Luis Chitarroni on Benjamin Constant

In the traces of crematory ash that good confessional literature leaves for harried bibliographers, it can be difficult to find anything that is still flammable: the fire has been extinguished, yet evidence that something once burned there remains. One lifetime was enough for Constant, and the ashes of it can be found scattered throughout Adolphe, Cécile, Le Cahier Rouge, and his other writings—not as convincingly as his absentminded ego would have led him to believe, but with a valiant rashness so amusing, so all-knowing, and so startling that the posthumous courage of children from another century may still find suitable artifice and ingenuity in what remains. This man, now streaked with obscurity, was certain he was destined to become more than a mere annotation beside his name—this despite the mnemonic rules of literary history, and the fact that his surname was a constant source of amusement for prologue writers and commentators alike, something he underscored (he omitted de Rebecque) in order to emphasize the importance of the Romantic era by using a new lens. B. Constant’s initial dream might have been enshrouded by a heraldic mist had it not been for the elusive “ad” verb that life silenced (to the relief of our eternal inner concern)—finding, in the end, a convenient reason for leaving an inscription beside his name: his contemporaries, Byron, Pushkin, Heine, Chateaubriand—all of whom issued precise orders to an otherworldly century that insisted on mistaking reverberating ruins for a tomblike silence.

Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne, son of Juste Constant de Rebecque, a Swiss officer serving in Holland, and Henriette de Chandieu. His mother died when he was just an infant, and a young woman named Marianne Magnim took charge of his orphanhood without an “f.” She went on to conquer his father’s protestant widowhood as well. However, the greatest influence on his childhood (that is, his “direct modifier”) seems to have been the vigilant Stroelin, an industrious German tutor who taught him Greek with the amused severity of one who knows himself to be involved, for a meager salary, in germinating the seeds of History. Stroelin’s method, according to Constant’s description in Le Cahier Rouge, was ruthless and efficient; Benjamin learned the lessons his tutor presented, all the while believing he had invented the language himself. This distortion of reality would unleash many others—for instance, the idea that Constant worked contentedly—pretending that inspiration was the instrument of a “laziness” that caused stuttering stupors to ensue, leading him to cut his sentences short and condemning his speech patterns to an appropriately unsteady speed. Constant is, along with von Kleist, the hero of a dizzying script, the unattainable prey of a gasping sound that results in a number of sudden departures. 

Author of Adolphe, a book published in London in 1816, Constant seemed to acquire the confident profile of a physiognotrace portrait, just as the equestrian Napoleon of any pompier painting advances toward the silhouette of its own contour. Of Napoleon, Constant wrote: “He is Attila, he is Genghis Khan—yet more horrible and loathsome than either since he has access to all the resources of civilization!” And: “I do not have to go, you miserable fugitive traitor who drags me from one authority to another, disguising wickedness with sophisms and mumbling profanities to save your shameful life.” After meeting Napoleon in person, however, Constant’s imaginary Greece became more hospitable toward sophists: “I have met him, and he has received me very well, putting me in charge of a constitutional project. I must agree that he is an amazing man. What is to come is grim. May God’s will be done!”

If, as Barthes suggests, only the feeble dwell in language, then Constant’s at times tiresome weakness never ceases being of significance to our half-hearted interest in his life, as viewed through our attention span of a child. Adolphe, Cécile, and Le Cahier Rouge, the jewels left for us to evaluate or undervalue, in unknown ways make him the Benjamin Constant we know. By then old, though certainly he aged prematurely, Constant died on December 8, 1830, and his memorial service was declared a national funeral. Among his relatives, there must surely have been someone who murmured: “That bastard Constant.” He practiced, with a prophetic strictness, all the rituals of the nineteenth Century: He fought duels and was both a cuckold and a cuckold-maker; he became a translator (translating Schiller’s Wallenstein) and was an impressive conspirator and benevolent source of advice. Minna von Cramm, Mme Johannot, Mme De Charrière, and Mme De Staël—the women he loved, the women he no longer loved, the women who loved him—also witnessed the precocious discord captured in his writings as he mastered the art of unwittingly imitating himself. The forefathers must have influenced him, yet he knew how to crack the wall of condemnation in order to smile futilely at his own shadow. After all, there was something charming about putting oneself on display before those belated resentments that have no resignation because Justice will someday create a pact with Hope. As an antidote against the venomous vehemence of those who worshipped his immutable personality, Constant invented himself without ever knowing who he was. He turned himself into a language of codes so arbitrary that incidences of criticism against him amount to an almost excessive use of rhetoric. Yet his inconsistencies could never be considered opportunistic; they are nothing more than the antithesis of Fouché—that psychology puppet discovered by Balzac and Zweig.

In our current era of self-righteous amnesia, it seems somewhat pointless to suggest that Constant has been unjustly overlooked. It is still worth exploring the edges of these remote ideas, however, so distant from the civic bribery behind their importance; to admire in Cécile, for instance, the freedom Constant concedes in order to imagine himself as the faraway reader who, in turn, refuses on principle to admire him. “Therefore, I settled on the idea that what is distant and uncertain may also be something that does not come to pass at all,” he once wrote, making us parties to his crestfallen joy.

translated from the Spanish by Allison A. deFreese