Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. III, 230-235.
Reading Madame de Staël’s “Delphine”
Of a Romantic Bias in the Affections of the Heart
The English philosophers have founded virtue, as we have said, upon feeling, or rather upon the moral sense; but this system has no connection with the sentimental morality of which we are here talking: this morality (the name and idea of which hardly exist out of Germany) has nothing philosophical about it; it only makes a duty of sensibility, and leads to the contempt of those who are deficient in that quality.
Doubtless, the power of feeling love is very closely connected with morality and religion: it is possible then that our repugnance to cold and hard minds is a sublime sort of instinct — an instinct which apprises us, that such beings, even when their conduct is estimable, act mechanically, or by calculation; and that it is impossible for any sympathy to exist between us and them. In Germany, where it is attempted to reduce all impressions into precepts, every thing has been deemed immoral which was destitute of sensibility — nay, which was not of a romantic character. Werther had brought exacted sentiments so much into fashion, that hardly any body dared to show that he was dry and cold of nature, even when he was condemned to such a nature in reality.
From thence arose that forced sort of enthusiasm for the moon, for forests, for the country, and for solitude; from thence those nervous fits, that affectation in the very voice, those looks which wished to be seen; in a word, all that apparatus of sensibility, which vigorous and sincere minds disdain.
The author of Werther was the first to laugh at these affectations; but, as ridiculous practices must be found in all countries, perhaps it is better that they should consist in the somewhat silly exaggeration of what is good, than in the elegant pretension to what is evil. As the desire of success is unconquerable among men, and still more so among women, the pretensions of mediocrity are a certain sign of the ruling taste at such an epoch, and in such a society; the same persons who displayed their sentimentality in Germany, would have elsewhere exhibited a levity and superciliousness of character.
The extreme susceptibility of the German character is one of the great causes of the importance they attach to the least shades of sentiment; and this susceptibility frequently arises from the truth of the affections. It is easy to be firm when we have no sensibility: the sole quality which is then necessary is courage; for a well-regulated severity must begin with self: but, when the proofs of interest in our welfare, which others give or refuse us, powerfully influence our happiness, we must have a thousand times more irritability in our hearts than those who use their friends as they would an estate, and endeavor solely to make them profitable.
At the same time we ought to be on our guard against those codes of subtle and many-shaded sentiment, which the German writers have multiplied in such various manners, and with which their romances are filled. The Germans, it must be confessed, are not always perfectly natural. Certain of their own uprightness, of their own sincerity in all the real relations of life, they are tempted to regard the affected love of the beautiful as united to the worship of the good, and to indulge themselves, occasionally, in exaggerations of this sort, which spoil every thing.
This rivalship of sensibility, between some German ladies and authors, would at the bottom be innocent enough, if the ridiculous appearance which it gives to affectation did not always throw a kind of discredit upon sincerity itself. Cold and selfish persons find a peculiar pleasure in laughing at passionate affectations; and would wish to make everything appear artificial which they do not experience. There are even persons of true sensibility whom this sugared sort of exaggeration cloys with their own impressions; and their feelings become exhausted, as we may exhaust their religion, by tedious sermons and superstitious practices.
It is wrong to apply the positive ideas which we have of good and evil to the subtilties of sensibility. To accuse this or that character of their deficiencies in this respect, is likely making it a crime not to be a poet. The natural susceptibility of those who think more than they act, may render them unjust to persons of a different description. We must possess imagination to conjecture all that the heart can make us suffer, and the best sort of people in the world are often dull and stupid in this respect: they march right across our feelings, as if they were treading upon flowers, and wondering that they fade away.
Are there not men who have no admiration for Raphael, who hear music without emotion, to whom the ocean and the heavens are but monotonous appearances? How then should they comprehend the tempests of the soul?
Are not even those who are most endowed with sensibility sometimes discouraged in their hopes? May they not be overcome by a sort of inward coldness, as if the Godhead was retiring from their bosoms? They remain not less faithful to their affections; but there is no more incense in the temple, no more music in the sanctuary, no more emotions in the heart. Often also does misfortune bid us silence in ourselves this voice of sentiment, harmonious or distracting in its tone, as it agrees, or not, with our destiny.
