Claudia Moscovici

A Belated Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

Nabokov’s Lolita is credited with adding a previously forbidden theme–of pedophilia, pathology,  psychopathy, whatever negative label you wish to apply–to mainstream American fiction (even though  it’s the French who dared publish it first). But, actually, Lolita made an even more significant and enduring contribution to the American literary scene. It added a new style of writing that began to rival in popularity the action-packed, “masculine” terseness of Hemingway and Steinbeck’s vivid, fluid descriptions. With Nabokov–Russian-born yet adopted as a quintessentially American author–the first-person narrative with a mandatory, almost ruthless sense of irony has become a staple of American fiction.  Highly successful novels ranging from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections have experimented with it. In fact, I suspect that by now literary agents and critics have come to expect it from contemporary fiction. It’s difficult to compete with Nabokov in his capacity to reinvent the English language or in his use of irony and wit to render endearing and engaging even the ugliest human beings.

I think, however, that Marisha Pessl manages to do it in her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her book was met by critics with resounding praise and made it to the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006. One of the main attractions may have been that Pessl was only 28 years old when she first published her novel. Although overtly repudiating Romantic clichés, the literary and artistic milieux still covertly fetishize the residues of what used to be called, during the nineteenth century, “artistic genius.” “It’s always refreshing to find [a writer] who takes such joy in the magical tricks words can perform,” declares the Los Angeles Times. “This blockbuster debut, over five hundred pages chock-full of literary and pop cultural references and illustrations by Pessl herself, demands attention,” seconds People magazine.

What makes this novel stand out are not the traditional elements that help other contemporary novels sell well: plot and characterization. Action-packed novels like The DaVinci Code sell well largely due to their suspenseful plot. Literary fiction that sells well and gets great reviews tends to have compelling, “realistic” characterizations such as we find, say, in Wally Lamb’s novels (particularly in I know this much is true, a psychological tour-de-force of mainstream, character-driven fiction). Although Special Topics‘ plot becomes increasingly tangled and implausible as the novel progresses and its main characters are at times farcical, thanks to its style, I believe that Pessl’s first novel nonetheless stands on a par with some of the best contemporary American novels. In Special Topics, like in Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary and Nabokov’s Lolita, the style steals the show. Not since Nabokov have I read an author so adept at verbal gymnastics that make you experience the power of language, with unexpected freshness. Nor have I read a narrative able to sustain for over 500 pages an irony and wit that never become old or tired. “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink,” writes Jonathan Franzen. In great fiction, style isn’t just surface, it’s also depth. The style permeates the main characters, who without it might seem somewhat stereotyped: the timid yet perceptive, nerdy young narrator; her narcissistic, academic father with a scathing sense of irony towards everyone but himself; the circle of bizarre friends with sociopathic tendencies; the charismatic teacher who commands their attention like a cult figure. Each of these characterizations shines through with vitality and depth due to the freshness and inventiveness of Pessl’s narrative style and her tireless wit, which makes her first novel a book you’ll enjoy reading again and again.

Claudia Moscovici,


September 17, 2010 Posted by | Black and Blue, book review, book review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Eastern Europe, fiction, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, Kant, literary criticism, literature, Rousseau | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Madame de Staël: The Passionate Philosophe and Salonnière

Novelist, philosophical essayist, political theorist, literary critic, salonnière and exile, Germaine de Staël represents the last éclat of the Enlightenment encyclopedic spirit, its faith in human progress and rationality, its democratic fervor, its vibrant cosmopolitanism. At the same time, arguably, there’s hardly a more astute critic of Enlightenment ideals, revolutionary politics, and philosophical and literary currents than Mme de Staël. Written during one of her numerous exiles from France, De l’Allemagne (1807, Flammarion, 1968) embodies both the spirit of the Enlightenment and its critique. Describing the aesthetic and philosophical movements in Germany in part to introduce German culture to France, in part to criticize French culture from an external position, this text offers a perceptive and erudite critique of the French Enlightenment. Mme de Staël questions the moral relativism implied by materialist theories, the political excesses and corruption associated with the Revolution and the Napoleonic empire as well as the frivolity of mores and aesthetic traditions compared to what she considered to be the seriousness of German art and philosophy.

