Overlooking in Stendhal
Our eyes told each other that they love themselves [sic].
Stendhal, diary entry in English, March 14, 1810
1: The annotated self
On the twenty-fifth of February 1805, Henri Beyle had a very good day. “Maximum of wit in my life,” he begins a diary entry—this in his shaky English, the rest in French—about an afternoon declamation lesson at Jean Dugazon’s followed by a return to Mélanie Guilbert’s apartment, where he valiantly continues an interminable courtship:
[F]or the first time in my life, I was brilliant with prudence and not in the least with passion. I was aware of what I was doing all the time, but without being bothered because of that, without being embarrassed. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so brilliant, nor filled my role so capably. I was wearing a waistcoat, silk breeches and black stockings, with a cinnamon-bronze coat, a very well arranged cravat, a superb frill. Never, I believe, was my homeliness more effaced by my character.[…]This was undoubtedly the finest day in my life. I may enjoy greater successes but I’ll never display more talent. My perception was just strong enough to guide my sensation; a little more, and I’d have let myself be carried away by the latter.1
Conflicted and self-conscious: this is a familiar Stendhal. The assurance of his narration—pretty remote for a diary—is only just destabilized by the kinds of qualified successes that hearten the perennially frustrated. And so the voice that was cultivated to sound “unsurprised by the world’s knaveries”2 winds up sounding less jaded than defensive, determined to make even the slightest advantage disproportionately enriching. This is Stendhal the contender, the same Stendhal who describes Julien’s entrance at a café in Besançon, “What disdain our provincial would inspire in those Parisian schoolboys who by the time they are fifteen have already learned how to enter a café with such distinction!” and then adds gratuitously, “But those children, so stylish at fifteen, by eighteen have become common.”3 Stendhal often described the role of the novelist as the creator of obstacles, the circumstances that offer the hero the opportunity to forge himself through an encounter with the world and the freedom to do it badly; it is the narrator’s job to set the standard that the hero is trying to meet, and to generate the reader’s sense of admiration and horror when that standard is broken or disregarded altogether. In the diary, Stendhal aims to be his own novelist and his own narrator at the same time: he engineers a foolproof opportunity for “best self” expression in the event with Mélanie, and he describes the force of his “perception” of that event as a hero might describe the force of a narrator’s voice as it spirits him through a rough patch. The hero can’t help but prove himself under these conditions, and Stendhal believes that he can recreate them, because the self-consciousness of the performance is exactly the thing that is called for. To be able to live in the awareness of what one is doing all the time without being embarrassed is probably the best shot at a best day that any of us could ever have. And so, despite Mélanie’s reputation as something of an elegant whore, her simultaneous affairs with at least five other men, and her blatant attempts to keep Stendhal in suspense, he will pursue the actress for five long months before their affair begins, follow her and her illegitimate daughter to Marseilles, and pine away in a separate room at their hotel from mid-summer to the end of their affair in early fall. She is Stendhal’s first mistress, and if there is in his tone a fatalism that seems to forecast both the affair and its inevitable decline, there is also the thrill of having gotten something right this one afternoon, something both ideal and imitable.
Stendhal’s characters, creatures of will and ambition, often meet their obstacles in one another. Because the moments of conflict between characters are meant to feel radically undetermined, and the determination of those conflicts create character, readers often get the sense that Stendhal’s characters are imprecisely drawn. (Paul Valéry called them the “emanation of an indistinguishable number of unknowns.”4) But while Stendhal’s mercenaries treat one another as means to ends, we can see Stendhal using the precisification of his vague character descriptions to move his plots along. I argue that the imprecision of these descriptions speak to Stendhal’s attention to the edges of details that allow for an attribution of their form—what Jean-Pierre Richard calls “circumscription”—as a kind of motivating constraint, as the antecedent logic that makes narrative desire possible. The vacancy of a character like Julien Sorel is circumscribed by his oscillation between redness and blackness, and when he enters the seminary, he tries “to arrive at the non culpa,” a way of being neither of the world nor convinced of its “pure nothingness,” in much the same way that Stendhal himself achieves “perception.” These are typical Stendhalian constructions, objects of desire made more attractive because they are states. And they are states so vaguely described that longed-for possession of them can never lead to satisfaction—the successful end of a narrative—but to disquiet, unhappiness, and thus, to more narrative. I draw from a range of theories about vagueness in language to supplement my analysis of Stendhal’s characterizations, looking at how we identify vague things, how we expect them to behave, and how we go about making them more precise. What is important for Stendhal’s understanding of the relation between Julien and the non culpa, and the action of narrative desire in his work as a whole, is the fact that the object of desire is “not yet” resolved, and that it is enough to know that it will be made precise someday.
Stendhal returns to and annotates his diary entry later on, a practice he describes in De L’Amour as the “deep philosophy” of a return to the text, a “plunge into my life story, into a comparison of my happiness then and now.” The act of comparing happinesses through marginalia would hold a particular fascination for Stendhal because it abstracts the mood that occasioned the note in the first place, and in effect short-circuits the paralyzing pleasures of reminiscence in order to mobilize the kind of reimagining that, somewhat counterintuitively, underwrites philosophical analysis. As we saw in the entry above, a dispassionate Stendhal can reimagine the borderline between his homeliness and his character as a space he can fill; as he puts it in De L’Amour, “one begins to analyze pleasure philosophically” when one engages in a comparison, because “nothing paralyzes the imagination like an appeal to memory.”5 The Stendhalian voice emerges here as an interleaving of the re-read text and his remote annotations to it. “[R]everie cannot be imprisoned in a marginal note,” he writes, but the pleasure of comparison “furthers my knowledge of man.”6 Stendhal’s habit of revisiting texts is driven not so much by a desire for self-understanding, but by a desire to understand selves. ”Deep philosophy” is deep because it seeks to subsume the particular experiences of a man under the general laws of “man”. The revisited text reveals the circumstances under which it was written, but not in a way that would feature the rarity or ephemerality of those circumstances. Destabilized by annotation, interpretation, and memory, it is the catalyst for an abstraction that enfolds a particular experience into a general knowledge of human nature, and its moments of contextualized reverie into a distance against which the present, too, might measure itself. The annotated self is what it was, is, and will be all at once. And it is this notion of a law-like account of human nature that will allow Stendhal to predict that even the best day ever will be bested.
