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While Germaine de Staël was raised in an environment of constant dialogue and interchange and while this conversational acumen is transplanted into her literature, there is another dimension to her work that instead emphasizes a more ineffable form of expression, which she integrates with her conception of enthusiasm, and into a cosmopolitan vision. The French Revolution’s early dreams for increased equality seemed to have dissipated for women amidst the authoritarian nature of the Napoleonic period, but within the silence that remained, Staël saw hope for ongoing fulfillment of the seeds of the Enlightenment. Staël and Napoleon are frequently juxtaposed as two rival voices struggling over the soul of revolutionary France and Europe, with their antagonistic relationship oftentimes exemplified with the saying, “Bonaparte had so persecuted her that in Europe one had to count three Great Powers: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.”[1] At stake between Staël and Napoleon are two different silences and separate conceptions of the nation, a militaristic and oppressive view characterized by Napoleon’s silence of reason, and the passionate ineffability of enthusiasm with which Staël’s writing is profoundly imbued.

Enthusiasm for Staël is a form of exaltation, a luminous force that inspires a love of beauty and underlies great ideas, revealing a touch of the divine. In De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1799), Staël defines successful literature by its ability to enthuse, which is closely related to its Greek origins of en and theos, or “having God within.”[2] She describes how literature produces a sort of movement in readers that disposes them to moral action, one aligned with the ancient Greek lawgivers’ belief in the power of music, eloquence, and poetry to initiate an ébranlement, a “shocking” or “shaking,” with both physical and internal impact that inspires reflection and enthusiasm.[3] The pre-eighteenth century sense of enthusiasm held a connotation of religious rapture or ecstasy, and even delusion or possession, but its generalized meaning signifies more of a fervour or zeal. Staël’s employment of enthusiasm is in certain ways related to earlier political history in which it is associated with a divine immediacy that claims authority from God over the law, and is therefore linked to rebellion or revolution where it also serves as a critical, pathological category, as in antinomianism or religious civil war.[4] Although Staël channels this earlier and rebellious sense of the term, she invests it with a new pacific sentiment, a cosmopolitan force that she employs to animate her literature. I will demonstrate how Staël channels this silent force into the mute landscapes of her novel Corinne ou l’Italie (1807) and her earlier short story “Mirza ou Lettre d’un voyageur” (1795) with powerful ineffable moments that underscore the cosmopolitan influence of enthusiasm. While Staël is condemned into exile by Napoleon for the political message that he reads in her literature, this essay argues that she depicts the dual-faceted nature of exile as an experience of isolation but also as a source of inspiration, which I consider in scenes of solitude and moments of enthusiasm to illustrate how they might inaugurate new forms of cosmopolitan political community. Silence, and its political import, serves in Staël as one among other media of enthusiasm, which include music, nature, literature, and oratory poetic improvisation, all of which also spark enthusiasm or represent manifestations of it. While silence plays a fundamental role in these different modes of enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an affective force emanating from within, voice is equally central to Staël’s work. Silence is often inscribed within moments of poetry, improvisation, or song, and thus operates alongside voice to call attention to oppression. Staël coopts an imposed, despotic silence from its oppressive hold, reinvigorating it with a new spirit by countering the castigation of forced exile with enthusiasm.

Written halfway through Staël’s own period of exile by Napoleon, Corinne ou l’Italie channels an enthusiasm born of silence, with Corinne’s poetic improvisation extending this influence to a cosmopolitan sphere. Corinne’s enthusiasm is often inspired by or aligned with nature and also with music. Toril Moi has described Corinne ou l’Italie as an opera, with Corinne shifting from an initially “excessive expressivity” to a position of total silence, yet one that she herself desires after Lord Oswald Nevil’s “deafness” to her love and his marriage to her younger half-sister, Lucile.[5] Staël’s Corinne unfolds in Italy between 1794–95, rather than when it was written in 1806–1807, thus avoiding direct commentary on the French takeover of Italy and Napoleon’s self-coronation as King there in 1805. Staël instead rewrites this moment with the dramatic coronation of the poet Corinne at the Capitoline Hill, witnessed by Oswald, who is instantly struck by her artistic capabilities and genius. His love for Corinne is inexorably interwoven with his experience of Italy, and as the semi-eponymous title suggests, Corinne and Italy seem transposable at times, as she comes to embody it, or even to inaugurate nationalism.[6]

