Benjamin Constant, one of France’s most important Napoleon-era political thinkers, died 180 years ago today. He is mostly remembered today, at least in the English-speaking world, for his novel, Adolphe, considered a French classic. His diaries were not published until more than 50 years after his death and caused a ‘great stir’ among writers of the day. Paul Bourget, for example, wrote of Constant revealing himself in his diary as a ‘passionate being with no hope’, a ‘lover without joy’.
Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1767, to descendants of Huguenots who had fled France in the early 16th century. His father was a Swiss officer in the Dutch service. Constant was educated by private tutors and then studied at universities in Erlangen, Oxford and Edinburgh. He was chamberlain to the Duke of Brunswick for several years, and married Baroness Chramm, a lady of the court, in 1787. But five years later, he abandoned his office and his wife in favour of the French Revolution and Anne Louise Germaine de Staël with whom he had an extraordinary relationship, both intellectual and passionate, for over a decade.
After the coup in 1799 that effectively made Napoleon ruler of France, Constant was nominated a member of the tribunate, but was expelled in 1802 and went into exile, mostly in Weimar and Geneva, where he continued to consort with de Staël, though the two split in 1806. Two years later, he secretly married Charlotte von Hardenberg. In the mid-1810s, Constant published an important work criticising the Napoleonic regime, De l’esprit de conquête et l’usurpation (On the spirit of conquest and on usurpation).
In 1816, shortly after his return to Paris, Constant published his only novel, Adolphe, now considered a French classic. It tells the story of an illicit relationship, one in which the lovers are isolated from friends and society. The novel is considered a barely disguised account of his relationship and break-up with de Staël - although this was denied by Constant. Thereafter, Constant was active in French politics, sitting in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower legislative house of the Restoration-era government. Said to have been one of its most eloquent orators, he was also a leader of a liberal group. In the 1820s, he published De la religion, a five-volume history of ancient religion. He died in Paris on 8 December 1830. There is a paucity of biographical information about Constant on the internet in English, but try a Google-translated version of Wikipedia’s French page, or of some pages at the Institut Benjamin Constant.
Constant certainly kept a diary, a part of which was first published in 1895 as Journal Intime. Renee Winegarten, a literary critic and author, who recently brought out Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant: A Dual Biography (published by Yale University Press) says of her sources: ‘Particularly invaluable is Benjamin’s private diary, which caused a great stir among leading writers when it was first published toward the end of the nineteenth century, for this is one of the most penetrating documents ever penned by a man who was fascinated by himself and his innermost being, and who noted down every passing thought and feeling, no matter how fleeting or contradictory it might be.’ Indeed, she refers to Constant’s diary throughout her book - a few pages of which can be viewed at Amazon.
There are few other references to Constant’s diary, unfortunately, anywhere on the internet. One short extract can be found here: ‘Goethe: Difficulty of all conversation with him. What a pity that he has been caught up in the mystic philosophy of Germany. He confessed to me that the basis of this philosophy was Spinozism. Great idea that the mystic followers of Schelling have of Spinoza, but why try to bring in religious ideas and what is worse, Catholicism? They say that Catholicism is more poetical. “I would rather have Catholicism do evil,” says Goethe, “than be prevented from using it to make my plays more interesting.” ’
And thanks to the New England Review one can read online an analysis by the French novelist and critic, Paul Bourget, of Adolphe and Journal Intime written in 1899.
‘Since the publication of Benjamin Constant’s Journal Intime and his Lettres à sa famille we have known that the magic of the novel resides first and foremost in its being the most unusual and the most courageous of self-portraits. He is at one and the same time so sensitive that he cannot bear his mistress’s suffering, so anxious that he cannot trust her love, so selfish that he cannot conceal from her his most transient moods, so lucid that he cannot overlook a single one of his personal failings. This simultaneously superior and maimed creature, in whom the most appalling indecisiveness combines with the most mature self-knowledge, and who seems to have retained of sensitivity all that tortures while losing everything that is appealing, this arrogant young man with no illusions, this passionate being with no hope, this lover without joy, is Constant himself, as his diary and letters reveal him. There is not a sentence in his book that does not reveal a secret wound in his soul, one of the most tormented of our time. He pushed the candor of his confession so far as to deny his Adolphe every excuse that circumstances afford our worst failings, and sought the explanation for his sorry hero’s actions solely in a character that is none other than his own.’