When Stendhal describes his “deep philosophy” in De L’Amour, the context is his re-reading of Walter Scott’s Old Mortality; but that distinction, between fiction and life, matters surprisingly little. The marginalia he adds to his own diary entry feels similarly motivated, in that it is not so much a qualification of his original insights than an extension of their reach. Next to the first paragraph of his entry, he writes, “My whole soul appeared; it caused my body to be overlooked; I had the appearance of a very handsome man, of Talma’s kind.” Next to the second, he reiterates that the day was won “As far as talent is concerned. The day I possess [Mélanie] will be far finer.” Both of these annotations negotiate the distance between the experience, the representation of experience at the moment of composition, and the feeling of re-reading through an unexpected nearness: Stendhal is clear that it is not just his character but his soul that is on display that afternoon, that Mélanie overlooks rather than effaces his appearance, and he intuits that the day he has won something tangible will be better than even this best self, and for similar reasons. In some respects, Stendhal’s self-estrangement is very old news: his work is littered with deliberately self-contradictory descriptions of character. But the impression of nearness that we have been given here is different, and it is something we ought to try to understand, because it shows us that the fascination with social strategy that lies behind everything he writes is emerging out of a drive to sort through all kinds of borderline cases in his descriptions of characters and objects. We are looking at what it means to “get it right” in Stendhal, but rather than assessing the meaningfulness of something as bivalent, tautological, and achingly personal as his self-presentation to Mélanie Guilbert, we are describing its function. Stendhal’s ability to rest easy with radically indeterminate descriptions and the situations that make them possible presents us with an opportunity to understand this impression of nearness as both a state of being and a strategy that is symptomatic of Stendhal’s investment in vague descriptions as productive of meaning and desire. Because Stendhal’s characters are always threatening both to fly apart and to sink into typologies—even their boredom, as Erich Auerbach notes, is “no ordinary boredom”7 —his attention to the work of the blurry borderline case makes him a useful site for an investigation of how the process of unfinishable precisification could pin its openness on the promise of closure.
The story that Stendhal tells about the role of the author as the creator of obstacles shows up in one form or another in the literary criticism about Stendhal’s theory of character. The “deep philosophy” that allows Stendhal to subsume his particular experiences into general laws of human behavior suggests that his account of character is retroactive, that in being able to open up and organize several different removes from the self, he shows us that character could be thought of as a kind of container waiting for its contents to settle. This is the assumption behind Leo Bersani’s claim that “Julien attacks in order to be attacked…and by striking back at him, society gives Julien the chance both to recognize his most profound desires and to make reparations for his ‘crimes.’”8 A lot of different aspects of character get caught up in this rather paranoid kind of reading, because it so easily diffuses Stendhal’s contradictory descriptions into his novel’s psychological and social ambience. When Stendhal writes of his whole soul appearing to Mélanie, he organizes his widely-flung attributes as a kind of vertical register of selves; Jean-Pierre Richard argues that “The Stendhalian hero is not endowed with a character: he is not straining constantly toward his definition or his essence…. Free and malleable he glides, like the novel that relates his adventures, over an eternal present”9 and so the redirection of this movement toward a goal beyond the self allows Stendhal to conceptualize his body as transparent in this scene, as a window through which his soul is seen even as it is directed elsewhere. So, whether it’s the dispassionate return of the marginal note or the finality of Stendhal’s social triumph that allows him to isolate this image of his soul in the diary entry, he is revising any aspiration he has toward inner knowledge into an “appearing” thing, an objective thing, a best thing. The soul in relation to character is both an internal and an external form, rather than a straining toward definition or essence. The afternoon with Mélanie stages the moment when Stendhal’s character sees how it can become itself, when “best” comes to refer back to a general quality of selves as well as a subjective evaluation or representation of self.
So, when Stendhal writes of his whole soul appearing, he seems to be refiguring the contradictory attributes of his character into something greater and more coherent. A soul conventionally escapes some of the constraints of a body—most particularly, its inescapably social nature. Jean Starobinski calls this Stendhal’s understanding that “his ugliness can only be annulled by his carriage, through which his body ceases to be a thing and becomes a symbol,”10 an idea that complements Richard’s view of the transparent body with a literalization of the symbol as an interpretation, a way of “carrying” meaning. By the same token, it is only through the artifice of “character” that something like a true self becomes available. Stendhal organizes the annotated self vertically: his body is overlooked. In a letter to his sister Pauline, written the day after his meeting with Mélanie, Stendhal describes the afternoon in terms that stress the vertical organization of the self. His was “a public appearance that was positively above the human”: “After all, you know how ugly I am: women whom I had offended complimented me on the figure I cut!” “This is the first time, at the age of twenty-two years and one month, that I have been able to gain ascendancy over myself to be amiable from calculation and not from passion.”11 The figure that is cut from Stendhal’s revisions is that of both a visible soul in an invisible body, and of a transparent “appearance” in an explicitly manipulated body, and the form of the annotated letter narrates this simultaneity as an experience that satisfies, if it doesn’t directly express, Stendhal’s intentions. On the page and in the room he moves from character to soul and back again, oscillating between but also packing into each the ground that belongs to the other.