The French word nationalité first appears in Corinne, yet its political contours for Staël extend beyond the limits inscribed within a nation-based model of the social contract, like that of Rousseau, as Corinne is of mixed origins, with an English father and Italian mother. From its first appearance, nationalité for Staël is both characterized and enhanced by its diversity, in contrast to the Napoleonic emphasis upon national uniformity, as is evident in Corinne’s description of her dual education and upbringing: “Je pouvais donc me croire destinée à des avantages particuliers, par la réunion des circonstances rares qui m’avaient donné une double éducation, et, si je puis m’exprimer ainsi, deux nationalités différentes.”[7] In further contrast to Rousseau’s Du contrat social aversion to representation, Corinne, of a hybrid national background, comes to represent Italy, but with her melancholic resilience perhaps allegorically embodying a national suffering which could well be that of France, or any other country also threatened by conquest. Suzanne Guerlac furthermore suggests that rather than representing solely a national emblem, Corinne engenders eloquence itself.[8] I argue that this eloquence of voice and articulation is matched by a mute eloquence inspired within enthusiasm that Staël generates from silence in Corinne, with a drive to combat the scourge of despotism by supplanting claims to power through violence with those of love.[9] Writing for a silenced people, Staël brings a bolstered energy of political renewal to this silence, lodging a cosmopolitan force within a vision of nationalité that stands in opposition to Napoleonic empire. Instead of influencing the people through conquest or decree, Corinne employs language and silence that serve as part of a conversation with the people, celebrating their diversity.

Corinne’s alignment with the people is evident from her first appearance and coronation in Rome, as depicted through the perspective of Scottish traveler Lord Oswald Nevil, who is initially despondent upon his arrival in Italy, yet soon finds himself drawn to and electrified by Corinne’s enthusiasm. Mourning the recent death of his father, Oswald is emotionally and physically ill (coughing up blood as we first encounter him), thus opening Corinne’s story with his own melancholic travails. His solitude and despair at losing his father is compounded by the isolation of entering a foreign land, along with a sentiment of being lost among the Italian crowd. Awakening to a brilliant sunshine and the sound of church bells ringing, Oswald is soon taken in by the spectacular event of the coronation of Corinne, who is introduced as a poet, writer, and improviser, and one of the most beautiful women in Rome. Corinne’s impact upon Oswald is striking, as her inspired display of genius at the capitol contagiously stirs his own enthusiasm, while challenging his convictions, since her talent is publicly recognized, in contrast to English customs: “Il n’y avait certainement rien de plus contraire aux habitudes et aux opinions d’un Anglais que cette grande publicité donnée à la destinée d’une femme; mais l’enthousiasme qu’inspirent aux Italiens tous les talents de l’imagination, gagne, au moins momentanément, les étrangers, et l’on oublie les préjugés mêmes de son pays, au milieu d’une nation si vive dans l’expression des sentiments qu’elle éprouve.”[10] Beyond inspiring an exalted state of enthusiasm in Oswald that alleviates his melancholy and enables him to view Corinne in a more favorable light than that of the English women, her appearance is allied with the crowd, as she makes her entrance on a chariot amidst a triumphal procession, drawn by four white horses, like a goddess surrounded by clouds.[11] Corinne’s outfit embodies multiplicity, with a white Indian headscarf wound around her head, and a blue stole that could be a revolutionary allusion. She is furthermore likened to Domenichino’s Sibyl, bestowing her prophetic or divine qualities, which combined with the mystery surrounding her last name and her origins, further contribute to the enthusiasm that she inspires in the people around her.

While Corinne’s poetic improvisations accompanied by the music of her harp enable her to pay eloquent homage to the beauty of nature and to Italy, she further moves the people through her employment of silence. Corinne’s poetry is described as an intellectual melody which can express the charm of the most fleeting or subtle impressions, and, imposing silence upon her audience at times with it, she transports them into an exalted and uplifted spiritual state, inciting their enthusiasm. She listens to what her audience requests for her to improvise, but also to what they do not say, as during her coronation when she first catches a glimpse of Oswald, who is melancholic in the crowd. Corinne’s passionate sensibility, which inspires her poetry, also enables her to read his heart, as he notes: “Corinne, sublime amie, vous qui lisez dans les coeurs, devinez ce que je ne puis dire.”[12] In their initial encounter, she senses his grief even without knowing of the death of his father, and silences the audience as a form of paying homage to the deceased. Referring to Rome as the land of tombs, Corinne shifts her previous tone to evoke the splendour of its ruins and ancestors, linking its funeral urns with abandonment to nature’s beauty in death.[13] Silence is a means to inspire Oswald and to access this melancholic history, which also serves to generate enthusiasm, offering hope for political renewal by invoking the grandeur of the past.

