"Stendhal syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art." (Wikipedia)
Stendhal (real name Henri Beyle) had the misfortune to grow up reading novels and Jean Jacques Rousseau to arrive at adulthood just in time to participate in Napoleon’s demise and the return of political, religious, and social conservatism. Many of his chameleon-like contemporaries morphed into conservatives and thereby got ahead in the new world order as well as they had the radical liberal one that had resulted from the French Revolution. Stendhal however continued a life-long underground resistance. For the most part, this defiance was expressed in the muted themes of his novels and the barbed witticisms of his numerous conversations. It was also expressed in the way he lived his life (as a liberal, amoral, atheist in exile in Italy for much of his life).
What makes Stendhal interesting to a modern reader (this biography was written in 1946) has to do with his approach to living out of step with where his culture was heading. He is like a man from the roaring 20’s living on into the 1950’s without succumbing to the social pressures of Billy Graham, Joseph McCarthy, and Emily Post. I could picture him smoking dope at Woodstock and then leaving his tie-died T-shirt on under his business suit throughout the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Stendhal picks up the fallen banner of romanticism, wipes the mud off it, and continues to lead the charge from his bunker. “Romanticism,” he says,
“is the art of presenting to the people literary works which, in view of the existing state of customs and beliefs, afford them the utmost possible pleasure. Classicism, on the contrary, presents the literature that used to give the utmost possible pleasure to our great-grandfathers.”
“How to succeed, how to conform, or at least how to appear to conform, to the opinions of those who rule society in an age of darkness,” writes Matthew Josephson “is a theme upon which Stendhal discourses with exquisite irony. Repeatedly his heroes put on the masquerade of orthodoxy or respectability the better to ridicule it.”
Beyond his icon status as an unreconstructed liberal in a world gone Rush Limbaugh, he is also a ferociously honest writer who made it his goal to observe human beings as they were, not as they should be, starting with himself. “How many precautions are necessary to prevent oneself from lying!” Stendhal exclaims in his autobiography when he catches himself mis-remembering something to his own advantage. “From the time of his youth the study of human nature, the observation of the human heart and its passions, was his constant preoccupation,” his biographer tells us,
“But where could he study the passions better than himself. So he lived exuberantly, submitting himself to experience with an abandoned that few men of letters have relished, he went on incessantly writing down everything that happened to him just as it happened.”
“The more horrid his confessions – the more he blushed inwardly at the human vices as demonstrated in himself – the more unsparingly he recorded them.”
When Stendhal began writing his own autobiography, he decided to spare no one, himself in particular. This was, of course, made easier by the fact that he did not intend for his autobiography to be published for several decades. The work is literally addressed to readers living in 1880 or 1900 – a time when he assumes that his way of thinking will be again appreciated. “I shall be read only in 1880 or 1900,” he writes there, “Or perhaps as late as 1930”
“By appealing over the heads of the public of his own time he pursued, with design, a policy of immortality,” says Josephson,
“... in 50 or 100 years all of the lying nonsense that his contemporaries wrote – to appease the sensor or win favor before the king’s ministers – would be forgotten in the rubbish heap of history.”
"I write what I myself think and not what they think," Stendhal tells us. And in another place, “I write what I myself think, and not what is thought.”
Understanding what forces created this man who for decades went on fighting one Waterloo after another, requires us to understand the role of books in his early life. He was raised in a well-to-do but deeply conservative family in France. His mother died when he was a boy and he always regarded his father with animosity and rebelliousness. Subjected to a harsh disciplinarian patriarchalism, Stendhal learned as a teenager to fight back from under a pretense of servility. Part of his rebellion was achieved by his ability to find people in the family or neighborhood who would loan or let him steal all sort of radical or risqué books which he took to like a moth to flame. I picture him as one of those teenagers who overcompensates for rigidity of parenting with excesses of rebellion. It may be worth remembering that his father did not have the moderating influences of his mother during Stendhal’s formative teenage years.
Though his father gave him money and education, he did not “permit Henri to be happy” as Stendhal remembers it. “They poisoned my childhood,” he says of his guardians. “I hated the Abbe [his Catholic tutor]. I hated my father, the source of the Abbe's power. I hated still more the religion in whose name he tyrannized over me.” Stendhal was not allowed to join his peers in their revelries and thus he took to “rioting” in his book choices (something his father could not apparently control entirely). “Longer than other children,” says Josephson, “he knew nothing of life save what he read in books. And what books!”
“He, like tens of thousands of other youths of his time, could not long escape the all pervasive influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Locking himself in his room, and curling up in bed, he read The New Helloise in all its length, as in a trance.”
And thus, as the heroic Napoleon rose to power and challenged the powers of the monarchy, the patriarchy, tradition, and the Church, Henri Beyle fell right in line and hitched his star to Napoleon’s comet. Believing that someday, he would rise, Napoleon-like to fame (though as a writer not a general), Beyle determined to document the inner workings of his own psychology. He began to study himself so as to understand human nature just like some clerics would have studied Latin to better understand God. He intended to write in a way that would make his name known. A novel, he said, should be a mirror driven down main street (or something like that).