The picture is complicated even further when Stendhal insists that the day was won for “talent,” defining “talent” as a skill for reiterating this performance. In the letter to Pauline the language is similar but the goal is much more cautious: “Perhaps I shall have greater successes, but I shall never display as much talent.”12 Given the confidence of his other notes, this seems a surprising reversal. Stendhal classifies the day as a particularly revelatory performance, but not as a resounding success. This is what Paul Valéry will call the world of “display, comparison, and counter-evaluation” that builds the Stendhalian Ego, becoming “somehow, for itself, an effect of the effect it creates on a large number of unknown people.” 13 On Valéry ‘s account, a self necessarily (even antagonistically) grounded in convention, is “a creature formed by an opinion, an absurd public monster to whom the real man gradually yields and conforms.”14 The literary effort commensurate with this shamming—a faith in a natural self conceived through a calculated manipulation of convention—is from truth to the will-to-truth. In a tone that tries too hard, Stendhal crams together “all the symptoms most expressive of sincerity” in order “to write in accordance with his own character, which he knew—and could imitate to perfection,” leaving behind only “a determination to be himself, to be genuine to the point of falsity.”15 Valéry’s italics rather neatly sum up the three analyses of Stendhal’s characterization we have seen so far: the transparency of character in Richard, Starobinski’s sense of the “carriage” of self as an imitation or symbol of sincerity, and Valéry’s understanding of character as a creature of convention. Each of these three analyses point to irresolvable contradictions, because transparent, interpreted, and conventional selves are inherently dispossessed. Stendhal refuses character while he embraces soul, he thinks of carriage as a symbol of the natural self, and he works to stabilize through repetition a character that is already compromised by its sociality.
The argument that Stendhal derives character from a set of irresolvable contradictions is awfully persuasive, not least because he claims that the need to escape one’s self is the origin of all desire. Ultimately, even his best self is inadequate: he writes of wanting, if only twenty times per year, “to become whatever individual he wishes, provided that individual exists.”16 In these lines— one of the twenty-two articles of The Privileges, a contract with God that Stendhal made a year before his death to wield shape-shifting power over himself and others (the most expansive of which specifies that “A hundred and fifty times a year, he will be able to obtain, on request, that a particular person completely forgets him” 17) — Stendhal clearly demonstrates the tension between the assertion of his own singularity and the desire not to be limited by it that motivates all of the critical perspectives we’ve seen so far. It’s a tension that develops its own critical life, so that those sensitive to the self-consciousness and contradiction central to Stendhal’s “deep philosophy” route their definitions into two divergent tautologies: the first characterized by Stephen Gilman as a “paradoxical ‘ism’ which pretends to conceptualize how it feels to be [Stendhal]—a unique condition of consciousness—rather than any sort of general theory,”18 and the second by Léon Blum as “the conviction that the exact knowledge of the facts, the rigorous application of logical procedures can lead to everything, even to happiness, can take the place of anything, even genius; that the writer’s gift, for example, consists in a certain number of definable or assimilable recipes, and that art is just one of the aspects of universal science.”19 Whatever the discrepancies of scale that these definitions work through, each rewrites a referential relationship as a representative one, theorizing Stendhal’s own claims for the nature of things as the substitution of Stendhal for whatever he conceptualizes. This results in a strange kind of bidirectional contingency: the “conditions of consciousness” that compose the self of Stendhal, and the “assimilable recipes” that compose the universal science are already dependent on the thing that they make possible (Stendhal himself, his “happiness”), and yet these conditions and recipes are only infrequently available for combination at any given time. While such contingencies beg the question of how personal, limited knowledge could produce “anything, even genius” and be produced by “everything, even happiness,” and how we can even know what the limits of such knowledge are, they confirm the sense that Stendhal’s understanding of character is little more than an inelegant dodge. But what these readings ignore is the fact that Stendhal thought that at least once he got it right, and that he tried repeatedly to theorize why. As we have already seen, many of these issues of characterization arise at the borderline between Stendhal’s soul and Mélanie’s apprehension of it on that Monday afternoon.
Stendhal’s self-description can illuminate a reading of character in his fiction; this is where we must begin if we are going to talk about the self in Stendhal. But once we find ourselves in Stendhal’s “deep philosophy,” it is clear that something larger and more comprehensive is at stake. Chasing down all of his “conditions of consciousness” and “assimilable recipes” has made us prey to an infinite regress. The argument I posed at the beginning of this essay is that Stendhal pays attention to an object’s circumscription, to the edges of details that allow for an attribution of their form, and that he uses circumscription as a kind of motivating constraint. Circumscription is an antecedent logic that Stendhal thinks makes desire possible—it is the force behind the desire to become an entirely different person for a single day, the promise of being whole by taking up another fragmented form. In order to figure out what it means for an indefinite self in indefinite circumstances to definitely “get it right,” we are going to have to work from the outside in, and look at the way Stendhal works with circumscription, how he delimits what it is he’s thinking about when he thinks about the self.
