by Raju Peddada
Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics
[ed. Please read Part I of this essay.]
"To be well favored man is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature."
—Shakespeare, Much ado about nothing
(Swans - April 11, 2011) How are we supposed to evaluate The Red and The Black? Unequivocally, every work of art is a solecistic endeavor. The idiosyncrasies, the flaws, the accidental asymmetry, as in Japanese pottery, the refractory quality, and the oscillating perspective are what constitute a work of art. Incidental flaws make perfection possible, which is nothing but an inscrutable amalgam of such ingredients, coalesced by the artist, occasionally losing control to that zonal flow of the mind, as in being in a "zone." I speculate that Julien Sorel took control of Stendhal's mind at a given point and guided the narration of his character in a direction better than what the author had planned. Picasso often claimed that his subject matter took over the guidance, reducing him to a mere willing executor for the will of the subject he had set out to paint. The same phenomenon must have metastasized with Stendhal. The artist just becomes a propagation mechanism. It wouldn't be farfetched to contemplate that The Red and The Black was Stendhal's Guernica.
If any commentary, criticism, or interpretation is ventured forth, it will be arbitrary, and could infer that our judgment and deconstruction is condescendingly assumptive. It is the equivalent of evaluating Mozart's work, absolutely and fatuously presumptuous. Some works can be studied, but are beyond evaluation and judgment. Francois Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift ridiculed literary evaluation and criticism as the avocation of those who are bereft of the capacity to write. Fifty years ago, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, a seminal study on the "representation of reality in western literature," offered a deft panegyric along with some acute observations on realism, and his own encomium to Stendhal as the progenitor of realism. I want to take a different angle in studying this monument to passion. Most panoramic epic stories, even the ones penned by great writers, have dead zones, where the author goes on a tangent or digresses into a diatribe on some personal issue unrelated to the linear flow of the story; in generic terms it is called "filler yarn." The Red and the Black is devoid of such digressions. Every paragraph seems to be consequential and indispensable.
Without telling the story, which I suggest the reader ingests as an imperative, I want to venture into and explore Stendhal's innovative narration, who places the reader inside the character's head, where action is preceded by thought. A vantage point for the reader that involuntarily envelops the reader "inside the anxieties" of the characters, making the reader an intimate and integral counsel and participant in the drama. I became an invisible acolyte to every thought and act that Julien Sorel initiated. What can be more instantaneous and immediate than understanding and seeing Madame de Renal or Mademoiselle de La Mole through Julien Sorel's thoughts before any action takes place?
Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate for literature, echoes my own sentiments regarding Stendhal's prose "form" in his book The Naive and The Sentimental Novelist. In The Red and The Black, Stendhal, after drawing us in with a wondrous description on the topography and politics of Verrieres, inundates us rapidly in liquid prose, with a delectable emotional density by the end of the 5th chapter and the beginning of the 6th chapter, where both Madame de Renal and Julien Sorel are accidentally thrown into each others' presence, filled with dire expectations, followed instantly by unexpected rapturous reality. Here is how is it is delivered:
[Chapter 5 ending:] Womanly delicacy was carried to excess in Madame de Renal. She formed a mental picture of a coarse, unkempt creature, employed to scold her children simply because he knew Latin, a barbarous tongue for the sake of which her sons would be whipped.
[Chapter 6 beginning:] Madame de Renal advanced, oblivious for the moment of the bitter grief that she felt at the tutor's coming. Julien, who was facing the door, did not see her approach. he trembled when a pleasant voice sounded close to his ear: What have you come for, my boy?
As he turned around and after being astounded by her beauty:
I have come to be tutor, Madame. . . . Madame de Renal looked at the large tears which lingered on the cheeks (so pallid at first and now so rosy) of this young peasant. Presently she burst out laughing, with all the wild hilarity of a girl; she was laughing at herself, and trying in vain to realize the full extent of her happiness. So this was the tutor whom she had imagined as unwashed and ill-dressed priest, who was coming to scold and whip her children.
Here is another example in oscillating paradigmatic prose, which captures five distinct conflicting emotions in one individual, within one setting and in one interaction: First, the fatuous possibility and the rapturous anxiety of having a young lover; second, her guilt and secret pleasure; third, her deception to her husband; fourth, being ridiculed for a headache; and finally, relief and equanimity of being charmed by Julien no matter how he appeared:
...Madame de Renal thought about the passions as we think about lottery: a certain disappointment and a happiness sought by fools alone.
The Dinner bell rang; Madame de Renal blushed deeply when she heard Julien's voice as he brought in the children. Having acquired some adroitness since she had fallen in love, she accounted for her color by complaining of a splitting headache.
There you have women, put in M. de Renal, with a coarse laugh. There's always something out of the order in their machinery. Accustomed as she was to this form of wit, the tone of his voice hurt Madame de Renal. She sought relief in studying Julien's features; had he been the ugliest man in the world, he would have charmed her at that moment.
Stendhal is able to arrest and deliver the minutest of nuances of the unfolding dynamics between multiple characters, with liquid immediacy, that we later found in Chekhovian shorts. The seemingly delectable and delicious ocean of passion, the tug-of-war between pride and prejudice, risk and reason, hypersensitivity and hypocrisy, the vacillation between reality and fantasy, selfishness and generosity, deviousness and divinity, and the panoramic and claustrophobic settings for the story -- every possible iteration of obfuscation, cognition, emotion, and gumption is tantalizingly delivered by Stendhal, which we later see in the works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Balzac. Here is a sample that expounds the transparency of his characters, bringing about an exigent immediacy for us, the reader. We are in the character's cranium as they deliberate issues, a perspective not known before. You are not simply reading the action, you are reading the germ of the action forming inside the character's mind.