It is then impossible to make a duty of sensibility; for those who own it suffer so much from its possession, as frequently to have the right and the desire to subject it to restraint.
Nations of ardent character do not talk of sensibility without terror: a peaceable and dreaming people believe they can encourage it without alarm. For the rest, it is possible, that this subject has never been written upon with perfect sincerity; for every one wishes to do himself honour by what he feels, or by what he inspires. Women endeavor to set themselves out like a romance; men like a history; but the human heart is still far from being penetrated in its most intimate relations.
At one time or another, perhaps, somebody will tell us sincerely all he has felt; and we shall be quite astonished at discovering, that the greater part of maxims and observations are erroneous, and that there is an unknown soul at the bottom of that which we have been describing.
Madame de Staël
Part 1 of 2
“When I began the study of German literature, it seemed as if I was entering on a new sphere, where the most striking light was thrown on all that I had before perceived in the most confused manner.”
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation).
For some time past, little has been read in France except memoirs and novels, and it is not wholly from frivolity, that we are become less capable of more serious reading, but because the events of the revolution have accustomed us to value nothing but the knowledge of men and things. We find in German books, even on the most abstract subjects, that kind of interest which confers their value upon good novels, and which is excited by the knowledge which they teach us of our own hearts. The peculiar character of German literature is to refer everything to an interior existence; and as that is the mystery of mysteries, it awakens an unbounded curiosity.
I will say a few words on what may be considered as the legislation of that empire; I mean criticism. There is no branch of German literature which has been carried to a greater extent, and as in some cities there are more physicians than patients, there are sometimes in Germany more critics than authors. But the analyses of Lessing, who was the creator of style in German prose, are made in such a manner that they may themselves be thought of as works.
Kant, Goethe, J. de Mueller, the greatest German writers of every various kind, have inserted in periodicals of different publications recensions which contain the most profound philosophical theory and positive knowledge. Amongst the younger writers, Schiller and the two Schlegels have shown themselves superior…
The writings of A.W. Schlegel are less abstracted that those of Schiller; as his knowledge of literature is uncommon even in Germany, he is led continually to application by the pleasure which he finds in comparing different languages and different poems with each other; so general a point of view ought to be considered as infallible, if partiality did not sometimes impair it; but this partiality is not of an arbitrary kind, and I will point out both the progress and aim of it; nevertheless as there are subjects in which it is not perceived, it is of those I shall first speak.
W. Schlegel has given a course of dramatic literature in Vienna which comprises everything remarkable that has been composed for the theatre from the time of the Grecians to our days; it is not a barren nomenclature of the works of the various authors. He seizes the spirit of their different sorts of literature, with all the imagination of a poet; we are sensible that to produce such consequences extraordinary studies are required; but learning is not perceived in this work except by his perfect knowledge of the chefs d’oeuvre of composition. In a few pages we reap the labor of a whole life; every opinion formed by the author, every opinion, every epithet given to the writers of whom he speaks, is beautiful and just, concise and animated. W. Schlegel has found the art of treating the finest piece of poetry as so many wonders of nature, and of painting them in lively colors which do not injure the justness of the outline; for we cannot repeat too often that imagination, far from being an enemy to truth, brings it forward more than any other faculty of the mind, and all those who depend upon it as an excuse for indefinite terms or exaggerated expressions, are at least destitute of poetry as of good sense.
An analysis of the principles on which both tragedy and comedy are founded is treated in W. Schlegel’s course of dramatic literature with much depth of philosophy; this kind of merit is often found among the German writers. But Schlegel has no equal in the art of inspiring his own admiration; in general he shows himself attached to a simple taste, sometimes bordering on rusticity, but he deviates from his usual opinions in favor of the opinions of the inhabitants of the south. Their jeux de mots and their concetti are not the objects of his censure; he detests the affectation which owes its existence to the spirit of society, but that which is excited by the luxury of imagination pleases him in poetry as the profusion of colours and perfumes would do in nature. Schlegel, after having acquired a great reputation by his translation of Shakespeare, became equally enamored of Calderon, but with a very different sort of attachment that with which Shakespeare had inspired him; for while the English author is deep and gloomy in his knowledge of the human heart, the Spanish poet gives himself up with pleasure and delight to the beauty of life, to the sincerity of faith, and to all the brilliancy of those virtues which derive their coloring from the sunshine of the soul.
