Session 11C: Nouvelles de Staël

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11C. Nouvelles de Staël

Special Session: Theresa Kelley (Texas-Austin)
Ann T. Gardiner (New York): "'The Politics of Death': Germaine de Staël in the Engish Press, July 1817"
Julie Carlson (California-Santa Barbara): "Madame de Staël's Character"
Lori Marso (Union College): "Self-Styling and the Feminized Polity in Germaine de Staël's Ten Years of Exile"
Theresa Kelley (Texas-Austin): "Passion and Germaine de Staël"

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The topics assembled for this session collectively ask how and in what ways Germaine de Staël's writing, persona, and Romantic career inaugurate and exacerbate Romantic recognitions of what concerns and anxieties are new to its era, among them the ethical weight of the autobiographical, the nature and significance of women and passion, especially in the public arena, the political and philosophical force of fictions, from Rousseau's to Staël's, and her posthumous afterlife not just in Napoleon's reflections in exile but across the map of Romanticism. In asking what was "new" about Staël to her age, the papers assembled for this session also ask how her newness was soon suppressed, such that one modern feminist critic could and did apologize for the purported "silliness"of Staël's fiction. In recognizing how and why Staël and her writing shocked many of her contemporaries and angered many more, we argue further that what was shocking was so in part because it was new and as such threatening to established patterns of thought and expression.

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"'The Politics of Death': Germaine de Staël in the Engish Press, July 1817"
Ann T. Gardiner
New York University

"The journals communicate another event, not less likely to be talked of or remembered in society than that just recorded. Madame de Staël expired on Monday last, at Paris, aged 53. She was the daughter of Neckar [sic] and of Susan Curchod, the object of the early, perhaps the only passion of Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire. The genius of this conspicuous and celebrated woman was rather splendid than useful. Her writings, which are voluminous, may be considered as indicating more knowledge than they impart. [...] Her imagination, active, brilliant, and profuse, now and then perplexes the subject, which it is the province of imagination to illustrate. [...] The works of Madame de Staël [are] a passport to every cultivated circle, but they belong much more to the class of luxuries than of sound and healthful diet for the mind. Her moral system must be searched for among the folds of rich and voluptuous sensibility with which she has invested it; and we are not sure that it will always bear the light. Few people, we are persuaded, have risen from her compositions with their taste purified, or their principles strengthened."

So begins The Times, July 19th 1817, its lengthy coverage of the passing of Germaine de Staël. Not content simply to provide the basic facts, this British paper turned respectful condolences into a macabre and slander-filled news story: from her illness and opium intake before her death to the size of her brain after autopsy, the alcohol-filled baths in the family tomb to untold secrets of her last will and testament which scandalously revealed the existence of both a second husband and a fourth child. As the above example shows, readers were also given moral and aesthetic warnings on the imminent dangers of French (and female) excessiveness. With five lengthy articles over a span of 30 days, these offer a privileged window into the political instrumentalization of death in the press, brilliantly illustrating conservative attempts in Britain to keep out the contamination of French ideas at the turn of the 19th century, as David Simpson in Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory, has shown. As part of a larger study on nation building and the posthumous reception of de Stael in the media (100 articles in summer 1817 alone), this paper focuses only on a representative sample taken from daily newspapers: the five articles culled from The Times and, for the sake of comparison, several other articles from French, German and Swiss dailies (as opposed to weeklies, literary journals, etc). Though small in size, this news sample reveals an interesting link between politics, aesthetics and death in the media, the woman's lifeless body becoming a prime medium through which nationally-biased aesthetic tastes are defined.

Part 1 of the paper focuses on the world of the 19th century daily itself. Since the structure of the daily and method of acquiring news at this time were quite different than they are today, these differences need to be clarified in order to understand how de Stael's death was instrumentalized to the degree that it was. One major difference is the distribution of news according to country rather than to general news priority: "There is nothing of interest to report today" The Times relates, December 12, 1830 under the category "France." Related to this nation-based structure is the intertextual relationship between national dailies, each acquiring news as a form of gloss of the other: "The [French] journals communicate another event," writes The Times July 19th 1817, just as the Gazette de France would in turn borrow from The Times. Within these intertextual glosses, the notion of time itself was completely destabilized, The Times of July 19th including French news from the 14th, German news from the 18th, Polish news from the 12th, etc. Social hierarchies also played a major structural role, with news of the Royal family -- the King's meetings, his walkabouts, clothes, etc. -- always coming before news of commoners, no matter how famous the latter happened to be. From a person's position in that social hierarchy, one is thus able to judge the relative importance of the news item as such.

