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Sundays with Stendhal: On the difference between melancholy and boredom

Julien, rejected by Mathilde, has gone away from Paris on a mission for her father, the Marquis de la Mole; in Strasbourg he encounters an acquaintance, the Russian prince Korasoff, who wants to know the source of Julian’s despairing mood.  (The Red and the Black (1830), Book II, Chapter 54.)

‘You look like a Trappist,’ he said to Julien, ‘you are infringing the principle of gravity I taught you in London.  A melancholy air can never be the right thing; what you want is a bored air.  If you are melancholy, it must be because you want something, there is something in which you have not succeeded.  It is showing your inferiority.  If you are bored, on the other hand, it is the person who has tried in vain to please you who is inferior.  Realise, my dear fellow, what a grave mistake you are making.’

Note to new Volokh Conspiracy readers at the Washington Post:  Off and on over my blogging years, I’ve posted quotations from the works of the 19th century French writer Stendhal (1783-1842) – usually from The Red and the Black, occasionally from other Stendhal works, and occasionally quotations from other writers, and generally without comment on my part.  I’ve been grateful for the indulgence of the Chief Conspirator, Eugene Volokh, and my Co-Conspirators, on a blog mostly devoted to law and policy. (I’ll evaluate and consult with Eugene over time to see whether to continue it; for now, it’s an experiment and, maybe, a small test of the differences between the old world of “free spirit” blogging (of which a feature consisting of quotations from Stendhal is perhaps iconic), and the new “media-branded” blogging that Co-Conspirator Will Baude posted about today by reference to comments by Will Wilkerson.)

Many of the quotations found in “Sundays with Stendhal” are ironic; all are concerned with “sensibility.”  I first read The Red and the Black when I was fourteen, and I can say I’ve re-read it pretty much every year or every other year since then.  It’s a Very Special Volokh Conspiracy feature rooted in my particular passion, however, so it’s very far from scholarly and makes zero effort at pedantry.  I’ve got a (barely) good enough reading knowledge of French to be able to work through the originals with a dictionary.  Much of my personal enjoyment comes from the English translations in which I first read these works as an adolescent, so I freely quote and sometimes rework different translations, without much attention to scholarly accuracy.  (Also, to borrow from Twitter-culture, “RT not= moral endorsement.” Cf. #TongueFirmlyInCheek.)

By contrast, my interest in understanding “sensibility” (in relation to “sense,” for example) is quite serious; it is one of the things that the humanities – literature, criticism, philosophical or moral psychology, etc. – ought to have some intellectual authority to illuminate, disciplinary tools that are genuinely revelatory about human beings.  Though many men and women of letters and literature have of course written about sensibility across all the ages of letters and literature – Edmund Burke on the sublime, for example, or Adam Smith on the moral sentiments – Stendhal writes about sensibility at roughly the moment of the “birth of the modern,” and so, perhaps, carries particular resonance.  Though what really matters, I admit, is that I have always and always will be in love with Mathilde de la Mole; and fortunate enough, too, to have married her.

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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