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Friday, September 07, 2007

After a midnight inspiration - Stendhal, 1829

Stendhal had a very busy year in 1829. He was finishing up his book, Walks in Rome. He was involved, according to his first biographer, R. Colomb, in the conclave that elected Pius VIII. And he had a famous night of inspiration on October 25 – one of those great midnights. It was on such a midnight that Kafka wrote The Judgment. Any writer would give up years for such midnights. They don’t come often. He had read an anecdote in the Gazette des Tribunaux about the attempted murder of a married woman, and it suddenly leaped out at him that this murder was ‘the real thing’. As with James, Stendhal’s inspirations came from anecdotes.

Stendhal, then, is at his intellectual height when he wrote his sardonic article on Transcendental Philosophy. It was published in the Revue de Paris, in response to an attack on Stendhal as a partisan of Helvetius – an old “perruque”, as he puts it. The figure of Louaut, the old Napoleonic conscript crippled by attacks of rheumatism and left to suffer in solitude, is obviously on some level a projection of Stendhal’s own sense of himself. Stendhal copied the article and sent it in a letter to an English friend in December, 1829.

Louaut’s letter is a premise for an analysis of altruism (a word that had yet to be invented by Comte, one of those tedious enthusiasts for “transcendental philosophy”) from a “philosopher of the school of Cabanis.” If Louaut is two degrees of distance from Stendhal, the philosopher is one degree distant. These gradations mark out the essential fiction of the essay.

‘I am the philosopher to whom lieutenant Louaut wrote his letter and, what is a bit more irritating for me, I am of the school of Cabanis: I am making a book on the motives of the actions of men and, as I am not eloquent, nor even a great writer, not counting on my style, I am trying to assemble facts for my book. Having read the story of the action of M. Louaut, I went to see him. How did you do that, I asked him – and we have seen his response: I have only erased a few grammatical faults.

It seems to me to prove marvelously, as the new school says, and in a very wise manner that the motive for human action is very simply the search for pleasure and the fear of pain. A long time ago, Virgil said: each is carried forward by his pleasure: Trahit sua quemque voluptas.

Regulus, returning to Carthage, where horrible tortures awaited him, ceded to the fear of pain. The public contempt of which he would have been the object if he had remained, in violation of his oath, was more painful for him than the cruel death he had to suffer in Carthage.

The search for pleasure is the motive of all men. It would truly be a pleasure for me, and this is what has placed the pen in my hand, to see the new school of eclectic philosophy respond to this. But as I am not eloquent, I wish they would respond to me without eloquence and without beautiful obscure phrases, a l’allemande, but very simply, in small and clear french phrases, as in the style of the Civil Code.

My treatise on the motive for human actions will be, in effect, a supplement to the Civil Code; it will require heroism to publish it. I see from her fifty thousand persons, all tenured, who have a monetary interest to say that I am immoral; they would have said the same of Helvetius and Bentham, the best of men.”

Of course, the question of motivation isn’t answered by Stendhal’s old wig, or whig, for why the fear of public opprobium is more painful than torture does have a deep and disorganizing effect on the thesis. Still, the notion that philosophy should be written in the style of the Civil Code – a notion that Nietzsche, Stendhal’s great reader, picks up on – has had a long and fruitful career.

Finally, let me translate three more paragraphs.

My challenge to the new school, which calls itself eclectic, is, for the moment, only concerned with the explanation of what passed in the soul of lieutenant Louaut during the quarter of an hour preceding his immersion in the Seine.

I value the eloquence and the virtues of the eclectic philosophers, and my estime is so deep, that it triumphs over the distrust I have for any man who is obscure in his language and who is not a fool. Every day we see in life that a man who understands a thing well explains it clearly.

The French born around 1810 feel a lively pleasure, according to me, the child of pride, in going to philosophy talks and going out of them. However, during the talk itself, the pleasure is less lively, they try to understand. How many people have an interest in praising the new philosophy! While waiting for the jesuits to have all the professors hung, the best they can do is to favor german philosophy, a little obscure as it is and often mystical; one might say that all its adherents are obscure for the sake of pleasure…”

I love this, I have to admit. I love the way Stendhal’s fictional philosopher – who exists, so to speak, on a hypothetical level – takes his grand notion of the motive of human action and uses it not only to explain cases, but to explain objections. There is a certain comedy – an old Voltarian comedy – in shifting from everyday action to conceptual explanation. Making theory human abases theory, and the abasement of theory is funny – it is funny when Gargantua makes a student full of macaronic French shit his breeches, and it is funny when the eclectic philosopher’s obscurity is traced not to the obscurity of his object but to the pleasure he takes in being obscure. I could trace a line here from Stendhal to Dostoevsky to Shatov – but I will have mercy on my readers and not.


amie said...