Here are Mademoiselle de La Mole's thoughts on the young predictable men of the court versus Julien Sorel:
Is it my fault if the young men at court are such ardent devotees of the conventions, and turn pale at the mere thought of any adventure that is slightly out of the common? A little expedition to Greece or Africa is to them the height of audacity, and even then they can only go in a troop. As soon as they find themselves alone, they become afraid, not of Bedouin spears, but of ridicule, and that drives them mad.
Julie Morel's disdain for this Parisian milieu and thoughts on taking advantage of Mademoiselle de La Mole's affections:
...am I to refuse a pleasure that is offered to me? A limpid spring which wells up to quench my thirst in the burning desert of mediocrity over which I trace my painful course! Faith, I am no such fool; everyone for himself in this desert of selfishness which is called life.
There are many chapters in The Red and The Black as magnificent narrative repositories of Stendhal's astounding technique of starting the dialogue in the character's psyche, in the first person. Three such examples are Chapter 9 with the title "An evening in the country," when Julien Sorel metaphorically becomes the sperm that penetrates the repressed passion egg of Madame de Renal by grasping her hand in the garden and piercing the protocol of space, consequently taking the now pregnant narrative into a new sphere. The whole chapter is nothing but a brilliant unraveling of anxious emotions and thoughts. Then we have Chapters 41, "The Tyranny of a Girl," and 42, "Another Danton," both masterful displays of inducing the reader into Mademoiselle de La Mole's psyche and getting her emotional conjecture "live" on her repressed society and Julien. It is very much parallel to what filmmakers do, pulling you into a spatial intimacy with the character. An experience with no demarcation. D.W. Griffith was the first filmmaker to invent this spatial dimension by inviting the audience into the scene, thereby adding the that much desired immediacy.
The Red and The Black on a graph will look like a wave -- it picks up immediately in the beginning and crests after an oscillating involvement between the lovers, then slowly down to the plateau of Julien's odious seminary experience, after he bids farewell to his lover. In the seminary chapters, the author exploits his childhood antipathy of the ecclesiastical authorities and the hypocrisy propagated through Julien's resistant character. Then comes another assignment that places him at the epicenter of Parisian society, and Mademoiselle de La Mole's heart, which challenges Julien to scale the decadence, hypocrisy, and his passions and own moral dilemmas in a tragic consummation.
I would tender this notion that in mid twenty-first century, some intrepid literary chair at a university will publish a white paper, a dissertation, packaging Stendhal as a magic realist. Stendhal may have been a romanticist, like some of us are, however above all else, he was an empiricist, a realist like the rest of us out there. That is why we must dust him off to reexamine his creative genius that somehow escaped the clutches of mortality. In the Oxford and the Webster's dictionaries they should replace the conventional meanings of the word "unrequited" with Stendhal's picture and life. And for that matter, we cannot deny that there is a Stendhal lurking in all of us. Tragedy tugs at everybody's elbows, as we desperately manage to keep a step ahead of it, only that it caught up with Stendhal at an early age.
Stendhal's life and work is authentic material for the screen. No screenplay writer could have accomplished a better script than what providence had wrought for Stendhal. The turbulent vicissitudes and the subplots of his life were charted by the deliberate hand of fate that funneled everything into a tragic trajectory. What baffles me is that a life with so many intriguing twists and action managed to stay obscure from not only the filmmakers, but biographers looking for original material. I cannot help but fantasize that Stendhal's life was a Shakespearean masterpiece. In fact, I would not doubt that deft researchers and biographers like Joseph Frank and Patrick French could coalesce an 800-page Stendhal biography as an ecstatic action-packed read, more so than any searing action romance out there.
Finally, the slow and painful demise of the publishing industry is attributed to two inexorable facts. First is the predatory e-book technology that is cannibalizing its own hard and soft covers. Books, magnificent objects of visual and tactile beauty, are at the brink of extinction, I love my hardcovers! Second, and infinitely more damaging is the rising and billowing slurry of literary futility. We have become so immune to this futility, this amoebic mediocrity, and so conditioned against authenticity and asymmetrical beauty that we now apathetically accept the apotheosis of authors that epitomize our own apathy and futility.
As a critical and a literary purist, I am tempted with an inverse selfishness to keep Stendhal's incongruent brilliance obscure and away from our sticky and contemporary slush of banality. Swans editor, Gilles d'Aymery, astutely highlighted Peter Byrne's eloquent protest against the "Franzenization" of our literary Olympus by claiming: "Franzen made Time magazine a gauge of this decline." Also, echoed my own bitter and strident sentiments as far as the contemporary media mantra being "the noisiest chest beater will ultimately get the recognition," a pathetic commentary on our devolving culture. I feel this shrill and alliterative cognitive dissonance in people rejecting taste and consuming waste!
Stendhal hardly accrued any recognition for his two standards of realism. He had become convinced that he could and would not be understood by his contemporaries, as he dedicated his efforts for a few who could -- leaving the verdict of oblivion or immortality to the future. It seemed, with Balzac's timely encomium, justice and recognition initiated a pursuit of Stendhal in 1841, but hardly caught up with him; as someone who epitomized irony, he tragically fell on a sidewalk, and expired from apoplexy. The only appropriate way to protest and purge ourselves of our own apathetic acquiescence of mediocrity's apotheosis is by inducting ourselves voluntarily into the aphoristic purgatory of Stendhal and his exemplary work. And if this contemporary "Franzenization" of literature becomes unavoidable, it would be a collective honor and martyrdom to fall and die of apoplexy rather than be subjected to all this contemporary literary platitude!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)