children's patrimony : with a revenue of eighty
thousand livres, he had managed to accumulate
a debt of two hundred thousand livres. The
exile's solicitations were urged according as
the fever to get to Paris raged upon her.
" The winter in this place is mortal to me,"
she wrote to Roederer; "I spit blood all last
winter, and the north wind does me intolerable
harm." Her friends reasoned with her, but
she rebelled. " I only understand love as life:
one must mourn for what it lacks." She pro-
tests her attachment to the Republic. Her
desire is so keen that she forgets sincerely
her acts and writings, — everything that has
compromised her, and everything that has
done her honor. " Since the lOth of August,"
she declared to the minister-resident of the
Republic at Geneva, '*I have not written a
line that could relate to the operations of the
Government." She stopped at no contradic-



go Madame de Stdel.

tions. " Do you not think," she asked of the
same resident some time afterward, " that the
Directory would be glad to see me in Paris ?
They know that I am part author of Benjamin
Constant's work, and, that granted, they have
no right to suspect my devotion to the cause."

Indeedj this work of Benjamin, '' On the
Strength of the Present Government of France
and the Necessity of supporting it," had made
some stir. Talleyrand, who in his retreat at
Hamburg had received with the pamphlet an
account of affairs at Coppet, wrote discreetly
to Madame de Stael : ''Who is this Benjamin
Constant, author of a very remarkable book
which I have just read ? Is he attached to
Narbonne ? I found in it many things that
might have been thought or written by the
two together; I found indeed in some shape
Narbonne's very remarks, or reminders of
them."

At last, in the month of April, 1797, she was
permitted to re-enter her own hotel. She
thought she should thereafter dwell there in
peace. Her friends were again in power.
Talleyrand took charge of the Foreign Affairs,
and intended to associate Benjamin Constant
with him as general secretary. Madame de
Stael recommenced her dinners. Among the
new guests were to be seen Luclen and Joseph



The Consulate, 91

Bonaparte; the latter was always faithful to
her. But scarcely was she again at home ere
she found herself the butt of party attacks.
The Royalists called her a " fury." It was
because she had no respect for their persons
and condemned their politics. She had noth-
ing to hope from their return to govern-
ment. She expected liberty and justice from
them least of all in the world. She knew them
well. She was by no means allured by their
new pretexts. She would not take their pro-
grammes for acts of faith, nor their watchwords
for their word of honor.

"The Royalist party in both councils invoked
Republican principles, liberty of the press, liberty of
suffrage, — all sorts of liberty in fact, especially that
of overturning the Directory. The popular party, on
the contrary, built always upon circumstances, and
defended revolutionary measures which served as a
momentary guaranty to the Government. The Re-
publicans were constrained to disavow their own
principles, because they were used by others against
themselves ; and the Royalists borrowed the weapons
of the Republicans to attack the Republic."

She deplored the coup d'Hat of Fructidor,
but she deplored particularly that this coup
d'etat, so disastrous to republican liberty,
seemed necessary to the welfare of the Repub-
lic. " I would surely never have advised," she



92 Madame de Side I.

said, " the establishment of a repubHc in
France ; but once in existence, I should not be
inclined to wish to overturn it." What she
condemned unreservedly were the proscrip-
tions and the fresh terrorism which fell upon
the Jacobins. " She made the i8th, but not the
19th," said Talleyrand. On the 1 8th she was
with the party in power; on the 19th she was
once more with the party of the victims, and
she groaned to see her friends more divided
and more impotent than ever.

Bonaparte came back to Paris bringing
trophies of Italy. He had genius, glory, judg-
ment, magnanimity, youth, fortune. Every-
thing paled before him. Madame de Stael did
not perceive in him then the deformities which
she was pleased to represent in him by and
by. He seemed to her remarkable '* for char-
acter and intellect as well as for his victories,"
— merciful to the vanquished, to whom he
promised justice; speaking *'to the imagina-
tion of the French people; " ''sensible of the
beauties of Ossian ; " gifted with *' all the gen-
erous qualities which throw the more extraor-
dinary quahties into relief." She saw him
then as he appeared in David's immortal pic-
ture, — the figure rather slim and nervous, but-
toned up to the throat in the plain gray
redingote; the cheeks pale and hollow, the



The Consulate, 93

brow wide and high under the long tumbling
locks, the eagle nose, the eyes open to the far
infinite, searching space, and with something
imperious, eager, and melancholy in them all
at once ; the halo of success and the fascina-
tion of mystery.