The borderline between the soul and the other is drawn by the frustrating incompatibility of Stendhal’s hatred of affectation on the one hand, and his own emotional lability on the other. Starobinski thinks about the borderline between the soul and the other in terms of Stendhal’s desire “to affirm himself by an act of power which will impose on others his absolute singularity, or to metamorphose ceaselessly, to become other than himself,”20 and in the proliferation of his pseudonymous identities, both of which render his name “something full and something empty.”21 Nietzsche makes a distinction between the Kantian and the Stendhalian beautiful that usefully mobilizes Starobinski’s description, because it takes the contingency behind Stendhal’s understanding of character and recasts it as “potentiality,” which as we will see, captures that sense of expectation that allows Stendhal to claim that the day when he wins Mélanie could be “far finer” than even his best day. “‘That is beautiful,’ says Kant, ‘which pleases without interesting.’ Without interesting! Compare this definition with this other one, made by a real ‘spectator’ and ‘artist’—by Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur…. To him it is just the excitement of the will (the ‘interest’) by the beauty that seems the essential fact.”22 Potentiality is inborn in Stendhalian pleasure, it is a relation between the object of beauty and its subsequent recollection, but also and more crucially, it is a relation between the object of beauty and an effect (happiness) that is expected but not yet available. The present pleasure of a performance of talent is satisfying in a different way than the pleasure that comes with the nearness of an annotated text. In Stendhal’s “deep philosophy,” distance enables return or arrival, but it is the promise of arriving that sensualizes the experience of distance, that allows Stendhal to reimagine the borderline between his homeliness and his character as a space he can fill. Hippolyte Taine makes the point that the vacillating nature of Stendhal’s descriptions makes his readers do much of this work with him:
When your idea, for lack of reflection, remains imperfect and obscure so that you cannot bring it forth by itself, you gesture at something which it resembles; you leave the short, direct expression to fling yourself left and right into comparisons. Thus it is from impotence that you accumulate images; failing to outline your thought sharply the first time, you repeat it vaguely several times over, and the reader who wants to understand you must atone for your weakness or laziness by translating you to yourself, explaining to you what you wanted to say and didn’t.23
Taine suggests that it is difficult to sort out Stendhal’s understanding of character because it is caught up in the movement of the Stendhalian beautiful. Taine sees that the act of comparison is primarily an act of revision, just as it is in Stendhal’s marginalia, and he sees that what he calls its “impotence” produces an accumulation of observations similar to those produced by Stendhal’s “deep philosophy.” However, because the promise of happiness is guaranteed, the horizon of its potentiality can recede indefinitely, and this takes the pressure to craft a consistent description of character off of Stendhal, at the same time that it encourages him to keep trying.
2: Every (or almost every) aspect of objects
All of these readings demonstrate that Stendhal cares much about the description of characters; that he stages the refinement of their self-contradictory descriptions at events filled with obstacles that are often other characters; and that because these characters are inherently dispossessed as transparent, interpreted, and conventional selves, the work of their refinement never ends. But if we are going to make sense of Stendhal’s “best day,” we need to think about what an ending that incorporated these observations would look like. “Perception” is a word that does a lot of this work in the diary entry, and he draws it from the Idéologues, whose insistence on utility would define “the proper sense of the word know” as always connoting “the ideas of circumscription and of specialty,”24 or the uses to which knowledge could be put. Perception thus necessitates a knowledge that circumscribes with an intention to use: a primary and undifferentiated flood of experiences becomes perception when it develops detail and implementation. Jean-Pierre Richard argues that Stendhal’s “experience begins with passion, but his most lucid venture lies in circumscribing this passion, in knowing it fully, and in establishing between those burning moments of his life a continuity of feeling that poses no threat to his consciousness.”25 Circumscription recalls the vertical organization of Stendhal’s annotated self. It emphasizes the nearness of passion over the isolation of reflection by invoking an anterior form that supervenes on the particulars of experience, rather than allowing them to edge one another into irresolvable contradictions. We could think of Julien Sorel as a useful case here. He occupies a self-contradictory position in the Hôtel de La Mole because the form that imposes itself on him is fundamentally incompatible with the particular characteristics he is trying to cultivate in the salon. In a lonely moment among the swells, he thinks, “That’s the immense advantage they have over us….The history of their ancestors raises them above common feeling, and they do not have to be always worrying about making a living. What misery! he added with bitterness, I’m not fit to talk about these great subjects. My life is just a succession of hypocritical poses—for I haven’t a thousand francs a year to feed myself.”26 Whatever fortune Julien accumulates, the anterior logic of the novel will never allow him to escape the determinative influence of his origins. What’s more, this logic is explicitly embedded as a form of characterization from without: Julien describes himself as subordinate not to the swells themselves but to the ancestors whose inheritance “raises them above common feeling.”
Richard also finds a literal origin for Stendhal’s interest in circumscription—the “immobilizing potential” of mathematics: “He loved it not at all for its power of deduction and continuity or for its relentless movement, but quite to the contrary, for the fixity that its formulas and its theorems force upon realities that are by nature unstable.”27 Unlike the Stendhalian hero, who turns to juridical law to make sense of and restitution for transgression only to be disappointed by its misuse, Richard takes Stendhal himself to favor the mathematical a priori precisely because it is the sort of law that can never disappoint. And yet, it does disappoint. Richard acknowledges that this discrepancy is “curious,” since “it is not the spirit, but the letter that decides” the just and unjust, and Stendhal holds the law accountable for its corruption in his novels.28 But the only specific references to mathematics in The Life of Henry Brulard allow us to make sense of this disenchantment. “My enthusiasm for mathematics was based principally perhaps on my horror of hypocrisy,” he writes:
What then when I realized that no one could explain to me how it is that a minus times a minus equals a plus (- x – = +)? (This is one of the fundamental bases of the science known as algebra.)….
At the age of fourteen, in 1797, I imagined that higher mathematics, which I have never known, contained every or almost every aspect of objects, so that by going on I would come to know certain, indubitable things, which I could prove to myself whenever I wanted, about everything.
I was a long time convincing myself that my objection concerning – x – = + could never possibly enter M. Chabert’s head, that M. Dupuy would only ever answer it with a lofty smile, and that the experts I questioned would always make fun of me.
