Stendhal’s Knowledge of the “Milky Way”

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Stendhal’s Knowledge of the “Milky Way”

Stendhal’s Knowledge of the “Milky Way”

Paper read at the fourteenth International Stendhal Conference, Milan, March 1980

It was during his period in Milan that Henri Beyle, until then a more or less brilliant socialite, a dilettante of uncertain vocation and a versatile writer of uncertain success, worked out something that we cannot call his philosophy, since it tends in exactly the opposite direction from that of philosophy, and that we cannot call his theory as a novelist, since he defines it in terms of a polemic against novels, maybe unaware that he himself was shortly going to become a novelist—in fact, something that we can only call his method of knowing things.

This method of Stendhal’s, based on individual experience in all its unrepeatable uniqueness, contrasts with philosophy, which tends toward generalization, universality, abstraction, and geometric design. But it also contrasts with the world of the novel, seen as a world of substantial and unambiguous forces, of continuous lines, of vectorial arrows pointing toward an end, for his method aims at knowledge of a reality that manifests itself in the form of small, localized, instantaneous events. I am attempting to define this cognitive process of Stendhal’s as if it were independent of its object, but what Beyle actually wanted to know was a psychological object, the nature of the passions, and, indeed, of the passion par excellence: love. De l’amour was the treatise the still-anonymous author wrote in Milan to exploit the experience of his longest and unhappiest Milanese love affair, the one with Mathilde Dembowski. But we can certainly try to extract from De l’amour what in the philosophy of science is now called a “paradigm,” and see if it holds good not just for the psychology of love but for all aspects of Stendhal’s vision of the world.

In one of the prefaces of De l’amour we read:

Love is like the thing in the sky we call the Milky Way, a brilliant cluster made up of little stars, many of which are themselves nebulae. Books have noted four or five hundred of the little successive feelings that go to make up this passion, and only the crudest of them, often making mistakes and taking what is secondary for what is the main thing.

The passage goes on to criticize eighteenth-century novels, including La Nouvelle Héloïse and Manon Lescaut, just as on the page before he had refuted the philosophers’ claim to describe love in terms of a geometrical figure, however complicated.

Let us, then, say that the reality on which Stendhal aims to base his knowledge is punctiform, discontinuous, unstable, a dust cloud of phenomena that are not homogeneous but isolated from one another and capable of being subdivided in turn into even more minute phenomena.

At the beginning of the treatise we get the impression that the author is approaching his subject in the classifying and cataloguing spirit that in those same years led Charles Fourier to draw up his meticulous synoptic tables of the passions with a view to their harmonious combinatorial satisfaction. But Stendhal’s mind is very much opposed to a systematic order, and he continually avoids it even in this book, which ought to be his most ordered. His rigor is of another kind, and his argument is organized around a basic idea that he calls “crystallization.” From there it radiates outward, exploring the field of meanings underlying the nomenclature of love, as it does with the neighboring semantic areas of bonheur and beauté.

It happens with bonheur as well that the more one tries to confine it within a concrete definition, the more it dissolves into a galaxy of instants separate from one another—exactly as with love. This is because (he says as early as chapter II) “the soul wearies of all that is uniform, even with perfect happiness.” In a note he explains, “The very nuance of existence gives only a single instant of perfect happiness; but the frame of mind of a passionate man changes ten times a day.” And yet this dust cloud of bonheur is something that can be measured and numbered according to precise units of measurement. In fact, in chapter XVII we read:

Albéric, at the theatre, meets a woman more beautiful than his mistress. Permit me a mathematical evaluation: let us say a woman whose features promise three units of happiness instead of two. (Let us suppose that perfect beauty gives a quantity of happiness expressible by the number four.) Need we be surprised that he prefers the features of his mistress, which promise him a hundred units of happiness?

We see that Stendhal’s mathematics immediately become very complicated. On the one hand, the quantity of happiness is of objective size, proportional to the quantity of beauty; on the other, it is of subjective size, being projected by amorous passion onto a measureless scale. Not for nothing is this chapter, one of the most important in the treatise, entitled “Beauty Dethroned by Love.”

Therefore, even in beauté there is an invisible line that divides every sign, and we can discern there an objective aspect (difficult to define) of the quantity of absolute beauty, and the subjective aspect of what is beautiful to us, comprising “every new beauty discovered in what one loves.” The first definition of beauty given in the treatise, in chapter XI, is “a new capacity to give you pleasure.” There then comes a page on the relativity of what beauty is, exemplified by the attitudes of two fictitious characters in the book: for Del Rosso the ideal of beauty is a woman who at every instant suggests a physical pleasure, while for Lisio Visconti she must incite the passion of love.

