Plot And Impulsivity: Stendhal’s ‘Disunity’

‘Stendhal himself would have accepted no limitations of his freedom… He wrote in a spirit of fearless liberty’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1905. In a post-enlightenment, post-revolutionary France, Stendhal’s questioning of what constituted freedom and what constituted character became central to his work. Indeed, the number of unfinished works in his corpus suggests a certain intellectual restlessness where his imagination became an impulsive creative force trumping any restrictions: ‘ma tête était absolument le jouet de mon âme [my head is absolutely the toy of my soul]’ (Life of Henry Brulard). Manzini defines beylisme as ‘defending the real self against normative external attack, rejecting false ideas of conventional morality’. Put simply, it is the prioritisation of imagination, one’s énergie (sexual and otherwise) and impulsivity (expression of one’s énergie with an insouciance of the consequences), above reason and logic. The author’s own liberal principles inform his work and his characters become the vehicle by which the work is created. Thus, the more imaginative and autonomous a character is from social determination, the more chaotic the work appears to become. What critics refer to as the disunity of Stendhal’s fiction constitutes a revolution in itself against the ‘logic’ of the society in which he lived and thus his novels become the embodiment of the beylisme he so desired to depict.

Red And Black

The Red and the Black constitutes perhaps the most unified work by Stendhal. Whilst Haigg argues that Julien is a ‘proto-writer’ who ‘[authors] his own novel up to an apparently successful point’, to me Julien’s role seems more complex. There appears to be two sides to Julien: a spontaneous side and a more rational side. Indeed, Hemmings suggests that Julien does not invent himself, rather he ‘conforms to a borrowed model’. We see this in his compulsion to copy (his quoting from the Bible verbatim, miming piety to further his ecclesiastical career, feigning ignorance in the Besançon seminary and appearing to accept the reactionary values of both the Rênal and La Mole households to disguise his liberal convictions). Even the title of the novel suggests limitations on Julien’s impulsivity: his destiny is set in either the army (red uniform) or the church (black uniform). This hypocrisy means that he is rarely free, even in the presence of his friend: ‘son hypocrisie faisait qu’il n’était pas libre même chez Fouqué [his hypocrisy meant that he was not free even when with Fouqué]’. In fact, ‘ses efforts de jouer un role achevaient d’ôter toute force à son âme [his efforts to play a role ended up taking all strength from his soul]’ and this removal of agency and lack of self-assertion make him miserable: ‘quelle misère!… Ma vie n’est qu’une suite d’hypocrisies [What misery!… My life is nothing but a sequence of hypocrisies]’. In this sense, Stendhal’s novel follows the typical model of the arriviste novel: a young man conforming to society.

However, Prendergast has noted that the imprévu [unexpected] is the mark of the way that Julien ‘repeatedly eludes and disturbs the internalised probability system of the other characters’. Indeed, when Mathilde suggests that she gave herself up ‘au premier venu [the first man she saw]’, Julien ‘s’élança sur une vieille épée du moyen âge [jumped on an old medieval sword]’. This instance of impulsivity that comes naturally to Julien displays his spontaneous side. The narrator reminds us that ‘l’adresse dont nous lui reprochons l’absence aurait exclu le mouvement sublime de saisir l’épée qui, dans ce moment, le rendait si joli aux yeux de mademoiselle de La Mole [the skill whose absense we reproach him for would have excluded the sublime movement of seizing the sword which, at that moment, made him so pretty in the eyes of Mademoiselle de La Mole]’. This display of irrepressible énergie sets him apart from the young men in the La Mole salon who read René (Chauteaubriand’s Romantic novel) and are filled with romantic melancholy and ennui. We are told that ‘si, au lieu de se tenir caché dans un lieu écarté, il eût erré au jardin et dans l’hôtel, de manière à se tenir à la portée des occasions, il eût peut-être en un seul instant changé en bonheur le plus vif son affreux malheur [If, instead of keeping himself hidden in a secluded place, he had wandered about the garden and the hotel, so as to be within reach of opportunity, he might in a single instant have changed his dreadful misfortune into the greatest happiness]’ and thus the shock to the narrative displays a degree of freedom and desire for happiness that those who conform never experience. A similar argument could be made for Julien’s shooting of Mme de Rênal where the number of words relating to speed emphasise Julien’s impulsivity: ‘précipitamment [hurriedly]’, ‘rapide [quick]’ ‘immédiat [immediate]’. Émile Faguet has argued that this ending is ‘quite bizarre and, in truth, a bit falser than is permissible’. But what if such an undoing of standard plot becomes an attempt to unwrite the conventional and renew narrative imagination itself. In this sense, the unexpected moments of Stendhal’s narrative constitute a revolt against the title that limits Julien’s actions and a rejection of the unimaginative society that binds him. His decision to die (by claiming, in his trial, to have ‘donné la mort avec préméditation [killed with premeditation]’ when it was entirely spontaneous) becomes an assertion of his self-will and a refusal to continue living in a society where impulsivity is threatened and distorted by the presence of other people.