I was thereby reduced to what I still tell myself today: that – times – equals + must be true, since self-evidently, by continually employing this rule in a calculation, you end up with results that are true and indubitable.
My great misery was this figure:
Let RP be the line separating the positive from the negative, everything above it is positive, just as everything below it is negative; how, by taking square B as many times as there are units in square A, can I manage to make it change sides to square C?
Or, to adopt a clumsy comparison that was made even clumsier by M. Chabert’s supremely Grenoblois drawl, suppose the negative quantities are a man’s debts, how by multiplying 10,000 francs of debt by 500 francs, will he or can he manage to acquire a fortune of 5,000,000, five million?29
This problem is worth quoting at length because of its allegorization of Stendhal’s relationship to the mathematical a priori as, first, a set of hypocritical teachers whose loftiness and ridicule demonstrate the real snag in his attempt to escape hypocrisy by learning a discipline riddled with unfathomable truths; second, as a figure whose very arrangement suggests this opposition as an improbable conversion or “changing sides” across a horizontal boundary; and third, as a word problem about accumulated debt whose clumsy reiteration in “drawl” should be on the page but isn’t, and thus represents the illegibility at the heart of Stendhal’s confusion as an absent destination, a literal debt. This is a conceptual problem made worse by language and analogy, which confuse as they try to distract us from the bedrock conventionality of the antecedent form. Without too much effort, we can make this crisis of mathematical conversion into an extension of the contradictions that dominate criticism of Stendhal’s characters and of Stendhal himself, of the unstable body as an invisible and yet sublimely manipulable borderline, made up of a carriage that is both repetitively and socially constructed to communicate an inner soul. These contradictions, which entail nearness, and the anticipations of nearness, are arranged into a sudden and inexplicable hierarchy, and the frustration of not arriving is re-read as the hypocrisy of mathematical laws.
The second (and last) mention of mathematics in the autobiography takes up this problem, as Stendhal compares his knowledge of geometry to statics, and realizes that if, in geometry, parallel lines are “two lines which, extended to infinity, would never meet,” in statics, “Two parallel lines may be considered as meeting if extended to infinity.”30 Being “considered as meeting” is just a way of forming the question differently for a discipline that is all about the mechanics of stationary bodies, but Stendhal cannot imagine “considering” as a valid strategy for mathematics, whose concepts don’t change. If only he had been advised of the way things really are, he writes, if an “astute confessor, a good Jesuit” had said at last: “You can see that all is error, or rather that nothing is false, nothing true, all is convention. Adopt the convention which will earn you the best reception from the world.”31
I think that these examples make Stendhal’s affection for mathematics as contingent as his characters’ problems with juridical law—the contradiction on which Richard bases his discussion of Stendhal’s interest in circumscription—but more importantly, it demonstrates how fraught the idea of the borderline is in each of the contradictions we have examined so far. The impossible divide between negative and positive and the impossible collapse of parallel lines both have at their core an untranslatable truth that depends on a promise of satisfaction it never delivers. Stendhal describes the return to a text that marginalia makes possible as a kind of disinterested deep philosophy, giving him the distance to abstract himself into humanity’s representative; but it is really the approach that produces an affective relationship, and that approach crucially relies on the assurance that satisfaction will arrive. “Considered as meeting” is a useful construction for Stendhal because it describes both an as-if postulation and the perspective it implicates. Stendhal’s inability to imagine “considering” parallel lines in a different way is an anxiety about an approach without the promise of satisfaction, not simply because it will never be clear to Stendhal what it is that he’s imagining—that must be taken on faith—but because it reroutes his approach in an unfamiliar direction.
3: A cinnamon-bronze coat
In 1822, Stendhal wrote a flip essay under the name “Blaise Durand” on “The Geology of Morals” that shows the following “granite rocks” (C, C) with “vegetable detritus” filling in the shaded areas at (2, 2):
“Granite is the natural character of a man,” writes Stendhal of Figure 1, “his habitual way of seeking happiness. Character is like the features, one starts to notice it at the age of two or three, it’s perfectly apparent at sixteen or seventeen, it manifests its full force at twenty-six or thirty.” The filling at (2, 2) “is what politeness, the way of the world, and prudence do to a character.”32 Character is the stone contour of the landscape; politeness and conventionality an overgrowth that obscures all but the most extreme features of character. For Stendhal, this structure has two consequences, which he uses Figure 2 to illustrate: the first is that a “young man” may think (P, P) is a plain, not realizing that, as soon as he must do something important, “he will follow the contour of the granite in his character,” a reversal that corresponds to the granite of his physical features, which he may be able to make the best of but can’t irrevocably alter. The second consequence is that, “Once we know what our character is, we can prepare ourselves for the good and the evil which are predicted in books describing such characters.” We throw these anterior types into the future, whether they’re “violent,” “phlegmatic,” or “tender and melancholy, like J.-J. Rousseau” and we try to imagine the circumstances that will test them, the circumstances that will present them with choices and indeterminate possibilities for action. This complicates the nature of the transparency at the heart of Stendhal’s characterizations. Of the afternoon at Jean Dugazon’s where Stendhal cut such a perfect figure, he writes “This is the first time, at the age of twenty-two years and one month, that I have been able to gain ascendancy over myself to be amiable from calculation and not from passion.”33 Through its investment in filling-in, “The Geology of Morals” cashes out a discussion of the constitutive relation between self and other to make a point about how we refer to indeterminate objects. The language that gets folded into the concept of transparency—that of overlooking—assumes that it may not be the transparent but the opaque that creates an illusion of depth, and that a characterization either way is itself a kind of improvisational act of approaching.
