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Henri Beyle

By Norman Hapgood

THE fact that none of his work has been translated into English
is probably a source of amused satisfaction to many of the
lovers of Beyle. Though he exercised a marked influence on
Mérimée, was wildly praised by Balzac, was discussed twice by
Sainte-Beuve, was pointed to in Maupassant’s famous manifesto-
preface to Pierre et Jean ; though he has been twice eulogised by
Taine, and once by Bourget ; and though he has been carefully
analysed by Zola, he is read little in France and scarcely at all
elsewhere. While his name, at his death scarcely heard beyond
his little circle of men of letters, has become rather prominent,
his books are still known to very few. His cool prophecy that a
few leading spirits would read him by 1880 was justified, and the
solution of his doubt whether he would not by 1930 have sunk
again into oblivion seems now at least as likely as it was then to
be an affirmative. ” To the happy few,” he dedicated his latest
important novel, and it will be as it has been, for the few, happy
in some meanings of that intangible word, that his character and
his writings have a serious interest.

In one of the Edinburgh Review’s essays on Mme. du Deffand
is a rather striking passage in which Jeffrey sums up the con-
ditions that made conversation so fascinating in the salons of the


                        208 Henri Beyle

France of Louis XV. In Rome, Florence, et Naples, published
shortly afterward by Beyle, under his most familiar pseudonym
of Stendhal, is a conversation, with all the marks of a piece
of genuine evidence on the English character, between the author
and an Englishman ; and yet a large part of what is given as
the opinion of this acquaintance of Beyle is almost a literal
translation of Jeffrey’s remarks on the conditions of good con-
versation. Such a striking phrase as ” where all are noble all are
free ” is taken without change, and the whole is stolen with
almost equal thoroughness. This characteristic runs through all of
his books. He was not a scholar, so he stole his facts and many
of his opinions, with no acknowledgments, and made very pleasing

Related, perhaps, to this characteristic, are the inexactness of
his facts and the unreliability of his judgments. Berlioz some-
where in his memoirs gives to Stendhal half-a-dozen lines, which
run something like this : ” There was present also one M. Beyle,
a short man with an enormous belly, and an expression which he
tries to make benign and succeeds in making malicious. He is
the author of a Life of Rossini, full of painful stupidities about
music.” Painful indeed, to a critic with the enthusiasm and the
mastery of Berlioz, a lot of emphatic judgments from a man who
was ignorant of the technique of music, who took it seriously but
lazily, and who could make such a delicious comment at the end
of a comparison of skill with inspiration, as, ” What would not
Beethoven do, if, with his technical knowledge, he had the ideas
of Rossini ? ” Imagine the passionate lover of the noblest
in music hearing distinctions drawn between form and idea in
music, with condescension for Beethoven, by a man who found in
Cimarosa and Rossini his happiness night after night through
years. Imagine Beyle talking of grace, sweetness, softness,


                        By Norman Hapgood 209

voluptuousness, ease, tune, and Berlioz growing harsh with rage
and running away to hide from these effeminate notions in the
stern poetry of Beethoven’s harmonies. Imagine them crossing
over into literature and coming there at the height to the same
name, Shakespeare. What different Shakespeares they are. Berlioz,
entranced, losing self-control for days, feeling with passion the
glowing life of the poet’s words, would turn, as from something
unclean, from the man whose love for Macbeth showed itself
mostly in the citation of passages that give fineness to the feelings
which the school of Racine thought unsuited to poetry. ” You
use it as a thesis,” the enthusiast might cry. ” The grandeur,
the wealth, the terror of it escape you. You see his delicacy, his
proportion, a deeper taste than the classic French taste, and it
forges you a weapon. But you are not swept on by him, you
never get into the torrent of him, you are cool and shallow, and
your praise is profanation.” Stendhal read Shakespeare with some
direct pleasure, no doubt, but he was always on the look-out for
quotations to prove some thesis, and he read Scott and Richardson,
probably all the books he read in any language, in the same
unabandoned restricted way.