Against this historical and structural background, part 2 turns to the press history of Mme de Staël. As the daughter of Louis XVI's finance minister, the Genevan Jacques Necker, she was featured in the French press from the day she was born, her every move charted as she became a celebrated writer in her own right: who she saw, where she spent the night, what she discussed. In this she was a child of the emergence of a new kind of public sphere, where newspapers, so Jürgen Habermas in Strukturwandel derffentlichkeit, played a crucial formative role. Ironically, as Habermas also points out, these newspapers and the capitalist mechanisms behind them soon took on a secret logic of their own, the needs of the news as new (exchange value in the Marxian sense), replacing the needs of the news as such (i.e. use value). In this, Mme de Staël's death was quite untimely, for she happened to die on the same day as the birth and death of a possible heir to the French throne. It was this event that captured the press at the time. With daily medical reports on the status of the Queen mother both before and after the birth, Mme de Staël's passing was often referred to in the papers as "the second [i.e. less newsworthy] death," a victim so to speak of the news' incessant quest for the new.

The third and final part of this paper examines the political instrumentalization of Mme de Staël's death more closely, particularly as regards the consolidation of national aesthetic tastes. Not just the English papers, but also the French and German press quickly took advantage of the situation to warn their readers of the moral dangers of reading this Swiss Protestant baroness. The fear that the cosmopolitan Mme de Staël inspired helps to explain both the news' insistence on her scandal-ridden life, and the frequent aesthetic lessons which accompany the macabre details (the fact that she was not beautiful also certainly played a role). As Elisabeth Bronfen has shown, death, femininity and the aesthetic historically go hand in hand, the woman's (lifeless) body a privileged site though which masculine aesthetic norms were defined. As I argue, de Staël's death gave emerging nations a prime medium through which to define aesthetic norms in terms of "contamination and purity," her obituaries revealing to what degree events themselves were already outpaced by political requirements dictating their narration, especially where gender, nation, and aesthetics are concerned.

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"Madame de Staël's Character"
Julie Carlson
University of California-Santa Barbara

This paper departs from Francis Jeffrey's striking depiction in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (December 1818) of the scholarly contribution of Madame de Staël : "The sciences have always owed their origin to some great spirit. Smith created political economy; Linneaus, botany; Lavoisier, chemistry; and Madame de Staël has, in like manner, created the art of analyzing the spirit of nations and the springs which move them." It thus aims to include her voice in ongoing discussions of national character (in her day and ours) by exploring her definitions of national character in triangulated relation with discussions of dramatic character and her "own" character. To do so it focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on De L'Allemagne as the text in which these three terms are most visibly in dialogue. De L'Allemagne defines personal and national character (John Isbell counting 243 uses of caractëre and its derivatives in this text), complicates her earlier claim that nations can be characterized according to one defining trait (which De la Littérature identifies as melancholy in the case of Germany), and foregrounds drama and theatre in its depiction of Germany's literary character. (A full quarter of the text is devoted to dramatic texts.) Moreover, De L'Allemagne has often been read (along with Corinne, ou L'Italie) as an exploration of "regions of [her] soul" (Steel) and as a "political allegory" that stages a contest between Napoleon and Staël (Isbell).

My interest in triangulating these components of character runs in two directions: as an exemplification of the imbrication of fiction and the "science" of history in (post) Enlightenment discussions of character; as an analysis of the power of the characterization as "victim" for women. The former aligns Stael with writers in England like Godwin, Scott, and Mary Shelley and, as with Shelley, highlights a gender asymmetry in the consequences of this imbrication: the penchant to read, and value, Staël's and Shelley's fiction primarily as substitute, or supplementary, "lives." The latter analyzes the strains and benefits in conventional traits of female character. By all counts unconventional in her life, Staël's writing disappoints her critics for being so conventional. Moreover, the "facts" of her life--being Napoleon's biggest threat, the writer responsible for defining and conveying German romanticism to France, England, Russia, and America--stand in a curious, and instrumental, relation to Staël's self-characterization as "suffering heroine." My interest is less in disputing or judging either characterization than seeing them as consequences of her triangulation of personal, national, and dramatic character. Here drama proves productive. "German" melancholy characterizes her composition and identification with the title heroine of her 1787 play, Jane Gray.