“The Geology of Morals” describes approaching as a prediction of the circumstances under which the granite of a young man’s character is made manifest. But because these improvisational acts of approaching operate through and are informed by literary representations of character, they describe more than just the logical relation between those qualities that make a character “violent” and the inevitable emergence of its contours. Stendhal is in fact developing a theory of vagueness itself, of the nature and treatment of relations of predicates with indeterminate extensions. His diary is littered with them. After some under-specific descriptions of his brilliant achievement of perception he writes, “I was wearing a waistcoat, silk breeches and black stockings, with a cinnamon-bronze coat, a very well arranged cravat, a superb frill.”34 The cinnamon-bronze coat pulls focus because it is strikingly overdeveloped and vague at the same time, and also because it marks a shift in Stendhal’s descriptive process in the passage. The facts of his waistcoat are objective and declarative—the breeches are silk and the stockings are black—but neither description allows for nuance. By contrast, the “well arranged cravat” and “superb frill” contain highly subjective judgments, but judgments that are stabilized and communicated by convention. In-between, the cinnamon-bronze coat points to a kind of painstaking specificity, and at the same time the impossibility of combining terms in a coherent, repeatable or otherwise communicable way. Like the predicates “is tall” and “is early” there are borderline cases of “red” and “orange” that must appear “cinnamon-bronze,” and there are no sharp boundaries between coats that are “cinnamon-bronze” and those that are not. If we were to be so stodgy as to run this inductively, we could say that Stendhal’s coat was “red,” that after one washing it became one hundredth less “red,” and yet that it was still discernibly “red” at that time. But we could easily imagine a case in which the coat is washed so many times that it became “cinnamon-bronze,” without sacrificing the inductive structure of our argument. Theories of vagueness seem not merely to allow for, but to depend upon the kind of precisification that Stendhal seems to be encouraging us to perform. In this case, it is not quite the logic that is fuzzy, but the object. Insofar as Stendhal throws the cinnamon-bronze coat into a heap of clothes that are more or less sufficiently described, he seems to be trying to define something that is itself unclear, not being deliberately cagey about its description. Thanks to Stendhal’s description, we can imagine a continuous gradation of colors, such that, on either side of a particular color lies a color that is distinct but not discriminably different from it, and thus, for any acceptable precisification of or a word like “cinnamon-bronze,” there would be shades of cinnamon-bronze that were not discriminably different from shades that were not cinnamon-bronze.
Recent theories of vagueness in the philosophy of reference have relevance for our discussion of Stendhal’s descriptions, because they have increasingly focused on the naturalness of vague terms like the cinnamon-bronze coat; which is to say that they have focused on descriptions that seem peculiarly and positively deficient in semantic meaning, rather than being overly general, simply undecideable, or merely ambiguous. Patrick Greenough, for example, has proposed what he terms a “minimal theory” of vagueness as “epistemic tolerance.” He argues that vague terms (like tall, or old; like cinnamon-bronze, or good character) draw no clear or known boundary—because we are ignorant of where the boundary lies. The best we can do is ostensively define what it would mean to be a borderline case of some vague term by giving examples. In other words, while there could in principle be a time that clinched the moment when a red coat becomes cinnamon-bronze, we don’t know what it is, or how we could find it. Both Stendhal’s geology of morals and Greenough’s minimal theory are trying to cross-sect congenitally vague objects in order to make a space for and a point about the space that binds them to their root polarities. The “red/cinnamon-bronze” spectrum is, in other words, not unlike that of (P, P)/(C, C). And both theories locate themselves in the ostensive learning of a language: the moment we realized the coat was sometimes red and sometimes cinnamon-bronze, is the moment when a young man feels the pull of his granite character. The story this analysis of vagueness tells is about a certain kind of mastery—over meaning, over self, over the delimiting effects of an anterior form—but it also recognizes the way that mastery is fundamentally illusory, and that preparing ourselves for the challenges that characters “like us” are bound to face isn’t a gesture of control. In one of the few prolepses in The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s narrator imagines that:
In Paris, Julien’s relations with Mme de Rênal would swiftly have been simplified; but in Paris love is born of fiction. The young tutor and his mistress would have found the explanation of their situation in three or four novels, or even in some couplets from the Gymnase. The novels would have outlined for them the parts to play, showed them the model to imitate; and sooner or later, although with no pleasure, perhaps reluctantly, vanity would have forced Julien to follow the model.35
This is a statement about a kind of ignorance, born of the disjunction between Julien’s sense of his own character and the one he could have learned about in novels; but it’s also a statement about the circumstances under which the novel is the kind of novel it is. The fact that neither Julien nor Stendhal is anyone (or anywhere) else becomes the muddling-through motivation that drives the plot along. The simplified scenarios promised by some other kind of novel would remove the inhibitive openness that only play without parts gives us; there would be no pleasure in following that other sort of novel.
One of the things that puts the theory of epistemic tolerance in dialogue with this particular passage is its inadequate grasp of the ignorance that motivates it. After all, how can we know that any particular ostensive example—whether “The coat is sometimes red and sometimes cinnamon-bronze” or the character of a Parisian novel—expresses an ignorance that is grounded in its predicate’s vagueness, and not merely some ancillary lack of information? How do we know “red” is the problem, and not, say, the fact that we don’t know what a coat is? How can we choose the right Parisian novel? Greenough has to add some qualifications to his minimal theory in order to standardize what we talk about when we talk about vagueness; he has to argue that, under normal conditions, vagueness consists in our ignorance about the meaning of a predicate, not that our ignorance arises from vagueness itself. Stendhal’s own conditional project tries to arrange something like Greenough’s normal judgment conditions: he locates ignorance in the vagueness of Julien’s circumstances only because no other possibilities for ignorance seem to exist. If Julien had seen himself and his situation in another character, the story would have been simplified. And yet, when Stendhal describes Julien’s own hesitations—“sooner or later, although with no pleasure, perhaps reluctantly”—he indicates that some mechanism or other would slow down and confuse the relationship. Stendhal gives us too many variables to argue that vagueness consists in Julien’s ignorance, but they intuitively seem appropriate if they are, instead, the kinds of ignorance that arise from vagueness.
