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Bonnie G. Smith

History and Genius:

The Narcotic, Erotic, and Baroque Life of Germaine de Staël

French Historical Studies

Volume 19, Issue 4, Special Issue: Biography

Autumn 1996, 1059-1081.



A Blurred Genre: Genius and Narcohistory

Historical Erotics

Exiled from History


The tendency of biography is to present the portrait of a hero whose unified character has been purged of contradictory or confusing material.  The virtues of such a presentation are legion, allowing us to identify with a great character, to find coherence in life, and to imagine so vividly that we become politically or intellectually inspired to new forms of action.  In the case of Germaine de Staël the biographical unity imputed to her life centers on her enlightened constitutionalism and liberalism, both of which are bound up with the proclivities of her parents and manifested in her own political writing and activities. [1]  Such a unity can have its disadvantages, however, by encouraging us to colonize a biographical space or to imagine someone in inappropriately clear ways that do a real disservice to complexity.  For instance, the sexual promiscuity that unified Christopher Herold’s Mistress to an Age did de Staël the latter kind of disservice. [2]  Taking account of these advantages and pitfalls, I would like to place alongside the liberal unity and the sexual unity yet a third biographical interpretation - that of de Staël as a “genius” at doing history.  It was one that she herself proposed and that inspired writers and feminists for almost the entire nineteenth century.  Yet despite the strong figuration given “genius” in this exploration of de Staël’s writing, I offer this interpretation not as

Bonnie G. Smith is professor of history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  She is completing a manuscript on the gendering of historical scholarship in the West since 1800.

The author thanks Jo Burr Margadant, Dena Goodman, Jennifer Jones, Donald R. Kelley, Sarah Maza, and Joe Zizek for their criticisms and generous assistance.

1. In particular see Simone Balaye, Madame de Staël: Lumières et liberté (Paris, 1979); Simone Balaye, Madame de Staël: Ecrire, lutter, vivre (Geneva, 1994); Gretchen Rous Besser, Germaine de Stafl Revisited (New York, 1994); Madelyn Gutwirth, Avriel Goldberger, and Karyna Szmurlo, eds., Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders (New Brunswick, N.J., 1991);John C. Isbell, The Birth of European Romanticism: Truth and Propaganda in de Stafl’s “De l’Allemagne,” 1810-1813 (Cambridge, 1994).

2. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Stael (Indianapolis, Ind,, 1958).

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a replacement for more traditional ones but as just a fragment, part of a constellation that might comprise a Staëlian prosopography of her multiple selves.  For in the long run de Staël’s identity as a woman genius can never serve as “the whole story.” [3]

De Staël deployed this identity in a number of remarkable books (Corinne, or Italy, Ten Years of Exile, On Germany, and Considerations on the French Revolution) at whose core was historical work.  However, genius is a word little associated with a writer of history, whose watchwords are research, facts, and diligence.  The hard-working researcher, sometimes crabbed by archival toil but wielding a wealth of knowledge, is supposed to disappear in scholarly discourse; in contrast a genius, flashing inspired insights, is far more visible.  We might have even more difficulty imagining a genius when it comes to women historians: genius implies uniqueness, originality, and unprecedented creativity, whereas women have traditionally been characterized as derivative, secondary, and for the most part producing only competent work.  At the time de Staël wrote, genius in this sense of the ineffable and uniquely creative individual was superseding its widespread use to mean a presiding spirit (as in Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity).  Moreover, in the late eighteenth century, genius revived its ancient overtones of divine madness and frenzy - an increasingly dangerous pose for professional women to adopt once the field of psychology came to characterize femininity as the prototype of madness. [4]

Yet in the first decade of the nineteenth century Germaine de Staël, most often associated with liberal and rational political aspirations, depicted a historical sensibility constructed around a woman’s genius in her novel Corinne.  In one scene the heroine, whose eloquent accounts of the glories and misfortunes of the Italian people move the hardest hearts, orates the history of Rome within the Capitol.  In de

3. For the advantages to thinking in terms of multiplicity when presenting or conceptualizing a self -  one’s own as well as an other’s - see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990); Diana Tietjens Meyers, Subjection and Subjectivity: PsychoanalyticFeminism and Moral Philosophy (New York, 1994); eadem, “The Family Romance: A Fin de Siècle Tragedy,” in Feminism and Families, ed. Hilde Nelson (New York, 1996); and Naomi Scheman, Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority, and Privilege (New York, 1993).  Meyers in “The Family Romance” cautions that the “multiple self” or “multiplicity” espoused by philosophers like other figurations needs to be approached cautiously because of its current popularity in diagnoses of “multiple personality disorder,” again associated with women.

4. The literature on the idea of genius is enormous: for a summary see the articles on genius by Giorgio Tonelli, Rudolf Wittkower, and Edward Lowinsky, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Philip Wiener, 5 vols. (New York, 1973), 2:293-326.  For the French context see Kineret S. Jaffe, “The Concept of Genius: Its Changing Role in Eighteenth-Century French Aesthetics,” Journal of the History of ldeas 4l (1980): 579-99; and Nedd Willard, Le Genie et la folie au dix-huitième siécle(Paris, 1963).  For the German, which was also part of Germaine de Staël’s mental horizons, see Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Genius: Zur Wirkungsgeschichte antiker Mythologeme in der Goethezeit (Munich, 1978).


Staël’s rendering, genius soared beyond special giftedness or quantifiable intelligence; it was the ineffable in human form, publicly and responsibly acted out but often troubled and even deadly.  As it had done for Petrarch and Tasso in past centuries, the Roman intelligentsia crowns Corinne with laurel, launching her into the tumultuous multitude in the surrounding streets to receive tribute for her insights into the Italian character, history, and civic traditions.  By happenstance a Scottish lord, Oswald, is in the crowd, and he too falls under Corinne’s spell.  She proceeds to accompany him through Italy and in these many travels continues her narrative of Italian history until Oswald returns to England, eventually marrying someone more conventional and thereby contributing to Corinne’s death.  In this work, then, de Staël claimed historical genius for women and herself, showing both for better and for worse how it operated.