In addition to Corinne’s ability to read Oswald’s unarticulated sentiments or to silence the crowd and inspire enthusiasm, her own silence becomes a prominent symbol with political force. After following Oswald to England and Scotland, and realizing that he has fallen for her younger half-sister, Lucile, Corinne renounces him, opting never to speak with him again, which serves as a pivotal turning point. Madelyn Gutwirth suggests that Corinne’s silence in the second half of the novel represents symbolic death,[14] whereas Toril Moi aligns it with Corinne’s desire, as she ultimately chooses silence, offering a stark contrast to her earlier poetic expressiveness in Italy.[15] I would extend these implications to the political sphere by suggesting that Corinne’s silence is moreover driven by a contrasting belief regarding nationality to that espoused by Oswald, as he is unable to distance himself from his father’s preference that he marry a purely English woman, and thus chooses Lucile, even though she does not bring him the same happiness as Corinne. Corinne’s silence distances her from Oswald, while reaffirming a composite conception of nationalité, as in her earlier employment of this term, expressing appreciation for national difference and for the benefits that may arise from this multiplicity. While both France and Italy have become silenced under Napoleon’s reign, which aims to efface difference through conquest, Corinne’s chosen melancholic silence is affirmative of a desire to embrace the national diversity that she embodies, inspiring enthusiasm among the people with it.

One of the most powerful scenes of such enthusiasm is Corinne’s performance at Cape Miseno, just before she reveals her history to Oswald, as her silence in this moment serves a unifying role in bringing together and captivating a crowd of both English and Italians alike. Similar to the lofty setting where the protagonist of Staël’s earlier Delphine (1802) crosses the mountains from France to Switzerland and looks down upon Lake Geneva and the Vaud countryside amidst nature’s silence, Corinne derives enthusiasm from her melancholic state at the summit of Cape Miseno in Italy, a sacred poetic site that enables her to spark the divine within herself and to inspire her audience to think beyond the national divisions that might separate them. She has led Oswald on a journey through the land of Virgil’s grave and Petrarch’s laurel tree, and she stages this summit gathering as a parting gift, with her empathic poetry also conveying the shifting ground of their relationship; as Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance, the surrounding landscape mirrors and dramatizes their conflict. Like the Tiburtine Sybil animated by divine inspiration, Corinne gazes at the islands around her, ruminating upon kindred condemned exiles who have viewed their native lands from a distance:

“O terre! toute baignée de sang et de larmes, tu n’as jamais cessé de produire et des fruits et des fleurs! es-tu donc sans pitié pour l’homme? et sa poussière retourne-t-elle dans ton sein maternel sans le faire tressaillir?”

Ici, Corinne se reposa quelques instants. Tous ceux que la fête avait rassemblés jetaient à ses pieds des branches de myrte et de laurier. La lueur douce et pure de la lune embellissait son visage, le vent frais de la mer agitait ses cheveux pittoresquement, et la nature semblait se plaire à la parer. Corinne cependant fut tout à coup saisie par un attendrissement irrésistible: elle considéra ces lieux enchanteurs, cette soirée enivrante, Oswald qui était là, qui n’y serait peut-être pas toujours, et des larmes coulèrent de ses yeux. Le peuple même, qui venait de l’applaudir avec tant de bruit, respectait son émotion, et tous attendaient en silence que ses paroles fissent partager ce qu’elle éprouvait.[16]

In contrast to the violence that Corinne evokes in her reference to the land of “blood and tears,” her poetic gathering offers a uniting experience for her audience from different nations, one that is almost sacred, as reinforced by the mythical symbolism of the branches of myrtle and laurel that the people cast before her. The melancholic wave that overcomes her is transmitted to the crowd, as they emulate her silence, and while her words convey feelings, her tears offer an ineffable message that joins her audience in shared enthusiasm through a transformative artistic experience, one that is perhaps capable of inspiring reconciliation and of reclaiming the greatness of the Roman past while surpassing arbitrary national divisions.[17] Situating herself in line with legendary women who have suffered in love before her, Corinne transforms her sadness and exile into a sacred form of poetry and suggests that grief is capable of penetrating through the clouds to translate a divine music inaudible to most mortal ears into a noble enthusiasm. She earlier describes this enthusiasm as “surnaturel,” inspired by, while also escaping, the laws of nature, and she rewrites these laws in a cosmopolitan manner through poetic improvisation in different languages, while also conveying the silent, divine unifying verses that uplift the soul.[18]

