Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Stendhal on Love

The great French novelist Stendhal is mainly famous for the two novels that he wrote in the first half of the nineteenth century, the first called Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) and the second La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma). Both novels are famous not just for their vivid evocations and sharply ironic takes on the provincial life in post-Napoleonic France but also for their analysis of complex characters and their motivations. Stendhal is generally credited with bringing the modern-day psychological realism into the art of the novel. I have recently finished reading two of his books--The Red and the Black and a relatively lighter oddity called, simply, Love (De L'Amour). I will try to write something about The Red and the Black sometime later. For now, I will start with Love.

Before he published this book, Stendhal had already written a few travelogues about his journeys across Italy (a country which he loved) and England. It was during one of his stays in Italy that he fell in love with a woman called Methilde Dembowski. The love remained unrequited till the very end. The love affair, about which he spoke to no one, obsessed him unhappily and kept tormenting him for long and the book was actually an attempt to exorcise himself of the hopelessly painful passion by dissecting all its aspects in a thoroughly scientific manner. In fact, in the preface to the book he wrote:

Although it deals with love, this little book is not a novel, and above all it is not entertaining like a novel. It is simply an exact and scientific analysis of a brand of madness very rare in France.

And, as if to prove the scientific and impersonal credentials, he starts with a great show of classificatory, cataloguing spirit. He distinguishes between four types of love and seven stages of falling in love (more on these later). He, then, goes on to coin a new word "crystallization" which he defines as:

that operation of the mind which turns whatever presents itself into a discovery of new perfections in the object of love... Here is the reason that love is the most powerful of all passions. In the case of other passions, desire must come to an accommodation with cold reality; in love alone, reality is keen to model itself on desire

In one of his frequent and enlightening quips he says, 'Solitude is the breeding ground of crystallization.' There are many such delightful, quotable aphorisms scattered here and there in the book. Even then the style of the book overall is very dry, at least initially. But then we come to know that all is not what it seems and that the real life anecdotes that he tells, including some of the unhappy love affairs of his friends, are actually his imaginations and he is trying to conceal his true feelings behind the artifice of art. In fact in one of his footnotes he says:

I am trying extremely hard to be dry. My heart thinks it has so much to say, but I try to keep it quiet. I am continually beset by the fear that I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating the truth.

Although most of the psychological details of love that Stendhal brings out in his "analysis" are not very profound or completely original but surely no one before Stendhal and since Stendhal no one until Proust, has subjected it to such penetrating analysis without the loss of feeling, admitting the illusion while still under its spell (as the writers in the introduction say). And this is true of Stendhal's whole searching study of the various stages and subtle nuances in the obsession. The paralyzing effect of shyness: 'shyness is a proof of love'; the agonies of apprehension and self-consciousness; the difficulties of communication; the importance and at the same time the impossibility of being natural, of expressing one's true feelings at the right moment; and the way introspection kills candour; the successive phase of hope and jealousy, ecstasy and doubt; the increasingly disproportionate delight and despair caused by trifles: 'tout est signe en amour' (everything is a sign in love), even otherwise empty gestures take on new meanings in the mind of a person in love; and above all the first hints of intimacy and its concomitant pleasure. When he notes the heart's irrationality: 'we can never understand the whys and wherefores of our feelings', 'from the moment he falls in love even the wisest man no longer sees the anything as it really is' (suggesting in a footnote the physiological cause of this incipient madness). When he describes the blankness in which the lover's heart is sometimes becalmed (what Proust later called les intermittences du coeur); when he dwells on the power of music to evoke or translate the feelings of love (reminded me of the Vinteuil Sonata from the Novel, the love anthem of Swann and Odette)--music, which by giving precise form to elusive emotions, by expressing the inexpressible. As a reader we realize that these insights, however impersonal they may sound, are based on personal experience and that they are deeply felt and acutely noted without any hint of apparent self-pity, bitterness or romantic irony. Although perhaps in later years he did become bitter. The tone and the conclusion of The Red and the Black is extremely pessimistic and bitter. But more on that later.

The second part of the book, where he analyses the attitudes and inclinations of people of different nationalities and cultures towards love and passion, is not as successful as the first part. It seems dated and style is quite laboured. But there are enough aphorisms and jokes (mainly pointed towards his own country France) to keep the reader reasonably engrossed.

The book displays the two conflicting sides of Stendhal's nature: coolly analytical and deeply sensitive. He was of course much successful in fusing the two sides together in his novel than in this book, but that's understandable given the condition he himself was in, when he was writing this book. One of the key themes that interested Stendhal throughout his literary career was the pursuit of that abstraction called "Happiness" (The Red and the Black is dedicated to "the happy few"). And happiness is indeed the key word with Stendhal. As the authors who introduce the book say:

[H]e himself sought it [happiness] unremittingly: not mere pleasure or the satisfaction of desires, but a rapture accessible to natures of rare quality 'the ames sensibles', 'the happy few'; the delight that comes from intense feeling, lucid awareness, passion and energy; the happiness of reverie, of response to beauty, of the free imagination; and such happiness he found in loving, even without return.


anurag said...

My first encounter to Stendhal's writing is this insightful post. You should feel the same pleasure a teacher gets by introducing addition and substraction to a kid :)

Thanks for that.


Alok said...

I have already started thinking of another writer to introduce to you :)

Anonymous said...

How is The Red and The Black "extremely pessimistic and bitter"? Perhaps it was in his day, but to me, whom I'll for now mistake for a general "modern reader", it seemed just a little dark and brooding. But how is Stendhal more pessimistic than, say, Byron?

-Marshall Lentini

Anonymous said...

Shit, your post was two years ago. Ha.

Alok said...

I wasn't really comparing him with anybody but his reflections on his contemporary society, on the relations between men and women, his psychological portraits specially of Julien Sorel and Mathilde and most of the other characters except perhaps for Madame de Renal, it is all quite nagative. He is very critical of the social structures and conventions too. May be the word extremely wasn't warranted? :)

Raksha said...

Read your post enjoyed it very much.

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