The chapters devoted to an analysis of German philosophy, particularly those discussing the work of Immanuel Kant, masterfully condense Staël’s ambivalent attitude towards the French Enlightenment. I will analyze here Staël’s epistemological vision of Romanticism, which she presents as a desirable alternative to Enlightenment thought and literature. This vision centers around intellectual curiosity and passion, or what she calls “enthusiasm.” While rationalism and classicism had assumed that knowledge is acquired through rational and calm contemplation, Staël wants to show us that without energy, passion and unbridled curiosity we would lack the interest to pursue any field of inquiry.

To make knowledge Romantic, Staël first feminizes it. However, although the concept of femininity will inform the value she attributes to passion and particularly to her key concept of “l’enthousiasme,” Staël’s model of femininity does not resemble the notion of the eternal feminine that will inspire the work of future Romantic writers. Her understanding of femininity is part and parcel of her cultural anthropology of European societies. She places gender on a par with other aspects of culture, including literature, art and politics. If the notion of woman is not fixed, however, then why take femininity as a privileged point of departure for examining how we come to acquire Romantic knowledge? Staël answers this question in a characteristically historical manner:

“Nature and society habituate women to suffering, and we never knew, before our times, that they’re worth, in general, more than men. In a period when the universal evil is selfishness, men, which reap all the advantages, should have less generosity, less sensibility than women; they (women) only care about life by a feeling that carries them: their personality is always for two, while that of men has only oneself for its goal.” (V 1, ch 3, p 64, “Les Femmes,” De L’Allemagne, my translation).

She goes on to explain that the division of spheres accentuated by the French Revolution, which relegated men perhaps more than ever to the public sphere and women to the family, was achieved in part, as Rousseau had suggested, by means of the inculcation of gender-specific values. While preparation for public service, ambition and a life of providing for the family encouraged men to be independent and even selfish, women’s private roles as wives and mothers developed sensibility, generosity and altruistic sentiments. Staël’s vision of sexual difference, however similar it may appear to be to Rousseau’s, contributes to the creation of different values. It’s already obvious that she does not think as highly as her predecessor of the values inculcated into men by their participation in the public sphere.

Furthermore, she puts feminine values to a different and more imaginative cultural use than Rousseau. In Emile and arguably even in the more complex La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau circumscribed women’s value to the family and gave it a secondary importance to that of men. He praised women’s sensibility and sympathy, but mostly for their positive influence upon husbands and children. Staël wishes to show that these values can have a more direct impact upon society and culture. In women, she maintains,

“The most beautiful of virtues, devotion, is their joy and their destiny; no happiness can exist for them except from the reflection of the prosperity of another; finally, living outside oneself, be it for ideas, for sentiments, or above all for virtues, gives the soul a habitual feeling of elevation.” (V 1, ch 3, p 64, “Les Femmes”).

To ascribe to women direct as opposed to derivative worth, Mme de Staël first links women’s altruistic functions to human virtue in general, suggesting that both men and women should be motivated by sympathy and sensibility. She then describes this lack of selfishness not only in terms of its social utility, but in a more abstract manner, as “a virtue that elevates the soul” (64). She thus gives a specific vision of feminine ethics a greater, transcendental, spiritual and artistic force. Mme de Staël’s next move is to correlate women and passion to Germany. If Germany will be, not surprisingly given the title, the main subject of discussion in De L’Allemagne, it’s because she finds in the mores and the emerging Romanticism of this nation the elevation of spirit that she associates with enthusiasm and passion. In the chapter “De l’influence de l’esprit de chevalerie”, she claims:

“Love is a much more serious passion in Germany than in France. Poetry, the arts, even philosophy and religion made of this sentiment an earthly cult that endows life with a noble charm. There never have been in this country, like in France, licentious writings that circulate in all the social classes and destroy feeling in the aristocracy and morality in the people.” (Ch 4, 72-3)

Mme de Staël uses German Romanticism and its selective return to medieval times as a lens to critique the culture of eighteenth-century France. She criticizes both literature and science: more specifically, both the French tradition of the libertine novel, which had gained popularity during the previous century and the materialist and sensationist traditions in philosophy and natural science. In fact, she even assumes a relation between libertine literature and what she considers to be such flawed theories of knowledge.