The consequences of naming, of choosing an identity even as a historian, can be dramatic, and in this regard, Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807), in which an acclaimed woman recounts history as a self-proclaimed genius, is one of the fateful books of early-nineteenth-century Europe.  On the one hand, it personified genius, situating it in a life, and made Germaine de Staël lionized internationally: “Corinne” and “de Staël” were associated with genius for much of the century. [5]  On the other hand, the conflation of genius and woman writer made for a variety of other emotional responses, including anger and confusion. With the publication of Corinne de Staël became further hated by Napoleon, who liked his history (and presumably his geniuses) military and manly.  Even in exile on St. Helena the defeated emperor felt a kind of repetition compulsion to reread the novel, but it merely reinforced his anger: “I detest that woman.” [6]

The depiction of the woman genius has been a conflicted legacy to women historians ever since.  For almost a century many could agree with the American Lydia Maria Child, that de Staël was “intellectually the greatest woman that ever lived.” [7]  In this reading of de Staël she was an exemplar whose memory was powerful long after her death, a resonance that could fuel women’s ambition.  In our century how-

5. Nineteenth-century biographies of de Staël by women were legion, written in almost all Western countries.  In addition Corinne provided a model for numerous fictional writings beginning with Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée (London, 1822).

6. See Michael Polowetsky, A Bond Never Broken: The Relations between Napoleon and the Authors (Rutherford, NJ., 1993); Ghislain de Diesbach, Madame de Staid (Paris, 1983); Paul Gautier, Madame de Staid et Napoleon (Paris, 1903).

7. Lydia Maria Child, The History and Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations, 2 vols. (Boston, 1835), 2:157.

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ever that appreciation became muted: “Let us try to take Corinne seriously,” Ellen Moers wrote in her cruel understanding of what the portrait of Corinne and her creator meant to women intellectuals in the nineteenth century. [8]  Thus, although initially this biography was utterly inspiring of women intellectuals’ own work, to contemporary women like Moers, the performance of genius was an embarrassment, a narcissism, an exaggeration.  The reasons for this may be only tentatively suggested.  Not only do many today still equate history too solidly with rationality and men, but as professionals occupying serious places in the academy they quite understandably find the terms of genius, especially as de Staël unfolded them, difficult to accept. [9]

Still other contemporary historiographers ignore the inspiration that the depiction of women’s historical genius might have provided for early-nineteenth-century writers.  Burying evidence of the “divine frenzy,” they find republican commitment the common ingredient in women writers’ biographies.  Not genius but virtue, they claim, provided the salutary vantage point from which to write history, because it valorized women’s disinterested position outside the political sphere. [10]  Such an explanation of women’s historical work in the so-called age of revolution is persuasive; republicanism allowed them to envision themselves as important truthtellers and witnesses.  But why has the notion of women writers as improvers and republican mothers been so compelling as to erase the dramatic portrayal of women as absolute geniuses at history?  My contention is that by today’s standards de Staël was quite bizarre as a historian.  Bluntly, drugs and the body were two of her chosen vehicles to historical truth, and she wrote not in some well-appointed office but on the road in the chaos of flight and exile.  Moreover, de Staël, like Corinne, was profligate, not chaste; excessively rich, not poor.  So although almost from the beginning many wanted to claim de Staël for intellectual womanhood, a strange relationship between biography and history - especially the narcotic and erotic approach to the past - makes problematic any conventional appreciation among professionals today.  In other terms, women’s historical genius

8. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y., 1977), 263.

9. For a critique of women professionals’ attachment to the Enlightenment project see Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West (Berkeley, Calif., 1990); and eadem, Disputed Subjects: Essays on Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Philoso­phy (London, 1993).

10. See, for example, Nina Baym, American Women Writers and the Work of History (New Brunswick, N.J., 1995).  This interpretation is based on the concept of republican motherhood as historians of women (Linda Kerber, Claire Moses, and Karen Offen, for example) came to describe it for postrevolutionary France and the United States.  Republican motherhood is then seen as the bias in and inspiration for women historians’ writing.


as depicted by de Staël may be so incomprehensible and unpleasant a notion as to prevent our access to it, thus constituting a truly archaic “beyond,” a limit to acceptable historical understanding.  In de Staël’s case, finding a unified, biographical approach may be not too outdated or easy a form but simply an impossible one.

To foreshadow these difficulties: De Staël partially situated herself in the mad, drugged-out world of the geniuses, in the pulsating romantic climate of sensual, embodied knowledge, and in the gothic and traumatic ferment over postguillotine politics, history, and gender roles under Napoleon.  In the guise of Corinne or in her own authorial voice, she acted out what it meant for women to do history and for them to be recuperated as its central practitioners.  In her writing history explicitly confronted the gulf between the living and the dead; it concerned ghosts and tombs, but also liberty and community while it floated along on doses of opium; it focused on art, music, poetry, and literature; it brought men and women together but also distanced them through that gap called interpretation.  History was tension, the abyss, the body, and drugs - a mode of comprehension we have left behind in favor of knowledge, professionalism, and historical science.  Nonetheless this virtually unique performance of women’s genius at work doing history constitutes a specter that must be dealt with, situated, contextualized, and even intently watched before being dismissed.


A Blurred Genre: Genius and Narcohistory

Hail, lovely blossom! - thou canst ease

The wretched victims of Disease;

Canst close those weary eyes in gentle sleep,

Which never open but to weep;

For, oh! thy potent charm

Can agonizing Pain disarm!

Expel imperious Memory from her seat,

And bid the throbbing heart forget to beat.

                “Ode to the Poppy,”

                Charlotte Smith, c. 1803

De Staël fashioned her historical genius from the materials of her time, and Charlotte Smith’s poem, which inspired the experiences of De Quincey and Coleridge, provides an example of one of them.  Smith alludes to a human psyche so pained by history that it needed some antidote to quite its torment.  In this regard the poem opens onto the ingredients of history before its practitioners had fashioned themselves as professional knowers in control of their data.  In those days history often bespoke an intense sensibility, shrouded overpoweringly bitter

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memories, and saw itself in relationship to the dead, not to past time in the form of professional knowledge.  Michel Foucault has alerted us to the development of the human sciences in the revolutionary period as a form of knowledge that itself produces the exercise of power by knowers. [11]  But this was not de Staël’s history, nor that of many of the other of the self-styled geniuses of her day, who have inadequately been described as romantic.

History was hardly unified as a professionally guided search for knowledge when de Staël wrote.  Instead, the nineteenth century opened awash in painful memories of the Revolution, confused about the terms of historical representation and unsure about which past would be written. [12]  How, for instance, would the Old Regime be presented in the new?  After Jacobin pronouncements about the horrors of the past, would it appear at all?  What role, moreover, should the dead play when the status of the dead and murdered was, as in the case of Louis XVI, so nagging and so unresolved?  History’s representations were at once ceremonial and performative, artistically presented as in the great neoclassical paintings that were popular both before and during the Revolution, and part of everyday life when historical and patriotic scenes appeared on dishes or buttons, connecting artisanal production with politics.  It sometimes took the form of sober tracts or (Napoleon’s favorite) thumping histories of battles and of military leaders. [13]  But like memoirs of the Vendée or old court customs, much of the past remained haunted, immanent in the present, even bitterly intrusive.