Corinne’s silence further exemplifies a deific quality that achieves its richest tenor in her final song. Although on her deathbed and too weak to speak or improvise, Corinne nonetheless hosts a farewell performance for Oswald as well as for Italy, which also concludes Oswald’s journey there (that begins as the novel opens) in a cyclical manner, yet with a different form of melancholy than his initial sadness over the loss of his father. Corinne gathers a crowd in a room at the Florence Academy on a stormy winter’s day in January to present an ode to a Rome that does not banish women but instead recognizes their genius, and she then submits to the “tombeaux silencieux [de] divinité bienfaisante,” at peace with this silence and impending death.[19] Her lines are performed by a young girl dressed in white and crowned with flowers, as Corinne sits silently in the shadows covered by a veil, which stands in stark contrast to her initial resplendent performance at the capitol but is also a testament to her resolve, as she has channeled her melancholy over losing Oswald into reinforcing the divinity of enthusiasm within herself as a poet. The triumphal chariots that first carried her to Rome transform into a funeral procession as she offers the stage to a new lead, yet one who recites Corinne’s lines to help carry forth her poetic legacy, much like she has coached her niece Juliet to sing and speak Italian, cultivating a surrogate cosmopolitan citizen, as if to counteract Juliet’s solely English biological lineage of parents Lucile and Oswald.[20] Corinne’s ring that she returns to Oswald is a harbinger of her death, rather than a symbol of their union, as it signifies the end of the relationship and leads to her eventual demise. Grievous emotion, however, also becomes a source of strength, as it enables Corinne to ignite her own enthusiasm, silently transcending her plight, while moving and inspiring the crowd through her melancholic song sung by a promising youthful performer, offering hope for future peace. The future that Staël envisions is one in which national difference and diversity may be celebrated, rather than spurned, within Corinne and as a political allegory for a Europe under Napoleon.

While Staël develops a vision of nationalité that expands beyond the frontiers of the nation within the figure of Corinne, this cosmopolitanism is germane to her thought from early on, as it is perhaps even more strikingly evident in the protagonist of her earlier short story “Mirza ou Lettre d’un voyageur,” published in 1795 but written in 1786, prior to both the Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, which serve as the unacknowledged backdrop to her novels. Staël is most often considered within a European context, but “Mirza” extends beyond these borders into the heart of Africa, recounting a fictional love story between two Senegambians, Mirza and Ximéo, from the warring Kingdoms of Cayor and Jolof. Although promised in marriage to Ourika, the daughter of his father’s sister, Ximéo is enamoured with Jolof neighbour Mirza, whose song about the love of freedom and the horror of slavery attracts him, and this song is further enhanced by the foreign nature of her language. Mirza sings in French learned from a Frenchman discontented with his own country, who settles in Senegal and shares the knowledge misused by Europeans and the philosophy whose lessons they follow poorly. By reading French books and reflecting upon them from her silent mountain solitude, Mirza develops a form of cosmopolitan enthusiasm, which further inspires Ximéo: “À chaque mot qu’elle me disait, mon intérêt, ma curiosité redoublaient; ce n’était plus une femme, c’était un poëte que je croyais entendre parler; et jamais les hommes qui se consacrent parmi nous au culte des dieux, ne m’avaient paru remplis d’un si noble enthousiasme.”[21] Like Corinne’s poetic acumen and command of Italian, Mirza’s bridging the distance between warring tribes through French song offers further affirmation of Staël’s commitment to a pacific community that transcends borders.

Staël’s cosmopolitanism is further evident in her stand against the blight of slavery in “Mirza,” a cry for a political structure based upon a more inclusive form of morality. Although taken with Mirza, Ximéo eventually betrays her by continuing to pursue his vows with Ourika, yet Mirza nonetheless jumps to his defence after he is captured in battle and about to be sold into slavery to the Europeans. She demonstrates her intellectual and physical strength in proclaiming:

Européens … c’est pour cultiver vos terres que vous nous condamnez à l’esclavage; c’est votre intérêt qui vous rend notre infortune nécessaire; vous ne ressemblez pas au dieu du mal, et faire souffrir n’est pas le but des douleurs que vous nous destinez: regardez ce jeune homme affaibli par ses blessures, il ne pourra supporter ni la longueur du voyage, ni les travaux que vous lui demandez; moi, vous voyez ma force et ma jeunesse, mon sexe n’a point énervé mon courage; souffrez que je sois esclave à la place de Ximéo.[22]

As she faces Ximéo’s captors, Mirza employs more of a strategic approach to save Ximéo than in her earlier song that passionately contests the horrors and injustice of slavery, but she still asserts her own strength and courage as a woman against “the hideous yoke of slavery” the letter begins by denouncing.[23] This moves the governor to free her and Ximéo, noting that so much nobility of soul would have shamed these Europeans enslaving them; just before delivering her plea, Mirza is further described as being irradiated by the soul within, more resembling an angel than a mortal, and possessing a supernatural quality like that attributed to Corinne. Mirza indeed channels her enthusiasm towards cosmopolitan ends for peace and against slavery, embodying the luminous form of exaltation characteristic of en and theos, or having God within.