The connection, she maintains, lies in their similar moral implications. Assuming, along with the materialist and sensationist philosophes, that life is nothing more than a collection of sensations and experiences leads to an ethics of hedonism (or seeking a life of pleasure) and, relatedly, of egoism (or having one’s personal satisfaction determine the purpose of human life in general). Such an ethics, Staël further argues, is reflected in French politics and society as well as in the cultural tradition of libertine literature popularized by Crébillon fils, Marivaux and even Diderot. Because she assumes philosophical attitudes to be at the root of corrupt lifestyles and literature, it is primarily philosophy that she attacks, devoting to this subject part of the first volume and most of the second volume of De L’Allemagne.

Staël explains why philosophy, and epistemology in particular, forms the focal point of her critique of culture in the chapter descriptively entitled “On the lightness introduced by a certain type of philosophy”:

“The philosophical system adopted in a country has a great influence on the tendencies of thought: it’s the universal mold in which all thoughts are thrown; even those that don’t study this system conform without knowing it to the general disposition it inspires.” (Vol 2, Ch 4, 113)

It would be tempting but misleading to suggest that Mme de Staël adopts an idealist point of view, meaning one which regards reality as made up of ideas or concepts, everything else being either a product of thought or an illusion. She does, indeed, suggest that ideas permeate all aspects of material reality, including political, economic and social practices. However, in her view, the influence of ideas upon society is not direct. Staël’s cultural anthropology could be seen as a precursor of the theories of contemporary critics such as Habermas and Bourdieu. She believes that philosophical thought introduces in culture a common currency of assumptions or ideas, which Habermas would later call “the lifeworld” and Bourdieu “dispositions”, some of which become widespread and second-nature.

Such is the case with the legacy of materialism and sensationism, which, as noted, Mme de Staël holds responsible for spreading the dangerous assumption that life is reducible to sensations. Exploring the implications of such a view, she observes:

” The past hundred years we saw originate and grow in Europe a kind of mocking skepticism whose foundation is metaphysical; that attributes our ideas to our sensations. The first principle of this philosophy is not to believe anything that can’t be proven as a fact or calculation; to this principle we join the disdain for what we call exalted feelings and the attachment to material pleasures. These three points of this doctrine include all kinds of irony that can be applied to religion, sensibility and morality.” (Vol 2, Ch 4, p 113)

Interestingly, Staël groups together as skeptical both empiricism and rationalism, meaning the theories of knowledge that rely upon either physical evidence or rational proof in their conception of reality. Such theories, she claims, similarly neglect the role played by intuition, curiosity, feeling and imagination in how we come to know the world. She goes so far as to charge that they also encourage immorality, asserting that “Dogmatic disbelief, which is to say that which places in doubt all that which can’t be proved by our sensations, is the source of the great irony of man towards himself: all moral degradation stems from that” (117).

Although Mme de Staël’s model of how ideas influence a culture is too complex to attribute responsibility to specific philosophers—since she accounts for the diffusion, reduction, distortion and transformation of philosophical currents and concepts as they become disseminated in a given culture—it is nonetheless worth examining the basis of her critique. In her praise of the German intellectual tradition as a refreshing counterpoint to French currents of thought, Mme de Staël’s main charges against the intellectual and scientific currents in her own society are: 1) that the understanding of reality as primarily based on sensation is reductive and ignores curiosity, sentiment, imagination and feeling; 2) that such an epistemology leads to a coarse scepticism towards aspects of life that are not rationally provable or empirically observable, and 3) that such scepticism also encourages the selfish pursuit of personal fulfillment and leads to the corruption of moral values that are other-regarding and sympathetic. (181) To assess how this chain of critiques is connected and its plausibility, we need to examine briefly the intellectual origins of these views in the three Enlightenment traditions she alludes to: namely, the umbrella method of empiricism and the philosophical currents of sensationism and materialism.