In painting it is the same. It is with a narrow and dilettante
intelligence that he judges pictures. The painter who feeds
certain sentiments, he loves and thinks great. Guido Reni is
suave ; therefore only one or two in the world’s history can com-
pare with him. One of them is Correggio, for his true voluptuous-
ness. These are the artists he loves. Others he must praise, as
he praised Shakespeare, to support some attack on French canons of
art. Therefore is Michelangelo one of the gods. The effort is
apparent throughout, and as he recalls the fact that Mme. du
Deffand and Voltaire saw in Michelangelo nothing but ugliness,
and notes that such is the attitude of all true Frenchmen, the lover


                        210 Henri Beyle

of Beyle smiles at his effort to get far enough away from his own
saturated French nature to love the masculine and august painter
he is praising. Before the Moses, Mérimée tells us, Beyle could
find nothing to say beyond the observation that ferocity could not
be better depicted. This vague, untechnical point of view was no
subject of regret to Stendhal. He gloried in it. ” Foolish as
a scholar,” he says somewhere, and in another place, ” Vinci is a
great artist precisely because he is no scholar.”

Add to these qualities of lack of truthfulness, lack of thorough-
ness, and lack of imagination, a total disregard for any moral view
of life, in the sense of a believing, strenuous view, and you have,
from the negative side, the general aspects of Stendhal’s character.
He was not vicious—far from it—though he admires many things
that are vicious. He is not indecent, for ” the greatest enemy of
voluptuousness is indecency,” and voluptuousness tests all things.
The keen Duclos has said that the French are the only people among
whom it is possible for the morals to be depraved without either the
heart being depraved or the courage being weakened. It would
be almost unfair to speak of Beyle’s morals as depraved, as even in
his earliest childhood he seems to have been without a touch of
any moral quality. ” Who knows that the world will last a
week ? ” he asks, and the question expresses well the instinct in
him that made him deny any appeal but that of his own ends.
Both morals and religion really repel him. It is impossible to
love a supreme being, he says, though we may perhaps respect
him. Indeed, he believes that love and respect never go together,
that grace, which he loves, excludes force, which he respects ; and
thus he loves Reni and respects Michelangelo. Grace and force
are the opposite sides of a sphere, and the human eye cannot see
both. As for him, he fearlessly takes sympathy and grace and
abandons nobility. In the same manner that he excludes


                        By Norman Hapgood 211

strenuous feelings of right altogether, he makes painting, which
he thinks the nobler art, secondary to music, which is the more
comfortable. For a very sensitive man, he goes on, with real
coherence to the mind of a Beylian, painting is only a friend, while
music is a mistress. Happy indeed he who has both friend and
mistress. In some of his moods, the more austere, the nobler and
less personal tastes and virtues, interest him, for he is to some
extent interested in everything ; but except where he is supporting
one of his few fundamental theses he does not deceive himself into
thinking he likes them, and he never takes with real seriousness
anything he does not like. Elevation and ferocity are the two
words he uses over and over again in explaining that Michelangelo,
alone could paint the Bible, and the very poverty of his vocabulary,
so discriminating when he is on more congenial subjects, suggests
how external was the acquaintance of Beyle with elevation or
ferocity, with Michelangelo or the Bible. He has written
entertainingly on such subjects, but it all has the sound of guess-
work. These two qualities, with which he sums up the sterner
aspects of life, are perhaps not altogether separable from a third,
dignity, and his view of this last may throw some light on the
nature of his relations with the elevation and ferocity he praises.
Here is a passage from Le Rouge et le Noir: ” Mathilde thought
she saw happiness. This sight, all-powerful with people who
combine courageous souls with superior minds, had to fight long
against dignity and all vulgar sentiments of duty.” Equally lofty
is his tone towards other qualities that are in reality part of the
same attitude ; a tone less of reproach than of simple contempt.
The heroine of Le Rouge et le Noir is made to argue that ” it is
necessary to return in good faith to the vulgar ideas of purity and
honour.” Two more of the social virtues are disposed of by him
in one extract, which, by the way, illustrates also the truly logical


                        212 Henri Beyle

and the apparently illogical nature of Stendhal’s thought. It will
take a little reflection to see how he gets so suddenly from industry
to patriotism in the following judgment, but the coherence of the
thought will be complete to the Beylian : ” It is rare that a young
Neapolitan of fourteen is forced to do anything disagreeable. All
his life he prefers the pain of want to the pain of work. The
fools from the North treat as barbarians the citizens of this country,
because they are not unhappy at wearing a shabby coat. Nothing
would seem more laughable to an inhabitant of Crotona than to
suggest his fighting to get a red ribbon in his button-hole, or to
have a sovereign named Ferdinand or William. The sentiment
of loyalty, or devotion to dynasty, which shines in the novels of
Sir Walter Scott, and which should have made him a peer, is as
unknown here as snow in May. To tell the truth, I don’t see
that this proves these people fools. (I admit that this idea is in
very bad taste.)” For himself, he hated his country, as he curtly
puts it, and loved none of his relatives. Patriotism, for which his
contempt is perhaps mixed with real hatred, is in his mind allied to the
most of all stupid tyrants, propriety, or, as he more often calls it,
opinion, his most violent aversion. Napoleon, he thinks, in
destroying the custom of cavaliere serviente simply added to the
world’s mass of ennui by ushering into Italy the flat religion of pro-
priety. He is full of such lucid observations as that the trouble with
opinion is that it takes a hand in private matters, whence comes
the sadness of England and America. To this sadness of the
moral countries and the moral people he never tires of referring.
His thesis carries him so far that he bunches together Veronese and
Tintoretto under the phrase, ” painters without ideal,” in whom
there is something dry, narrow, reasonable, bound by propriety ;
in a word, incapable of rapture. This referring to some general
standard, this lack of directness, of fervour, of abandonment, is


