Passions Before Literature
Back in Switzerland in the family fiefdom of Coppet, Staël ‘writes out’ the pain of desertion past, present, and future in De l'influence des passions, while continuing to engage in messy and unfulfilling affairs. She returns to Paris with Benjamin Constant, still reflecting on a central message of De l'influence: the inevitable unhappiness of women who depart from the role society has allotted them. Soon, however, she finds herself exiled by the Committee on Public Safety for her ‘unsafe’ political views. (The tendency to argue with conviction a position that her public behaviour calls into question will remain with her throughout her life.) The treatise is greeted with such praise on publication that she is allowed to return to within twenty miles of Paris, where she meets Napoleon and initially hero-worships him. Continuing to shuttle disconsolately between Coppet and France, she somehow manages to bring to fruition the hugely ambitious and influential De la littérature, whose boldness does not endear her to Bonaparte. This work both denies that women have written any important works of literature and develops the thesis that melancholy produces the greatest art, but ironically is published at precisely the time Napoleon is taking measures against women, and hence against the kind of hope De la littérature might inspire in their sex. Besides, it trumpets the distinctness of national identities he is seeking to crush.
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