The empirical method claims that all knowledge of matters of fact, as distinct from that of purely logical relations between concepts, is based on experience. Even staunch empiricists such as John Locke, who is famous for his claim that we are born blank slates with no innate knowledge, never denied the existence of intuitive rational faculties that help us make sense of the sensory world. What empiricism denies is not so much rationalism, but idealism, or the theory that human beings are born with ideas, concepts and other forms of knowledge that have little or nothing to do with experience and that constitute true reality. Empiricism is essentially a theory of knowledge, and as such not directly connected to a moral worldview.

Likewise, this theory does not offer an explanation of the role of faculties other than the senses, such as emotions, intuitions, or instincts. Mme de Staël is therefore antagonistic not so much to empiricism—in fact, she expresses great admiration for Hume and Buffon–but to some of its possible implications, particularly those drawn by some of the French materialist and sensationist philosophers. Since her critique has to do with the link between materialist philosophy, ethics, and sensibility, let’s examine briefly this connection.

I will begin with the sensationists because they have a clear representative theorist—Condillac—who, in my estimation, gets sensationism off the hook. In his principal works, Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746) and Traité des sensations (1754), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, a great admirer of Locke, wishes to prove that we learn about the nature of reality primarily through sensory impressions. Sensationism therefore is empirical in method. Along with empiricism, it does not deny the role of other faculties (such as reasoning) to draw connections among sensations, compare and contrast them and arrive at plausible conclusions about them. Likewise, sensationism does not use its empiricist assumptions to deny the existence of forces that cannot be explained by means of sensory impressions (such as faith) and, in fact, unlike most of the other philosophes, Condillac was religious.

In addition, sensationism is related to a concept that Mme de Staël herself will use as the basis of her ethics: the notion of sensibilité. Sensibility links sensation and emotion. It signifies three interrelated phenomena: first, a susceptibility to physical and moral impressions; second, the predominance of emotions in determining human behavior and third, a cultural or intellectual current that values emotions and finds them morally and socially significant, as is the case in the writings of the Romantics. Condillac’s sensationism has close ties to the way in which I have just described sensibility. By way of contrast, Condillac’s friends, particularly Helvétius and d’Holbach, carry the implications of his theory to materialist conclusions that conflict more directly with Mme de Staël’s Romantic notions of enthusiasm and sensibility. Let’s see how.

Materialism is essentially a theory of being rather than one of knowledge. It is highly compatible with empiricist epistemology because it posits that whatever exists is either matter or dependent on matter for its existence. Mme de Staël’s main target is Helvétius, who relies upon Condillac’s sensationist assumptions to argue what his precursor did not: namely, that physical sensations can explain all aspects of human knowledge and behavior. In De l’Homme (1773) and De L’Esprit, Hélvetius maintains: “Pleasure and pain sowed the seeds for self-love in all hearts, whose development gave birth to passions, from which are derived our vices and virtues” (De l’Esprit, II, 24). By deriving an egoist moral philosophy from the nature of our sensations and claiming that our behavior can be explained in terms of the pursuit of pleasurable sensations and the avoidance of painful ones—much like Thomas Hobbes did in Leviathan–the materialists endow sensationist ontology and the empirical method with dubious moral implications.

Furthermore, while, as we have seen, Condillac’s sensationism did not necessarily clash with religious beliefs, Baron D’Holbach explicitly severs the tie between materialist philosophy and religion. In Système de la nature ou des lois du monde physique et du monde moral (1770), d’Holbach explores not only the nature of our human-centered reality, as did Condillac, but also that of the universe. He describes the universe as an enormous determined mechanism composed of matter and ruled by the laws of causality, whereby “Its matter is eternal and necessary, but its combinations and its forms are passing and contingent, and man is he anything but complex matter whose form changes every moment?” (Système de la nature, I, 6) In a universe governed by the laws of nature as opposed to the will of divinity, human beings are left on their own to create moral rules. The morality that makes most sense, d’Holbach claims similarly to Hobbes, is one motivated by social utility, which he calls, “the base of all systems, opinions and actions of mankind.” Furthermore, in the name of social utility and given his materialist explanation of the universe, d’Holbach systematically criticizes religion in several pamphlets, including Le Christianisme dévoilé (1756), La Contagion sacrée (1768), L’Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ (1770) and Le Bon Sens (1772). He presents religion as a form of superstition born out of a combination of ignorance about how the universe actually works and the desire of priests and tyrants to impose authority upon the people.