And what does Standhal’s writing tell us about young men in the age of Napoleon and Metternich? Perhaps, first of all, it tells us that he thought about women – a lot. And not just one woman. “One tenant of his system,” says Josephson of Stendhal, “required that he must be constantly in love or falling out of love, so that the pursuit of a series of women was his principal business in life.”
"… and after them came my books," Stendhal says.
As a lover of books and women, all his memories of specific women read like Harlequin romances (not that I have ever read any). “Love is a costly flower,” Stendhal explains, “but one must have the desire to pluck it from the edge of the precipice.” Almost all of his many romances (his biographer finds them so central to Stendhal’s journal that he begins breaking the biography into chapters at the points where one fiery romance explodes and another kindles). Virginia, Angola, Adele, Melanie, Minna, Angelina, Matilda, Clementine, Giulia, Lady Erline, and so on. The biography starts to sound a bit like Lou Bega's Mambo # 5.
Each and every flame, no matter whether they respond to his advances or not, seems to be the sole love of his life. Stendhal seems to have an infinite capacity for romance that does not require fidelity to any one woman so long as he is not pursuing two at once. “Once more we have no mere literature,” says Josephson’s of Stendhal’s memoirs, “but the dissection of the man, as he is, with the romantic epidermis removed, like an anatomical chart in the surgeon’s room.” He falls in love with abandon, and suffers rejection with abandon, or loses interest with abandon. He suffers disillusionment as easily as infatuation. His self-reflection documents that he could be both true and false to the women he adored. He could be Don Juan, sir Lancelot, or Arthur in his passions. “How often Henri Beyle exclaimed to himself in surprise,” his biographer writes, “What! Is it no more than that?’” To know him as he confesses himself to be is not necessarily to admire him. What he lacks in consistency, he tries to make up for in honesty.
“I saw again that I had cherished only illusions,” writes Stendhal of one of these aborted romances, and then soon after, is pursuing another. “In love, no one sees things as they are,” he says, and then a few pages later in the same journal, he entirely forgets his own warning. “So long as one is able to cherish an illusion of some kind,” he writes, “one may be in love.”
Thus, he says,
“When I arrive in some city, I ask a friend as soon as I have made his acquaintance, who are the dozen richest man in town; who are the twelve most beautiful women; and who is the man most disliked who can have me hung if he wishes; then I associate myself with the man who is decried, then with the pretty women, finally with the millionaires.”
Stendhal describes the phenomenon of falling in love by comparing it to crystals that form on a stick thrown into a salt mine. If left there for a few days, the stick begins to acquire crystals that enclose it like a coat of diamonds. Crystallization “is a process by which the imagination of the lover attached all sorts of illusions of every perfection to the personality of the beloved.” Oddly, he never seems to realize that he is doing it until after he has done it. And then only for the few moments that it takes him to do it again. Stendhal is unconcerned apparently with the marital status or age of any particular woman he becomes infatuated with. For whatever reason, he always seems to find women who are not likely to be able to make a long tern “normal” relationship possible (because they are too old, too young, too rich, too married to powerful men, too religious, too savvy, or too informed of his past record with respect to women.
There is much to like and dislike about Stendhal, but he has not given us the luxury of being vague. He once asked if it was the business of a human being to “describe his life or live it?” Stendhal’s answer was to do both. “I ought to write the story of my life,” he explains when he decides to write his autobiography, “then perhaps I will know what I have been.” His principle aim in writing then was not to speak of what happened to him so much as to explain how it affected him. “I do not pretend to picture things are in themselves,” he says, “but only their effects upon me.” He bemoans the fact that his women distracted him so much from doing any particularly great thing. Lacking a belief in an afterlife, he seems to have cared more than most men for that “pseudo-immortality” that comes from being remembered. “Since death is inevitable,” he insisted, “let us forget about it.” That seems to have been the basis of his Joie de vivre.
He refers to himself as “the great perhaps.”
“There was silence around him when he died” says Matthew Josephson. He was not terribly widely read or known outside of certain circles. But whenever the dark night of some conservative empire seems to return to restrict the liberty of young rebels, Stendhal reappears as the patron saint of the unreconstructable rebel. He is France’s Ren McCormack (the teen who leads the resistance to the local pastor in the 1984 movie Footloose.)
“Three years ago, nearly a dozen laws were introduced to this council in order to protect the children of Bomont. And most of these laws, I can see, as a parent, how they make sense to you. But my right to dance... when I want, where I want, and how I want is a right that you cannot take away! It is mine. See, we don't have that much time left. All us teenagers, pretty soon we're gonna be just like you. We're gonna have jobs, and bills, and families. And we're gonna have to worry about our own children, because that is the job of a parent. To worry. I get that. But ours, as teenagers, is to live! To play our music way too loud and to act like idiots! And to make mistakes.”
Stendhal’s nature was to keep on being a teenager well into his fifties. I close with two of my favorite quotes from the book.
“If a man have a heart and a shirt on his back, he should sell his shirt to see Italy.” - Stendhal
“Like Voltaire, [Stendhal] thought it might be safer if the servants and the laundresses were believers. He said: ‘I feel very religious when it seems to me that some of my shirts are missing.’” – Matthew Josephson
Question for Comment: Do you think you could write a memoir of your own life to readers two hundred years from now that would strike them as interesting? Why or why not?