^' Cleopatra ^ was not possessed of striking beauty,
but her grace and intellect illumined her face with
such charms that it was difficult to resist her. She
especially possessed the art of captivating. Her
constant relations with Greece had developed in her
the penetrating charm of the language and its seduc-
tiveness. Caesar had the virtues and passions which
drew her to his own interests, and it was rather by
genius than by calculation that he succeeded in
everything."

The dream which thus crossed Madame de
Stael's mind left no traces save in these lines of
an article contained in the " Biographic Univer-
selle." But these are luminous. The deception
was immediate. The enchantment was broken
at the first interview, under the gaze of the
steely-eyed Corsican. One cannot say which
Madame de Stael pardoned less in Bonaparte,
— her not having understood him or her con-
sternation before him. Not only did she not
captivate him, but (and the fact was a sort of

1 "Cleopatre," an article by Madame de Stael in the
** Biographic Universelle/' 1811-1813.



94 Madame de St del.

monstrous prodigy to her) he reduced her to
silence. " I found no words to reply to him
when he came to me to say that he had looked
for my father at Coppet. . . . When I had re-
covered a little from my confusion of admira-
tion, I was seized with a strong feeling of fear.
... I saw him several times, and yet I was
never able to overcome the difficulty of breath-
ing which I felt in his presence. . . . Each time
that I heard him speak I was struck with his su-
periority." But each time also she felt his in-
accessibility. Her kind of inspired political
women was unendurable to him. '' She was
carried away by him," reports a contemporary,
who himself was much dazzled by Bonaparte
at that time and very acrimonious toward
Madame de Stael ; '' she sought and followed
him everywhere; . . . she aroused his dislike
at once. Madame de Stael, after having made
him uneasy, made him displeased. He re-
ceived her advances coldly. He disconcerted
her by his firm and sometimes withering
words - A sort of defiance was set up between
them, and, as they were both passionate, this
defiance was not long in turning to hatred."

They did not reach absolute hatred until
three years later ; but Madame de Stael had a
presentiment of it from the beginning. If she
essayed to re-conquer him by her charms, it was



The Consulate. 95

because, with her, illusion was stronger than
judgment. In the mean time she continued to
travel between Coppet and Paris, dividing her-
self between the great affection and the great
ambition that filled her existence, — her father
and her salon. She had two sons, — one born
in 1790, the other in 1792 ; in October, 1797, at
Coppet, she had a daughter Albertine, — the
happiness and crown of her life, who, of all the
felicities she' longed for, gave her the only one
that never failed her.

In Switzerland she had ChenedoUe as her
guest. In Paris she was much with Madame
Recamier and Madame de Beaumont. She
worked, in her leisure hours in Switzerland,
upon a new work, but this did not absorb all
her time. " Being yet a young and impression-
able woman," she wrote to Roederer, *' I do
not yet live wholly within my own self-esteem.
The time will come only too soon when my
book will be the most important event in my
life."

She returned to Paris the evening of the
1 8th Brumaire. The event of that day did not
surprise her, but she would have preferred
another man for it. Always an admirer of the
American Republic and of the English Con-
stitution, she would have preferred, if there
must be a soldier in power, a Washington or



96 Madame de Side I.

at least a William of Orange. She thought of
Moreau : '' His virtues rendered him worthy
the place; " and of Bernadotte, who " combined
the qualities both of statesman and soldier."
A Roman republic succeeding a state entirely
Roman as to its laws, seemed to her as
odious as the old regime. Nothing appeared
more formidable to liberty than a Caesar
installed in the monarchy of Louis XIV.
Nevertheless in the first weeks she again made
trial of coquetry with the new master. Bona-
parte appeared to soften. He placed Ben-
jamin Constant in the tribune; but Benjamin
immediately threw himself into the Opposition.
About the month of January, 1800, he decided
to denounce to the world the " dawn of
tyranny." His discourse was prepared in
Madame de Stael's salon. *'Now," said
Benjamin to her, *' your salon is full of peo-
ple whom you like ; if I speak, to-morrow it
will be deserted. Think well of it ! " '' One
must follow one's convictions," she replied.
He made his discourse. Madame de Stael had
invited to dinner that evening several friends
who belonged to the Government party. At
five o'clock she had received ten excuses.
One was from Talleyrand ; this was a rupture
of contact for years, and of esteem for all
their lives long.