As Mme de Staël cannot find support for her moral and epistemological beliefs in these French currents of thought, she seeks it in the German tradition, particularly in the writing of Immanuel Kant. Furthermore, believing that explanations of what we know about the world have direct bearing upon our moral views, she turns primarily to Kant’s epistemology rather than to his duty-based moral philosophy, which she considers too severe and constraining. More specifically, Mme de Staël finds in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason a rare and valuable alternative to both rationalism and empiricism:

 At the time when The Critique of Pure Reason was published there were two systems on human understanding among our thinkers; one, by Locke, attributed all our ideas to our sensations; the other, by Descartes and Leibnitz, demonstrated the spirituality and activity of the soul, free will, in sum, all the idealist doctrine; but these two philosophers based their doctrines on purely speculative proofs. (128)

 As we have seen, Staël considered both rationalism and empiricism fundamentally dissatisfying because of their apparent disregard for spirituality and emotion. In Kant’s transcendental idealism, on the other hand, she identifies the richness of subjective imagination intermingled with the ambition of the human quest for objective truth. Kant’s epistemology represents that liminal space between two worlds–one contingent, intuitive and personal; the other transcendental, verifiable and objective–that she will seek in all domains. To understand better the appeal of Kantian theory of knowledge for Mme de Stael’s own thought, let us briefly review some of its central features.

Written in the midst of the Enlightenment debate between objectivist rationalism and empiricist scepticism, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) attempts to offer a solution to the problem of how humans can verify the truth-certainty of their empirical and analytical knowledge. Kant wants to avoid the difficulties inherent in both objectivism and subjectivism, the dominant philosophical currents of his time. On the one hand, Kant rejects René Descartes’ and G. W. Leibnitz’s proposition that humans can acquire true knowledge of the universe by utilizing their rational faculties. He finds such rationalism not only presumptuous, but also unsubstantiated. On the other hand, Kant also rejects George Berkeley’s idealism and David Hume’s empiricist skepticism, both of which (differently) undermine the possibility of truth. While Berkeley suggests that reality consists of our subjective ideas of objects rather than of things-in-themselves, Hume questions the foundation of human knowledge by casting doubt upon causal reasoning. Attempting to overcome the impasse between objectivism and subjectivism, Kant addresses the following questions: What is the nature of human knowledge? How can humans know that what we perceive or think is true? If we cannot be certain of our knowledge, does it follow that we must consider all knowledge as equal in validity or even reject the possibility of truth?

Kant focuses upon the crucial question of whether human faculties produce a shared reality –as argued by idealists–or, on the contrary, whether, as empiricists claim, the regularity of the laws of nature makes possible shared and orderly perceptions. The author responds to this question in a surprising and new way. He suggests that knowledge is provided by “the categories” of our minds that translate the external reality into comprehensible and shared human perception. Rejecting both Leibnitz’s rationalist objectivism and Hume’s skepticist subjectivism, Kant maintains that “A middle course may be proposed between the two above mentioned, namely, that the categories are neither self-thought first principles a priori of our knowledge nor derived from experience, but subjective dispositions of thought, implanted in us from the first moment of our existence, and so ordered by our Creator that their employment is in complete harmony with the laws of nature with which experience proceeds–a kind of preformation-system of pure reason” (Critique, 174-5).

Although, as Mme de Staël observes, Kant was provoked by Leibnitz’s rationalist objectivism, he was much more compelled by Hume’s empiricist scepticism, which questioned the basis of the causal relations we draw in our scientific theories as well as in everyday life. When the sun rises every day, Hume stated in his famous example, we conclude that its movements are motivated by an unchanging law of nature. But couldn’t it be possible that we make such inferences only out of the habit of seeing the sun rise and set every day, and that in fact there is no law of nature causing this physical pattern of behavior? If human beings cannot be certain that the reality they perceive is true and unchanging, however, then what is left of human knowledge?

