The Red and The Black (1830) Stendhal

The Unhappy Man At War With All Society

The Red and The Black opens and closes talking about the tyranny of public opinion, that which both guarantees liberty but also tyrannizes humanity unnecessarily; the book touches frequently on pride, and injured pride, which is of course subject to this tyrannization. Madame de Renal was a woman who had found a man “far less tiresome than all the other men of her acquaintance” — her husband, the Mayor of Verrieres. But she did not love him, despite having had three kids. Her husband, M. De Renal, thinks things like, “Keep up our position” “It will make an impression” “All those cloth dealers envy me” etc. Upon meeting the tutor of her children, Julien, her to-be lover, she was relieved by, “[T]he contrast between her fears and what she saw before her…”, perhaps something that happens for many people when they get out in the World. Illustrating the resentment that can occur amongst the members of a conscious sexually reproductive species, a valet at Mme. De Renal’s became angry with one of her chambermaids, Elisa, saying, ‘You won’t talk to me anymore since that filthy tutor [“a good-looking boy”] came into the house.’ A frequent theme is hypocrisy, for both Julien and the public at large., and Julien frequently comments on “[H]ow little their ideas corresponded to reality… What fools!” And as often happens with the young, “The funny thing was that, for all his pride, he often understood nothing of what was being discussed.” Yet in, “His solitary life, compounded of imagination and suspicion, had kept him away from any experience that might have enlightened him” due to his deep lack of internal locus of control. “[A]t twenty, one’s idea of the world and the impression one intends to make on it prevail over everything else.” When he goes to see his friend Fouqué, “[H]e found himself caught, not between vice and virtue, but between mediocrity leading to guaranteed security and all the heroic dreams of his youth.” Julien is deeply vain with delusions of his own grandeur and power; he wants to be greater than a carpenter’s son and even greater than someone who works in the Church, which is his chosen path. Julien is tormented by his position in the eyes of others; like many in such a position, happiness frequently eludes him. “Alone, far from the sights of men… he had given in to the pleasure of being alive… amidst the most beautiful mountains [of Vergy] in the world.” Julien loved to read, and it provided him, “[H]appiness, ecstasy, and comfort in his moments of discouragement.” In a parallel to today, written during the restoration of the monarchy and King Charles X, “Since Napoleon’s downfall, every hint of gallantry has been rigidly excluded… Everyone is afraid of losing his position… hypocrisy has made the most wonderful progress, even among the Liberals.” Julien is frequently very wishy-washy in his relations with women, is often not consistent, and it seems he is more interested in his grandiose notions of himself vis-à-vis his relationships. After winning over Mme. De Renal, the next day, [H]e barely gave her a thought” when she had been thinking of him all night; later he would think, “Contrary to his expectations, he felt a desire to see her again”. In one of Stendhal’s made up chapter aphorisms, he attributes to Barnave, “The grotesque in everyday events conceals you from the real suffering caused by the passions.” After Julien participates in a public town event where the King comes to town, many of the towns businesspeople are aghast at such a low-born person having been allowed to do so; Stendhal frequently remarks on class in addition to its associated hypocrisy. After all that had happened during the King’s visit in the town, “[W]hat survived was the utter indecency of having foisted Julien Sore, a carpenter’s son on the guard of honor. You should have heard the rich calico manufacturers on that score, who had made themselves hoarse preaching equality from morning to night in the café. That haughty woman, Mme. De Renal, was behind this wretched business. The reason? Little Abbé Sorel’s fine eyes and fresh, rosy cheeks made it clear enough.” Mme. De Renal had fallen completely for him, and it began to torment her because she was married; “[H]er reason had acknowledged the full extent of her sin; she could never again recover her balance.” Her state of mind hinged on his every move, looking for evidence of his love; “Mme. De Renal’s whole life was changed. Julien really loved her, then, since it had been his own idea to see her again! Her agony was transformed into one of the keenest impulses of joy she had ever experienced.” This phrase well-captures the non-loftiness of common-sense thinking, as M. De Renal describes his way of thinking and who his actual