“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

Thursday, September 06, 2007

lieutenant louaut - Stendhal's story

Okay, campers. I promised this a month ago.

In 1829, Stendhal wrote a pieced entitled “Transcendental philosophy”. In a note under the title, he wrote that the phrase was a ‘pleasantry”, and that he valued clarity too much to begin with an obscurity. Which, of course, clues us in: Stendhal was ever the child of the Revolution, which meant the child of Rousseau and Helvetius. Hegel, for him, was a mystagogue.

The piece consists of a letter written by an old conscript of the Emperor’s armies, the son of a fisherman who swam, when he was younger, like a fish. He includes this revelation in the first paragraph for a reason: he has a story to tell about swimming.
Here’s how it goes:

“The other day, I was walking towards the Jena bridge, on the side of the champ de Mars. There was a heavy wind, making waves on the Seine and reminding me of the sea. I was following a little boat filled with sand up to the brim, which was attempting to traverse the last arch of the bridge. Suddenly it flipped; I saw the boatman try to swim, but he was doing pretty badly. “That clumsy fool is going to drown,” I said to myself. I had some notion of throwing myself in the water. But I am forty seven years old and inclined to rheumatism; and the cold was stinging. ‘Someone will dive in from the other shore,” I thought. I looked in spite of myself. The man re-emerged on the surface and started screaming. I walked away immediately. ‘That would be too insane,” I said to myself. When I will be nailed to my bed with a severe attack of rheumatism, who is going to come and look after me? who will even think of me? I will be alone, dying of troubles just as I did last year. Why did this animal decide to imitate a sailor when he didn’t know how to swim? Besides, he had filled his boat way too full…” I could have been about fifty paces from the Seine. I still hear the screams of the boatman, drowning and imploring for help. I hurried up. “Devil take him!” I said to myself. And I began to think of other things. Suddenly I said to myself: “Lieutenant Louant (my name), you are a b…d; in a quarter of an hour that man will be drowned, and you will remember his screams all your life. B…d, B…d, said the part of prudence, that’s an easy thing to say, and how about the sixty seven days that you suffered your rheumatic attack last year, forced to stay in bed?” “oh, devil take him. He should have learned to swim if he was going to direct a boat.” I marched quickly towards the Military School. Suddenly a voice told me: “Lieutenant Louaut, you are a coward! This word made me jump. “Ah, this is serious,’ I said to myself. And I began to run back to the Seine. In coming to the bank, I threw off my coat, boats and pants in a moment. I was the happiest of men. “No, Louant is not a coward! no, no!” I told myself out loud. In fact, I saved the man, without a problem, who would have drowned except for me. I had him taken to a warm bed, he soon regain his faculty of speech. Then I started to fear for myself. I had myself put into a warm bed, and I had my whole body rubbed with eau de vie and flannels. But in vain, all of this did nothing – the rheumatism began again. in truth, however, not as severe as the year before. I wasn’t too sick. The devil of it is that nobody came to see me, I began to get seriously bored. After having thought of marriage as I do when I’m bored, I began to reflect on the motives that made me commit my “heroic action”, as the Constitutional put it in their story.

What made me do this beautiful thing? for heroic is too strong. My God, it was the fear of contempt. It was that voice that told me: Lieutenant Louaut, you are a coward. What really struck me was that the voice, that time, didn’t use the “tu”. No, it was the formal “you” that was a coward. When I understood that I could save the drowning man, that became a duty for me. I would have despised myself if I hadn’t thrown myself in the water, just as much as I would have if, in Brienne, in 1814, my captain told me: Forward, Louaut! climb up on the upper deck, and I had amused myself by remaining below. Such is, monsieur, the story you asked for, or, as you say, the analysis, etc., etc.”


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