Mirza’s story, like that of Corinne, similarly ends on the somber note of her death, but it is likewise her chosen path as she stabs herself through the heart with an arrow after receiving word of her and Ximéo’s freedom, unable to carry forth due to his infidelity yet nonetheless living on in a sense. Ximéo recounts Mirza consoling him from beyond the grave:

[J]’ai renfermé dans un tombeau les tristes restes de celle que j’aime quand elle n’est plus, de celle que j’ai méconnue pendant sa vie. Là, seul quand le soleil se couche, quand la nature entière semble se couvrir de mon deuil, quand le silence universel me permet de n’entendre plus que mes pensées, j’éprouve, prosterné sur ce tombeau, la jouissance du malheur, le sentiment tout entier de ses peines; mon imagination exaltée crée quelquefois des fantômes; je crois la voir, mais jamais elle ne m’apparaît comme une amante irritée. Je l’entends qui me console et s’occupe de ma douleur.[24]

Mirza’s supernatural force endures as a source of love and enthusiasm, exalting Ximéo’s imagination amidst the melancholic universal silence of sunset. The narrator of this tale in the form of a letter notes that there was nothing that could be said to console Ximéo, so he no longer dares speak to him, but instead writes his story to sanctify the name of Mirza, l’ange d’amour.[25]

As Staël’s early short story suggests, literature becomes a powerful source for conveying and inspiring enthusiasm, a concept that she further develops in the literary silence of Corinne, and throughout her lifetime in works such as De la littérature, Delphine, De l’Allemagne (1810/1813), and Dix années d’exil (1821). In De la littérature, Staël describes literature as the guardian of “le feu sacré d’un enthousiasme véritable,” [26] and explains how it might serve to foster a community out of exile, unhappiness, and isolation:

Ces écrits font couler des larmes dans toutes les situations de la vie; ils élèvent l’âme à des méditations générales qui détournent la pensée des peines individuelles; ils créent pour nous une société, une communication avec les écrivains qui ne sont plus, avec ceux qui existent encore, avec les hommes qui admirent comme nous ce que nous lisons. Dans les déserts de l’exil, au fond des prisons, à la veille de périr, telle page d’un auteur sensible a relevé peut-être une âme abattue: moi qui la lis, moi qu’elle touche, je crois y retrouver encore la trace de quelques larmes; et par des émotions semblables, j’ai quelques rapports avec ceux dont je plains si profondément la destinée.[27]

Like her predecessor Rousseau and her own literary protagonists, Staël is no stranger to exile, which she incorporates into her fiction and into recounting her own experience fleeing Napoleon in Dix années d’exil, describing the pain of being forced to leave multiple countries, while also forging a community beyond national borders by recounting this persecution through her writing. Although Napoleon attempts to censor her works and to stifle her voice, Staël employs both her nobility of expression and her ineffable enthusiasm to combat his offensives, demonstrating the strength of the soul and the political power of literature to combat the tides of despotism. She returns once again to enthusiasm in the final chapter of De l’Allemagne, attributing a unique degree of it to Germany,[28] which also highlights what is lost in France under Napoleon.

In spite of what is lacking, enthusiasm remains as a divine yet humanized force, as creative potential that may inspire a more egalitarian sense of community and lead to moral regeneration, which Staël aligns with this period of silence and the cosmopolitan conception of nationalité in her literature. While the melancholic tales of Corinne and Mirza conclude with the silence of death, they also conjure a hopeful, ineffable facet that channels the revitalizing energy of deeply felt emotion. Staël’s enthusiasm stands in stark contrast to Napoleonic force in that it represents intellectual rather than military might and serves to direct the passions into a more expansive, positive role, replacing the ennui that forced exile is aimed to afflict with a liberating and animating sense of existence.[29] I have sought to underscore the affirmative political impact of silence as it is woven into Staël’s fiction, like the final image of her heroine Corinne gesturing to the moon as Oswald approaches her deathbed.[30] Even if born of sorrow, enthusiasm holds the potential for exaltation, the ability to uplift the soul in an enlarging movement that could also help to elevate character, perhaps even cultivating the true cosmopolitan spirit of enlightenment.[31]