Tag Archives: Stendhal

One Becomes One

The only link between two people who loved one another should be love.
– Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (345)

IMG_0707In our current age of memoir mills, I was interested to read this early example of the popular literary form as it is a genre I don’t read often. Simone De Beauvoir’s title, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,  is pointed: the entire book of some 385 pages goes into minute detail regarding her childhood as the eldest daughter of a French Catholic bourgeoisie family. Initially, I have to say, I couldn’t understand why I kept reading it. It was interesting, if nothing else because her (presumably) sedulous and copious diaries afforded an accurate look into the thoughts and states of mind that a child to adolescent to young adult progresses through. But her faith in her own uniqueness and brilliance was of some disconcerting fascination to me- I am not a French catholic bourgeoisie, and yet we shared many similar experiences, revelations and ideas- so, how unique could she possibly be? But I am always transfixed by the confident…

I sensed for the first time that one can be touched to the very heart of one’s being by a radiance from the outside. (59)

Of course there were many moments when she might allude to her age at the moment of some momentous understanding of life- when she might have been at the ripe old age of, say,  eleven – that caused me vexatious chagrin, but still, her youthful arrogance was somewhat off putting and I wondered at her so freely acknowledging it and including so many instances of it throughout. Mostly her attitude towards her own brilliance was presented very matter of factually, but thankfully there were glimmers of self-deprecating knowing that is probably what allowed me to continue.

I could not possible be hurt by stupid children who demonstrated their inferiority by not liking croquet as passionately as I did. (63)

I found myself getting impatient, and yet, and yet, there is a rather beautiful and profound point to her long honest examination of growing up in a tightly controlled “moralistic” environment with all the attendant pressures to do what’s “right,” and to act “proper” while feeling…so different as to make that conformity impossible.

“Simone would rather bite her tongue out than say what she’s thinking,” [my mother] would remark in a tone of sharp vexation. That was quite true: I was prodigiously silent. (203)

The expected sexual mores of girls is a theme that runs through the entire book. And while De Beauvoir early on openly rejects the idea of (her mother’s) god, she only alludes, mentions, and keeps at a low heat what it means to be a girl in a society (or world as the case really is) where the expectations and rules are so divergent between the sexes. It’s the undercurrent to her life, and becomes her life’s work: an ignored gnawing injustice that she will (famously) fully expose later in life, after the story of her memoir ends.

That year, Zaza did not accompany me to Mont-de-Marsan; I walked around the town thinking about her as I waited for my train. I had decided to fight with all my strength to prevent her life becoming a living death. (297)

By the end of this part of her story however, it becomes apparent that the book is really about De Beauvoir’s long friendship with Zaza, a woman that never fully breaks away from her own mother’s hold, yet who yearns for independence, equanimity and freedom in love. Near the end when Zaza becomes “reacquainted” with Stendhal’s books I had a bad feeling that things were going to go south for her. If Stendhal knew anything- it was hopeless love.

But all the same, after so many years of arrogant loneliness, it was something to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means the first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity. (365)

Speaking of love, as I always do, Sartre does not enter the story until very near the end, but the above quote, and change in attitude, she openly attributes to her relationship with him. Their love. But her source of purpose and clarity of meaning in her early story she attributes and dedicates to her lovely friend Zaza, whom she could not save from a sad frustrated fate. But, like any good Stendhal tale, the strengthening of our own determination to live and love fully is what we take away and try, some tragically, very hard to be true to. De Beauvoir is an inspiring woman whose unique path reveals, absolutely, her unwavering intelligence, courage, and beautiful humanity.

*translated from the French by James Kirkup
**title from De Beauvoir’s famed quote of her book The Second Sex: “One is not born a women, one becomes one.”

That Dweam within a Dweam

Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.
-Denis De Rougemont, Love In The Western World


Jupiter and Io c. 1530 Correggio

Looking at slides in my art history class recently I saw a painting of Tristan and Isolde. Or maybe it was in the text book as I was reading. I see it in my mind. It was a depiction of the moment when King Marc switches his sword for that of Tristan’s which lay between the sleeping lovers (Isolde being the King’s wife). Perhaps I imagined it. I can not find it now, nor clearly remember where I saw it.  I didn’t even like the painting that much, at the time I think I compared it to Correggio’s passionate Jupitor and Io which is wonderful.  But I had one of those countless moments of curiosity–what about Tristan and Isolde? I then went on to look for the myth–which I also did not immediately find. I instead happened upon a book about the myth. This is the sort of thing that will drive me mad. I swear I saw a painting. It was real. But there is no proof. The painting in my mind does not exist as far as Google is concerned–certain death if ever there was.  Which is actually perfectly to the point of the book I read as a consequence of my apparently imagined painting.

Suffering and understanding are deeply connected; death and self-awareness are in league; and European romanticism may compare to a man for whom sufferings, and especially the sufferings of love, are a privileged mode of understanding  (51).

