According to Albert Sorel, Napoleon read Maistre’s Considerations sur France in 1797, when he was in Milan. At this point, Napoleon had already planned his coup against the Directory. As Sorel puts it, “a little book may have already revealed the secret his future.” Although Maistre was a violent anti-Bonapartist – he is probably the source for some of the more pointed remarks in War and Peace, for of course Maistre was serving as the King of Sardinia's ambassador in Moscow when Napoleon attacked Russia - Sorel sees a community of … superstition between Napoleon, the man who said “I depend on events, I wait for everything from their issue” and the writer who wrote, “The Revolution led men more than men led the Revolution”.
Sorel’s idea is that what struck Buonoparte in Milan was a metaphysic that Buonaparte was to embody all the way up to 1815:
“The war made the Republic live, the peace will make it die… The French always succeed in war under a firm government that has the spirit to despise them in praising them and in throwing them on the enemy like shells, all the while promising them epitaphs in the newspapers..” War, besides, is a divine right, it is sacred. ‘There is only violence in the universe.” “The true fruits of human nature, the great enterprises, the high conceptions, the male virtues, all depend on the state of war. All the great men… are born in the midst of political commotions … Blood is the food of that plant that we call genius.”
It is for the celebration of war and execution, for a universe of violence, or – as Maistre says in Evenings in St. Petersburg – a society of punishment, ever more punishment, that Maistre achieved a sort of louche fame. He was the satanic Catholic, at least if we through him through the eyes of Baudelaire, who made as much a cult of him as he did of Sade. And face it, Maistre is the strangest apologist Christianity ever had – the only apologist who tried, as much as he could, to squeeze the love out of the thing as a sort of Protestant heresy. Catholicism has spawned some very wacked defenders – Leon Bloy comes to mind. But Maistre was the first who put together the anti-modernist program of the Church with a notion that is surprisingly close to the Terror – rejecting the social contract for the bonds of a sacred, nation building violence, with the preferred instrument of that violence being a legitimate succession of kings. In place of a creation that is, ultimately, bound together by the force of affection, he put a world under the judgment of a God whose memory of the human crimes is segmented into the very way human societies are laid out. We suffer, we war, we execute because we were born to others who were also born, and somewhere along that line there is a crime which is humanly inexpiable. In that Christianity without love, birth becomes the one undeniable thing a person can be accused of. What can’t be denied is certain, and on certainty we can build a science – but this political science will not be like that of the ideologues of the revolution.
Sainte Beuve, in a famous causerie on Maistre, pointed out that, for all his extremism, Maistre was actually a moderate among the ancien regime exiles, and seemed fascinated by Buonoparte. He saw in Buonoparte what was fatally lacking in the Bourbons – “if the house of Bourbon is decisively proscribed, it is good that government consolidate itself in France… it is good that a new race begins a legitimate succession, this one or that one, it doesn’t matter. I like Bonaparte king more than simply conqueror.”
So, of course, Maistre is not Sade, who might have reversed that last sentence. While Maitre’s God works miracles of violence that one can only wonder at, Maistre retains, at the risk of contradiction, all the old Catholic pieties. This is what gives the Soirees such a strange tone – some of it is just boring and second hand homily, but just as you start to get sleepy Maistre will develop some point until it becomes a monstrosity.
Indeed, the whole thing starts off as a question of monsters. The first pages of the Soirees are weirdly reminiscent of the first pages of Heart of Darkness. Three men are on a sloop, the sun is going down, they are all breathing in the sea and the sunset, they are all men of position and gravity, and one of them chances to make a strange remark – except this remark does not become an extended anecdote, as in Heart of Darkness.
“As our sloop gained a distance from the shore, the song of the rowers and the confused noise of the city insensibly faded. The sun was setting on the horizon; brilliant clouds gave off a soft light, a gilded semi-day that is impossible to paint, and that I have never seen anywhere else. The light and the shadows seemed to mix and extend to form a transparent veil which then covered the countryside.”
Then one of the three men on the sloop expresses the following thought:
‘I wish I could see, on the barque we are standing on, one of those perverse men, born for the misfortune of society; one of those monsters who fatigue this very earth.
‘And what would you do, if you please, if you had him here,’ (his two friends spoke up at once. “I would ask him if this night appeared as beautiful to him as it does to us.”
Quickly the dialogue develops the theme of the happiness of the wicked and the misfortune of the good – but the Count, the man representing de Maistre, who dominates the chapter, turns this question into something exterior – that is, he unconsciously follows in the traces of the Enlightenment philosophes he deplored, and takes happiness to be the description of social arrangements rather than inner psychological states. Later, of course, another Russian in St. Petersburg, Doestoevsky, will question that move.
I’m not, of course, concerned with all of Maistre’s program – it is the happiness of monsters that truly does interest me. But I should say something about Maistre’s effect – I think this is as important as his ideas. That suave but frightful loosening of the bonds of decorum is the predecessor of Baudelaire’s famous shock aesthetic. The line of descent, here, goes through Baudelaire and Barby D’auberville to Leon Bloy, who sums up the aesthetic strategy pretty well when he reflects on his own pretty horrible book, Salvation from the Jews:
This book, conceived in the sense of the oracles of scription, had to go, under pain of nothingness, to the edge of the bottom of things. I thus had to adopt the method recommended by saint Thomas Aquinas, which consists of exhausting the objection, first, before concluding. Excellent method, of a great philosophical faithfulness, but which caused me to be misprisioned (me fit malvenir) by the same people that I was claiming to honor as no Christian has honored them, I believe, for nineteen hundred centuries. One only looked at my premises in neglecting to observe that their violence was calculated to give all its force to my conclusion.”