Hume’s challenge to objectivism motivates Kant to create a new epistemology that mediates between subjectivism and objectivism. The essential question for epistemology, Kant maintains, is how can knowledge be both only anthropocentric–or filtered by a human perspective and constrained by its limitations–and at the same time objectively true. On the one hand, Kant agrees with Hume that sensory perception may not give us true knowledge of the laws of nature. On the other hand, he also agrees with Leibnitz that the laws of nature are universal and cannot change from day to day. Knowledge is transcendental, Kant states, because it depends upon our apperception of things-in-themselves, which he calls “noumena.” At the same time, knowledge is idealist because the external world is (in part) a product of reason.

Kant integrates Hume’s skeptical subjectivism into his theory by accepting the assumption that humans cannot be certain of the accuracy of their empirical observations and of the constancy of the laws of nature. He rejects, however, the skepticist conclusion that humans have no access to true knowledge of the world. Simultaneously, Kant incorporates aspects of rationalist objectivism by arguing that we can be certain of the accuracy and regularity of human conceptions of the world. He maintains, however, that human faculties, rather than the laws of nature, determine the regularity of our experience. Ordered sensory impressions “are not borrowed from experience; on the contrary, they have to confer upon appearances their conformity to law, and so to make experience possible” (147). Consequently, Kant concludes, the subjective conceptions of the world provided by the categories make possible what we call objective knowledge; while conversely, our so-called objective knowledge may be nothing more than inference based on custom or habit, as Hume had claimed.

Mme de Staël sees the epistemological merit of uniting subjectivism and objectivism, explaining, “We call, in German philosophy, subjective ideas those that are given by the nature of our intelligence and its faculties, and objective ideas all those that are excited by sensations.” (132) However, rather than being primarily interested in Kant’s theory of knowledge, she identifies instead its implications in other domains, linking it to her own model of passion based upon enthusiasm and sentiment:

Far from rejecting experience, Kant considers the work of life as nothing else but the action of our innate faculties on the knowledge that comes from without. He believes that experience would be nothing but a chaos without the laws of understanding but that the laws of understanding would have for their object nothing if it were not for the elements given by experience. It follows that beyond its limits metaphysics has nothing to teach us and that it’s to sentiment that we owe the intuition and the conviction of everything beyond the visible world. (132-3)

In explaining Kant’s notion of the categories in terms of affective sensibilities, Staël’s interpretation may not be altogether philosophically faithful, but it is certainly creative. She endows the categories—namely, the complex intuitions which enable us to endow the chaotic impressions we receive from the sensory world with an order and meaning that may bring us closer to truth—with quite another kind of significance and use. What appeals to her most in the notion of the categories is that it is neither rational, nor based on experience, but like affect or sentiment, falls within the domain of the intuitive. It is the very mystifying ambiguity of the categories—which Kantian scholars continue to debate—that, in Staël’s estimation, renders Kantian epistemology touchingly close to both affect and spirituality. For a faculty to bring us closer to the spiritual, however, it does not suffice that it be intuitive. Mathematical axioms are intuitive as is, for instance, the rational process that leads to the demonstration of proofs. Mme Staël, however, has in mind a specific kind of intuition:

Kant places on two parallel lines the arguments for and against man’s liberty; the immortality of the soul; the fleeting or eternal nature of the world; and it’s to sentiment that he appeals to tip the balance, since metaphysical proofs seem to him to be equal on both sides. (133)

If Kant’s thought is, like Staël’s, situated between two worlds, it’s because his theory mediates between certainty and doubt; between what can be known and what remains a mystery. The physical world of phenomena may or may not be as our faculties, particularly our intuitive categories, permit us to understand it. We may or may not have access to the absolute truth of the noumenal world. Kantian philosophy expresses a monumental effort to discover a world of truth and meaning which may be, after all, inaccessible to human beings.