If we bear in mind that both Del Rosso and Lisio are personifications of two psychological tendencies of the author, things get even more complicated, because the process of division now concerns even the subject. But here we touch on the theme of the multiplication of Stendhal’s personality by means of pseudonyms. Even the ego can become a galaxy of egos: “the mask must be a series of masks and the pseudonym a systematic polyonymy,” writes Jean Starobinski in an important essay on the subject.

But let us for now go no further into this territory, but consider the enamored subject as a single indivisible spirit, especially since at that point there is a note explaining the definition of beauty insofar as it is my beauty—that is, beauty for me—“promise of a character useful to my spirit … above the attraction of the senses.” Here we witness the appearance of the word “promise,” which in a note to chapter XVII characterizes the definition that was to become most famous: “la beauté est la promesse du bonheur.”

Concerning this phrase, its antecedents, presuppositions, and echoes down as far as Baudelaire, there is a valuable article by Giansiro Ferrate (“Il valore e la forma,” Questo e Altro, June 1964), which throws light on the central point about the theory of crystallization: the transformation of some negative peculiarity of the loved one into a pole of attraction. I should mention that the crystallization metaphor comes from the mines at Salzburg, where they throw in leafless boughs and gather them up again several months later all covered with crystals of rock salt glittering like diamonds. The branch as it was is still visible, but every knot and twig and prickle acts as a support for a transfigured beauty. Thus the lover’s mind fixes every detail of the loved one in a sublime transfiguration. And here Stendhal dwells upon a very unusual example, which seems to have been of great importance to him, both on the plane of general thory and on that of personal experience: the marque de petite vérole on the face of a beloved woman. Still quoting from chapter XVII:

Even the little defects of her face, for example a smallpox scar, touch the heart of the man in love, and throw him into a profound reverie when he sees them in another woman. It is that he has felt a thousand emotions in the presence of that smallpox scar, that these emotions are for the most part delightful, that they are all of the greatest interest, and that, whatever they are, they all rekindle with incredible force at the sign of that mark, even when seen on the face of another woman.

It might be said that all Stendhal’s arguments about beauty circle around the marque de petite vérole, almost as if only through this glimpse of the absolute ugliness of a scar could he arrive at the contemplation of absolute beauty. It could also be said that his whole case study of the passions revolves around the most negative situation, that of the failure or “fiasco” of a man’s sexual powers, as if the entire treatise about love gravitated toward the chapter called “Des fiascos,” and that the whole book was written for no other purpose than to get to that famous chapter, which the author did not then dare to publish, and which came out only posthumously.

Stendhal approaches the subject by citing Montaigne’s essay mentioning the same questions, but whereas for Montaigne this is one example in a general meditation on the physical effects of the imagination and, conversely, on the “indocile liberté” of the parts of the body that do not obey the will—a treatment that is a precursor of Groddeck and modern investigations of the body—for Stendhal, who always proceeds by subdivision and not by generalization, it is a matter of untying a knot of psychological processes, self-love and sublimation, imagination and lack of spontaneity. The most yearned-for moment for him as a man constantly in love, the first intimacies with a new conquest, can become the moment of greatest anxiety; but it is precisely on this spiral of absolute negativeness, this plunge into darkness and nullity, that knowledge can be based.

Starting from this point, we might imagine a dialogue between Stendhal and Leopardi, a “Leopardian” dialogue in which the poet exhorts Stendhal to draw the most bitter conclusions about nature from the experience he has had of life. There could even be a historical basis to it, given that the two of them did in fact meet in Florence in 1832. But we can also imagine Stendhal’s reaction—on the basis, for example, of the pages of Rome, Naples, and Florence devoted to the intellectual conversations in Milan of fifteen years before (1816), in which he shows the skeptical detachment of the man of the world and concludes that in the company of philosophers he always manages to get himself disliked, something that does not happen to him with beautiful women. So Stendhal would have swiftly extricated himself from the dialogue with Leopardi and followed his own path, that of a man who wishes to lose nothing either of pleasure or of pain, because the inexhaustible variety of situations that derive from them is enough to bestow interest on life.

