At first I really loved Stendhal's essays on Love
. His theory is that the pains of love are necessary in order to "crystallize" the object of one's love, which basically is a process of transcendence from the real to the ideal, a state which is necessary in real, passionate love. Furthermore, Stendhal dissects love into a number of classifications which range the gambit from passionate romantic love to egotistic physical love to mannered love, etc. It is these meandering discussions of love, what it is and what it isn't, the stages of falling in and out of love, the nuance between love and jealousy, and their co-dependance, which make the first half of Love
a real pleasure to read. However, this collection is very imbalanced. The first half is superb, but the second half falls very short of the standard set by its preceding pages. Particularly the generalizations about love in different locales grew very tiresome, as many of these descriptions also felt very dated and now irrelevant.
These essays, while a joy to read, didn't ring with brilliance the way love in fiction does. Love is a sort of strange thing to approach in a methodical essay format, and while I think it works in some short shimmering passages herein, the essays mostly feel coldly scientific. And what qualifies anyone to write about love in this way, anyway? Certainly I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, which typically make their mischievous ways into my reviews here, for better or worse, but am I any authority on the matter? Probably not, I'm a veteran of wedding singles tables, and anyway the closest I've had to a long term relationship is with the "Romantic Comedies" listing on my Netflix account. And what qualifies Stendhal's authority on love? He's french, anyway, which helps. He wrote these essays in a passion to unrequited love for his Italian mistress (who probably helped to inspire the character of Mathilde in The Red and the Black
). Whatever his qualifiers for talking about love, it's hard to deny him when he has insights like:
The memories produce a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be grand passion.
Some people, over-fervent, or fervent by starts - loving on credit, if I may put it that way - will hurl themselves upon the experience instead of waiting for it to happen. Before the nature of an object can produce its proper sensation in them, they have blindly invested it from afar with imaginary charm which they conjure up inexhaustibly within themselves.
Stendhal is an astute observer of the psychologies of love and passion, vanity and jealousy: that's what makes his novels so emblematic of realism (even if I think they're a bit melodramatic - but what do you expect? he's french). He is a man who has clearly been steeped in the language of love, the fictions and philosophies of l'amour
, but at times his image of it seems almost too big, too grandiose. I felt, when reading this, that all those loves, all of the many kinds and stages of love, where somewhat false to Stendhal. He seems to be trying, at one and the same time, to raise his own (unrequited) love for Countess Dembowska up to a pedestal, but also to vouchsafe it in the realm of the unattainable, the fictive. His love for the countess is the idol which he adores, but it's an idol out of reach, and maybe one which isn't so great: all gilding and no substance.
For Stendhal, love is about what you feel, the subject, the "I" in "I love you." Stendhal's analysis is a dissection of one man, a man in love, in a vacuum. The object of love, the "you" constantly eludes his analysis, and his concept of love is a solitary madness, not a folie à deux
. But that is a very selfish, vain kind of emotion. Love is a strange ambiance, a nuance of reality: a world of two. A shared madness is the madness of love (it is the madness of genius which is solitary). Werther, Don Juan: men which Stendhal uses to represent two opposed views of love, are two-of-a-kind. For Werther, his love, his infatuation, with Charlotte, incorporates everything into his love, paints the world with her imagined-love, and ultimately entraps him in his own illusions, and vain imagination. For Don Juan, his passion is removed from emotion, his body is split from his spirit, and his conquests are unreal to him. But Charlotte is unreal to Werther, also. Werther's love is not for Charlotte as she is
but as he designs her to be. He is "in love" with the illusion of potential, of what could be or might have been. These loves are different for Stendhal, he sees Werther as a sentimental and passionate man, but he misses the point of Werther's sorrows: Werther does not love Charlotte, but vainly loves to be in love, he is a man of infinite emotion, but emotion without aim, targeting on the passing fancy of the insipid Charlotte.
Stendhal offers a view of love which is compelling, and which is complete, though one which is only a view. There are many loves, and though Stendhal attempts to dissect love in an objective way, and though it seems to be a rational view of amorous affection, it is a tainted and biased view. Love
lives and loves vainly in the shadow of Countess Dembowska, a ghostly shade which haunts these pages.