friends are beyond his cuckold wife, who helps him direct his life so much, “[T]he hardness of heart that lies at the base of all provincial worldly wisdom…” Eventually M. De Renal lands on the idea un-reality, ever so pervasive a belief-system for many humans: “Then he flattered himself with the idea that his wife was innocent; this way of seeing things spared him from showing firmness of character and suited him much better. ‘How many times have I seen wives slandered!’” Mme. De Renal acknowledges her husband’s dependence on her, who often is unable to perceive accurately due to his passions, and that her, “[F]ate lies within the scope of my ingenuity, in the art of directing the thought of that flighty man, whose anger blinds him and keeps him from seeing half of what is going on.” Stendhal has a made-up aphorism from Italian poet Casti, which translates to, “The pleasure of holding one’s head high all year is dearly paid for by certain quarters of an hour one must live through.” Continuing his thread about public opinion, Stendhal says of M. De Renal, “The great misfortune of small towns in France, and of governments by election, like that of New York, is that you are never allowed to forget that fellows like M. De Renal exist in the world. In the midst of a city of twenty thousand inhabitants such individuals mold public opinion, and public opinion is a terrible thing in a country that has a constitution. A man endowed with a noble and generous mind, and who might have been your friend but lives a hundred leagues away, judges you according to public opinion in your town, which is shaped by the fools whom chance has caused to be born noble, rich, and conservative. Woe to anyone who stands out from the crowd!” One cannot forget that certain members of society can not be made to not exist. Stendhal explains why it is that Mme. De Renal fell in love, “The boredom of conjugal life destroys love without fail, when love has preceded marriage. And yet, a philosopher might add, the same boredom soon causes those rich enough not to work to become profoundly bored with all the quiet pleasures. And it is only the frigid souls, among women, whom it does not predispose to fall in love.” Even towns are bored; [T]he whole town… talked of nothing but her scandalous passion. Because of this great affair, people were less bored than usual that autumn.” When he is considering effectively accept money from M. De Renal to leave town, Stendhal again paints the harsh image of reality, “Cruel necessity, with its iron hand, bent Julien’s will.” When Julien arrives at Seminary, he is greeted by Abbe Pirard, another stern man, who recognizes Julien’s vanity; he tells him, “[Y]ou are obviously accustomed to smiling faces, veritable theatres of falsehood. Truth is stern, sir… You must see to it that your conscience is always on guard against this weakness: a too great sensitivity to the vain graces of outward appearance.” In another false aphorism, reiterating his ideas about the harshness of reality, Stendhal says, “All those whom I see making their fortunes show a boldness and harshness of heart that are not in me. They hate me because of my easy-going kindness. Ah! soon I shall die, either form hunger or from the sorrow of finding men so hard.” Of the other Seminarists, Julien makes his one of his frequent cynical observations of men of the cloth, “Most were peasants’ sons; they preferred earning their bread by reciting a few words in Latin to digging up the ground.” Regarding dogma, “[T]he Church of France seems to have understood that its real enemies are books. Submission of the heart is everything… To succeed at studies, even sacred, is suspect… Only the pope is in a position to try to paralyze free inquiry, and by means of the pious pomp of the ceremonies at his court, make an impression on the bored and sick minds of fashionable society.” “[H]is companions already looked upon him as a freethinker… he stood convicted of an egregious vice: he thought, he judged for himself, instead of blindly following authority and example.” Julien realizes, “recognize[s] the necessity,” of the conduct of his fellow students; “What will I be doing all my life?