In these tumultuous and uncertain days, historical authorship for de Staël encoded a particular relationship to an equally difficult past that was not “knowledgeable.”  Dealing with the past always involves a relationship to what is gone or lost, but this can differ widely, depending on authorial positionings.  De Staël’s position was not that of a transparent knower of material mastered by a variety of skills from which one constructs an analytic historical narrative.  Rather, writing in the midst of unprecedented war and revolution, she shared with many in her generation a narcotic sensibility connected not only with the times

11. “See especially Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York, 1972).

12. For a preliminary idea of the range of historical production in the West during de Staël’s lifetime see Bonnie G. Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research in the Nineteenth Century,” American Historical Review 100 (Oct. 1995): 1151-53.

13. June K. Burton, Napoleon and Clio: Historical Writing, Teaching, and Thinking during the First Empire (Durham, NC., 1979).


but with her oft noted and little considered use of opium. [14]  Although writers chronicled the use of morphine, opium, and laudanum as part of romantic genius, few folded it into historical practice.

De Staël’s Corinne told the history of Italy, defeated and dismembered like Germany and ultimately France, whose histories would follow.  In those days the past afforded only traumatic mysteries - incomprehensible and uncanny - of which the greatest was precisely the status of the dead. [15]  Standing near the ruins of Pompeii, Coninne observed: “What a long time has man existed! What a long time has he lived, suffered, and perished!  Where can his feelings and thoughts be found again?  Does the air we breathe in these ruins still bear their trace, or are they forever lodged in heaven where immortality reigns?” [16]  The historian searched not for knowledge and facts but rather undertook to bridge a gap, to attend a painful wound that came from suffering and death.  Italy’s history, for example, revealed a past grandeur, and, according to de Staël, its future (because of this past) promised greatness as well.  But separating the past and future was the near past and present that constituted a string of misfortunes, an unfathomable abyss blocking access to the splendid lives of the dead Italians.  It was here that de Staël situated herself in the quest for understanding.  “Mystery” and “misfortune” such as Italy’s would be “understood through imagination rather than through... critical judgment” (17).  Bridging the gap and probing misfortune required the powers of emotion and imagination - the genius of the interpreter.  “Of all my gifts,” says Coninne, “the most powerful is the gift of suffering” (75).

Historical genius entailed a set of emotions, psychic states, and bodily feelings that we have rejected in our well-trained quest for historical knowledge.  De Staël acknowledged the realm of historical eru-

14. See Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël; and Diesbach, Madame de Staël.

15 Marie-Claire Vallois, Fictions feminines: Mme de Staël et les voix de la Sibylle (Saratoga, Calif., 1987); and eadem, “Old Idols, New Subject: Germaine de Staël and Romanticism,” in Gutwirth et al., Germaine de Staël, 82-100, cites de Staël as operating in the world of the uncanny, that is the world of such irreconcilable elements as male and female.  Historians of World War I have noted the phenomenon of the uncanny in connection with the irreconcilable, unspeakably horrible trauma of wartime loss, disfiguration, and hysteria which manifests itself in the appearance of ghosts and other apparitions.  This article is strongly influenced by such works as Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London, 1975); Susan K. Kent, Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain (Princeton, NJ., 1993), chap. 5; Antoine Prost, In the Wake of War: “Les Ancients Combattants” and French Society 1914-1939 (Providence, R.I., 1992).  A thoroughgoing theorizing of the uncanny and post-World War I trauma is Roxanne Panchasi, “Reconstructions: Prosthetics and the Rehabilitation of the Male Body in World War I France,” Differences (fall 1995) 109-40.

16. Germaine de Staël, Corinne, or Italy, trans. Avriel H. Goldberger (New Brunswick, NJ., 1987), 204.  Further citations appear as page numbers following the quotation.

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dition when she had Coninne elaborate the virtues of written history and scholarship and the “pleasure found in research both learned and poetic” (72).  However, erudition alone was simply inadequate.  Although instructed in books herself, Coninne supplemented them with the study of music, monuments, architecture, the work of horticulture, the visual arts, tombs, and many other artifacts.  She made Oswald listen to the sounds of Alfieni or Tasso, look sharply at the Colosseum or the Bridge of Sighs, and explore the hues in her collection of historical paintings.  “Readings in history, the thoughts they provoke, do not act upon our souls like these scattered stones, these ruins interspersed with buildings,” Coninne explained as they took in the panorama of Rome from the Capitoline hill. “Eyes are all-powerful over the soul; once you have seen Roman ruins you believe in the ancient Romans as if you had lived among them” (64).  Seeing in this way was also a matter of gaps, differences, and contrasts, for the uncanny spectacle of Rome was one in which ruins of ancient monuments stood aside a peasant’s cottage, thus evoking “an inexplicable mixture of great and simple ideas” (65).  The immense baths, aqueducts, and obelisks served both as ways to access the past aesthetically and as symbols of the past as difference and gap: “The genius of ideal beauty seeks to console man for the real and true dignity he has lost” (67).

History depended on the genius’s painfully incorporative perception of irreconcilability, incommensurability, and her constant endeavor to bridge the unbridgeable.  “These great Roman lords are as distant now from the luxurious pomp of their ancestors, as their ancestors were from the austere virtue of the Romans under the Republic” (86).  Thus a deep sense of difference drove the genius’s historical sensibility, and this difference consisted of that between the mighty and the humble, the vanquished and the victors, the dead and the living.  This irreconcilable difference was not one tamed by knowledge or made “real” by a convincing narrative but one manifested in the presence of ghosts, specters, and other haunting apparitions.  The atmosphere of Italy, as Coninne explained, is charged with death: “The air you breathe seems pure and pleasant, the earth is cheerful and fertile, the evening is deliciously cool and refreshing after the burning heat of the day - and yet all of that is death” (88).  Death, representing history’s immanence, was always on hand.  One saw it in the tombs that depicted ancient Romans and their customs, in the paintings of prophets and sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, “like ghosts enshrouded in the dusk.”  Death was also vividly announced in music, “so evanescent a pleasure, you so clearly feel it slipping away even as you experience it, that a melancholy


impression mingles with the gaiety it brings into being” (165).  The relationship to music was physical, not just aurally so but the entire body responded: the “heart beats faster,” for example, and as that occurred the historical is evoked once more in the “need to savor time by reminding you how fleeting it is” (165).  In music “life’s reality” - that is, death - ”comes to blight and deny the wishes of generous souls” (179).  The “funereal,” “ghostly,” “cold sensation,” images of “those who will precede us on our way to the grave” (180) infused not only the content of the arts, monuments and buildings, and literary texts but their evanescent or partial (ruined) form as well.  History pulsated with death.

