Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI: Of Literature Under Bonaparte. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVI: Of Literature Under Bonaparte. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of Literature Under Bonaparte.
This very police for which we have not terms contemptuous enough, terms which put a sufficient distance between an honest man and the creature who could enter into such a den, was entrusted by Bonaparte with the charge of directing the public mind in France. In fact, when there is no freedom of the press, and when the power of the police does not confine itself to matters of censorship, but dictates to a whole people the opinions which they are to entertain on politics, on religion, on morals, on books, and on individuals, into what a state must a nation fall which has no other nourishment for its reflections than that which despotic authority permits or prepares? We have therefore no reason to be surprised at the degradation of literature and literary criticism in France. There is certainly nowhere more talent or more quickness in attaining proficiency than among the French. We may see what astonishing progress they are constantly making in the sciences and in erudition, because those two paths have no connection with politics; whilst literature can now produce nothing great without liberty.1 The masterpieces of the age of Louis XIV will be adduced in opposition to us; but the slavery of the press was much less severe under that sovereign than under Bonaparte. Toward the end of the reign of Louis XIV, Fénélon and other reflecting men were already engaged in the discussion of questions essential to the interests of society. Poetical genius in every country exhausts itself periodically and revives only at certain intervals. But the art of prose composition, which is inseparable from thought, embraces necessarily the whole philosophical sphere of ideas; and when men of letters are doomed to wheel about in madrigals and idylls, the dizziness of flattery soon seizes them; and they can produce nothing that will pass beyond the suburbs of the capital and the boundaries of the present time.
The task imposed on writers under Bonaparte was singularly difficult. They were to combat with fury the liberal principles of the Revolution, but were to respect all the interests which depended on it; so that liberty was annihilated while the titles, estates, and offices of the revolutionaries were sacred. Bonaparte one day said, speaking of J. J. Rousseau, He was the cause of the Revolution. For my part, I have no reason to complain of him; for it was in the Revolution that I caught the throne. Such was the language which was to serve as a text for writers to sap incessantly constitutional laws and the everlasting rights on which they are founded, and yet exalt the despotic conqueror who had been produced by the storms of the Revolution, and had afterward calmed them. When religion was concerned, Bonaparte seriously declared in his proclamations that France should distrust the English because they were heretics; but when he wished to justify the persecutions which had been endured by the most venerable and the most moderate of the heads of the church, Pope Pius VII,2 he accused him of fanaticism. The watchword was to denounce as a partisan of anarchy whoever published any kind of philosophical opinion; but if a noble seemed to insinuate that the ancient princes were more skillful than the new in the dignity of courts, he was without fail marked out as a conspirator. In fine, it was necessary to reject all that was valuable in every system of opinions to make up the worst of human plagues, tyranny in a civilized country.
Some writers have endeavored to frame an abstract theory of despotism in order, if I may say so, to whitewash it anew, and so give it an air of philosophical novelty. Others, on behalf of the upstart men, have plunged into Machiavellianism, as if depth were to be found there; and have held up the power of the creatures of the Revolution in the light of a sufficient security against the return of the old governments, as if there were only interests in the world, and the career of the human species had no connection with virtue. All that remains of this trickery is a certain combination of phrases unsupported by any true idea, and yet duly constructed according to the rules of grammar, with verbs, nominatives, and accusatives. The paper suffers everything, said a man of wit. Doubtless it is the only sufferer, since men retain no remembrance of sophisms; and fortunately for the dignity of literature, no monument of this noble art can be raised on false bases. The accents of truth are essential to eloquence, just principles to reasoning, courage of soul to the impetuous excursions of genius; and nothing of this is to be found in writers who follow the direction of force, from whatever point of the compass it may blow.
The journals were filled with addresses to the Emperor, with the strolls of the Emperor, with those of the princes and princesses, with ceremonies and presentations at court. These journals, faithful to the spirit of servitude, found the means to be insipid at the very moment of the subversion of the world; and had it not been for the official bulletins,3 which came from time to time to inform us that the half of Europe was conquered, we might have believed that we were living under arbors of flowers and that we had nothing better to do than to count the steps of their Imperial Majesties and Highnesses, and to repeat the gracious words which they had condescended to let fall upon the head of their prostrate subjects. Was it thus that men of letters and magistrates capable of thought should have conducted themselves in the presence of posterity?
Some persons, however, tried to print books under the censorship of the police; what was the consequence? a persecution like that which forced me to fly by Moscow to seek an asylum in England.4 The bookseller Palm was shot in Germany for having refused to name the author of a pamphlet which he had printed.5 And, if more numerous examples of proscriptions cannot be quoted, the reason is that despotism was exerted so strongly that at last all submitted to it, as to those terrible laws of nature, disease and death. It was not merely the endless rigors to which you were exposed under so persevering a tyranny; but you could enjoy no literary glory in your own country when journals, as numerous as under a free government, and yet all following abjectly the same language, teased you with the witticisms which were prescribed to them. For my part I have furnished continual refrains to the French journalists for fifteen years—the melancholy of the North, the perfectibility of the human species, the muses of romance, the muses of Germany. The yoke of authority and the spirit of imitation were imposed upon literature as the official journal dictated the articles of faith in politics. The sagacious instinct of despotism made the agents of the literary police feel that originality in the manner of writing may conduct to independence of character; and that great care must be taken not to suffer English and German books to be introduced into Paris, if it is meant to check the French writers, while they observe the rules of taste, from keeping pace with the progress of the human mind in countries where civil troubles have not retarded its advancement.
Finally, of all the pains which the slavery of the press can inflict, the bitterest is to see what you most love or most respect insulted in the public papers without the possibility of procuring the insertion of a reply in the same gazettes, which are necessarily more popular than books. What cowardice to attack the grave when the friends of the deceased cannot take up their defense! What cowardice in these mediocre and unscrupulous writers, when backed by authority, to attack the living too, and to serve as a vanguard to all the proscriptions of which absolute power, when the least suspicion is suggested to it, is so prodigal! What a style is that which bears the seal of the police! When we read, by the side of this arrogance and meanness, the discourses of Englishmen or Americans, of public men, in short, who, in addressing other men, seek only to impress upon them their sincere conviction, we felt ourselves moved as if the voice of a friend had all at once reached the ear of a forsaken being who knew not where to find a fellow creature.
[1. ] On the connection between literature and politics, also see Madame de Staël, Politics, Literature, and National Character, 139–265.
[2. ] Pope Pius VII was arrested by Napoléon’s men in July 1809 after refusing to sign a new Concordat. He was able to return to the Vatican only in 1814.
[3. ] Bulletins of the Grand Army.
[4. ] The printed copies of On Germany were destroyed by the police in October 1810; the original manuscript survived and was sent to Vienna. The book finally appeared in London in 1813. For more information, see Ten Years of Exile, 101–10; also see Madame de Staël, ses amis, ses correspondants. Choix de lettres (1778–1817), 395–425.
[5. ] The reason was that the editor had distributed an anti-French tract entitled L’Allemagne dans sa profond humiliation.