… I will be selling a place in heaven to the faithful. How should this place be made visible to them? By the difference between my outward appearance and that of a layman.” After a trip to England, Stendhal further disparages religion, as Julien recounts from an imprisoned philosopher he met, “For tyrants the most useful idea if that of god.” Julien realizes a great truth about human nature, that for some, “Out of conceit, I used to congratulate myself because I was different from the other young peasants! Well, I have lived long enough to see that difference begets hatred…” Julien learned that how he had been trained back in Verrierres by his protégé M. Chelan would make him a heretic, “After having instilled in him the habit of close reasoning and of not allowing himself to be satisfied with idle chatter, he [M. Chelan] had neglected to tell him that in a person of no consequence this habit is a crime, for sound reasoning always offends. Julien’s gift of gab was, therefore, a fresh crime against him. By dint of thinking about him, his companions… nicknamed him Martin Luther…” Abbe Pirard pointed out to him, “There is something about you that offends the common run… your companions will never set eyes on you without hating you.” However, upon being made an assistant master at the seminary (basically a student teacher), “To his great amazement, Julien observed that he was less hated… his secret desire that no one should speak to him… was no longer taken as a sign of absurd arrogance. In the eyes of those coarse creatures who surrounded him, it sprang from a just sense of his own worth.” As with Dostoevsky’s Dead House prisoner nobleman, he was simply not a comrade, but he came to be respected. People can be greatly deferential to hierarchies. M. Pirard later tells him, “Men can see that they give you no pleasure when they speak to you; in a sociable country like this, you are doomed to misery if you cannot command respect.” As Julien lands his new job for M. De La Mole after the seminary, the narrator muses on the legal dispute between M. De La Mole and Abbe de Frilair, [W]here is the judge who does not have a son or at least a relative to help get on in the world?” Fukuyama’s potential for the return to patrimonialism is thus very easy, and natural. When Abbe Pirard resigns from the Seminary, he departs with a scathing critique of vanity to his students, “Do you desire worldly honors… all the social advantages, the pleasure of commanding, that of scoffing at the law and of being insolent to everyone with impunity? Or else, do you wish your eternal salvation.” Fouque tries to discourage Julien from a life of bureaucracy, “[I]t is better to earn a hundred louis in a sound timber business, where you are your own boss, than to get four thousand francs from any government…” Before Julien leaves for the Hotel De La Mole, he encounters Mme. De Renal at a church service; she gives color to the mystery that is “love,” as she and Julien reminisce, “This fatal relapse has robbed me of all my self-respect and doomed me to unhappiness forever…” Is “love” a lack of self-respect? Being vs. dependent love (Maslow). Previous to encountering Julien again, she, “[H]ad been totally preoccupied with her fear of a terrible God and her love of duty”, a way many spend their lives; Stendhal repeatedly makes his distaste clear for the angry God of the Bible. When he is travelling to Paris, Julien encounters some other travelers, one of whom gives a cynical impression of politics that somehow still rings true in a way. Responding to the question to what party he belongs, “None, and that has been my undoing. Here are my politics: I love music and painting; a good book is an event for me; I’m going on forty-four. How much time do I have left? Fifteen, twenty, thirty years at the most? Very well! I maintain that in thirty years ministers will be a bit shrewder, but just about as honest as they are today. The history of England serves me as a mirror of our future. There will always be a king who wants to increase his prerogative; the eternal ambition to become deputy, the glory and hundreds of thousands of francs amassed by Mirabeau, will keep the rich provincials from going to sleep; they will call that being liberal and loving the people. The desire to become peer or Gentleman of the Chamber will always keep the Ultras [conservatives] on the go. Aboard the ship of state, everyone will want to do the steering, since the job is well paid. So will there ever be a poor little berth on it for the ordinary passenger?” The “liberals” will hate those more rich than them, and call it being of the people; the “conservatives” will always be keeping up with the Joneses; there will always be people who crave power. The Revolution of Human Consciousness is not coming. This same traveler remarks about the city vs. the country, “I will look for country peace and solitude in the only place where they exist in France, on a fifth floor overlooking the Champs-Elysees”, away from local busybodies. Regarding the conformity of the men who talked in the drawing rooms like at Hotel De La Mole, “Any idea with the least bit of life in it seemed an indecency… boredom was stamped on every forehead.” Julien remarks to himself on how harsh public opinion can be, but also good cause for perspective, as money is not everything: “I don’t make twenty louis a year, and I was rubbing elbows with a man who has an income of