The historical genius of Coninne imbibed the past as painful, funereal loss in the ordinary course of life at that time.  De Staël was not alone, however, in offering this historical vision.  “One moonlight night... I was walking in the Colosseum full of sublime thoughts [when] a voice, distinct, but like that of a flute, said ‘I am one of the Roman deities!’ [17]  This particular vision in the Colosseum was reported in the 1819 journal of Humphrey Davy, genius chemist, opium eater, and friend of de Staël.  Sensing history as a ghostlike immanence or as a sensual presence (a flutelike voice) ran like a current through a certain elite experience.  Twenty years earlier Davy had noted the ruins of Tintern Abbey where the moon illuminated the cemetery that prompted reflections similar to those animating Corinne: “Thousands of thoughts... had rolled through the minds of a hundred intelligent beings, - I was lost in a deep and intense social feeling.  I began to think, to reason, What is existence?... Nothing remains of them but mouldening bones; their thoughts and their names have perished.  Shall we, too, sink in the dust?”  Yet Davy’s reflections, like those of de Staël, led him to conclude hopefully that the dead lived on in those “deep and intense feelings” that one had for society and nature and that ultimately produced an exalted historical sensibility. [18]  One got this refreshment from opium: it created a prosthetic relationship to the past, played out as the complexity of genius.

Drugs relieved the mournful pain of loss felt by geniuses, like de Staël, while simultaneously enhancing the vision that was so critical a part of their powers. [19]  It is in the opium dream that brilliant experi-

17. Quoted in Molly Lefebure, “Consolations in Opium: The Expanding Universe of Coleridge, Humphrey Davy and ‘The Recluse,” Wordsworth Circle 27 (spring 1986): 58.

18. Ibid., 54.

19. On opium uses in this period see Althea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (Berkeley, Calif., 1970); Virginia Berridge, Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn., 1987); Jordan Goodman, “Excitantia: Or, How Enlightenment Europe Took to Soft Drugs,” in Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology, ed. Jordan Goodman [(London, 1995), 126-47.  This article is strongly influenced by Laurence A. Kickels, Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts (Detroit, Mich., 1988); and Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (Lincoln, Nebr., 1992).]

HHC: [bracketed] is played on page 1068 of original.

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ences of mnemonic truth often occurred.  Indeed, addicts often touted the dream’s superior insights and greater reliability.  The intellectual dreamer penetrated the heart of misfortune, sorrow, and suffering and then awoke to note the dream’s insights that would later be incorporated into the work of art or history.  If opium provided access to the historic spirit, allowing one (like Walter Scott in The Bride of Lammermoor) to narrate more vividly, it did so under specific conditions that colored the written work.  Most notably, the opium dreamer accesses truth with the help of a guide, a deity, a double, or, as Davy found, a “genius” of the times (an ancient mariner, a Kublai Khan).  Thus, the genius Coninne, like the vision in an opium dream, took Oswald (and likewise guided the reader) through Italian history.  Under the influence of opium, the dream produced the authority about the past, the historian, whom one followed and even questioned about the meaning of history.

Accompanied and aided by his authority or genius, the opium dreamer thus saw himself touring, seeing, stretching closer to truths that seemed beyond his grasp or his capacity to endure.  Indeed, Oswald constantly marveled at the inspired way in which Coninne explained the past, how she saw higher to track human aspirations and reached deeper to history’s foundations than he could.  But it is the doubling of the historical process that we need to consider alongside the creation of a visible historical genius.  Coninne is a historical authority who is a woman - as was not unusually the case in opium dreams.  She is also a genius with a pupil, an audience, and thus a society - all of them necessary for plumbing the depths of historical understanding.  The opium dream visualized what was less often the case in reading and writing - the intertwined materialization of the scholar and the reader, the authority and the unlettered who in actuality were often operating in discrete realms, separated by the book, and who were usually depicted not bodily but mentally.  The authority and the unlettered, pain and relief, the living and the dead - the materialization of difference, of an other, could both comfort and dismay the dreamer.

One only sees in an opium dream, De Quincey and other addicts maintained, what one is already predisposed to see.  The envisioning of a community of intellectuals - a public - was an already established ingredient of Enlightenment thought and, like salon life and opium, a critical part of de Staël’s biography. [20]  Coninne’s oratorical eloquence in

20. See especially Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French En-[lightenment (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994); Daniel Gordon, Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670-1789 (Princeton, N.J., 1994); and Adam Potkay, The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994).]

HHC: [bracketed] is played on page 1069 of original.


reciting history brings the community into being, making culture the foundation of the national or political.  Corinne reproduces an ancient republican scenario by rejecting the isolation of a modern reading public and summoning instead that of polite sociability wherein eloquence aggregates individuals and moves them beyond their petty and isolated passions into a realm of heady public virtue.  For de Staël the declamation of history built community and understanding based not on Napoleonic force but on a visualized reciprocity and politeness.  However, like Goya’s depictions of the peasant countryside, the tint of dark forces and mystery now contrasted the brightness of an earlier republican vision.  Recall that Davy’s opium dream also evoked the republican aggregate wherein “thousands of thoughts... had rolled through the minds of a hundred intelligent beings - I was lost in a deep and intense social feeling. I began to think, to reason.” [21]

The public, however, also produced its other - the historian - in a visceral and visual way, summoning her into being.  The audience in listening and demanding much of its intellectuals drove them to mental and oratorical heights impossible to the solitary thinker or isolated author.  Indeed, the lack of audience led to intellectual sterility: “When thought is no longer nourished from without, it turns upon itself, analyzing, shaping, burrowing into the inner feelings.”  By contrast “encouragement” and “emulation” fueled creativity.  “The common run of men gloried in their ability to admire, and so the cult of genius was served by the very people who had no hope of aspiring to its crowns” (143).  Coninne’s historical powers came from her genius, but that genius only flourished with an other - an actual audience.  Thus, Corinne abounded in historical performances in which the genius was fully conscious of her own visualization; she starred in a series of tableaux vivants that would later become so popular for home dramatizations of history.  The opium dream precisely enacted this visualization in which the instructing and instructed self were doubled and observed by the dreaming self, the creation of the republic and its citizenry resting on a thick layer of theatricality rather than the transparency theorists have heretofore seen. [22]

Addiction responded to the uncanny, helping remember the

21. Quoted in Lefebure, “Consolations in Opium,” 54.

22. On republican rhetoric and values, especially that of transparence and lack of theatricality, see among many works Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l’obstacle (Paris, 1975); Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, Calif., 1984).

