February 17, 2012 10:03 pm

Feelings of forgiveness

Germaine de Staël, the free-thinking novelist and essayist, viewed understanding not only as a faculty of the intellect but also of the soul

A blinding, but also blindingly unoriginal, flash of insight came to me the other day. What if half, or more, of the world’s problems are caused by mutual incomprehension? And if we fail to understand, and are constantly irritated by, those supposedly nearest and dearest to us – our families, our wives, husbands, partners – what hope can we have of resolving the big political, sectarian, ideological, territorial differences in the wider world – the kind of differences that lead to wars?

Of course, a number of great thinkers and writers had been there before me. The one who came first to mind was the singularly attractive figure of Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), the free-thinking and free-loving heiress, salon hostess, novelist and essayist. She was a role model for feminist intellectuals, a woman of amazing creative and emotional energy whose friends and lovers included Byron (a friend, not a lover), Benjamin Constant, Edward Gibbon, AW Schlegel, Thomas Jefferson and the Duke of Wellington. Mme de Staël coined the wonderful sentence “Tout comprendre rend très indulgent” (“understanding everything makes one very forgiving”) in her novel Corinne (1807), 60 years before Tolstoy came up with something similar in War and Peace.

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Harry Eyres

One person who was not a friend of Mme de Staël was Napoleon Bonaparte, who banished her three times from France, censored her books and even pulped one of them as it was being printed. De Staël became almost as famous for her feud with Napoleon as for her writings. Some have commented that they were too alike to be destined to get along. From Benjamin Constant’s diary you get a picture of a woman who, as a lover, could be as despotic as they come: “Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end must be at her disposition, or else there is an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together.”

If Napoleon was the first man of Europe, De Staël aspired to be Europe’s first lady of culture, or sultana of thought (the poet Heinrich Heine’s rather unkind description), courageously opposing the soft power of feeling and sensibility to the hard power of Napoleon’s armies. What turned into one of history’s great enmities actually began as a crush. De Staël wrote Napoleon fan letters, comparing him to the great Roman general Scipio and the Crusades leader Tancred, and describing herself as “a soul on fire”. But then she met him. “The more I saw of Bonaparte the more disturbed I became ... I sensed he was a man who had no emotions. To him a human being was a fact or a thing, not someone to be treated as an equal.” Certainly Napoleon seems to have had a distaste for intellectual women. But some attraction between them may have persisted; she could easily have gone to England to oppose him, and he could have had her imprisoned.

You could focus almost exclusively on De Staël as a great character, and forget her literary achievements. She was indeed a wonderfully colourful figure, as famous for her polychrome turbans as for her string of lovers. Her salon at the Château de Coppet on Lake Geneva was one of the most brilliant in history. But De Staël was also a prolific and highly successful writer; Corinne has never been out of print since it was published. At the core of Napoloen’s opposition to her was a kind of respect: according to the Memoirs of Mme de Rémusat, he complained that “she teaches people to think who had never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think”.

That is a badge any writer of a philosophical bent could wear with pride. But perhaps it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is feeling; or the reconnection of thought with feeling, the ability to think feelingfully and to feel thoughtfully, which was the great aim and achievement of the Romantic movement.

Returning to her great saying, I’d always thought “tout comprendre rend très indulgent” issued from a mature woman of the world, confiding her wisdom to a diary or a close friend. But if you turn to Corinne – a racy amalgam of romantic novel and travelogue – you find these words come from the desperate scattered notes of the lovesick heroine after she has been jilted by her lover, the improbably named and gloomy Scottish peer Lord Nelvil.

De Staël put feeling on a pedestal, maybe elevated it too high. She admitted with astonishing pre-Freudian frankness that the man she had really loved was her father, whom she wished she could have married. Byron seems to have had De Staël in mind when he wrote: “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart/ ’Tis woman’s whole existence.”

When De Staël speaks of “understanding everything” she does not mean a coldly rational kind of understanding. She is talking about a faculty not just of the intellect, but of the spirit and the soul. And this faculty is a moral one, because “to feel deeply inspires magnanimity”. That was the quality that, for all his cold brilliance, Napoleon lacked.

harry.eyres@ft.com

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