Charles U. Zug
June 20, 2018
ove in America has been having a tough time. From Brock Turner and Bill Cosby in 2014 to the deluge of high-profile sex scandals and the #MeToo movement in 2017/18, the decay—or sudden implosion—of America’s sexual culture threatens to banish love as a subject worthy of literary and artistic celebration. As a recent Politico article contends, a “revolution in sexual behavior is being led by the young. Although this sexual counter-revolution began before the #MeToo movement arose...the cultural outrage over men’s bad behavior is likely to accelerate this trend.”
Nothing quite shrivels the romantic imagination today like the thought of backstage debauchees such as James Levine and Harvey Weinstein—serious figures in American high-art, suddenly revealed as paunchy, leering churls. American arts and letters have already begun to reflect our metamorphosing attitudes toward sex and love.
In the midst of this metamorphosis, it is refreshing to read Raymond N. MacKenzie’s Stendhal: Italian Chronicles (2017), a collection of Stendhal’s Italian-themed short fiction. Replete with witty intrigue and suffused with erotic charm, Stendhal’s writings transports the reader to a barely recognizable literary epoch, articulating, among other delights, a nearly forgotten vision of love at once tasteful, eloquent, and passionate. As MacKenzie writes, Stendhal “presents himself as a kind of impresario, raising the curtain on an exotic set of creatures he has found for us.” Attractively designed, affordably priced in paperback, this is ideal summer reading. Chronicles should induce romantic frissance in the chaste and the cynical alike.
MacKenzie's volume features Stendhal’s Chroniques italiennes of 1855 (posthumously collected and published by Stendhal’s cousin and literary executor, Romain Colomb), in addition to four “Italian Stories”; Stendhal’s unpublished prefaces to these; and a twenty-page introduction by the translator. As we learn in the latter, Stendhal—the nom de plume of French writer Henri-Marie Beyle (1783-1842)—was an omnivore of literary styles. Famous for his novels Le rouge et noire and Le Chartreuse de Parme, Stendhal also wrote stories, novellas, biographies, art and music criticism, and “chronicles”―a kind of historical short fiction that synthesizes all the aforementioned genres in a partly-aphoristic, partly-didactic, partly-narrative form. While “[a] Stendhalian chronicle is historical,” explains MacKenzie, it also “uses its historical setting primarily as a contrast with the present...the chronicle is only apparently about the past; it actually functions as a critique of the present.”
Stendhal’s “apparent” subject in each chronicle is sixteenth-century Italy, but his deeper concern is with critiquing what he regarded as the frigid, sterile, morally-hypocritical climate of modern Europe, particularly France—in the light of which, remembrance-of-Italy-past shimmers all the more enticingly:
A sixteenth century Italian woman could love a scholarly man just as intensely as she might love one celebrated for military exploits. Here, we are in the realm of the passions, not just in the routines of gallantry. And here is the great difference between Italy and France.
Indeed, “[g]irls who lack beauty do not lack admirers in France; we are a shrewd people,” explains Stendhal in “The Cenci”: “In France, love takes refuge up on the fifth floor, that is, among the girls who do not marry with the intervention of the family lawyer.”
Though l’amour-passion and its world-historical transformation is by no means the sole theme of the chronicles, it is certainly their core theme. Three chronicles—“Too Much Favor is Deadly,” “The Abbess of Castro,” and “Suora Scholastica”—take place inside the convent, that European locus classicus of smouldering desire and cloistered longing. “She would return, then, sadly, to the convent at Castro,” Stendhal intones in “The Abbess of Castro”; “we are about to witness the long degradation of a noble and generous soul. Civilization’s prudent measures and lies, which henceforth surround her at all times, will take the place of those sincere bursts of passion and natural energy.”
The last quotation will remind some readers of Rousseau, and MacKenzie’s introduction ably places Stendhal in his cultural, historical, and philosophical context. Intriguingly, MacKenzie contends that “though Stendhal was by no means a straight-forward Rousseau enthusiast, the sentiment is the same in both writers—even if the solutions each suggests are entirely different.” The comparison is apt. Rousseau can appear both philosophically astute and morally tiresome; readers of the Emile and Sophie can attest that, in matters of chastity and gender relations, he was prone to sermonize rather volubly. Not so with Stendhal, whose outlook on such matters is colored with rakish candor, and whose treatment of love matters—betrayal, avarice, seduction, and illusions perdues—will strike some as cavalier, others as callous.
And yet, as MacKenzie notes, “there is no leering in Stendhal,” who in his introduction to “The Cenci,” contrasts the sickly and hypocritical perversions of guilty Christian philanderers with the naive, vital impulses of their counterparts in antiquity:
A Don Juan is possible only because of the world’s hypocrisy. In antiquity, a Don Juan was an effect without a cause; religion then was festival, and she exhorted men toward pleasure, so how could she have rejected those creatures who made a certain pleasure their whole pursuit?... Thus, it is to the Christian religion that I attribute the possibility of a satanic role for Don Juan.
In a moral-sexual climate as chastened as ours, moral blasphemy like Stendhal’s will be palatable only insofar as its presentation has charm sufficient to entrance the orthodox and shame the prudes. In this respect, Chronicles does not disappoint. Allan Bloom contrived the following Nietzschean pastiche on the relation between Stendhal’s writing style and his substantive thought: “He proceeds at a breakneck speed, bubbling like champagne in his Rossini-esque superficiality, which is superficial only in the sense that it bathes the surface of things in the sun of the south.” Originality aside, these are les mots justes. Erotic effervescence permeates every subject Stendhal treats in Chronicles—tragedy as well as farce.