M. Rougemont book (published in 1940, France) has an interesting, if depressing thesis of what has made the myth of Tristin and Isolde (or Iseult as he calls her) so enduring. He frames it as a kind of Christian heresy and then goes on to relate it to the modern breakdown of marriage. I must necessarily skim the surface here. Rougemont’s idea is complex and he offers up a lot of evidence as a defensive measure against his critics. He wants to understand the preponderance of adultery as a plot line and fixates on Tristen as a subverted reaction against marriage. He implicates the Troubadours and the Cathars as misguided primary sources, and then goes on to expose the literary thread that supports his thinking.

But Racine, in being content to represent ‘passions excited’ and to produce the ‘sadness’ in which he invites us to find an indefinite ‘enjoyment’, betrays a rather morbid acceptance of the defeat of mind and of the resignation of the senses (202).

This is “love” that can never be consummated because that would be the death of the romance–the only proper release being actual death as in Romeo and Juliet. Cervantes ridicules the pain-of-passion novel, while Stendhal, and many or most others revere it–mistakenly, according to Rougemont:

On this theory, falling in love is to endow a woman with perfections she does not in the least possess. And why do we do this? Because we need to love, and because the only thing that can be loved is beauty (225).

This is a tragedy of objectification. I am sure it can go both ways, but more often than not women are mere two-dimensional objects in which their true selves are not valued and ignored. The fact that most of Rougemont’s examples are married woman (thereby creating an unattainable object of desire for the man) matters to his idea that the love is of an object (because, again, it is not a stretch, traditionally, to view a woman as an object) That a “passion” of epic, religious proportions (like the passion for God or Jesus which can never, by virtue of its very nature, until death, be realized) is foisted upon actual feeling breathing humans is a serious failing indeed. But Rougemont describes the problem as a confusion that the worship of (the pagan idea of) Eros has wrought on the Christian concept of love which is a communion (with God, ultimately). But, it is significant to me that he defines the word passion as it means in the Christian Biblical sense instead of how I might mean it, not to mention D. H. Lawrence, where passion is simply a deeply felt awe of our shared humanity.

As I have said, passion means suffering. Therefore, inasmuch as our notion of love enfolds our notion of woman, it is linked with a theory of the fruitfulness of suffering which encourages or obscurely justifies in the recesses of the Western mind a liking for war (243).

There were many moments while reading this book that I felt a strong need for a good therapist. One for everyone in fact. But, let’s calm down here for a moment. Anna Karenina without adultery is Levin and Kitty: a sweet but far less complex and riveting story. Can not a snake just be a snake? Or drama be drama? One could just as easily argue that the preponderance of the adulteress is better drama–being that much more outside the patriarchal norm of our society.

Rougemont waits until the near end to give his assessment of the state of things. In his view ‘passion,’ as he defines it, is a throwback to paganism, and paganism he casts as some sort of debauched bacchanal. In order to have a compliant society, which is, I think, one of his concerns, marriage must be preserved. How does one preserve marriage when we are all, according to him, infected with the desire for romantic passion, which marriage destroys? By adhering to the contract (a nod to Deuteronomy?). He emphasizes making a decision to put the contract above all else. It is a sort of because-I-said-so mentality that smacks of the sort of  patriarchal thrust the non-secular world is founded upon. I am not a hedonist, but the free-thinker in me provokes me to ask: is there nothing in between, or dare I say–outside the choice of being a martyr to contract or debauched excess?

It is interesting to take a moment to consider the more matriarchal aspects that paganism can represent, which Rougemont ignores. What?! a man dismissing a female perspective? How unusual. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of the ancients to figure out that the earliest pagan societies were not all a sexual free for all or societal anarchy. So much of philosophy, history, and religion is written and thought out by men that alternative perspectives are regrettably absent.  The more I read, the more I really started to go in a very different direction from Rougemont. When I got to this line from page 312: “Christianity has asserted the complete equality of the sexes…” I was truly perplexed, but then, the Bible has always been abused as a book of selective interpretation.

While Rougemont is onto something regarding the fundamental selfishness of love borne of vanity and boredom: love that is in love with love rather than a person (whom if one actually loved they couldn’t help feeling concern or in other words, that “feminine” sensibility called caring) He does not allow for actual romantic love, which of course exists. There are far more examples of couples, married or not, that show two people whom want to spend time with one another and want to make love to one another. It’s not complicated, it’s just perhaps not great drama. I am not prepared to be declared ill for appreciating desire or for caring about the happiness of those I love. After all, there is evolution and progress in the balance of personal and societal good. We should always strive to thoughtfully make a more lovely life for ourselves and for all.

The Persiflage of Pretend

“Her decision, painful as it was, was taken: to pretend to forget Fabrizio; after this effort, everything was a matter of indifference to her.”
– The Charterhouse of Parma, 

I regularly peruse the book shelves of one of the women I work for when I have nothing better to do. We must have similar taste because I’ve read a fair amount of them, but it is good for inspiration. She had a pretty copy of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma that I coveted. I requested it from my library. The translation by Richard Howard was published in 1999.

Stendhal’s books (granted, I’ve only read this and Scarlet and Black, but from what I have read…) are very densely packed with all the intensely unimportant twist and turns of the bourgeoisie. It is highly amusing to get sucked into the minutiae of his worlds. It’s the blah blah blah made vivid and comic. Stendhal keeps a cool distance from the the heart of the book, his voice is there, mocking, but he never gets swept away by the story. I am never sure whether or not I should completely believe in the love story until the very end when it is too late for me and for the lovers.