The Consulate, 97

Her salon began to be suspected. Fouche
had some compassion for Madame de Stael,
and she considered him a man of *' ex-
traordinary talent for revolution." He tried to
reason with her. " The First Consul," he said,
*' accuses you of inciting your friends against
his government." She declared that she was
incapable of that; and perhaps she believed so
while she said it. But Fouch6 was not so
wholly convinced as to be able to persuade his
master. Bonaparte was then on his way to
Italy. In passing through Switzerland, he
stopped at Coppet and visited Necker. Necker
did not think him so extraordinary as the
public seemed to do, and was not, like his
daughter, dumfounded in his presence. He
gave him a lesson, as he had formerly done
to Louis XVI. Bonaparte little thought that
he would one day become by alliance the
nephew of that unfortunate king. He took his
lesson with a bad grace. Necker left upon
him the impression of a judicious banker led
astray by an ideal and blind in State affairs.

Madame de Stael arrived a little later, and
remained all summer in Switzerland, writing
letter after letter to her friends in Paris in her
endeavor to manage her return in the win-
ter. ''What woman," she said to Roederer,
" has ever shown herself more enthusiastic for
7



98 Madame de Stdel.

Bonaparte than I?" "We hope for peace
here, and we admire Bonaparte very much,"
she wrote in July to a new friend who became
a great favorite, namely, Fauriel. But at the
same time, under the stroke of disappointment
and impatience, her sharp words shot forth
only too freely ; and one can imagine the
motives with which the Government spies and
the public generally charged her, from the
traces she has left in her souvenirs: '* I hoped
that Bonaparte would be defeated, for this
seemed the only way to put a stop to the
advance of tyranny. . . . The good of France
demanded that she suffer reverses. . . . Did
not Moreau regret the laurels of Stockach
and Hohenlinden? He saw only France in
the First Consul's orders; but such a man
should have felt justified in judging the Gov-
ernment which employed him, and should
have asserted, under the circumstances, what
he considered the true interests of his country."
The reports received from Switzerland were
not at all of a nature to weaken the pre-
cautions of the First Consul. Madame de
Stael capped the climax by publishing a
book which was, like all her previous
conduct, a singular mixture of coquetry
toward Bonaparte in person, of satirical allu-
sions to his government, and of conspiracy



" Literaturer 99

against his power : ** Literature considered in
its Relations to Social Institutions."

This work, which made a volume of six hun-
dred pages, appeared in the month of April,
1800. It is a thesis on the perfectibility — we
should say nowadays the progress — of the hu-
man mind in all its works. This progress finds
its consecration in liberty; liberty finds its
security in republican institutions conceived
and applied according to the author's system.
French literature regenerated by republican
customs will be rejuvenated by the influence
of foreign literatures.

To show the relations existing between
hterature and social customs, to seek out those
which may exist between literature and po-
litical institutions, is to do the work of the
philosophical historian, and project a design
inspired by Montesquieu ; but for such a work
there was need of immense study, illimitable
reading, universal knowledge, and a superior
critical faculty. Madame de Stael had these
only in part, added to a good will and occasional
inspirations. It needed, above all, a complete
disinterestedness of mind which should allow
itself to be shaped by history. Madame de
Stael was not ready to yield herself on this
point; she goes far beyond this. As she is
sustaining a thesis on the progress of all



lOO Madame de Side I.

things, and notably of literature under liberty,
she makes history yield to her point. The ef-
fort which the writer makes confuses her own
intelligence, and disturbs her naturally good
faculties of discrimination, particularly as con-
cerning the ancients.

Madame de Stael speaks of the Romans
better than of the Greeks, — not that she pre-
fers the genius of Rome, but she understands
it more thoroughly. Inferences abound in
these chapters ; and judged at this distance,
they seem strangely wide of the mark. Why,
it is in the time of the reappearance of the


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryAlbert SorelMadame de Staël → online text (page 5 of 14)