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"Self-Styling and the Feminized Polity in Germaine de Staël's Ten Years of Exile"
Lori Marso
Union College

In the Introduction to Doris Beik's English translation of Germaine de Staël's Ten Years of Exile, Peter Gay notes that the "dominance of [one] character [Napoleon Bonaparte] raises Ten Years of Exile from the category of autobiography to that of a valuable political document." (NY: Saturday Review Press, 1972, xxviii) Indeed, Staël self-consciously promotes her personal observation, individual experience, and her perspective from exile as key for understanding Napoleonic policy in France and throughout Europe. Yet it is not Napoleon's enlarged presence in this work that makes it such an interesting political and philosophical document for us to study today. What makes Staël's work so fascinating, I will contend, is a critique that extends far beyond her focus on Napoleon, rooted in her methodology, her ethics, and her perspective on sexual politics.

In this paper, I will read Ten Years of Exile as exemplary of an "ethics of the self" able to advance an alternative to Napoleonic politics in what might be (perhaps too boldly) called a "feminized polity." Central to Staël's critique and alternative is her focus on the irreducibility of politics to a general formula or theory and the irreplaceability of any singular individual. These foci are in bold relief in Ten Years of Exile. To employ the genre of autobiography, or creation of the self, as a philosophical and political method would certainly go unremarked if commenting within the company of male romantics. As a woman, however, writing from a distinct perspective which constantly marks her feminine vantage point, Staël's emphatically political self-styling in this essay transgresses traditional genre and methodology. Staël's autobiography makes the bold assumption that her subject position, as a woman, might be taken seriously as path towards an alternative politics.

My reading of Staël's autobiography will mark its importance as feminine self-styling as well as a document which forces us to consider alternative to politics born of masculine subjectivity.

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"Passion and Germaine de Staël"
Theresa Kelley
University of Texas-Austin

"un point de vue passionnÉ sur use époque passionnante. Son époque, Germaine de Staël là vécue avec une ardente curiosité, un appétit dévorant pour les idées, les oeuvres, les pays, les hommes et même les femmes ... " Michel Tournier on Germaine de Staël

Precisely because few would take exception to it--though for a variety of reasons--Tournier's capsule account of the life and times of Germaine de Staël appears on the back cover of a recent edition of two works she published soon after the Reign of Terror, the essays On Fictions and Influence of the Passions on the happiness of individuals and nations. I return in this paper to a familiar motif in Staëlian scholarship to ask again how this writer assesses passion in life and in art, and to map the posthumous career of this argument in English letters and, in part, the posthumous life those letters covertly give back to Staël. My analysis considers how and why she is explicit or covert in her assessment of the relation between women and passion, and how subsequent English writers take up these matters in the figure of women.

The point of departure for this argument is Staël's 1796 essay Influence of the Passions, which develops both a critique of the passions and a sustained argument for both their inevitability and their moral necessity as a preliminary ground for the moral sentiments she extracts from Adam Smith, and from the negative example of the Reign of Terror Having declared that "the real obstacle to individual and poetical happiness is the impulsive force of the passions," Staël nevertheless insists that the world is largely populated by, and governments must exist to manage, "passionate characters." These, she implies, constitute the real interest of life and society, unlike those whose "existence is monotonous," who display "as many tints as individuals, without a single real color in sight." In the closing arguments of the essay, Staël specifies the post-Terror ground for her preference for passionate characters as real color and the real work of government. For without passion, however debased, however much in need of moral development, governments lack compassion and so risk being conducted by "assassins raisonneurs, qui marchent au crime par la metaphysique."

By this path of argument, under the pressure of its immediate French prehistory, Staël makes a calculated return to the by then familiar equation between women and passion, noting that political leaders have dismissed compassion as an effeminate emotion unworthy of statesmen and chiefs of state. Working out from this political and historical itinerary, I wish to consider to what degree the passionate women figures of Staël's fictions, particularly the subsequent Delphine and Corinne~extend and further ironize the effective relations she imagines between passions, compassion, and suffering in the post-Terror essays, and to what extent English writing after Staël keep these matters alive, despite concerted efforts to deny their philosophical and political interest by writing her off as a woman who put passion and excess on (inappropriate) public display.

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Last updated June 6, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell