A Study of De Stendhal

OCCASIONALLY there are brilliant writers and superior men who are “ caviare to the general; ” whose pride is to be exclusive, whose aim is to be appreciated by the few. They appeal to particular people, and are best explained by a peculiar experience of life. They disdain the general public. They believe everything in literature and life to be — what we have no English expression for — recherché. They have consequently missed the incense of popularity, they have been neglected by the people. The most distinguished and inveterate example of this literary type is De Stendhal, whose real name was H. Beyle. Need I say he is a writer who entices the intellect but does not attract the heart? Such a writer must be provoking and epigrammatic in expression, incessant in his thinking; an analytic mind, a critic of life and character, without warmth, without glow, but keen, cutting, piercing, stinging even; a writer who may be compared to a cutter of gems, to a polisher of crystals. He takes pleasure in the hard, the neat, the shining, the brilliant, the rare; he may be said to use words to split, to shave, to sharpen common truths, to lift them out of the sphere of accident and change into a classified and fixed world, — the world of his own thoughts. His mind is a museum of classified selections; his books, descriptive catalogues of his mental possessions.

Thackeray took a sad pleasure in contemplating society and men as a spectacle of puppets. He commented on them as a play, with Tragedy at the last act dropping the pall and putting out the lights. What Thackeray is in this trite but always forcible fancy, what he is without the irresistible pathos with which he speaks of youth and love and old age, De Stendhal is at all times, — a cynical observer of men and manners, a singular man himself, speaking from a varied experience, having studied character in military camps, in battles, in the trivial and intriguing society of Italy of the first, part of this century, and in the broken society of France during the wars of the first Napoleon. He has the distinction of being a literary type, a peculiar thinker, an uncommon writer. He is the eldest brother of that literary family which claims Balzac and Thackeray. I should say he is the man of the world, who observes and writes, as opposed to the solitary dreamer, who contemplates and speaks his thought in impassioned prose.

There are two great literary races in France. Their inspiration is diverse and opposite to each other. In no prose literature is the distinction of race so clearly defined as in the French. Of the one race is Montaigne, Voltaire, De Stendhal, Balzac, Sainte - Beuve, About, and Taine; of the other is Bossuet, Fénelon, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, George Sand, and Alfred de Musset. On the one side is wit, the expression close to the thought, a direct and nervous style, a prosaic sense, everything dominated by the understanding. On the other is amplitude of expression, an ideal, something vague and grand in the conceptions, always essentially poetic and large, and exacting a liberal interpretation from unimaginative people. The first are sensible, satirical, ironical, without moral indignation, but caustic; the second are impassioned, speak from the moral sense, and appeal to the whole being as distinguished from the isolated understanding which may be said to be tickled by such writers as Montaigne and Voltaire. One of the most eminent of this high literary race is De Stendhal. His place in French life is between the first empire and the revolution of 1848. His place in literature was made by his minute observations and raillery of Continental society before it had fully incorporated modern ideas and suppressed its most ancient prejudices. De Stendhal belongs to the eighteenth century. The new ideas which turned so many heads, the immense expectations which the revolution begot in Frenchmen, did not touch him. He was soldier and civilian, scrutinizing his masters, mocking them, hut never dreaming of revolt. While the noble Pierre Leroux was brooding over the ideas which were brought forth in 1848, in France, De Stendhal, simply as a man of the world, was writing the third preface to a curious book about love, De I'Amour, which had made no noise in the polite world, but bad pleased some, interested some, and provoked others, — a hook of shreds and patches, made of observations, anecdotes, and reflections concerning what he calls the malady of the soul.

De Stendhal is the author of fifteen books of special interest, novels, biographies, stories, art criticisms, and a remarkable history of painting in Italy, which contains several really extraordinary chapters about the temperaments and manners of men. He is the most outré in his thought, and the most sedate in his expression; he contrives to say things in such a way that they make you think, and to irritate the mind. His sang froid, his raillery, his dryness, his accumulations of observations and reflections, and the pains he takes to make you feel that unless you are wellbred and have une âme delicate et tendre, he does not address you, separate him from all the writers with whom I am acquainted. But without the wish to be one of the elect of De Stendhal’s world, it is possible to appreciate his work. He has written the best criticism on Raphael that I know of; his story of Andrea del Sarto is a beautiful example of biography; his life of Leonardo da Vinci is admirable, and the reflections he makes concerning Greek art and Michael Angelo are such as do not occur to any but subtle and superior minds, out of the common track of travelers who venture into the boundless world of æsthetics.

He says of our country that the government is good and the society detestable; that love, as understood in Italy, is not in the United States; that manufacturers and bankers are recompensed by millions of dollars and not by tender sensations.

De Stendhal’s novel, Le Rouge et le Noir, is a remarkable series of studies of French character, trustworthy, like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as a rendering of society, free from the romantic interest and the magic of passion which always lift George Sand’s studies above the ordinary and prosaic. De Stendhal does not share the life of his dramatic personages, like the most illustrious French romancer; he merely photographs them; he brings them before you like a detective, and lets you see them act; he penetrates their minds and betrays what is passing in their most bidden recesses; he describes them, but he does not judge them. He furnishes you with no moral maxims, he indites no little sermons. He is as impartial as a Greek chorus. He is absolutely unbiased and unjudging, like a perfect man of the world. He has no moral convictions, but he has taste; he has no religion, but he has a sentiment of life which consecrates certain subjects and about which he speaks with delicacy if not with reserve.

De Stendhal is a strange writer, and it is difficult to make his acquaintance for the reason that he is preoccupied with the exceptional sentiments and circumstances of human life. He is an incessant thinker, but lacks unity, largeness, and harmony in his thinking. He may be called the father of such critics as Taine and Sainte-Beuve, the Montaigne of his time, distasteful to most hearty and zealous souls, yet commanding the respect due to decided traits and a conscientious mind.

It seems strange to converse with a man who does not flatter the people, who does not take off his hat to popular idols, who avoids a platitude as most men would avoid the pest, whose only occupation seems the dissection and analysis of men and things. Such a man is rare in France, but is absolutely unknown here. Balzac had a high appreciation of his work, but said his weak point was his style; yet Taine says no literary manner is more piquant, none gives a more solid pleasure, and he praises it for being opposed to the style à développement, the style of pulpit orators, which is so tiresome to men of wit; on the other hand George Sand bluntly says he writes badly, but adds, “ yet he says things in a way to strike and vividly interest his readers.”

De Stendhal is so French that it is difficult for an American to place himself in just relation with his mind and the subjects which interested it. He is mocking and he has no heart; he has a love for conditions of life and character which are to be discovered only in Italy and France; he subjects to intellectual discrimination and judgment the gallantries and passions of idle people; he follows Faust like Mephistopheles, and he scrutinizes the simple Margaret, comparing and contrasting the allurements of her sweet nature and the expression of her fondness with other specimens de ce genre which he has collected and classified. He is a French Mephistopheles, little, fat, restless, observant, and, I am sorry to add, with that unexplained hankering for the obscene which is the characteristic of so many Frenchmen. It is not a Guizot, a Laboulaye, a De Lamennais, a George Sand, or a Renan who furnishes any fact for this odious comparison, but it is Montaigne, La Fontaine, Voltaire, Diderot, and De Stendhal, the dryest and hardiest successor of these purely French minds,—these men of wit, men of the world, men without the religious feeling, lively and mundane, of rare good sense, but deficient in imagination, and amused by everything transcendental. They have written the books which shock Englishmen and Americans, which offend all but the most indifferent and philosophical minds.

But to return directly to De Stendhal. He instructs us by his careful expression of personal tastes. A cynic by temperament and conviction, he never mistakes the curiosity of the public for the compassion and delicate solicitude of a friend. While he entertains his reader with what he has seen and thought, he does not betray any anxiety for your approbation. If he is lacking in imagination, his understanding is so superior that one listens contentedly to him as to a man of experience. The charm of youth, which is never lost by men of genius, which always has a place in their writings, is not in De Stendhal’s style. No trace of youth is in his books, nothing of its credulity, its enthusiasm, its freshness, its energy. His books abound in curious and striking reflections, and he has rivaled Voltaire in the stinging truths he has written about his own countrymen. When he says that Montaigne and Voltaire and nearly all the brilliant and veritable French minds have not comprehended Raphael and Michael Angelo, he says something suggestive.

De Stendhal is one of the most modern of writers by his style. But like Emerson he never develops his thoughts; he merely scatters them like so many seeds which, falling in a good soil, will make their own development. He says, “ I seek to relate with truth and clearness what passes in my head. I have but one rule, — to be clear; if I am not clear my whole world is ruined.” We who have such an inadequate appreciation of style, and understand it by the vices of mannerists rather than by the models of the masters, could not have a more correcting and just phrase: “I have but one rule, —to be clear.”

What De Stendhal calls le véritable esprit français is always clear, and clearness is the first condition of a good prose style. But we should not call De Stendhal an artist; his literary aim is very limited, and he does not draw upon all the means of expression. He is not an artist; his aim is not the beautiful, but the intelligible ; he is not an artist, therefore he misses all the consolations of the ideal, therefore he prefers La Fontaine to Rousseau. We cannot too often repeat, he is a man of the world. He puts in play the finest irony, and pleases himself with the cold superiority of a man untouched by your enthusiasms and master of all your disguises. When you come warm and palpitating from the utterance of a man whose words sweep over your soul like the fingers of a skillful minstrel, touching all the chords of passion, he dampens your ardor by saying that all rhetoric is ridiculous; but of course he speaks like a conversationalist and not like a great writer. It is not so that De Quineey, or Burke, or Milton would have spoken.

De Stendhal’s studies have all the interest of a dissection; they pique the curiosity and are repugnant at the same time, like a lesson in anatomy. Like all special examinations they appeal only to a few people, but they would be valuable as a corrective to most of us, because most of us have our literary taste formed by the verbose and general style which obtains on the platforms and in the pulpits of the land. Mhen we make this suggestion we admit the limitations of De Stendhal. Deficiency of heart and imagination cannot be compensated by any clearness, polish, and keenness of intellect. De Stendhal instructs us in many ways, and chiefly by what he is. The worldly mind, blasé, stored with the fruits of travel and wide reading, and accustomed to intercourse with the most civilized minds, is not equal to a great literary or artistic work, — is not even equal to works that beget anything like a personal feeling of affection (like Goldsmith and Irving) for the author. In Le Rouge et le Noir, the man who writes seems actually suppressed. The total absence of the sympathetic nature, the presence of a dry, clear, illuminating mind, the indifference with which the scampishness and roguery of the hero are detailed, implies the intelligence of a reporter, but not a heart that suffers and rejoices. De Stendhal has no moral sense, nothing of the genial and fusing elements which endear authors to us, and because of which we give them our impassioned admiration. For De Stendhal, the author of La Chartreuse de Parme, Le Rouge et le Noir, and De I' Amour, with his penetration and subtlety, we have only intellectual curiosity; we follow his demonstrations with the consciousness that it will soon be over, and we shall breathe again quick, glad, full breaths in the wholesome air of living men and women. Yet it must not be understood from this that De Stendhal’s science destroys the vitality of his subjects; it merely limits the action and interest. Julien and Fabrice are living and varied in action. Whoever would know a young Italian or a young Frenchman should read Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. They offer types which lack the element that makes the grandeur and tediousness of the life of the English and American young man. The study of the young men of these books is made in absolute contrast with the style of George Sand’s romances. Taine says De Stendhal’s personages are remarkable but not great. The distinction is just. Because they are remarkable, they interest us; not being great, we cannot admire them. We rise from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair saddened and disgusted with the actual English society during the Waterloo year; we rise from De Stendhal’s studies of French and Italian society of the same period with a kindred sentiment. Both societies are portrayed in the same tone, but with this difference: the Englishman is at times pathetic; the Frenchman, never. De Stendhal is caustic, ironical, prosaic, inveterate; nothing mellows or fuses his phrases— but I forget; the sentiment of nature and art occasionally makes him write like a man of sensibility, and always with delicacy. Such, for example, is the description of Julien in the cathedral, his soul exalted by the full and solemn sounds of the great bell. But even in these pages worthy of George Sand there is the irony of De Stendhal, and the analysis is pushed so far that the revelation of what passes in the mind of Julien jars upon us. As lovers of fine and harmonious influences we cannot forgive the intrusion of a mean and calculating mind such as he reveals in his hero; the poet and the scamp, the lover of the ideal and the Judas soul, are not an agreeable combination for a work of art. With the instinct of a Greek artist we would protest against our guide’s revelations and forbid his reaism. Devoted as De Stendhal was to everything that made polite society, he was not an artist, —less of an artist than Thackeray or Balzac, the two writers who have excelled him in profiting by his studies. He was a man of sense, of rare intellectual delicacy, without any moral prejudices, on the scent for pretension, which he hunted down; he discussed woman with more boldness and sang froid, and yet with great reverence, than any other French writer; he once made this good reflection, and we are not yet sufficiently beyond its reach: —