twenty louis an hour, and everyone pokes fun at him… A sight like that is a cure for envy.” (Ed Sheeran still gets made fun of for having red hair). M. de La Mole was “quick to take umbrage… he… would go to court over a few hundred francs. Rich men who are high-spirited look for amusement in business affairs, not results.” “There was a new paper that the marquis abominated; he had sworn never to read it, but talked about it every day [like Roz and AOC]. Julien would laugh and marvel at the shabbiness of this duel between power and an idea. Such pettiness on the marquis’ part restored all of Julien’s self-possession, which he was near to losing as a result of spending his evenings tete-a-tete with so great a lord.” Everybody poops. M de La Mole says to Julien, “For man must have amusement; that is the only real thing in life. No man can save my life every day in battle, or make me a daily gift of a million; but if I had a Rivarol here beside my chaise longue, he would relieve me of an hour’s suffering and boredom every day.” In discussing in the drawing room, Mathilde says to her suitors, “A great fortune! … It is still the hardest thing to achieve, and consequently the most commendable. Funny! That is the opposite of everything the books say…” Books, especially of this time, did not pen odes to being rich. Mathilde illustrates the time-tested idea of disappointment with life, “Where lies pleasure… if, after an absence of six moths, I cannot find it in the midst of a ball that is the envy of every woman in Paris?” She further elaborates of the drawing room men, “[H]igh birth robs a man of that strength of character without which he can never get himself condemned to death.” After being scorned by Julien at a ball, “[S]he used the little strength she had left to make herself even more miserable.” Meanwhile, “Julien was at the peak of happiness. Unawares, he had been enchanted by the music, the flowers, the beautiful women, the general elegance, and, more than anything, by his own imagination, which was filled with dreams of glory for himself and liberty for all.” The vanity of his delusional ideas which he would be the glorious vanguard of; he says to Mme. De La Mole, with “a terrible look in his eye,” “[O]ughtn’t the man who would drive ignorance and crime from the earth, oughtn’t he to move like the whirlwind and do evil as if by chance?” Count Altimira says to Julien on the way home, “As for the man who thinks, if there is energy and novelty in his sallies, you call him a cynic… If any man among you shows his superiority, by virtue of wit, the Congregation drags him off to the police court and well-bred society applauds.” Later in the garden, Julien, “[N]o longer wore that hard look of intellectual arrogance, stamped on it by a constant feeling of inferiority.” Stendhal nails Julien’s problem on the head, in an 1830s Chrisopher Lasch: “He was the unhappy man at war with all society.” Julien says of Count Norbert, Mme. De La Mole’s brother, “In Paris everything frightens him; he sees the danger of ridicule lurking everywhere. He hasn’t one thought that dares to deviate from the fashion.” Regarding her suitors who bore her, “They are all one an the same perfect man, ready to go off to Palestine… Can you imagine anything more insipid?… Exposing oneself to danger elates the soul, and saves it from the boredom in which my poor adorers seem to be steeped; and that boredom is contagious. Who among them ever thought of doing anything out of the ordinary?” The source of much of Mathilde’s malaise is her expectations; “Mlle. De La Mole had been an object of the most excessive flattery… The harm done this way can never be offset. She had been persuaded that with all her advantages of birth, fortune, etc., she ought to be happier than anyone else. This notion is the source of the boredom of princes, and of all their follies.” Stendhal plays out at great length the back and forth of Julien and Mathilde’s love story, calling into question what love is, and how between the two of them it was often a tit-for-tat, a battle for whoever had the upper hand at a given moment. “[Julien’s] remark, so frank but so foolish, changed everything in an instant; now sure of his love, Mathilde despised him thoroughly.” Mathilde reflects on her choice of Julien, “An ordinary girl… would have picked out the man she preferred from among those young fellows who attract every eye… but one of the characteristics of genius is not to drag one’s thoughts through the rut that has been worn by the common run.” Is this what Stendhal thinks, or is he mocking her delusions of grandeur (or a bit of both)? Narrating, Stendhal says, “Well, sir, a novel is a mirror being carried down a highway. Sometimes it reflects the azure heavens to your view; sometimes, the slime in the puddles along the