In this book,the main character, Fabrizio, is an Italian version of Julien from Scarlett and Black – the same ingenuous simplicity envelopes their character. The questions they are always asking themselves are: Am I in love? How will I know? I am. I’m not. Why not? and so on, until finally a passion of previous unknown depth and breadth is their ultimate downfall.

Fabrizio spends much of the novel being loved by his young aunt, she spends most of the novel pretending she is not in love with him. He loves her but then falls passionately in love with Clélia who is also in love with him:

“Her intention was to avoid any compromising avowal, but the logic of passion is urgent; its burning interest in learning the truth forbids all vain pretense, while at the same time its extreme devotion to its object allays any fear of giving offense.”

But, compromising avowals will of course transpire, despite best efforts:

“She was so lovely just then, her gown slipping off her shoulders and in such a state of extreme passion, that Fabrizio could not resist an almost involuntary movement. Which met with no resistance…”

Stendhal has a unique ability to express with complete sincerity all the burning passion of love, and yet his tone always leaves a smile on the reader’s face.

While everyone is busy pretending to live lives of upright but basically meaningless conformity and advancement, plots and intrigue keep the boredom away, but to a few, possibly a very few, true happiness is possible. Unfortunately in Stendhal’s books it is the possible made impossible that is the cause and ruination of his characters.

“The kind of misery which a frustrated love creates in the soul makes a cruel burden of whatever requires action or attention.”

But he is deeply sympathetic. Stendhal reaches out a hand of commiseration. There is a slight bitterness in his humor and one sense that his obsessive interest in understanding the subject of love stems from his own experience and frustrations. He wants to work through it somehow. His grudging wish at the end of his novels is pointed and yet, poignant:


They Shoot Readers, Don’t They?

I was trying to work out what to read next as I came to the excellent end of Scarlet and Black (Stendhal). A friend of mine and her husband had just read A Visit From the Goon Squad and recommended it. I went to the online library catalogue to see if they had it. They did, but it was out and there was already a hold on it. I  put myself in the queue figuring I would have it in a few weeks. I started surfing around looking for more immediate prospects, and landed on an interview with the author Lars Iyer.

I was interested enough to look for his book Spurious, but no library in the state had it. I found it on Amazon and as the shipping cost more than the used copy, I purchased it. I figured I’d have it in a week or so. In the interview Iyer mentioned a scathing review of Stephan Zweig’s writing (and his rather strange desire to be critiqued in a similar meme). This past fall I had read some of  Zwieg’s books: The Royal Game and other short stories, Beware of Pity, Journey Into The Past, so I clicked on the link to the London Review of Books to see what it said. Scathing is a kind word for the complete evisceration of Zweig and his work. It was so intense it drew my attention away from the victim toward the denouncer. Who is this guy and what is his problem? I had quite enjoyed Zweig’s books. He was very unfavorably compared to his contemporaries, one of which was Joseph Roth. I had read Roth before I fell in with Zweig, and although I liked The 1002nd Night, I moved on to other authors.

Here in this anti-Zweig diatribe was a fevered insistance that Roth was obviously a genius but why he even bothered to be friends with the horrible writer Zweig was beyond the comprehension of the reviewer. Well, it was quite enough to put one off writing altogether. Life is painful enough without  having to endure such withering ad hominem attacks. Luckily Zweig is dead, so I needn’t worry on his account.  However, I was curious to revisit Roth now.  There was a copy of The Radetzky March at a nearby library, so I went to get it:

As I pick it off the shelf, having my choice of two copies (I choose the hard cover with no picture and a handy ribbon to mark one’s place), my eye snags on the “S” section. José Saramago. Damn it. I had forgot that I really wanted to read another one of his books (I had read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis this past summer and really loved it), and there right in front of me is a very pretty copy of Baltasar and Blimunda. No, I tell myself, no no no, you have enough to read. But my hand picks it up anyway and then my feet just start to walk toward the circulation desk. I stop myself in the middle of the room and contemplate the weight of the pages in my hand. Oh all right, just move: you look ridiculous frozen on the middle of the floor.  I check them both out.

The next day I got an email from the library, The Goon Squad book is in. That was quick. When I got to the library I was surprised to see that there are actually two books waiting for me. I pick up the very hefty 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When did I request that? I search my memory. I had just read a short story of his in The New Yorker, and I do remember that I then thought about his book The Savage Detectives, which I liked; I even recalled the memory of thinking about a good review I had read of 2666, but I had absolutely no memory of actually requesting it.

I searched my mind and there was nothing there. I really am a ghost in my machine, and as it turns out, my machine, like all others I use, runs its own programs mysteriously deleting and eating bits of information. Where do they go? Surely they must be on the hard drive, somewhere, but they are un-retrievable.
When I request a book I feel almost contractually bound to read it. It would be rude not to as the library has so kindly pulled it for me. So I brought them back to my abode and made a large pile on my desk – the due dates shout out at me. The next day Spurious came in the mail.