A Slippery Narrator

Moreover, in his oft-quoted remark, Claude Roy noted that Stendhal’s narrator is ‘le premier et le plus admirable des personnages stendhaliens [the first and most admirable Stendhalian characters]’ and it would appear that the narrator forms one of the most subversive ‘characters’ in The Red and the Black. His ironic interjections form a destabilising presence. For example, after we read Julien’s thoughts at the Valenod dinner party on how he may ingratiate himself into society in a Napoleonic imitation, the narrator says ‘J’avoue que la faiblesse dont Julien fait prevue dans ce monologue me donne une pauvre opinion de lui [I confess that the weakness shown by Julien in this monologues gives me a poor opinion of him]’, but then after Julien’s seduction of Mathilde ‘il entreprenait de juger la vie avec son imagination. Cette erreur est d’un homme supérieur [he undertook to judge life with his imagination. This error is of a superior man]’. Pearson in Stendhal’s Violin notes the use of free indirect discourse of ‘erreur’ belonging to the ‘putative reader’ who judges characters according to their relation to the world. In fact, Julien’s superiority comes precisely because he uses his imagination. The narrator thus holds two different views. The first being that the ‘être supérieur [superior being]’ uses imagination and impulsivity to create, and lives this out in reality and the second that calculation and rationalisation leads to a self-consciousness that restricts happiness. However, this irony is itself imaginative and allows for a variety of interpretations, thus disturbing the unity of the novel by not providing just one interpretation. This forms a rejection of the fading 17th century theatre that required one audience as a collective ‘person’ and displays features of the upcoming novel that had to appeal to a variety of readers. The narrator, in his rather ‘impulsive’ interjections, thereby undermines any attempt at an unequivocal interpretation.

A Spontaneous Trip To A Charterhouse

The contrast between The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma is striking. Where in France, Stendhalian vanity (concern of other people’s opinions) restricts imagination (‘une chose qu’un Français respecte plus que sa maîtresse, c’est sa vanité [one thing a Frenchman respects more than his mistress is his vanity]’), ‘le bonheur de l’Italie est d’être laissée à l’inspiration du moment [Italy’s happiness is found in being led by the inspiration of the moment]’ (De l’amour)). The use of Italy as a background constitutes a desire to depict France’s ‘censorship’ of emotion, so to speak. From the outset, the lack of relation between title and plot suggests a certain lack of central focus, as if Stendhal allowed the characters to go wherever they so desired. Indeed, Stendhal wrote of it: ‘la reverie […] est le vrai plasir du roman. Cette reverie est innotable [reverie […] is the real pleasure of the novel. This reverie is untouchable]’ – the spontaneity that comes from imagination and dreaming is the beauty of the text and contrasts with the more structured French novel that preceded it. This is reflected in the style of the narrative itself and its oral composition over such a short period of time.

