Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Spontaneity and Moral Certainty in Benjamin Constant's Adolphe

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Spontaneity and Moral Certainty in Benjamin Constant's Adolphe

Article excerpt

ETHICAL UNCERTAINTY AT THE END OF TRADITION

For almost all of its two-hundred-year existence, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe has been read as a roman a def, the disguised story of the author's unfortunate affair with Germaine de Stael, Charlotte de Hardenberg, Anna Lindsay, or some combination of the three (Wood 175-76). (1) Literary critics, and even political philosophers, have been all too ready to agree with Sainte-Beuve that the writer's realistic portrayal of "les impressions interieures les plus fugitives et les plus contradictoires" (1048) proved that Constant himself was abnormally hesitant. (2) Even Constant's career under the aDirectory and during the Hundred Days has been cause for suspicion that he--like his character--hesitated unnecessarily: Villefosse and Bouissounousse insisted as late as 1969 that Constant's character was inferior to his thought (324). It was not just in France that Constant was known as a real-life Adolphe. Ina footnote on Constant's correspondence in The Varieties of Religious Experience, written seventy years after Constant's death, William James claims that the author of Adolphe had such a poor character that he could not "get mad" at any of his choices, and thus floated, Adolphe-like, through his own life, acting spontaneously, without making good use of his considerable intellect (375).

Benjamin Constant was careful in all three editions of the novel to distinguish between his own character and Adolphe's. In the "Avis de l'editeur" published a in the first edition, an unnamed editor professes to have found the "anecdote" in Strongoli, Catanzaro; he also declares that be published the papers without changing "un mot a l'original" (107). In the second and third prefaces, Constant admits that he is the author of Adolphe, but insists on its fictional nature (99-100). (3) Constant and his fictional editor seek to place the maximum distance possible between the character of Adolphe and Constant's real life, and to make Adolphe's character flaws into societal faults, more than personal ones. In the third preface, Constant restates the question of why Adolsphe is so hesitant in socio-historical terms: "A distance, l'image de la douleur qu'on impose parait vague et confuse, telle qu'un nuage facile a traverser; on est encourage par l'approbation d'une societe toute factice, qui supplee aux principes par les regles et aux emotions par les convenances" (103). In other words, Adolphe is typical for a sincere young tuan living in an immoral epoch.

In the last sixty years, critics like Pierre Deguise and Alison Fairlie have largely sorted out the melancholic yet efficacious Constant from his philosophical interest in indecision. (4) More dramatically, political theorists--including K. Steven Vincent, Stephen Holmes, and Biancamaria Fontana--have reinvented Constant as a father of liberalism, praising his tolerance in an era of fundamentalism. (5) Critics, such as Tzvetan Todorov and Elena Russo, have adapted their analyses to Constant's enhanced philosophical reputation. (6) But considering Constant as a liberal forefather has often meant pushing his literary work to the side. This is a pity, since Constant considered his literary and political works to be linked enough that, as Patrick Coleman observes, one of his last acts was to republish there together in Melanges de litterature et de politique (225). (7) How, then, can we resolve Constant's liberal beliefs with the moral paralysis we find in his novel? With its classic statement of post-revolutionary paralysis, Adolphe fits awkwardly into an oeuvre which argues consistently for more freedom regardless of the consequences. Yet it is precisely because it exposes the dangers of unlimited freedom that Adolphe should be studied together with Constant's apologias for liberty. The answer, I think, is by examining the moral conundrum at the heart of his work.

Constant frequently sought to connect his observations in moral psychology to his political philosophy. …

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