Madame de Staël: “Of a Romantic Bias in the Affections of the Heart”
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