If, therefore, we want to read De l’amour as a “discourse on method,” we find it difficult to place this method among those operating at his time. But we might perhaps fit it into the “circumstantial paradigm” that a young Italian historian, Carlo Ginzburg, has recently attempted to discern in the human sciences during the final twenty years of the last century. One can trace a long history of this circumstantial knowledge, based on semiotics, on attention paid to the traces, the symptoms, the involuntary coincidences, that lend weight to marginal details, to unconsidered trifles, to what the consciousness habitually refuses to snap up. It is not out of place to put Stendhal into this context, with his punctiform knowledge that connects the zenith with the nadir, amour-passion with the marque de petite vérole, never excluding the possibility that the most obscure trace might be the most luminous mark of destiny.

Can we say that this method enunciated by the anonymous author of De l’amour will be followed by the Stendhal of the novels and the Henri Brulard of the autobiographical writings? For Henri Brulard we can definitely say yes: his intentions were by definition the opposite of those of the novelist. The novel (or at least the most obvious and widespread notion of it) tells stories with a well-defined design, in which well-defined characters follow out their own dominant passions with coherent determination; whereas Stendhal as an autobiographer tries to seize the essence of his own life, of his own individual uniqueness, by the accumulation of inessential facts, without any direction or form. Conducting such an exploration into a life ends up becoming exactly the opposite of what one means by narrating.

“Will I have the courage to write these confessions in an intelligible manner?” we read at the beginning of the Vie d’Henri Brulard. “One has to narrate, and I write considerations on minimal events, but it is precisely on account of their microscopic dimensions that they need to be recounted very distinctly. What patience you will need, O reader!”

Memory itself is fragmentary by its very nature; more than once in the Vie d’Henri Brulard, memory is likened to a peeling fresco: “It is always like in the frescoes in the Camposanto in Pisa, where one makes out an arm perfectly well, but the piece beside it that showed the head has fallen off. I see a series of very clear images, but without any features except those they had with regard to me. Even more, I see these only through the memory of the effect produced on me.” For this reason, “there is neither originality nor truth except in details.”

As Giovanni Macchia writes in an essay devoted to this very obsession with detail: “The whole journey of existence is lined with a bedlam of little facts that seem superfluous, and that mark and reveal the rhythm of existence, such as the banal secrets of any one day, which we pay no attention to and even try to destroy… . That way of looking at everything at a human level, that refusal to pick and choose, to correct, to adulterate, gave birth to his most astonishing psychological observations, to his social insights.”

But not only the past is fragmentary. In the present as well, what is glimpsed and involuntary may have a greater effect, like the half-open door through which he tells us in his journal he once spied on a young woman undressing, hoping to see now a thigh and now a breast. “A woman who, whole and entire in my bed, would not have moved me in the least, seen on the sly gives me enchanting sensations. In this situation she is natural, I am not worried about my role, and I give myself over entirely to sensation.”

And it is often from the darkest and most unmentionable moments that the process of knowledge develops, not from the moment of full self-realization. At this point we must link up with the title chosen by Roland Barthes for his speech: “On échoue toujours à parler de ce qu’on aime.” The journal ends at the moment of Stendhal’s greatest happiness: his arrival in Milan in 1811. Henri Brulard starts by realizing his own happiness on the Janiculum when he is on the threshold of fifty, and at once he feels the need to start telling us about the unhappiness of his childhood in Grenoble.

The time has come for me to wonder if this sort of knowledge holds good for the novels as well—that is, to wonder how we can fit it in with the normal image we have of Stendhal, that of the novelist of the life force, of the will to self-assertion, of cold determination to pursue the heat of one’s passions. Or, to put it differently: does the Stendhal who fascinated me in my youth still exist, or was he an illusion? I can answer the last question immediately: yes, he exists, he is there just as he was, and Julien on his rock is still gazing at the sparrowhawk in the sky, still identifying with its strength and its isolation. I realize, however, that this concentration of energy now interests me less, and I am more concerned with discovering what is beneath it—all the rest of it, which I cannot call the “hidden part of the iceberg” because it is not hidden at all, but in fact holds up and holds together all the remainder.

