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Friday, September 28, 2007

the collective temperament

In Stendhal’s On Love, he takes six temperaments – the sanguine, the bilious, the melancholic, the phlegmatic, the nervous, and the athletic – and pairs them with six political situations – asian despotism, absolute monarchy, constitutional aristocracy a la Britain, republicanism a la the U.S., constitutional monarchy, and revolution – and from that pairing comes up with different regimes of love. Notice that the athletic and the revolutionary are paired.

Here’s what he says about the revolutionary – this is the myth that still has that fatal attraction for certain esprits, of which LI counts himself, reluctantly, one:

A state in revolution, like Spain [this is 1830], Portugal, France. This situation of a country, giving a lively passion to everybody, puts nature in the moeurs, destroys the stupidities, the convenient virtues, the stupid conventional wisdom, gives seriousness to youth, and makes him despise the love of vanity and neglect gallantry.

This state can endure for a long time and form the habits of a generation. In France, it began in 1788, was interrupted in 1802, and recommenced in 1815, to finish God knows when.”

The idea that peoples have a temperament was familiar to the Greeks. The idea that generations have a temperament, though – that is a product of the Enlightenment discovery of progress. Surely, if there is progress in the arts and sciences, if civilization is becoming ever more civilized, than today’s children must be bearers of tomorrow’s higher degree of civilization. So it makes sense to speak of the children of 1789 or 1815 – although, for Stendhal, this observation doesn’t have the systematic weight it will later have for someone like Dilthey.

This is just the kind of observation that should please a novelist, or at least the new kind of novelist of the Balzacian or Stendhalian type. This is the man who proposes to grasp the spiritual essence of his culture within the confines of some sufficiently rich and connected narrative. Instead of allegory, this narrative will be an epitome – a sample illuminating the whole. A nice, statistical thing – and of course, when Stendhal wrote this, nice statistical ways of thinking were finally taking off.

Interestingly – I get this from reading James Simpson’s Burning to Read, which I am reviewing – Luther, in his introduction to his translation of the New Testament, tells his readers that the essential books are the Gospel of John, Paul’s epistles, and the first epistle of Peter. Why? Because the other gospels were full of stories. Luther liked John’s gnostical pontifications and Paul’s theorizing – o, Paul is a causuistical little spider – which wrapped around a metaphysical being, Jesus, who Paul evidently knew little about. Stories, on the other hand, are so… contingent. What do they mean? What is the point? That Lutheran skepticism takes up residence in the head of every novelist, of course, who must at one point or another ask him or herself – why am I spending my life daydreaming about imaginary people? Stendhal, however, has both the moraliste tradition and his materialism – out of Helvetius, recognizing in Bentham a sort of kinship – to underwrite his narrative ambitions, and he can laugh at the German transcendentalists, with their anxious search for new allegories.

Another thing we should see here – and we should see all over Stendhal’s On Love – is how the temperament of a people and the temperament of a generation point us to sex as one of the keys of the age. The relationship between the novelist’s larger task – the grasping of the culture’s essence – and sex is obvious from the novelist’s point of view, and troubling for those outside it. I love Norman Mailer for having taken up this burden in the most showy of ways possible, and going through every novelistic station, from the vilest sexism to the most superstitious of sexual takes. Stendhal, of course, is less ‘metaphysical’, but like Mailer, is an egotist – long before Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself there was Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist.

Enough for today.


northanger said...

Roger. i envy your good looks, your wit, your big cock. Austin. but, most important, i envy your free read.

Roger Gathmann said...

Northnorthnorthnorthnorth! (he sputtered like Sylvester the Cat) I was not making a disguised confession in that Austin post! A., I still have some modesty, B., I'm too afraid of the cops to go parading around naked, and mostly, C., I have tender feet!

I have, on the other hand, been thinking of a tattoo, but not a poem - something more cliche, like a centaur shooting an arrow.

Hey, hope you noticed that James Simpson has a blog.

northanger said...

forgive me. not casting aspersions on the family's & did not think your Austin day some sort of homoerotic confession. but that would be nice. "centaur shooting an arrow"? don't tell me, are you a sagittarius? do you know your birth time? i shall do a chart. i can think of a better tattoo.

nope, didn't know Mr S. had a blog, where is it?

Roger Gathmann said...

Like my sister, you don't like my Sag idea. Well, of course it isn't original - an dof course I'm a sag - since original tattoos that I've observed have a tendency to get muddy. I dread a muddy tattoo, which is why I've never wanted one. But lately, I've been thinking just one. To have the entire experience of, like, my epoch.

And I am glad you don't think I walk around with a little bowtie on my little Elvis. Instead of being an ecdysisist, I'm a self-secreter!

northanger said...

i'm actually quite fond of your Little Elvis. give him a squeeze & a kiss (if you can) when you see him next time.

ah! i shoulda guessed you were a sag. the nemesis of geminis!