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dreadful fragments of the dead.  No longer uprooted, Coninne herself joins an associative train of truthtelling geniuses whose stories she intertwines with her own as part of the history of Italy.  Sappho, the female Italian professoniate, Conilla, and the Sybil in whose house Coninne lives give historical lineage to the woman historian.  They are the substance from which she springs; they produce and thicken her instead of making her transparent.  Coninne as historian takes on additional density acting amid her historical material, surrounded by a retinue of pupils and an audience, and serving as a link in the chain of women geniuses to which she belongs.  Reticulative thinking as typical of a narcotic epistemology make history, and in this case the historian as well, spring from a web of associations rather than from knowledge.  This historical genius, fully visualized and enmeshed, is not a slayer of the father, as historians would later become in showing a knowledge superior to that which preceded it, but a genealogically cast persona set in a train of performing women geniuses. [23]

Reticulative, theatrical, and dreamlike, de Staël’s history eschewed the staple of dynastic and professional history - the realistic, linear chronicling of war, preferring the world of monuments and tombs, song and poetry.  Later, for each bloody moment of the French Revolution and wars she substituted excerpts from her father’s writings or analyses of political fanaticism.  Instead of an account of the gruesome march of the royal family to Paris after the events of 6 October, she told of her own family’s parallel progress to the capital: “We reached Paris by another route, which spared us the dreadful sight: we went through the Bois de Boulogne, and the weather was uncommonly beautiful: a breeze barely stirred the trees and the sun was bright enough to leave no shade on the landscape.”  The unthinkable - the heads and body parts on pikes, the blood flowing at Versailles - is not yet recuperable as knowledge.  Rather narcohistory generated poetic masks, articulated the unthinkable as romantic difference: “No exterior object corresponded to our grief.  How often does the contrast between the beauty of nature and the suffering inflicted by others reappear in the course of one’s life!” [24]  Sometimes aestheticized and often dreamed about, narcohistory sprang from and displayed the frenzied genius, who lived the unthinkable in her addiction and redisplayed it as her work.

23. On the host of associations in Corinne see, for the particular example of Sappho, Jean Dejean, Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 (Chicago, 1989).

24. Germaine de Staël, Oeuvres completes (Paris, 1820), 12:347.



Historical Erotics

My coarse imagination has never been able

to imagine a creative genius without genitals.

Johann Georg Hamann to Johann Gottfried Herder


De Staël, too, attached genitals and a body to genius, in no way pre-figuring narcohistory as the transcendent universalism of later scientific history.  Coninne’s imagination, presenting Italy’s mysteries to an audience, was graphically embodied: Coninne’s eyes took in the past’s monuments, her ears feasted upon its sounds, her body shuddered as she contemplates despotic rulers, and she sighed at tombs and ruins.  As Martin Heidegger said about the addict, she lived the outside world - but with this addition, explicitly through the body. [25]  Her body located the important aspects of Italian history.  Physically, Coninne the historical orator provided the means to bridge all those gaps, reaching across them and filling them in sensually.  The embodied historian perceiving and performing the past became the missing link that made ruptured sets of oppositions into a recognizable continuum, most importantly by connecting the past to the present.  Even in so late a work as her history of the French Revolution de Staël consistently put herself into the scenario, talking to the (dead) queen, escaping or going into exile with her (dead) parents, or personally experiencing the terrors of 10 August 1792, as had so many others of her class who were massacred while she was spared.  In De l’Allemagne she was always on the scene with Goethe, Kant, or Hegel, an insistent questioner and irrepressible presence.  In this presentation, the past and present, the living and the dead, the real and the imaginary, the French and the German only formed a panorama once the historian physically stepped in to resuture time and space.  The self-represented body of genius bridged epistemological irreconcilables and existential horrors.

Genius physically presenting history allowed the Italians to reconstitute themselves into a social and public entity.  Her voice employed “a variety of tones that did not destroy the sustained charm of the harmony,” thus awakening the emotions and establishing a rapport between historian and audience.  Coninne’s history executed the romantic project of attaching affect to the narrative of the past but to a constitutive purpose.  Instead of analyzing or recounting, it aimed at a poetic summoning of images that would produce physical sensations in the

25 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York 1962), 195.


hearer.  The physical sound of her voice reciting history then “set off an emotion in the listener as vivid as it is unexpected” and created a further tie between historian and audience but also among individuals in an audience (31-32).  In addition, the enacted and embodied epistemology of her performances ultimately persuaded her Italian audience of their and her own genius.  Italians visually and aurally drank in, comprehended, and approved her recapitulations of the past.  The community (the nation) came physically to materialize around its reception of the physical performance of the past as Coninne’s body not only re-enacted but recirculated the past to a like-minded audience of Italians.  History as a rhetoric, a performance, an embodied immanence filled the interstices among individuals, gluing them into a sensible unity.  Bodies replaced an imagined readership, transparent citizenry, and disappearing narrator in this quite unique depiction of the republic. [26]

The history of Italy figured not only bodily but erotically as part of a struggle over historical interpretation.  The horizon of historical understanding of Oswald, Coninne’s English lover, diverges from hers.  Here another abyss lies wherein history, nationality, gender, and epistemology are intertwined in one way for Oswald and in another for the genius Coninne.  Oswald proposes that reason alone shows the fundamental superiority of English institutions as they have developed over time.  Whereas Coninne gives each culture its due by marking out distinctive traits of the French, Italian, Greek, and other national histories and character, Oswald remains locked for the most part to a reasoned, singular identity by using political institutions as the sole standard for historical evaluation.  Coninne, in contrast, allows a cornucopia of successes (in the arts, religion, sociability) historical weight.  The tension in their relationship stems precisely from their competing historical standards, and as they proceed to travel Italy each looks at the Italian past and then tries to persuade the other of the virtues of her/his interpretation.