Certainly Stendhal’s heroes are characterized by a straightforwardness of personality, a continuity of will power, a compactness of the ego in living out their inner conflicts, which appear to take us to the very antipodes of the existential notion I have tried to describe as punctiform, discontinuous, and a dust cloud of phenomena. Everything in Julien is determined by his conflict between timidity and will power, which drives him as by a categorical imperative to press Madame de Rênal’s hand in the dark garden in those extraordinary pages of inner combat in which the real presence of erotic attraction ends up getting the better of both the presumed severity of the one and the presumed unawareness of the other. Fabrice is so joyously allergic to any form of anguish that even when locked up in the tower he is not touched by depression, and for him the prison becomes a means of incredibly complicated amorous communication, almost the condition on which he can make his love come true. Lucien in Lucien Leuwen is so taken up with his amour-propre that overcoming the mortification of a fall from a horse, or the misunderstanding of an imprudent phrase uttered to Madame de Chasteller, or the gaucherie of having raised his hand to his lips, determines all his future conduct. The journey of Stendhal’s heroes is certainly never linear: given that the stage on which they act is so far from the Napoleonic battlefields of their dreams, in order to express their potential energies they have to put on masks as different as possible from their inner images of themselves. Julien and Fabrice don the priest’s cassock and undertake a career in the church (I don’t know how credible this is from a historical point of view). Lucien confines himself to buying a missal, but his is a double mask: that of an officer of the House of Orléans but nostalgic for the House of Bourbon.

This full-bodied self-awareness in living out one’s own emotions is still more evident in the female characters—Madame de Rênal, Gina Sanseverina, and Madame de Chasteller—women always older than or socially superior to their young lovers, lucid and decisive of mind, knowing what they are about, and capable of supporting their lovers in their hesitations rather than becoming their victims. Perhaps they are projections of a mother image that the writer scarcely knew, and that in Henri Brulard he caught in the snapshot of the resolute young woman who sprang like a deer over her child’s bed. Perhaps they are the projection of an archetype that he was searching for in ancient chronicles, such as that young stepmother who fell in love with a Prince Farnese, mentioned as the first prisoner in the tower, as if to make an emblematic, mythical core of the bond between Gina Sanseverina and Fabrice.

To this web of desires woven by the male and female characters we should add the will of the author, which is the real subject of the work; but each will is autonomous and can only propose things which the others are free to accept or reject. In a marginal note in the manuscript of Lucien Leuwen he wrote: “The best sporting dog can only put the game within range of the hunter’s gun. If he doesn’t shoot, the dog can do nothing. A novelist is like a dog to his hero.”

On one of these paths followed by dog and hunter in Stendhal’s most mature novel, Lucien Leuwen, we witness the emergence of a depiction of love that is truly like a Milky Way, dense with feelings and sensations and situations that pursue one another, superimpose and cancel one another, according to the program announced in De l’amour. This occurs principally at the ball during which for the first time Lucien and Madame de Chasteller have a chance to talk and get to know each other. The ball begins in chapter XV and ends in chapter XIX, with a series of tiny incidents, exchanges of conversation that are nothing remarkable, and degrees of shyness, haughtiness, hesitation, love, suspicion, shame, and contempt, on the part of both the young officer and the lady.

What strikes us about these pages is the profusion of psychological details, the variety of the switches of emotion, the hesitations of the heart. The reference to Proust, destined to be the ultimate stage along this road, only underlines the extent to which everything here is brought off with the utmost economy of description, and with a straightforwardness that allows the attention always to be concentrated on the story’s essential knot of relationships.

That look he gives to provincial, legitimist, aristocratic society in the days of the July Monarchy is the cold scrutiny of a zoologist examining the morphological species of a minuscule fauna, as he says in those very pages, in a phrase put into the mouth of Lucien: “I ought to study them as one studies natural history. Cuvier told us, there in the Jardin des Plantes, that studying the worms, insects, and most appalling sea crabs methodically, being careful to take note of their differences and similarities, is a sure way of curing the repulsion that they inspire.”

In Stendhal’s novels the settings—or at any rate certain settings, such as the receptions and the drawing rooms—serve not so much to establish atmosphere as to locate positions precisely. Places are defined by the movements of the characters, by their positions at the moment when they produce certain emotions and certain conflicts; reciprocally, every conflict is defined by having been produced in that given place and at that given time. Yet Stendhal the autobiographer has the curious need to pin down places not by describing them but by sketching them out on rough maps, on which, apart from rudimentary features of the decor, we find where various people were at the time, so that the pages of the Vie d’Henri Brulard read like a kind of atlas. What is the meaning of this topographical obsession? Is it haste, letting descriptions go in order to work them up later on the basis of mere jottings? Not just that, I believe. Given that he is concerned with the uniqueness of every event, the map is useful for pinning down the space in which an event takes place, just as the narrative serves to fix it in time.

