“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, August 19, 2007

wasting time

Damn. LI is going to Atlanta today. So we don't have time to post a long translation from Stendhal's 1826 preface to On Love. As we've been saying and saying, the 19th century experienced a change in emotional customs, following behind a change in the positional structure that derived from the emergence - or imposition - of the market society. What makes Stendhal such a great witness is that his early life was dedicated to the proposition that happiness in Europe was born out of the the French Revolution. This was what Napoleon's soldiers brought with them. If you remember the great opening chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma, he describes there the irresistibly joyous result of the contact of modernity - Napoleon's soldiers - with the petrified order of the ancien regime in Italy. Although the irresistibility was, in fact, resisted and rolled back in the 1820s. This was the decade in which Standhal saw political oppression in Italy first hand, in the career of the woman he was in love with, Mathilde Dembowski, a Milanese woman who was spied on by the Austrians for her work with the Italian revolutionaries. It was in the wake of Stendhal's affair with Metilde that he wrote On Love.

A.O. Hirschman, in "The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph", has given an account of the way the relation between passion and interest was reconfigured in the post-Smith era. Hirschman begins with a tres Stendhalian question: how did glory get subordinated to wealth in the West?

“No matter how much approval was bestowed on commerce and other forms of money-making, they certainly stood lower in the scale of medieval values than a number of other activities, in particular the striving for glory. It is indeed through a brief sketch of the idea of glory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that I shall now attempt to renew the sense of wonder about the genesis of the “spirit of capitalism.”

Indeed, all his life Stendhal strove to reconcile an intellectual preference for the strictly logical and cold - philosophy expressed in the style of the Civic Code, as he put it - with his notion of the 'happy few'. The meaning Stendhal gave to happiness is inseparable from glory. The glory that ran through the Napoleonic period had, for Stendhal, departed from Europe, atomizing into private ventures - such as Julien Sorel's. Stendhal's biting comments about businessmen and the wealthy comne out of this sense that they are essentially inglorious. The striving for self interest actually blinds the reader of On Love to its meaning: it is literally incomprehensible to them:

"In spite of taking pains to be clear and lucid, I can’t perform miracles; I can neither give ears to the deaf nor eyes to the blind. Thus money men, men whose pleasures are unselective [a grosse joie] who have earned a hundred thousand france in the year preceding the moment they open this book ought to quickly shut it, in particular if they are bankers, manufacturers, respectable industrialists, that is to say people with eminently positive ideas. This book may be less unintelligible to those who have gained a lot of money in the market or the lottery. Such profit can coexist with the habit of passing hours entirely devoted to revery, and to enjoying the emotions that come out of a painging of Prud’hon or a musical phrase of Mozart’s, or, finally, of a certain singular look darted by the woman one is preoccupied with. This is, of course, nothing but wasting one’s time for men who pay two thousand workers at the end of each week. Their minds are always pointed towards the useful and the positive."

Well, I will return to this when I can.

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