I was at Vienna when W. Schlegel gave his public course of lectures. I expected only good sense and instructions where the object was only to convey information; I was astonished to hear a critic as eloquent as an orator, and who, far from falling upon defects which are the eternal food of mean and little jealousy, sought only the means of reviving a creative genius.
Spanish literature is but little known, and it was the subject of one of the finest passages delivered during the setting at which I attended. W. Schlegel gave us a picture of the chivalrous nation, whose poets were all warriors, and whose warriors were poets. He mentioned that count Ercilla who composed his poem of the Araucana in a tent, as now on the shores of an ocean, now at the foot of the Cordilleras while he made war on those in revolt. Garcilasso, one of the descendants of the Incas, wrote poems on love on the ruins of Carthage, and perished at the siege of Tunis. Cervantes was dangerously wounded at the battle of Lepanto; Lope de Vega escaped by miracle at the defeat of the invincible armada; and Calderon served as an intrepid soldier in the wars of Flanders and Italy.
Religion and war were more frequently united amongst the Spaniards than in any other nation; it was they, who, by perpetual combats drove out the Moors from the bosom of their country, and who may be considered the vanguard of European christendom; they conquered their churches from the Arabians, an act of their worship was a trophy for their arms, and their triumphant religion, sometimes carried to fanaticism, was allied to the sentiment of honour, and gave to their character an impressive dignity. That gravity tinctured with imagination, even that gaiety that loses nothing of what is serious in the warmest affections, shows itself in Spanish literature, which is wholly composed of fictions and poetry, of which religion, love and warlike exploits are constantly the object. It might be said that when the New World was discovered, the treasures of another hemisphere contributed to enrich the imagination as much as the state; and that in the empire of poetry as well as in that of Charles V, the sun never ceased to enlighten the horizon.
All who heard W. Schlegel were much struck with this picture, and the German language, which he spoke with elegance, adding depth of thought and affecting expression to those high-sounding Spanish names, which can never be pronounced without presenting to our imaginations the orange trees of the kingdom of Grenada and the palaces of its Moorish sovereigns.
Wilhelm Schlegel, whom I here mention as the first literary critic of Germany, is the author of a French pamphlet lately published under the title of “Reflections of a Continental System.” This same W. Schlegel printed a few years ago at Paris a comparison the Phaedra of Euripides and that of Racine. It made a great deal of noise among the literary people of that place, but no one could deny that W. Schlegel, though a German, wrote French well enough to be fully competent to the task of criticizing Racine.
We may compare W. Schlegel’s manner of speaking poetry, to that of Winkelmann in describing statues; and it is only by such method of estimating talents, that it is honourable to be a critic: Every artist or professional man can point out inaccuracies which ought to be avoided. but the ability to discover genius and to admire it, is almost equal to the possession of genius itself.
Frederic Schlegel being much involved in philosophical pursuits, devoted himself less exclusively to literature than his brother; yet the piece he wrote on the intellectual culture of the Greeks and the Romans contains in small compass perceptions and conclusions of the first order. F. Schlegel has more originality of genius than almost any other celebrated man in Germany; but far from depending upon that originality, though it promised him much success, he endeavored to assist it by extensive study. It is a great proof of our respect for the human species when we dare not address it from the suggestions of our own minds without having first conscientiously examined into all that has been left to us by our predecessors as an inheritance. The Germans in those acquired treasures of the human mind are true proprietors. Those who depend on their own natural understandings alone are mere sojourners in comparison with them.
To be continued …
August Wilhelm von Schlegel