Furthermore, the name Fabrice (the novel’s protagonist) appears to stem from the verb ‘fabriquer [to fabricate]’ placing emphasis on creation and impulsivity. He has ‘un désir irresistible de tout quitter [an irresistible desire to leave everything]’ in order to ‘réaliser son être essentiel [realise his essential being]’. Scott observes that whilst Fabrice assimilates various pseudonyms, he remains indifferent to these identities and ‘simply uses them to make his life easier’, the contrary to Julien who suppresses the self to fit in. Fabrice has a strong sense of self and is reflected in his insouciance of other people’s opinions. Furthermore, his impulsivity is seen in his departure for Waterloo where he is ‘saisi d’une émotion profonde [seized by a profound emotion]’ or when he ‘avait eu le malheur de tuer Giletti [had the misfortune to kill Giletti]’, or even when Gina goes to ask the Prince for a reprieve for Fabrice ‘elle avait agi au hazard et pour se faire plaisir du même moment [she had acted randomly and to please herself at the same time]’. The Italian characters tend to act without thinking. Indeed, they live out in their daily life the liberal principles that on paper they reject: ‘Les mots liberté, justice, bonheur du plus grand nombre sont infâmes et criminels [The words freedom, justice, happiness of the many are vile and criminal]’. Much like Stendhal himself who Manzini describes as a ‘political atheist’, happiness comes from the organic realisation of liberal values rather than the false copying of such values and this becomes embedded in the unpredictable structure of the narrative itself. Whilst success socially may be predicated on reason and planning, this lacks truth and authenticity: ‘Dans les cours despotiques, le premier intrigant adroit dispose de la verité [in despotic courts, the first clever schemer disposes of truth]’. Impulsivity then may not be lucrative for characters, nor for Stendhal in terms of admiration of his novels, but it becomes an existential way of living that leads to the freedom of the spirit and away from the constraints of society.

An Unfinished Whim

Stendhal pushes this yet further in his final unfinished novel, Lamiel, which some critics, such as Blin, have condemned for its plotlessness. Stendhal, however, refuted such claims saying that he accorded the eponymous heroine the freedom to write her own novel: ‘À chaque page je vois s’élever le brouillard qui couvrait la suivante [With each page I see clearing the fog that covered the next]’. The lack of plot is entirely due to the attitude of its heroine: her unpredictability. This also reflects the way Lamiel ostensibly rejects plot that other characters attempt to impose upon her. For example, her decision to not wait for Fédor to go to Rouen shows her sense of agency: ‘je suis bien dupe de l’attendre […] Mais qu’ai-je besoin de cette jolie poupée? [I am a fool to wait for him […] But what do I need this pretty doll [Fédor] for?]’. Whilst the use of ‘poupée [doll]’ seems to subvert the expected roles of ‘man as puppeteer and woman as puppet’ as Scott argues , this very rejection also appears to eradicate her role as puppet within the narrative itself: her beylisme rejects the author’s attempt to control or restrict her and she becomes the writer of her own narrative.

Furthermore, Lamiel appears to disregard plot altogether: ‘elle songeait trop au lieu où elle allait et où elle avait envie d’arriver, et pas assez aux gens qui pouvaient la regarder [she thought too much about where she was going and where she wanted to go, and not enough about the people who might be watching her]’ (the destination here is not literal, not a location, but a metaphysical desire to progress from her current position). This ‘liberté d’esprit [freedom of spirit]’, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it, shows the heroine’s focus on her own spontaneous movements through the world and not on any particular order or coherence. Stendhal seems to believe this too when he says he admired Lamiel’s ‘grâce sans projet, comme Gina del Dongo [grace without project, like Gina del Dongo [character in Charterhouse of Parma]] ’. When Lamiel falls ill from ‘l’ennui [boredom]’ when working for the Duchess, the narrator attributes this boredom to ‘La presence de l’âme [the presence of her soul]’. It is her soul, her spirit that is filled with energy and imagination that pushes her on. In a similar way, Stendhal’s novels possess a certain ‘spirit’ that contrasts to the moroseness of René. If Lamiel is be considered ‘disunified’ it is because the energy that inspired it and that continues to drive it stems from the power of its heroine’s imagination and her insouciance as to the consequences of such imagination.

Why Do We Care?

This article began with Conrad’s quotation that Stendhal refused to have his freedom limited. Indeed, Conrad also mentioned that ‘so few people have read’ Stendhal’s fictions and this links to a more recent and retrospective interpretation by Prendergast who says that ‘Desires which are socially problematical, which threaten the social structure are coped with by querying or denying the plausibility of the text which presents them’. Stendhal’s liberalism that was not theory but a quasi-life-force embedded in his novels was rejected by contemporaries for its subversive nature. But it is this nature that gives Stendhal’s oeuvre such vitality and uniqueness. Not tied down by the burdens of a monotonous society, not a cog in the forever spinning social wheel, Stendhal calls us to strive for happiness wherever it may reveal itself. Whilst it cannot be sought, it may appear in being true to oneself, possessing an insouciance to other people’s opinions, and living for the moment. In so doing, we may become part of Stendhal’s ‘Happy Few’, to whom his novels are dedicated, who find and shall continue find inspiration in the freedom and imagination of Stendhal’s own ‘disunity’.

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