The actual places described in the novels are more outdoors than in, such as the alpine landscapes of the Franche-Comté in Le Rouge et le noir, and those of Brianza seen from the bell tower of the Abbot Blanès in The Charterhouse of Parma. But of all Stendhal’s landscapes, I would give the palm to the plain and unpoetic description of Nancy, as it appears in chapter IV of Lucien Leuwen, in all its utilitarian squalor of the early industrial era. It is a landscape that heralds a drama in the conscience of the protagonist, caught as he is between middle-class dullness and aspirations toward an aristocracy that is a shadow of its former self; it is objective negativeness, ready, in the case of this young lancer, to crystallize into glittering gems of beauty, once enhanced by the transports of love and life. The poetic power of Stendhal’s view of things is not only that of enthusiasm and euphoria, but also that of a cold revulsion for a totally unattractive world that he feels compelled to accept as the only possible reality: the suburb of Nancy, where Lucien is sent to put down one of the first workers’ uprisings, and the parading of mounted soldiers through the dingy streets in the faint morning light.

These social upheavals are conveyed by Stendhal according to the way their capillary vibrations affect the behavior of individuals. Why does Italy have a unique place in his affections? We continually hear him repeat that Paris is the kingdom of vanity, as opposed to Italy, the land of sincere and disinterested emotions. But we must not forget that in his personal geography there is another pole: England, a civilization that he is constantly tempted to identify himself with.

In a passage in Souvenirs d’égotisme he chooses between England and Italy and comes down heavily on the side of Italy, precisely because it was what today we would call “underdeveloped,” whereas the English way of life, which forced workers to toil for eighteen hours a day, seems to him “ridiculous.” “The exorbitant and oppressive labor of the English worker avenges us for Waterloo… . The poor Italian in his rags is far closer to happiness. He has time to make love, and for eighty or a hundred days a year abandons himself to a religion that is all the more amusing to him for being a little frightening.”

Stendhal’s notion is one of a certain rhythm of life that has time for everything, and above all for wasting time. His point of departure is his rejection of provincial pettiness, and his rancor toward his father and toward Grenoble; he sought out the big city. For him Milan was a big city where the discreet pleasures of the ancien régime as well as the fervors of his Napoleonic youth still survived, even if many aspects of that Italy of bigotry and poverty were not exactly made to please him.

London was also an ideal city, but there the things that gratified his snobbish tastes were paid for by the hardships of advanced industrialization. In his personal geography, Paris was a point equidistant between London and Milan. It had the priests in power as well as the law of profit. Hence Stendhal’s unremitting centrifugal thrust. His is a geography of escapism. I ought also to include Germany, since that was where he found the name to sign his novels with, and therefore an identity more important to him than all of his other masks. But I would say that Germany for him was merely nostalgia for the Napoleonic epic, a memory that tended to fade away on him.

The Souvenirs d’égotisme, an autobiographical fragment concerned with a time when he was in Paris but, as it were, suspended between Milan and London, is therefore the text containing the whole map of Stendhal’s world. We could call this book Stendhal’s best novel manqué. Perhaps the novel failed to come into being because its author did not have a literary model to convince him that what he wanted to write could ever become a novel, but it was also because only in this form could he succeed with a story of shortcomings and actions that fell short of target. In the Souvenirs d’égotisme the overriding theme is his absence from Milan, which he had left after his famous unsuccessful love affair. In a Paris seen by him as a place of exile, every happening ends in a fiasco: sexual fiascos with prostitutes, spiritual fiascos in his relations with society and in intellectual matters (for example, in his visits to the philosopher he admired most, Destutt de Tracy). And then comes his trip to London, where the chronicle of failures culminates in the extraordinary story of a failed duel, and his search for an arrogant English captain whom Stendhal had not thought of challenging at the right moment, and whom he looked for over and over again in all the taverns down by the docks.

There is one single oasis of happiness in this history of failures. In one of the most wretched slums of London is a house run by three prostitutes, which, instead of being the sinister trap that he had anticipated, turns out to be a place as miniature and pretty as a doll’s house. The girls are impoverished youngsters who welcome the three boisterous French tourists with grace, dignity, and discretion. Here at last is a picture of bonheur, poor and fragile as it may be, and very distant from the aspirations of our egotist!

Should we therefore conclude that the real Stendhal is a negative Stendhal, to be sought only in his disappointments, setbacks, and losses? That is not so. The thing that Stendhal always aims to assert is the existential tension that arises from measuring one’s own individuality (and one’s own limitations) against the individuality and limitations of one’s surroundings. Simply because existence is dominated by entropy, by dissolution into instants and impulses like corpuscles without forms of their own or links with others, he thinks that the individual realizes himself according to a principle of conservation of energy, or, rather, of the continual reproduction of charges of energy. This is near to understanding that entropy will win out in the end, and that of the universe with all its galaxies nothing will be left but a whirlwind of atoms in space.