road. And you will accuse the man who carries the mirror on his back of immorality! His mirror shows you slime, and you blame the mirror! Rather, blame the highway where the puddles stand; or rather still, blame the inspector of roads who allows the water o stagnate and the puddles to form.” “Unhappiness diminishes intelligence.” (when Julien was sad about Mathilde). “But reason no longer had any power over his actions. A blind instinct pushed him to delay her decision about his face. It seemed to him that so long as he kept talking, all was not lost.” People often prefer un-truth. Stendhal illustrates the potential impact people can have on one another with words: “For the first time in his life, Julien found himself subjected to the onslaught of a superior mind, set against him by the most violent hatred. Far from having the least idea in the world of defending himself at the moment, he came to despise himself. As he listened to her overwhelm him with such cruel marks of scorn, calculated with so much wit to destroy any good opinion he might have of himself, he began to think that Mathilde was right and that she couldn’t say enough.” “[T]hat powerful imagination, which had once been ceaselessly occupied with painting a future of brilliant success for him, was now his implacable enemy.” Capturing political discourse to this day, and the general sclerosis encountered by leftist movements to accomplish things while Republicans score Supreme Court Seats and Gerrymander, M. De La Mole says, “In short, there must be two parties in France… two parties, not in name only, but two distinct, sharpy divided parties. Let us be clear about who is to be crushed. On the one hand journalists, voters, public opinion: in a word, youth and all who admire it. While youth is being deafened by the sound of its own idle talk, we, we have the certain advantage of consuming the state budget.” At a dinner with M. De La Mole, in a funny passage a dignitary says, “Enough of these unpleasant truths… The man who stands in need of having a gangrenous leg cut off would be ill-advised to tell his surgeon: ‘That diseased leg is quite healthy.’” Regarding ones motives in life and having money, “[A] portfolio changes everything, overrides all a man’s other interests.” A Prince whom Julien befriends points out Mathilde’s position to him, and from him he hatches his plan to try and make her jealous to win her back. “[She] is very much wrapped up in herself, like all women upon whom heaven has bestowed either too much nobility or too much money. She is always looking at herself, instead of you; consequently, she doesn’t know you. During those two or three fits of love she permitted herself in your favor, by a great effort of the imagination, she saw you as the hero of her dreams, and not as you really are…” Our great human capacity to see what we want to see. “If she enjoys doing harm to others, therefore, it is because she is unhappy herself.” When we invest energy in appearing, we become tired, “The demands he made upon himself to appear cured in Mathilde’s sight used up all his strength of his soul…” Julien observes the nothingness which is spewed in drawing rooms, and the reason why, “Their vagueness was total. The intention was to say everything and nothing… ‘Amidst all these lofty thoughts about nonbeing, death, the infinite, etcetera, I see nothing genuine except a disgusting fear of ridicule.’” Julien used the letters he got from the Russian to try to woo Madame Fervaques, the widow, to try to make Mme. De La Mole jealous. “Like all ordinary mortals whom chance has placed in full view of a great general’s maneuvers, Julien understood nothing of the attack executed by the young Russian against the stern English girl’s heart.” (for whom the letters were originally written). People have a hard time understanding that which is above their head. At dinner at Mme. De Fervaques, “Here, all the greatest questions to which men have turned their thoughts are boldly attacked. And after you have listened for three minutes you wonder which will win out, the speaker’s bombast or his disgusting ignorance.” The ever-common trend of winning an argument by being the squeakiest wheel yet most ignorant. Mme. De Fervaques was used to being, “Surrounded by personages who were eminently moral, but who often didn’t have one idea in an evening, the lady was deeply impressed by anything that looked like a novelty, but at the same time, she thought she owed it to herself to take offense at it.” “The boredom inherent in a way of life whose only aim is to make an impression on the public, when at the bottom of her heart the person takes no real pleasure in that kind of success, became so intolerable since she had begun to think about Julien…” Once Julien finally wins back Mathilde, one questions his