                        By Norman Hapgood 213

illustrated by the Englishman’s praise of his mistress, that there
was nothing vulgar in her. It would take, Beyle says, eight days
to explain that to a Milanese, and then he would have a fit of

These few references illustrate fairly the instincts and beliefs
that are the basis of Stendhal’s whole thought and life. The
absolute degree of moral scepticism that is needed to make a
sympathetic reader of him is—especially among people refined
and cultivated enough to care for his subjects—everywhere rare.
I call it a moral rather than an intellectual scepticism, because,
while he would doubtless deny the possibility of knowing the
best good of the greatest number, a more ultimate truth is that he
is perfectly indifferent to the good of the greatest number. It is
unabashed egotism. The assertion of his individual will, absolute
loyalty to his private tastes, is his principle of thought and action,
and his will and his tastes do not include the rest of the world,
and its desires. ” What is the ME ? I know nothing about it.
One day I awoke upon this earth, I found myself united to a
certain body, a certain fortune. Shall I go into the vain amuse-
ment of wishing to change them, and in the meantime forget to
live ? That is to be a dupe ; I submit to their failings. I
submit to my aristocratic bent, after having declaimed for ten
years, in good faith, against all aristocracy. I adore Roman
noses, and yet, if I am a Frenchman, I resign myself to having
received from heaven only a Champagne nose : what can I do
about it ? The Romans were a great evil for humanity, a deadly
disease which retarded the civilisation of the world …. In spite
of so many wrongs, my heart is for the Romans.” Thus, in all
the details of his extended comparison, Beyle tries to state with
fairness the two sides, the general good and the personal, the need
of obedience to its rules if some general ends of society are to be


The Yellow Book—Vol. IV. N

                        214 Henri Beyle

attained, and the individual’s loss from obedience. He states with
fairness, but his own choice is never in doubt. He goes to what
directly pleases him. ” Shall I dare to talk of the bases of
morals ? From the accounts of my comrades I believe that there
are as many deceived husbands at Paris as at Boulogne, at Berlin
as at Rome. The whole difference is that at Paris the sin is caused
by vanity, and at Rome by climate. The only exception I find
is in the middle classes in England, and all classes at Geneva.
But, upon my honour, the drawback in ennui is too great. I
prefer Paris. It is gay.” His tastes, his sympathies, are unhesi-
tatingly with the Roman in the following judgment : ” A
Roman to whom you should propose to love always the same
woman, were she an angel, would exclaim that you were taking
from him three-quarters of what makes life worth while. Thus,
at Edinburgh, the family is first, and at Rome it is a detail. If
the system of the Northern people sometimes begets the mono-
tony and the ennui that we read on their faces, it often causes a
calm and continuous happiness.” This steady contrast is noted
by his mind merely, his logical fairness. His mind is judicial in a
sort of negative, formal sense ; judicial without weight, we
might almost say. He does not feel, or see imaginatively,
sympathetically, the advantages of habitual constancy. He feels
only the truths of the other side, or the side of truth which he
expresses when he says that all true passion is selfish : and
passion and its truth are the final test for him. This selfishness,
which is even more self-reliance than it is self-seeking, which has
his instinctive approval in all moods, is directly celebrated by him
in most. The more natural genius and originality one has, he
says, the more one feels the profound truth of the remark of the
Duchesse de Ferté, that she found no one but herself who was
always right. And not only does natural genius, which we


                        By Norman Hapgood 215

might sum up as honesty to one’s instincts, or originality, make
us contemptuous of all judgments but our own ; it leads us (so
far does Beyle go) to esteem only ourselves. Reason, he argues,
or rather states, makes us see, and prevents our acting, since
nothing is worth the effort it costs. Laziness forces us to prefer
ourselves, and in others it is only ourselves that we esteem.