History was thus erotic, consisting in an intense relationship of telling to the other and negotiating different understandings of the past with an other without necessarily producing resolution.  For de Staël, as for many “romantics” of her age, history involved a kind of interpretation or hermeneutics based on establishing an association with the past that was not necessarily one of identity.  The past as “other” fit in a necessarily imperfect I-thou association of subject-object distinctions

26. In contrast to de Staël’s emphasis on embodiment, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (London, 1983), places the modern nation in the realm of the imaginary or transparent by focusing on readership.


in which gaps and disaggregation abounded precisely because of differentiation between the self and the other.  But the hermeneutical situation extended to personal situations too, according to romantics and philosophers, and indeed the hermeneutic was explained in personal terms.  Individuation or the distinct person or subject only materialized in relationship to someone else - an other - he primary example of which was often given as a sexual partner. [27]  Further subject-object relations existed - those between the self and society, the self and the state, the self and the family, the present and the past, and so on.  Thus de Staël drew on and compounded subject-object oppositions - Coninne and Oswald, the living and the dead, history and fiction, men and women - making an intensely charged hermeneutical, that is, erotic, situation and at the same time one in which individuation resided in a complex web of multiple “others.” [28]

Such an erotics structured most of de Staël’s writing: in Considerations her descriptions of great historical actors consisted of tense interrogations of their motives and character in a dizzying back and forth movement of narrative and evaluation, their words against hers.  The tension in these works, the disaggregation, and the manifest erotic charge they produced in readers from Napoleon to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, remained effective until the late nineteenth century.  Male and female pitch their differences to one another, anxious for understanding and definition.  The individual and the state contest whether the history of Italy will take control of the narrative or whether the love story will.  The relative identity of entire nations comes into play in hermeneutical history.  Readers came together as de Staël’s community, aroused not just by virtue but by her erotic genius.

The perpetuation of the hermeneutic, including cultural plurality, cosmopolitan heterosexuality, and reconciling life and death meant that one had to accept incommensurability or difference: one had to

27. For historical and bibliographical background to de Staël’s hermeneutical thought see Robert S. Leventhal, The Disciplines of Interpretation: Lessing, Herder, Schlegel, and Hermeneutics in Germany, 1750-1800 (Berlin, 1994). Joachim Wach, Das Verstehen: Grundzuge einer Geschichte der herineneutischen Theorie im 19. Jahrhundert (Tubingen, 1926).  Hans-Georg Gadamer and Gottfried Boehm, eds., Seminar: Philosophische Hermeneutik (Frankfurt, 1976); Kurt Mueller-Zollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader (Oxford, 1986).

28. For the sake of clarity this essay omits the intertwined hermeneutical struggle for generic definition that occurred in de Staël’s writing.  For some background to generic indeterminacy at the time see Thomas DiPiero, Dangerous Truths and Criminal Passions: The Evolution of the French Novel, 1569-1771 (Stanford, Calif., 1992).  De Staël’s writing, as well as the increasing numbers of women who took to producing history during the age of revolution, shows the disadvantage of gendering that still interdeterminate entity called history.  For a different opinion, however, see Carla Hesse, “Revolutionary Histories: The Literary Politics of Louise de Kèralio (1758-1822),” in Culture and Identity in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800): Essays in Honor of Natalie Zemon Davis, ed. Barbara B. Diefendorf and Carla Hesse (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993), 250.

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accept that loss would never be totally recuperated though one might enjoy a vision of the panoramic sweep of things in dramatic reinterpretations.  Both the paradoxical situation and the suspension of determinacy further entailed the cohabitation of reason (that is, Oswald’s historical reality) with Coninne’s own embodied, sensual epistemology.  So long as the couple focused on the telling of history and the conduct of their relationship along these complex, argumentative, and unsettled lines, narrative had endless possibilities.  By contrast it was always clear that the triumph of Oswald’s absolute standards would mean his withdrawal from her eclectic hermeneutic, leading to the couple’s separation - an end to erotics.  Indeed, this happens when Oswald finds his dead father’s letter portraying Coninne, whom he had once met, as a poor marriage choice.  Oswald endows this document, foreshadowing the grip of written evidence on historical science, with ultimate force.  Immune from interpretation on questioning, it is the voice of authority and reason, of patriarchy, a smug, insular nationalism, and the military caste.

In these circumstances the genius as sensible body becomes the ground of freedom that opens onto the hermeneutic and is posed against blind obedience to disembodied reason.  Through the physically present historian, de Staël, the so-called constitutionalist or liberal, questions Cartesianism and the disembodied rights-bearing acquisitive individual as the fundament either of history on the nation.  Ecstatic and free in the moment of historical performance, Coninne’s history of Italy draws attention to the female body in the construction of the nation.

One insists that Coninne’s genius situates freedom on gendered ground because the hermeneutic is an explicit articulation of difference.  In discussing the artistic past Coninne cites classicism in the historical painting of the eighteenth century as an example of unfreedom.  If artists slavishly followed classical principles, “how could genius soar?” she asks.  Because the Greeks and Romans are different, she maintains, “it is impossible for us to create the way they did, to invent new ideas in what might be called their territory” (147).  In other words, using history to occupy the identical historical space as forefathers, even in terms of art, produced fetters and led to mere imitation.  Instead, genius and freedom demanded difference - the difference in the hermeneutic of genders, nations, the living and the dead.  Erotics blocked the singular rule of authority, of a transcendental truth, and of patriarchy because an embodied and performing feminine - its voice, movements, sighing - displayed difference just as surely as a disembodied universalism hid it.  This de Staël countered to any generic on unitary solution to politics and history in terms of “the real,” written evidence, and the military hero.


The world of imaginative and cultural history created a physically manifest republic of letters - where men and women could come together in a hermeneutical quest and where superior women - not just men - could fulfill their destinies.  Coninne’s genius for history initially uses their differences to draw Oswald to her.  As they travel to see Pompeii and Vesuvius, he recognizes “the generous thoughts that nature and history inspire” (206) while she comes to appreciate “the northern way” of English customs (301).  Ultimately, however, his adherence to traditional English beliefs, especially that women be silent, blocks the “I” of Oswald from truly engaging the “Thou” of Coninne.

A different community takes shape, built on disaggregation, segregation, and thus the end to genius.  As historical storytelling ends, Coninne becomes what Julia Knisteva calls the abject, one beyond the community’s borders. [29]  The ending in which Coninne dies showed the difficulties in embodied knowledge: it could not transcend death but merely reiterate it.  This reiteration may have stoked several generations of readers’ emotions, allowing them to mourn more successfully than professional history would.  Current debates over writing, addiction, and melancholy have never figured de Staël in the vast panorama of addicted, embodied, and compulsive writers. [30]  One thing however is certain: death is as irrational at the end of de Staël’s work as it had always been.  Evocations and poetry do not make for a modern knowledge of death and the past, allowing us rather to drink an overflowing draught of loss. [31]  Along with a drugged, erotic epistemology, the reveling in death and loss became utterly foreign to modern ways of doing history, constituting a negative ground for professionalization.


Exiled from History

Rhetoric is dominant, the foreigner is a baroque person.

Nowhere is one more a foreigner than in France.

                Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves

29. On the concept of abjection see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York, 1982).  In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York, 1993), Judith Butler connects the idea of abjection to political exclusion.  On abjection in Corinne put to different use see Nancy Miller, Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (New York, 1988), 182-91.  Miller focuses on analyzing the gender of the gaze and its employment in rejection to Corinne’s abjection.

