Stendhal: Geometrical Don Juan


IF we are on the spoor of Titans, we shall soon run across Henri Beyle. In his lifetime he took the fancy of parading under fictitious names. These number more than a hundred, but the one he used generally was Stendhal. During his lifetime few knew him. His books are dedicated to the unborn. They are the luminous dramas of his emotional life. Actor and spectator, soldier and thinker, lover and cynic, chronicler of magnificent nothings and analyzer of passionate dreams, Stendhal was a perfect type of the culture superman; that is to say, one whose brain reigns like a motionless sun over the uproar of his life-experiences and the tumult of his own heart.

Pick up Stendhal anywhere. In his novels, short sketches, his lives of other men, his love epigrams, his record of his love-escapades, his experiences with the army of Napoleon, one dominant impression is left in the mind of the reader. That is his superb egotism. It is the egotism that abolishes all conventions, that lays every spook, that seeks the ultimate of self. Stendhal was the son of Max Stirner and the father of Maurice Barrès.

He was an impenitent Cellini, a Rousseau with a brain. In his beloved Italy, where life pounded his nerves till his brain sang with thought, he saw everywhere his own splendid instinct to amorality blossom in its fullness. Crime and passion to him had no social implications. Crime and unbridled passion were marvellous color-combinations, and nothing else. When crime and passion no longer dominate the world life will no longer be worth the living. “There are no rights except natural rights,” says Julien Sorel, the hero of “Le Rouge et le Noir”, in the shadow of the guillotine. What is “goodness” but a kind of remorse for the sins we have never committed? What is Heaven but the dream of revenge deferred? What is the psychologic base of the “aspiration to perfection” and the passion for saintship if it be not the instincts brooding over their impotency before the scourges of social and religious conventions and transfiguring and etherealizing their vigor until they exhale and lapse in the smug Nirvana of contentment?

It was in 1831 that Julien Sorel, one of the greatest creations in all literature, first saw the light. He is the soul of “Le Rouge et le Noir” and indeed the anti-social soul of Stendhal. Sorel, who had fed his soul with the Napoleonic legend makes war on Society, which Emerson proclaimed the felon of the ages. If there was a crime that Sorel had not committed it was because the State did not give him time. It murdered Sorel for his crimes, which were merely the play of a great nature cooped up in the artificial.

The individual is always right and the State, in all times and in all climes, is always wrong. Man is not inherently good, as Rousseau believed; but he is inherently vital and dynamic—that is, he seeks the fullest play possible for his instincts. Nothing is more passionately beloved by all of us than what theologians call “sin”. War, for this reason as Stendhal believed before Marinetti preached it, is the supreme hygiene of the individual. There must be a playground for the great blond beast in us. Saint Theresa, who ell in love with the mystic Bridegroom, would have been a Messalina or a Catherine de Medici if she had dared. But those who fear become godaleptics. Tolstoi was a bird of prey at heart. When his physical courage gave out he still made war—on the State and Church.

There is no great dream that is not in its last analysis a bludgeon. Julien Sorel did in miniature what Napoleon did on a large scale: he lived his life at the expense of others. He had not that trained shyness which we call the artistic sense—that sense which wrecks its revenge on life through words, sounds and color. Stendhal might have been his own Julien if he had not been born an artist. Beethoven, Flaubert and Ibsen had they not escaped into the empyrean of artistic creation would have been Catalinas, Masaniellos, Jack Cades—or Chadbands with the Decameron hidden in their pockets. And Nietzsche would have been an Apache. All who live within the pale of the State are divided into two classes, cowards and outlaws. The state never created a hero. It never created a healthy being. At the feasts of the body and the passions it is the eternal kill-joy.

There are two ways of analyzing life—one by observation, the other by introspection and dissection. Stendhal organized his psychic experiences into a drama. He lived tremendously. He lived to the hilt. There were two Stendhals. One was Dionysian—that is, one of him was always at a carnival. The other was Apollonian. This one made copy out of everything. It was the Sphinx hidden behind his every mask. He made a fable of his pains and thought a chagrin worth while if it gave birth to an epigram.

At the moment of creation pain and pleasure are equilibrated. The aesthetic impulse is at bottom the impulse to the spectacular; the passion to rise above and beyond the world and one’s self, to soar over life, to hover over the tragedy and comedy of one’s nerves. The minds of most men are like those taverns with low ceilings smoke-clouded and soot-laden from the first and lamps of instinct. There is no escape from one’s own hell.


Source: The International, Nov. 1913, p. 326