LI, many thanks for excavating and
translating this text. While reading it, I was reminded of Balzac famously writing of La Chartreuse de Parme that "one sees perfection in every detail." One
might say the same of this text. Consider the typographical precision of the layout in Lieu-tenant Louaut's letter: le pont d'Iéna, champ de Mars, the boat capsizing on the "other side of the Seine, near the Quai des Bons-Hommes". Louaut thinking, in vain, that someone from the other shore will dive in and save the drowning sailor. "Quelqu'un se jettera de l'autre côté, pensai-je."
It's true such details might not be all that significant for Transcendental Philosophy, but that does beg the question, precisely why not?

Not being much of a Transcendental Philosopher, I can't avoid thinking that such details matter, when it comes to the questions you mention and their articulations in the text.
The shifts of narrative positions that involve Louaut, the Philosophe, and Stendhal, where the latter is also a pseudonym. (The letter to Sutton in London, including the article from Revue de Paris, is signed Stendhal!)

The question of why it is more painful to suffer contempt for breaking one's oath than torture and death!

And the matter of Style, which is perhaps inextricably involved with all such questions. Louaut and the Philosophe, seem to share and suffer from a failing when it comes to style and eloquence (even if the latter sees fit to correct the formers grammatical mistakes)

As did Stendhal. The aforementioned laudatory Balzac text does have have reservations when it comes to Stendhal's style. Numerous others, including Hugo, were far harsher.
There's a letter from Stendhal to Balzac, from October 1840, where he takes up the question of style and "historical-political-literary" legacies with characteristic wit, "Wit endures only two hundred years: in 1978 Voltaire will be Voiture; but Le Père Goriot will always be Le Père Goriot."

LI, I would wager you noted the following line in the text: "My treatise on the motive for human actions will be, in effect, a supplement to the Civil Code; it will require heroism to publish it."

What is such a "supplement", as a "style"? One could think of Rousseau, who looms large in all this, of the "dangerous supplement", of the passages in Emile where JJR disputes Helvitus on education. Not to enter all that, therein lies madness! But you would perhaps agree that the question of style is related to that of education, in S.'s text? Which is quite explicit in the philosophe's concern for speaking clearly, as against the obscurity fostered by german philosophy! And education also comes up when Louaut curses the drowning sailor for not having learned to swim, something which should have been necessary for his work.
And, curiously enough, the question of education seems to be present when Louaut says that he is the "happiest of all men", just prior to taking off his clothes and diving into the Seine. He hasn't saved the drowning sailor yet, but the happiness in question echoes an earlier passage from the letter which mentions how Louaut's poor fisherman father would teach his sons to swim by taking of their clothes and throwing them in the sea. Why is it that Louaut's letter describes saving the drowning man in a couple of perfunctory phrases , but does dwell on his taking off his clothes and jumping in to the water as in his childhood?
There's another curious thing leading up to the happiness of saving the sailor, which involves a shift from looking to listening. Louaut says that he looked at the drowning man despite himself, malgré moi. And then he hastens away, but can still hear the man's cries for succor. As he puts some distance between them, he carries on a fine conversation with himself, but this is suddenly interrupted by a strange voice whose strangeness and distance is underscored by its formal form of address that breaks up L's intimate conversation with himself with nothing less than - "you're a coward!" As L. admits, this "is serious".
So what is the question of cowardice and heroism in these texts, and their relation to happiness?
LI, I think of another text from the 1830's that you know well, by another "enfant de la Révolution", Bücher's Danton. The drame has all the grand historical figures carried away by eloquence, making grandly eloquent speeches as they are led away to the guillotine. But there is Lucille who is ineloquent, can't make any sense of it all. But who, in extremis, screams, and utters a phrase that exposes the sham shabbiness of historical discourse. I don't know if I could call that heroic, which is such a heavy term, or happy which is so light, but perhaps either of the two bear the sense of such a scream and phrase?

roger said...

Amie, this is such a perfect comment that I will have to take a little time to respond to it - probably in a separate post. But in the meantime, a small point. I did want to say something about Rousseau, for in my memory there is a passage in Rousseau about saving a drowning man - but I couldn't find it. Did I make this up? A passage about a moment in which the non-educated 'reste', one's spontaneous and instinctive sympathy, becomes the sole and blind motive of the moment. I wish I could remember where this passage is - it is probably Emile. Whereas, as you remark, Louaut is educated, in a sense, all the way through.

Now if we held this as a provisional opposition - the spontanous and the educated - then isn't the Red and the Black Stendhal's counter to this essay? When Julien speaks to himself, it is always to remind himself to be a hypocrite, to advance his status, to, in effect, become a good little pleasure seeking utilitarian. And in this way he crushes the moment of crystallization.

amie said...

LI, it's nice of you to say so but my previous comment is far from perfect, what with the grammatical errors, etc. But hey, in keeping with the spirit of this post, I wrote it at 2:30 AM!
I think the drowning passage in Rousseau that you are thinking of is in Book II of Emile, where Rousseau compares learning to swim and learning horseback riding.