Sundays with Stendhal (4): Love in the United States

February 16

On Love is an essay by Stendhal, or rather a series of essays, upon the etiology of love.  According to some, Stendhal regarded it as his greatest work.  It focused his keenly analytic eye onto the topic that most occupied him throughout his life – love, romantic love, passionate love. The book’s reputation rests on its first part, in which Stendhal dissects the psychological condition of romantic love, and puts forth his famous account of “crystallization,” the process by which, in the first arising of passionate love, the mind “discovers fresh perfections in its beloved at every turn of events.”

Which is to say, Stendhal regards “falling in love” as something beyond the “will”; and the “perfections” that one discovers in one’s beloved are, Stendhal observes, a projection of the imagination. Done by one’s beloved, x is charming and lovely but, then, so’s not-x; passionate love is to embrace one’s very own non-falsifiable proposition.  None of this will surprise most of us, I suppose, because it’s the stuff of every romantic comedy;  and anyway, in today’s chemical age, we easily attribute the initiation of romantic love merely to the effects of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Stendhal’s crystallization recounts, in that case, perceived mental states that accompany the process, that’s all.

If there is a psychological truth that emerges from On Love, however, it’s that grand injustice of the world: you might love someone passionately, but you cannot will him or her to love you back.  It’s worse than that, of course.  Anyone who’s been the object of passionate love that one cannot reciprocate knows that, in some ways, it’s more painful not to be able to give someone who passionately loves you any decent “reason” why you don’t – can’t – “requite.”  

So we have here the plots a zillion novels, plays, films, songs, and poems. Being serious people, we’re inclined to treat it as the stuff of teen novels or Harlequin romances that doesn’t touch serious people because serious, rational, grown-up people know that there’s no good, reasoned answer to give.  Which can also lead to someone saying, very reasonably, very rationally, I love you, but please don’t engage with me unless you, too, are in thrall, or at least enough in thrall.  As Alison Krauss explains in “Take Me For Longing”:

“Don’t choose me because I am faithful.
Don’t choose me because I am kind.
If your heart settles on me, I’m for the taking.
Take me for longing or leave me behind.”

This is a problem of romantic love that has vexed moralists practically forever. It’s not just the problem for morality that passionate love is only contingently about moral worth, or that romantic passion is about being, quite genuinely, an object of desire.  The protagonist in Krauss’ song is expressing self-pride or, rather, the consequence of self-pride in rejecting anything that might amount to pity – the pity, to be precise, that would treat her (arguably) as a person and not as an object of desire, a vessel into which another’s desire is projected.

This is pride’s role in the consolidation of self.  It can be seen at work in that greatest (certainly the wittiest) of 20th century commentaries on the Christian virtues, Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex.  Arthur has just bedded his half-sister, though he did not know of the blood-tie. His rational self concludes that he should marry, and marry someone he knows will not be one of his own father’s bastards.  He consults Merlin:

“I believe” said Arthur, “I must get married. Now, King Leodegrance hath a daughter who would seem suitable, being of appropriate age –”  “Have you seen this princess?” asked Merlin. “And doth she please you?” “I have never,” said Arthur. “The point is that this Guinevere is at hand here in Cameliard, and the round table as well, and, when they return, the hundred knights. She is therefore recommended by convenience.”

“Sire,” said Merlin, “would it not be reasonable, if you are marrying so as to be protected from illicit desire, to determine first whether the woman you shall marry be licitly desirable to you?”

“Aha,” said Arthur. “Nay, there thou speakest again with a fiend’s disregard for the moral law, Merlin. I shall be prohibited by my vows of marriage from traffic with any other woman, whomever I do wed: her identity being irrelevant.”

“True,” said Merlin, “I know little of woman, but even so me-thinks there be none who exist without a sense of self, and all the more so when a party to a marriage of convenience rather than in the connection called love, for pride is to be considered.”

“Pride is a sin,” said King Arthur, “and never to be considered in a Christian queen. We might assume that this princess hath been reared to be pious … Therefore she cannot be, having known no man, vain.”

“I have noticed before now this Christian confusion of pride with vanity,” said Merlin, “which is perhaps due to the first adherents of that faith having been slaves. And with the passing of the old Greeks, the distinction between both and hubris, a much more noble concept, hath been forgotten.” He brought his globe of light to his white-haired face and gazed profoundly into its glow. “I can,” he said, “see no woman.”

“It may be,” said King Arthur, “that thy nigromancy is no longer as puissant as it was once, Merlin. Producing Excalibur was one thing, marriage is another. Perhaps I must rely on reason now.”

So writes Berger with a straight face; but now back to Stendhal and On Love.  The latter part of the book features short essays on love in different societies and places and times – Italy, the provinces of France, England, and the then-still novel United States of America.  Stendhal never visited America and it doesn’t seem as if he did much research about the place – well, let’s be blunt, it’s not as if Stendhal did any research but instead simply relied on a few commonplaces and his imagination.  Tocqueville, he’s not.

For present purposes, however, no matter.  Stendhal didn’t think the United States of America, as a society, placed much value on passionate love.  He describes the United States, in the couple of pages devoted to America in On Love, as a society in which obtain the political blessings of liberty, equality, and peaceful commerce.  In this admiration he is quite sincere.  Yet, he goes on, these are exactly the reasons why the United States is the home of rationality and reason, not passion or passionate romantic love.  And in this he is equally sincere (though its accuracy is ever so slightly open to question).  It’s a striking passage that opens On Love‘s discussion of romantic love in the United States – or, rather, the lack of it – even if it is an entirely imaginary country (On Love, Book II, Chapter 50):

A free government is a government which does no harm to its citizens, but which, on the contrary, gives them security and tranquility.  But it is a far cry from this to happiness.  When the Americans fail to experience the misery which is usually brought about by governments … it is as as though the sensibility of passion were dried up in them.  The Americans are just and they are rational, but they are anything but happy … Reasoning has become such a habit in the United States that the crystallization of passionate love is made impossible there.  I admire this American form of happiness, but I do not envy it: it is like the happiness of creatures of another and lower species.

Well, that’s certainly catty!  However, he does add, at least, that he cherishes far greater hopes for passionate love in … Florida.  Meanwhile, here in Washington DC, and all along the east coast and further inland, we have snow and more snow.  So let’s forget Stendhal’s cattiness and dwell instead on his charming (if, once again, entirely imaginary) vision of love and snow and the young people of the United States of America.  Call it his anticipation, in 1840, of America’s intertwining a century later, of love, youth, sex, and the automobile:

In the Winter, young people of both sexes drive about night and day over the snow in sleighs, gaily traveling distances of fifteen or twenty miles without anyone to chaperone them; and nothing improper ever occurs.

And I’m sure that nothing improper ever does; & with that, happy Valentine’s weekend to lovers, and those who would love, everywhere.

Kenneth Anderson teaches law at Washington College of Law, American University; he is also a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and senior fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.
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