Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, first published in 1816, went through three editions before achieving its final form and remains one of the classics of Europe’s literature, and in certain ways presages the fiction of Gustave Flaubert. From Wikipedia:
It tells the story of an alienated young man, Adolphe, who falls in love with an older woman, Ellénore, the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***. Their illicit relationship serves to isolate them from their friends and from society at large. The book eschews all conventional descriptions of exteriors for the sake of detailed accounts of feelings and states of mind.
Adolphe is shot through with prose that shimmers over the intersections of psychological fiction and social philosophy; this passage, with its allusions to Rousseau’s ideas of the alienating nature of society and the innate purity of “natural man,” reminds one that today it is chiefly as a political philosopher that Constant is remembered, if at all:
Woe to the man who in the first moments of a love-affair does not believe that it will last forever! Woe to him who even in the arms of the mistress who has just yielded to him maintains an awareness of the trouble to come and foresees that he may later tear himself away! At the moment when she abandons herself to her passion every woman is in a sense touching and sublime. It is not sensual pleasure, not nature, nor our bodies which corrupt us; it is the scheming to which life in society accustoms us and the reflections to which experience gives rise. I loved and respected Ellenore a thousand times more after she had given herself to me. I walked proudly among men and looked upon them with the eye of a conqueror. The very air I breathed was a pure delight. I eagerly went out to meet nature and thank her for the immense and unhoped-for gift she had deigned to bestow on me.
— Benjamin Constant, Adolphe
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