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  • Writing the Nation (Mme de Staël)
  • Suzannne Guerlac

"On dirait qu'on traverse un pays dont la nation vient de s'en aller," Mme de Staël writes of the Russian landscape she crosses, racing the conquering armies of Napoleon in an attempt to flee the empire and regain her independence in England. "L'étendue fait tout disparaître," she continues, "excepté l'étendue même, qui poursuit l'imagination, comme de certaines idées métaphysiques dont la pensée ne peut plus se débarrasser, quand elle en est une fois saisie."1 The nation, "cette découverte du 18e siècle"2 is just such an idea for her.

There are two major traditions for thinking the nation in the nineteenth century. One, launched by the early writings of Ernest Renan and subsequently appropriated by Charles Maurras for his concept of integral nationalism, defines the nation in relation to the institution of the monarchy. According to this view, the origin of the French nation dates back to the rule of Charlemagne. The other tradition, the one pertinent to Mme de Staël, derives the idea of the nation from the concept of national sovereignty as it emerged during the French Revolution precisely in opposition to the rule of the king. "Le roi a séparé ses intérêts de ceux de la nation. Sa conduite est un acte formel et perpétuel de désobéissance à la Constitution," writes one revolutionary commentator.3 In the social and institutional reconfiguration inaugurated by the Revolution, power and national identity are both displaced from the sovereign king to the sovereignty of the people—la Nation—which speaks through the national assembly and is protected by the law of the Constitution. "La loi suprême," we read in a revolutionary petition to the legislative body, "lie et subordonne les différentes parties de l'Etat au Tout et le Tout c'est la Nation en corps."4 [End Page 43]

Mme de Staël explores this new cultural construction of the nation in almost all her major works. In De l'Allemagne she presents a critique of French intellectual and cultural styles while introducing important features of German intellectual life to French awareness. In De la Littérature, the notion of literature is relativized not merely with respect to geographic or historical differences, but also, and most specifically, in relation to the political and institutional character of nations. Corinne ou l'Italie attaches cultural identities to the principal characters of the novel where we find an Englishman, an Italian and, in a secondary role, a Frenchman. And then there is the early treatise on the passions, a work projected to include two parallel parts, an ethical examination of the role of the passions in relation to human happiness, and, in a second part (never completed), an examination of the role of the passions in relation to the happiness, or well being, of the nation.

In this work de Staël analyzes individual character in relation to what Valéry would call a "politique intérieure," a kind of power struggle between the inner faculties of reason and the passions.5 In a parallel manner, the well-being of the nation would depend upon the form of its constitution, whose task is to regulate the opposing forces of order and liberty.6 "Le seul problème des constitutions," she writes, "est de connaître jusqu'à quel degré on peut exciter ou comprimer les passions, sans compromettre le bonheur public."7 The character of the nation, then, is like a human person, whose individual character depends in part upon the disposition of the passions. What implicitly operates the analogy between the individual and the nation, and would link the two projected parts of the study on the passions, is the dual register of the term "constitution." It refers both to the make up of individual character and to the institution of the charte, the fundamental text that determines a country's form of government.

De Staël produces her treatise on the passions during the Terror. She is specifically concerned with the passions as they pertain to the fanaticism of revolutionary...


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