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Made with Hugo and the Cocoa theme
© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

'The senses in 1816: the case of Constant'

Adolphe was first published in London and in Paris in May 1816. As the first mentions of the novel began to appear in the press, Constant despatched a disclaimer to the Morning Chronicle, denying that the work had any biographical basis. The statement is convoluted at best, inviting the reader to accept that so negative a judgement on the conduct of the protagonist as the work contains would make any autobiographical intent inconceivable. In hinting at the work’s troubling substance, this intervention seems calculated to prompt even more intense speculation. The notoriety of Adolphe is, I argue, closely connected to the place of the senses in its genesis and its plot. Thus, in one of the unpublished works related to Adolphe, speaking in a voice poised between his own and that of a fictional narrator, Constant acknowledges that they shape affective life more powerfully than any other force: ‘Mon cœur, mon imagination, et surtout mes sens ont besoin d\‘amour’. One issue to be explored is just how the senses can be linked to Constant’s exploration of the freedom of the moderns and the altered individualism which defines them. Constant’s claims, like those of contemporary writers whom I shall also mention (among them Goethe and Vigny), self-consciously point to a historical juncture: behind sweeping judgements concerning the historicity of the senses, there lies a sense of the sweeping impact of modern history per se. At the same time, Adolphe is significant not only because of the highly ambiguous moral outcome of its story: in dealing with this material, Constant must develop a narrative mode that deals with causes, moral and material, which are altogether novel, rather than merely with their effects. Balzac’s reception of Constant testifies to this as a defining feature of the literature of the moderns and, to chart its historical destiny, I shall briefly consider the further transformations of scandal and of the senses in two later works, one by Henry James and one by Duras, both of which explicitly rework Constant’s tale.

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