motives, and the whole tit-for-tat is again apparent; “[M]y novel is finished, and the credit is due to me alone. I was able to make that monster of pride fall in love with me…” Meanwhile, Mme. De Renal, whom Julien winds up shooting in a church as revenge for her trying to sabotage him to M. De La Mole, had, “For a long time she had sincerely wished to die.” She had been heartbroken by Julien and did not know otherwise what to make of her life. Julien writes a letter to Mlle. De La Mole from prison, displaying his delusions of grandeur, “For the herd, I will be a common murderer”; he has some similarity with Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment, he entitles himself to do anything he wants. “[H]e gave some thought to remorse. ‘Why should I have any? I have been abominably insulted; I have killed, I deserve to die, but that’s all.” His locus of control, his whole life, has been in others. “[W]hat could be more despicable than their attitude! I still have one way to win their respect: that is to throw gold pieces to the crowd as I go to my execution.’ After this spell of reasoning… Julien said to himself, ‘I have nothing left to do on earth…’” He so little wants to deal with reality, “I foresee visits from priests, from my father. Nothing on earth could be more disagreeable. I’d rather die.” After seeing an old man in prison, seeing life’s potential for death, Julien loses his grandiosity and despairs. “After mental poisoning, physical antidotes are in order, and champagne.” He was continuously wishy washy in his relationship with Mathilde, depending whether he was or was not feeling ambitious. “[H]e abandoned himself joyously to his love for Mathilde.” But then, a day or two later, he could not have cared less for her; he was too caught up in himself to love genuinely, as had been pointed out to him about Mathilde. “And to think how passionately I desired this total intimacy which leave me so cold today!” Julien loves his lofty ideals, “Leave me to my ideal existence. Your pestering, your little accounts of real life, all more or less offensive to me, would pull me down from the heavens… I want to face death in my own way… What do I care what the public thinks?” Julien cares deeply. He wants to be left alone to his fantasy World. “Though Julien’s mind was almost always in the land of ideas, Mathilde, concerned with realities, as befits an aristocratic heart… “ One cannot eat ideas; this, Sowell’s constrained vs. unconstrained vision. Julien calls out the hypocrisies of society, the human condition, and how people will do anything to “win.” “[T]he men who frequent those drawing rooms… They boast about their honesty! And, if called upon for jury duty, proudly convict the man who stole a silver fork and spoon because he was faint with hunger. But where there’s a court, and once it’s a question of losing or winning a portfolio, my upright gentlemen from the drawing room will stoop to crimes that are identical with those which the necessity of dining inspired these two convicts to commit.” “There is no such thing as natural rights; that idea is a piece of time-honored nonsense… A right does not exist unless there is a law to forbid one’s doing such and such a thing under penalty. Before there were laws nothing was natural except the lion’s strength, or the need of the creature who was hungry, who was cold, in a word, need… No, the men society honors are nothing but crooks lucky enough not to get caught red-handed… Valenod, who convicted me, is a hundred times more harmful to society.” However right or wrong Julien always is, there are many grains of truth to his diatribe. “So life, death, eternity, are simple matters for anyone who has faculties huge enough to comprehend them… A dayfly is born at nine in the morning, during the long summer days, to die at five in the evening; how could it understand the word ‘night’?” Again, similar to what Raskolnikov learns, Julien shouts, “To live in isolation! … What torment!” He no longer cared for Mlle. De la Mole, leaving her with, “A raging jealousy impossible to avenge, unremittent and hopeless misery (for, even if Julien was saved, how was she to win back his heart?), and the shame and pain of loving this unfaithful man more than ever had plunged Mlle. De La Mole into a dejected silence…” What is “loving” someone who does not love you? It is irrational. The book closes on public opinion, as it had opened on it. “The bad thing about the reign of public opinion, which it muse be added procures liberty, is that it meddles with that which is none of its business; for instance, private life. Hence, America’s and England’s gloominess.”

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"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933

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