30. On issues of trauma and mourning in relationship variously to memory, writing, and drugs see Sylvie Le Poulichet, Toxicomanies et psychanalyse: Les Narcoses du désir (Paris, 1987); Rickels, Aberrations of Mourning; Ronell, Crack Wars; Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton, N.J., 1995).

31. Gaston Bachelard, Le Poetique de l’espace (Paris, 1933), describes the important contrast between poetic resonance and scientific knowledge.

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De Staël’s narcohistory and her erotic epistemology sit uneasily with any conventional understanding of hen enlightened liberalism, and perhaps this is why the many analyses of her work have ignored the way both the body and drugs figure in her writing.  The same could be said for de Staël’s approach to political history, which is usually attributed to her “natural” interest in politics as the daughter of Necker and the serious salonniène Suzanne Curchod Necken. [32]  Holding her own salon like her mother by whom she was formed, she knew everyone from Talleynand to Bonaparte.  De Staël, it is thought, was close to power and wrote about it from that positioning - an insider, a republican advocate, a citizen.

Such interpretations have barely factored in the overwrought and gendered context in which her work was produced.  For one thing, the French Revolution increasingly traced citizenship, nationality, and national bonders with bold, gendered strokes.  From the Terror through the time of Napoleon, women’s access to the nights of citizenship was sharply curtailed while the elaboration of male citizenship blossomed with the delineation of nationality as theoretically a universal prerogative open to all people.  Almost simultaneously with the prohibitions on women’s political activity during the Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft in her posthumous novel Maria asked “if women have a country.” [33]  The case of Germaine de Staël posed the question of women’s nationality and citizenship vividly: born of Swiss parents, emphatically identifying herself as French, married to a Swedish ambassador, exiled from Paris and eventually from many areas controlled by Bonaparte, she in fact often wrote while far from the center of politics and power.  De Staël loved the stuff of politics but, constantly in flight from the Napoleonic police, was forced to view it from an extreme distance.  Thus, while her history showed opium insights and espoused an erotic hermeneutic, it also positioned itself in a geographical and national extraterritoriality unusual for historical writing in the modern period.  More often writers, even when they wrote the history of another country, did so naturally, that is to say, nationally situated in an unnoticeable position. [34]

Such was not the case with de Staël: her historical work drew conspicuous attention to exile and foreigner status.  De ‘Allemagne and

32. For an important (and delightful) rendering of Necker’s serious attentions to her salon, which would make it the prototypical site of the virtuous republic of letters, see Goodman, Republic of Letters, 79-84.

33. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (New York, 1975), 108.

34. For a different interpretation of de Staël as exile see Linda Orr, “Outspoken Women and the Rightful Daughter of the Revolution: Madame de Staël’s Considerations sur la Revolution française,” in Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution, ed. Sara E. Melzer and Leslie W. Rabine (New York, 1992), 128-30.


Corinne are not just about the accomplishments of foreign countries served up to pique reader interest.  Both were dramatized as written in foreign encounters.  De Staël’s study of Germany explicitly interprets German history and culture to non-Germans, drawing clean boundaries between national groups.  As interpreter, present on the scene and self-dramatizing, she comments as a foreigner in their midst.  Corinne portrays a variety of national observers commenting on the history of Italy: Oswald, his English relative Egermond, his wife and daughter, his dead father, and several minor characters all have their observations to make; the French count d’Enfeuil constantly compares Italy to France; even Coninne herself is of two nationalities and bases her acuity in part on that bifurcated origin when she discusses Dalmatia, England, Italy, Africa, and other regional histories.  She laces all her work, including these two, with extensive travel in coaches and walking.

De Staël the narrator as well as her protagonists initially cross geographical borders that mark the beginnings of the state.  But the more important ones develop mentally and culturally among distinct populations, separating and defining them in relationship to these differences.  For all the sense that mental and cultural distinctions are somehow intangible, nonetheless, like most other aspects of her historical writing, nationality is a staged and embodied proposition.  Her visits to German states and cities to research her book provoked sensations.  Arriving in Weimar in 1803, she inspired extreme admiration in court women and the intelligentsia at the start, so much so that Schiller initially reassured Goethe that “she is of a piece and has nothing of the strange, false, on pathological about her... One can say of her that she perfectly and interestingly represents French intelligence.”  Her insistent probing and interviewing soon turned her from an object of curiosity representing the French spirit to a troublesome example of the “superficial nature of the French.”  Goethe, questioned and cajoled in turn, found that “she behaved coarsely, like a traveler sojourning among the hyperboreans... .” [35]  Although de Staël could portray herself as a simple, transparent republican with no excessive wants as a guest (“I need only two rooms,” she often wrote her hosts), others indeed saw her as a baroque, excessive presence, a performer ostentatiously staged and separated from her natural audience.  This foreignness was further visualized in long descriptions of flight and traveling: in Considerations on the French Revolution it was her own or her family’s hasty departures from Versailles, Paris, the Paris suburbs, Belgium, Switzerland, and other venues.  De l’Allemagne opens with a coach

35. Quoted in Diesbach, Madame de Staël, 349-52.

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traversing the German countryside, gray and melancholy in its aspect.  So embodied, so staged, and so situated, history invoked the nation as an absence, something one had lost in one’s travel and exile, thus connecting history and nationality differently from scientific narratives.  The nation and the dead were located together in a beyond, a realm of difference from which both became haunting presences and ghosts, from which the living were separated.  From this gothic, invented positioning women like de Staël wrote history or staged themselves writing it.  Virtuous, yes, but never transparent narrators, they wrote in flight, haunted while also chased into exile, pariahs as de Staël certainly was to Napoleon and as Flora Tristan later universalized the situation of women in general. [36]  Outside, de Staël allowed her adoring women readers to gain a new perspective on their own position as outsiders without the stability of a political identity, thus the use of travel in which perspective is refocused minute by minute to accommodate the traveler’s place in the passing scene. [37]

From this constantly shifting position, national history appeared in another form, not political but cultural, not based on military power but on artistic and intellectual achievement.  Outsiders need to get a grip on culture, and de Staël adduced cultural difference in minute detail.  If one could not have political nights, one might enter the cultural community.  The everyday life that one passed while in exile, that one had to deal with more deliberately as a stranger, was also foregrounded in de Staël’s comments on dress and appearance, the status of women, the comfort of accommodations, and on standards of etiquette.  The nation in de Staël’s history indeed became a more ephemeral presence in comparison with its other historical incarnations, a shifting, different cultural entity that one sensed with the body and according to the body’s state, in flight and drugged to blot out the pain of exile.  The addict, wrote Martin Heideggen, is always ahead of Being; the hermeneuticist must enter into another’s horizon of knowledge.  So, too, the exiled genius was beyond the ground of her identity.