“ From the actual system of the education of young girls, all the geniuses that are born women are lost to the public ; the very moment chance gives them the means of showing off see them reaching the most difficult of places; in our days see a Catherine II., who had no other education than danger and . . . ; a Madame Roland; an Alssandra Mari, who, in Arezzo, raises a regiment and hurls it against the French; a Caroline Queen of Naples, who knows better how to stop the contagion of liberalism than Castlereagh. As to what places an obstacle to the superiority of women in works of the mind, consult the chapter on pudeur. And what height would not have been reached by Miss Edgeworth, if the consideration due to a young English girl had not made it necessary for her, when she began writing, to transport the pulpit into the novel? ”

To-day it is common to suggest the correspondence between music and landscape art. De Stendhal beautifully expresses the dominant charm of landscape painting when he says, “ The magic of remoteness, that part of painting which charms tender imaginations, is perhaps the principal cause of its superiority to sculpture. By that it comes closer to music, it engages the imagination to complete its own pictures, and if at first struck by figures in the foreground, it is those the details of which are half hidden in air which we remember with most charm; they have taken in our soul a celestial tint.”

One of his many reflections concerning wives is of general interest. He says, “ By means of a certain law named sympathy, law of nature, which in truth vulgar souls never perceive, the defects of the companion of your life do not hurt your happiness by any positive evil which they occasion to you. I would prefer to have my wife, in a moment of rage, try and thrust a dagger at me once a year than to receive me with bad temper every evening. Between people who live together happiness is contagious. If your friend has spent her morning in copying a rose or in reading a play of Shakespeare, while you were absent, her pleasure will have been innocent; only with the ideas given to her by the rose she will bore you when you come home, and furthermore she will long to go into society that very evening and seek in it more vivid sensations. But if she has read Shakespeare well, on the contrary, she will be happier in taking your arm for a walk in the woods than in appearing in the world. The pleasures of the world are small to happy women.” It is in this fashion that De Stendhal unexpectedly brings from a common theme a suggestive thought. While he gives all the importance due to the question of sex, — a question which must always have the chief place in any discussion of woman,—he happily refutes the arguments of the stupid and knavish who would withhold the most liberalizing and emancipating studies from women. He accomplishes all that can be accomplished with irony; he trusts to love and to sex as the adequate laws to regulate and determine the conduct of women in modern society.

De Stendhal had aristocratic prejudices and tastes, he was not imbued with democratic ideas, he did not believe in heroes, he was out of humor with his time, and for immortality he missed the two essentials, — advanced ideas and a beautiful literary form. But scholars and thinkers will turn to his books with interest, and from time to time glean many suggestive thoughts. The matter of his history of painting in Italy is in every way instructive and curious; certainly an original work, remarkable in its arrangement and combination, and probably the most novel and interesting history of art ever written. All that one wishes to know, all that one may think, the most unexpected questions and the most indirect, yet questions which merely to have stated instruct us, are to be met with in the fragments, in the examinations, in the sketches, in the materials for a history of Italian art and society and character of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which is called Histoire de la Peinture en Italie; but De Stendhal is better known by his Essai sur le Rire, which is occasionally quoted. His most harmonious writings are his life of Andrea del Sarto, and his Raphael. French critics claim him to be an esprit supérieur; our interest in him and the reason we introduce him to attention is that he is an example of mental refinement not second to SainteBeuve or Matthew Arnold, au unfortunate in being less of a literary artist, though of a much more original mind, than either of these illustrious critics. He hates exaggeration of phrase and rank colors in style as much as either Matthew Arnold or Sainte-Beuve, and it seems to us that he anticipated the intellectual delicacy and the search after fine gradations and subtle thoughts which make the distinguishing merits of Sainte-Beuve, the accomplished French critic, and his discriminating English disciple, Matthew Arnold.

Eugene Benson.