Responses to Greenough’s minimal theory have argued that, in relying so much on epistemicism—on our own ignorance of the borderline case—Greenough turns these potentially endless constraints against himself. If each precisification raises the possibility of its opposite, the result is the overgeneration of vagueness. Brian Weatherson argues that if every vague term has only vague boundaries, then Greenough must be assuming that we intuitively “know what the parameter of application of a vague term is,” and can allot it the appropriate constraints.36 On this account, Stendhal’s characterization of vagueness has one important advantage over Greenough’s: the presence of an overgenerating narrator who sets and polices the standard that the hero is trying to meet. We see the narrator’s intervention in this scene at the seminary, where Julien works on his posture and demeanor via a series of comparisons that are always interrupting his progress. That he is driving toward a “pure nothingness” that is simultaneously detachment and despair allows him to compare himself to the laity, whose own lack delivers them to a kind of intractable faith:
Julien tried first to arrive at the non culpa, which is the state of the young seminarist whose mode of walking, whose ways of moving his arms, eyes, etc. have certainly nothing worldly about them, but do not yet advertise the person as being absorbed by the idea of the other world and the pure nothingness of this one.
All the time, Julien would find sayings of this kind scrawled in charcoal on the corridor walls: What is sixty years of travail when weighed in the balance with eternal bliss or the eternal boiling oil of hell? He did not despise these any more; he understood that he should keep them constantly in front of his eyes. What will I be doing all my life? he asked himself; I’ll be selling places in Heaven to the faithful. How will that place be rendered visible to them?—by the difference between my appearance and that of the laity.
After several months of incessant application, Julien still retained the air of thinking. His ways of moving his eyes and setting his mouth did not proclaim an implicit faith, ready to believe all and maintain everything, even unto martyrdom. With anger Julien saw himself worsted in this kind of thing by the coarsest peasants. They had good reasons for not having a thoughtful air.37
Julien’s attempt at a kind of perception is characterized by the approach toward the circumscribed thing with intent. He aspires to a “not-yet,” to the imminent otherworldliness of the young seminarian, and then to be a kind of conduit for communication of the faithful with their place in Heaven (a nearness) and then finally, to the “implicit faith” of a priest, a readiness to self-sacrifice. We should note that it is a memento on the walls of the seminary in the form of a rhetorical question that most effectively keeps these aspirations in view, and performs the work of ironic detachment that pushes him toward them. Not-yet, nearness, and readiness are all vague, absent-center relations—they generate a passage as long as this one, not by negotiating between two bivalent polarities, but by describing the asymptotic haze of approach that seduces Julien ever toward indeterminacy. The only thing that interrupts his striving is the recognition that others are better positioned to be indeterminate, that they are on a different trajectory altogether, and so “had good reasons” for the better fit. This is how vagueness is for Stendhal a kind of ignorance commensurate with a characters’ availability to narrative omniscience. In the first instance, the reader supplies a constraint that gets incorporated; in the second, the constraints are already present and the reader follows a line of precisification; and in the third, both the type and its particular case are filled in, leaving us to flesh out its nuances—to create depth in the flatness of contradiction. This is a clear case of the generative powers of vagueness, and not simply as a characterological tool. Because Stendhal overgenerates conflicting representations of events and characters, he elicits different parts of a vague relation from his readers, a much more dynamic and intuitively “right” understanding of the role vagueness plays in language—from denoting and ostension to borderline relations—than Greenough’s minimal theory. The ignorance that so clearly motivates Stendhal’s descriptions stems from a series of investigations into the nature of perception as a kind of circumscription.
This interest in generative constructions of vagueness is the subject of three notable responses to Greenough’s article: Nicholas Smith’s “Vagueness as Closeness,” Matti Eklund’s “What Vagueness Consists In,” which posits a theory of vagueness as semantic competence, and Brian Weatherson’s “Many, Many Problems,” which argues for vagueness as indeterminacy. An examination of the features they bring to a discussion of vagueness can help us make some conclusions about what it is that Stendhal is contributing to our understanding of vague descriptions, and what is motivating his theory of characterization. Smith’s argument, that vagueness is “closeness”, states “For any set S of objects, and any predicate ‘F’—vague or precise—a competent user of ‘F’ can discern relationships of closeness or nearness or similarity amongst the members of S: closeness or nearness or similarity in the respects that are relevant to—or determine—whether something is F (for short, ‘F-relevant respects’).”38 We can think about this in Stendhal’s terms if we see closeness as a manifestation of one thing approaching another: orange is closer to red than green is to red, for example. Closeness is spatial, continuous; vagueness can be theorized as a relation of closeness because if, say, orange and purple are very close in red-relevant respects, then they are “very close in respect of truth.”39 Whereas many philosophies of vagueness argue that we learn things by ostensive examples, anterior structures that we remember and subsequently compare experiences and predictions to, Smith argues that ostension sets up a relation of objects that is much more dynamic and applicable to subsequent encounters than a memory of the object itself as it floating in space. Indeed, even when Julien aims for the non culpa, he is established in a relation to other people and things, and becomes (in effect) an absent center until he is found. The absent center couldn’t be more different from the ostensive object, and yet here we can already see that something is missing in Smith’s definition that Stendhal intuitively “gets”: we don’t need to see Julien exactly, or pin his striving to a definite state, to build all of the comparisons that his “appearance” makes possible. Not only must Smith have a set of things, S, and whatever “F-relevant respects” connect them on hand before that relation is motivated by vagueness; he also needs to have a distance metric on hand to see which things are close and which are not, and what kind of closeness chain could bind not-close things together. Julien figures that metric as character: in his striving toward and failing of other states; in his thwarted imaginings and inchoate jealousies of other persons.