This version of de Staël as drugged, erotic, and baroque is offered as a fragment and one that must be held in tension with the more familiar depictions of her life and work as nationally and constitutionally inspired.  That is, I do not propose to eradicate different understandings of her work nor to suggest that this interpretation is more valid.  Rather, it seems in de Staël’s case that tension and ambivalence among

36. See Flora Tristan, Peregrinations of a Pariah, 1833-1834 (Boston, 1987).

37. For one important, early imitation see Anna Jameson, Diary of an Ennuyeé (London, 1822).


interpretations and fragments is the better alternative.  Too staged to be transparent, she is also too opium-sated, erotic, and conspicuously exiled for her work to be reconciled with the national, republican, and insider de Staël.  Moreover, these conflicting pictures, all of them perfectly reasonable, do not align convincingly enough to form the basis of a knowledge-based on biographical truth.  Often unbelievable in her writing and the baroque and grotesque aspects of her life, she does not as a historical character fit with the basic biographical requirement of miming the real.  These excessive, unbelievable qualities made de Staël and her central character, Coninne, such embarrassments to Moens as the contemporary feminist movement began to heat up. [38]  Better fix on virtue, nationality, republicanism, and the “achievements” of de Staël in inspiring women writers of the past century.

It is an irony of de Staël’s life that she launched the feminine hero, that subsequent portraits established her as the quintessential woman worthy and as the model of female accomplishment.  Her descendants played their part by managing the family archives in a way as to shroud her personal life in secrecy.  De Staël thus further became a figure to discover and unmask in order to constitute her as a subject of knowledge, importantly filling up women’s political imaginary with such a model.  Like de Staël Coninne can be read as an eternal return of the sensitive woman of genius, the experienced aristocratic woman, the salonnière at the center of international culture.  But for all the advantages, the move to a model exemplarity replaced the historical hermeneutic with the dangerous vision of a unique historical character - a female worthy.  For all its political energy, it was simultaneously fraught, because a woman author would, like Oswald, reinsert herself into a patriarchal kind of history based not on hermeneutics but on authority, based not on difference but identity.

An alternative would be to see that like the history she wrote, the lives she led are too inaccessible and too excessive in terms of biographical or historiographical models to be comprehensible for us today.  Can we begin to appreciate what a narcotic, erotic, and baroque history actually entails despite attempts here to outline its contours?  And the word genius - doesn’t it always serve to describe the indescribable, getting us past the limits of our own understanding to the ineffable?  The lack of reconciliation is not the world of historical on biographical modernity.  Rather, it serves for us as the world of the un-

38. As if nothing had changed in twenty years, P. N. Furbank writes of Corinne that it “is marvelously, is inexpressibly, absurd... her novels simply won’t do” (“Call Me Madame,” New York Review of Books, 21 Dec. 1995, 64).

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intelligible, the archaic, which as Homi Bhabha points out, is a world of the other that both blocks and launches scientific discursivity. [39]

A final search for closure returns us to the hermeneutical studies of Hans-Georg Gadamer, which seem appropriately to point in de Staël’s direction: “Only if all these movements which make up the art of conversation - argument, question and answer, objection and refutation... - are in vain, will the question recur; only then does the effort of understanding become aware of the individuality of the ‘Thou’ and take account of his [sic] uniqueness.” [40]  Genius was, according to the hermeneuticists of de Staël’s day, that which one always strove to interpret, but unsuccessfully.  Before professionalization historical work was thick with unanswerable questions, contradictory layerings of the progressive and the mysterious, gender and race, imagination and reason, the written and the oral.  Invoking these binaries may suggest to some that we can read them both with and against the grain for their sense and contradiction.  Such reconciliation, however, would still nod to the world of the comprehensible, which is different from what the preprofessionalized historical writers recognized: that is, an extensive realm of the misunderstood where meaning itself went beyond the tools of well-intentioned minds.  Thus, genius, because of the constant state of misunderstanding and final incomprehensibility, launched discursivity, questions, and instability. [41]

Today’s well-intentioned historian might see a final, alternative ground for definitively interpreting de Staël: colonialism, slavery, and race.  Sometime before she reached twenty (c. 1785), the young Germaine Necker wrote a short stony “Minza,” a work with several ingredients familiar to Corinne: the misunderstood, exceptional heroine Minza who speaks wisdom in several languages and a lover who ultimately fails to appreciate her.  Only this time the history of gender difference and the horrors of war occurred among African tribes with defeat bringing enslavement as the losers are sold by the winners to European traders.  The historical trauma resides in the institution of slavery, while the hero, whose sexual unfaithfulness causes Minza’s death, enacts his multiple traumatization through the deterioration of his body brought on both by his enslavement and his lover’s death. [42]   His obsess-

39. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, 1994), 123-38.

40. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York, 1982), 159.

41. For a brief summary of this point see Jean Grondin, Sources of Hermeneutics (Albany, N.Y., 1995); and for a fuller account of universal misunderstanding of genius in de Staël’s day see his Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn., 1994), 67-71.

42. “Mirza,” trans. Francoise Massardier-Kenney, in Translating Slavery: Gender and Sex in French Women’s Writing, 1783-1823, ed. Doris Y. Kadish and Francoise Massardier-Kenney (Kent, Ohio, 1994), 146-56.


sion with her tomb, ghost, and other apparitions suggests yet another register in which the archaic played for de Staël.

One resists an exclusively imperialist reading here as well, although Homi Bhabha’s equation of the archaic or unimaginable with imperialism suggests one.  It is possible that long before Corinne was written this extraordinarily wealthy writer had already constructed her imaginary archaic in racial, colonizing terms, that race was the ultimate propellant of her historical speech about culture, nationality, and gender, and that Corinne was a mere cover for this imperial origin of modern history and heroinism.  Yet it also seems unnecessary to elide the multiple traumas that launched history in those days, to narrow and thus conquer meaning instead of locating its limits, and in the name of professional knowledge to dispose of the concept of genius. [43]  Genius’s narcotic, erotic, and painfully wandering road through the land of the dead and their ghosts constitutes a border to the subsequent practices that we employ.  As such it is an enticing conquest, but in the long run it still serves as an important limit and control.

43. Sharon Bell and Francoise Massardier-Kenney, “Black on White: Translation, Race, Class, and Power,” in Kadish and Massardier-Kenney, Translating Slavery, 168-84; and Laura E. Donaldson, Decolonizing Feminisms (London, 1993) inform my argument.



The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

March 2003

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