Staël situates Kant’s theory of knowledge in the context of philosophical models that resonate (however distantly) with her own thought, most notably Aristotle and Descartes. From Aristotle, she borrows and transforms the notion of “eudaimonia,” literally meaning the good demons, which refers to leading a good life through the exercise of moderation and civic virtue. In her discussion of enthusiasm and passion, she also may be alluding to Descartes’ notion of “admiration”—or sense of wonder—as elaborated in Les Passions de L’Ame. Wonder describes the complete respect and awe we feel when initially confronted with other human beings’ otherness or difference. Though influenced by these philosophical concepts, however, Staël combines and transforms them to present her own understanding of the value and richness of life in the notion of enthusiasm. In the last two chapters of De l’Allemagne, entitled “De l’enthousiasme,” the author is no longer a cultural critic, but becomes a philosopher –or at least French-style philosophe–in her own right.

By enthusiasm Mme de Staël means much more than excitement. Enthusiasm refers to a passion for all of the aesthetic, moral and epistemological elements that we find valuable in society and culture. Enthusiasm is akin to passion. To promote this broad understanding of passion, Mme de Staël feels compelled to change its former negative connotations:

“Many people are forewarned against enthusiasm; they mistake it with fanaticism, and it’s a big mistake. Fanaticism is an exclusive passion based upon one opinion; enthusiasm connects to the universal harmony; it’s love of beauty, the elevation of the soul, the pleasure of devotion, all united in the same sentiment that has grandeur and calm. The meaning of this word for the Greeks provides the most noble definition: enthusiasm [eudaimonia] signifies God is in us. In effect, when man’s existence is expansive it has something of the divine.” (301)

Rather than being arbitrary, excessive and fanatical, enthusiasm is the faculty that enables us to appreciate everything else in life. It represents the sense of wonder which leads us to love art; the sense of surprise and respect we experience for other human beings; the spiritual fervor we feel when we sense the limits of our humanity and the grandeur of the universe. It is, as she says following Aristotle, perceiving the good demons within us—eudaimonia–or living with the divine.

Staël reassures critics who may believe that enthusiasm is characterized by the capriciousness, uncontrollable force and unreliability that we tend to attribute to other emotions—such as jealousy, fear, hatred, envy and even love–that this passion is durable, constant and calm, thus offering a reliable basis for ethics and spirituality:

“This disposition of the soul has force despite its softness, and those who feel it know to how to manifest a noble constancy. The storms of passion calm down, the pleasures of egoism diminish, enthusiasm alone is unchanging; the soul itself would be extinguished in physical existence if nothing proud and animated would tear it way from the vulgarity of egoism: this moral dignity…is the most admirable gift of existence: it’s for it that in the throes of most bitter pain life was still worth living, as it would be beautiful to die.” (303-304)

Enthusiasm, or the spiritual and affective appreciation of all that is valuable in life, is therefore not simply a strong form of love, although it certainly can lead to experiencing strong and lasting feelings for other human beings. Quite understandably, contemporary feminist philosophers are drawn to concepts analogous to enthusiasm to describe respect and love. In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Luce Irigaray had linked a similar notion, the Cartesian sense of wonder, or what Descartes calls in Les Passions de l’Ame (1649) l’etonnement and l’admiration, to the possibility of a richer contact between men and women. In turn, Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought relies upon the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia to trace the elements of love: the force of mutual respect and attraction, but also, more fundamentally, regarding other human beings both as ends—meaning important in their own right and living for their own purposes–and as indispensably important to us.

Aristotelian ethics, Kantian epistemology, Cartesian admiration and Romantic enthusiasm have little else in common except for this: they offer ways of helping us transcend the limits of our materiality, or at the very least induce us to seek a higher meaning in our material existence. Situated in the middle of distinct philosophical traditions, suspended between past and present–between materialism and the search for the transcendental; between two cultures; and between Enlightenment ideas and their Romantic critiques–Mme de Staël’s enthusiasm may be, in her own words, “of all our sentiments it’s the one that gives most happiness, the only one that truly fulfills, the only one that knows how to make us cope with human destiny, wherever chance may place us.” (309)

Claudia Moscovici, Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, De L'Allemagne, Germaine de Stael, Hume, Kant, literary criticism, literature, Madame de Stael, philosophes, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, salon | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Madame de Staël: The Passionate Philosophe and Salonnière