Eklund makes a similar move in his theory of vagueness as semantic competence: “Vagueness must rather be conceived as a particular species of either semantic or ontological indeterminacy, or perhaps instead (I think preferably) as a particular source of semantic indeterminacy.”40 On this account, semantic values constitute the meaning of a given expression. When these “meaning-constitutive principles” cannot be satisfied, the semantic values are the only ones that can come close. If no assignment of semantic value comes “sufficiently close,” that expression lacks a semantic value; when there is a tie among several semantic values for closeness, the expression is indeterminate.41 The capability that allows users of a language to call a tie, an indeterminate, or an acceptable assignment of semantic values to an expression is semantic competence. Like Smith, Eklund assumes that it is ostension that helps us learn how words mean what they do, and ostension is (as Stendhal argues above), a variable exercise, producing a range of different kinds of competence across a spectrum of possible usage. For example, the parameter of application that any given expression can have doesn’t really need to be known in order for Julien to use terms like “coarse” or “beautiful”—chances are, the use of such terms doesn’t denote familiarity with their higher-order applicability. In fact, as Julien’s turn to the rhetorical question illustrates, the reminders of conventional usage that litter the path he uses to approach a circumscribed object can often lead to ironic detachment.
What vagueness consists in, then, for Eklund and Smith, is a kind of semantic incompleteness. What we need to rectify or precisify this incompleteness is a relational gut-check, aligning close semantic values and judging expressions to be vague within that closeness. But what we continue to take from Stendhal, despite these many ways of understanding the contradictions he motivates throughout his descriptions, is that there is something crucial in the approach with intent, something that can’t be captured by evaluations of sets, even when those sets are overgenerated, remotely connected by a chain of relevant respects, or tied inside a parameter of application.
Brian Weatherson gets at something like this—and uses a terminology somewhat more congenial to Stendhal’s understanding of Julien’s aspiration toward pure nothingness—with his theory of vagueness as indeterminacy. Julien remarks, “I’ll be selling places in Heaven to the faithful. How will that place be rendered visible to them?—by the difference between my appearance and that of the laity.” We know that Julien aspires to a hard-to-define state, the non culpa, that lies between this world and the next. But what we might not notice right off is that he intends to use the visible traces of that vague state (a “mode of walking”, “ways of moving his arms, eyes”) as an indication that he can make an invisible place visible. Ultimately, the vague term isn’t just Julien, but the place in Heaven that has not yet appeared. Weatherson argues that the precisification of a vague term “remedies not just a defect in a particular word, but a defect in the content-generation mechanism,” and we see that clearly here, as being vague vouches for Julien’s ability to determine the boundaries of vague things.42 Julien is betting that a statement about “that place in Heaven” can be meaningful for others—can even be believed—if his own “appearance” can be brought to bear on the determination of its content. For Weatherson, a precisification-space—a space in which a vague expression is made more precise—must be seen as a relation between all kinds of precisification content, and judged to be true or false on that total assignment of content. If Julien were to say, “Here is your place in Heaven” (assuming the statement is true), then via the usual constraints placed on precisification, his statement must be true no matter how his listener understood what was indicated by “here.” And this would be a problem, since “here” is always a pretty specific place, and, in practice, many precisifications of the term will probably not hold. However, rather than expanding the idea of “here” to account for all those places—which would be unnecessarily generative—we could, as Weatherson states, say that a precisification “assigns content to every linguistic token in the world, and that the truth-conditions of every one of these tokens is then determined in relation to that global assignment of content.”43 For Weatherson, Julien’s own state is not only relevant, but necessary information for the listener who wants to see her place in Heaven—it is the ground on which “here” is built.
By unloading truth-values onto their objects, Weatherson forces the relation between those objects to account for their consistency, vagueness, or contradiction. What I have been arguing is that this is the kind of motivated constraint we’ve seen in Stendhal’s descriptions of characters; for it is only through inter-referential relationships that objects take on their intriguing polyvalence and significance. As a boy, Stendhal searched for the perfect mathematical equation: “At the age of fourteen, in 1797, I imagined that higher mathematics, which I have never known, contained every or almost every aspect of objects, so that by going on I would come to know certain, indubitable things, which I could prove to myself whenever I wanted, about everything.”44 But the inescapable pressures of the social world turn even mathematics into an occasion for hypocrisy, rather than knowledge. Stendhal’s development of a theory of vagueness seeks to redress the failure of certainty and indubitability, to explain all the ways language can go right in a social situation, and all the not-unrelated ways it won’t. His theory is that approaching the perfect contradiction with intent supplies a kind of satisfaction that no “mathematical” understanding of its elements can really give. The ascription of values to different senses of one’s precisifications produces a useful friction that captures the very core subtleties of a character—and it works precisely because it can’t quite be theorized. Like Weatherson’s understanding of vagueness as indeterminacy, Stendhal’s characterizations compare and generate elements that otherwise don’t make a lot of sense. In his 1805 diary entry, Stendhal speaks of being “aware of what I was doing all the time, but without being bothered because of that, without being embarrassed.”45 He can’t yet know there is nothing to expose.