With this principle as his broadest generalisation it is not un-
natural that his profoundest admiration was for Napoleon. I am
a man, he says in substance, who has loved a few painters, a few
people, and respected one man—Napoleon. He respected a man
who knew what he wanted, wanted it constantly, and pursued it
fearlessly, without scruples and with intelligence, with constant
calculation, with lies, with hypocrisy, with cruelty. Beyle
used to lie with remarkable ease even in his youth. He makes
his almost autobiographical hero, Julien Sorel, a liar throughout
and a hypocrite on the very day of his execution. Beyle lays
down the judgments about Napoleon, that he liked argument,
because he was strong in it, and that he kept his peace, like a
savage, whenever there was any possibility of his being seen to be
inferior to any one else in grasp of the topic under discussion. It
is in his Life of Napoleon that Beyle dwells as persistently as any-
where on his never-ceasing principle : examine yourself ; get at your
most spontaneous, indubitable tastes, desires, ambitions ; follow
them ; act from them unceasingly ; be turned aside by nothing.

It is possible, in going through Beyle’s works for that purpose,
to find a remark here and there that might possibly indicate a
basis of faith under this insistence, a belief that in the end a thorough
independence of aim in each individual would be for the good of
all ; but these passing words really do not go against the truth
of the statement that Beyle was absolutely without the moral
attitude ; that the pleasing to himself immediately was all he gave


                        216 Henri Beyle

interest to, and that of the intellectual qualities those that had
beauty for him were the crueller ones—force, concentration,
sagacity, in the service of egotism. But here are a few of the
possible exceptions. ” Molière,” he says, in a dispute about that
writer’s morality, ” painted with more depth than the other poets.
Therefore, he is more moral. Nothing could be more simple.”
With this epigram he leaves the subject ; but it is tolerably clear
that he means to deny any other moral than truth, not to say that the
truth is an inevitable servant of good. If it did mean the latter, it was
thrown off at the moment as an easy argument, for his belief is pro-
nounced through his works, that his loves are the world’s banes, and
that any interest in the world’s good, in the moral law, is bour-
geois and dull. Here is another phrase that perhaps might suggest
that the generalisation was unsafe : ” He is the greatest man in
Europe because he is the only honest man.” This, like the other,
is clear enough to a reader of him ; and it is really impossible to
find in him any identification of the interesting, the worthy,
with the permanently and generally serviceable. Where the
social point of view is taken for a moment it is by grace of logic
purely, for a formal fairness. A more unmitigated moral rebel, a
more absolute sceptic, a more thoroughly isolated individual than
the author of Le Rouge et le Noir could not exist. Nor could
a more unhesitating dogmatist exist, despite his sneering apologies,
for dogmatism is as natural an expression of absolute scepticism as
it is of absolute faith. When a man refuses to say anything
further than, ” This is true for me, at this moment,” or perhaps,
” This is true of a man exactly such as I describe, in exactly these
circumstances,” he is likely to make these statements with un-
shakable firmness. This distinctness and coherence of the mind,
which is entirely devoted to relativity, is one of the charms of
Stendhal for his lovers. It makes possible the completeness and


                        By Norman Hapgood 217

the originality of a perfect individual, of an entirely unrestrained
growth. It is the kind of character that we call capricious or
fantastic when it is weak, but when it is strong it has a value for
us through its emphasis of interesting principles which we do not
find so visible and disentangled in more conforming people. The
instincts which in Stendhal have such a free field to expatiate seem
to some readers rare and distinguished, and to these readers it is a
delight to see them set in such high relief. This, in its most
general aspect, is what gave him his short-lived glory among the
young writers of France. They hailed him as the discoverer of
the doctrine of relativity, or as the first who applied it to the par-
ticular facts they wished to emphasise—the environment and its
influence on the individual. This has been overworked by great
men and little men until we grow sad at the sound of the word ;
but it was not so in Beyle’s time, and he used the principle with
moderation, seldom or never forgetting the incalculable and inex-
plicable accidents of individual variations. He does not forget
either that individuals make the environment, and he is really
clearer than his successors in treating race-traits, the climate and
the local causes, individual training, and individual idiosyncrasies, as
a great mixed whole, in which the safest course is to stick pretty
closely to the study of the completed product. For this reason
Zola very properly removed him from the pedestal on which Taine
had put him, for what is a solvent of all problems to the school
for which Taine hoped to be the prophet is in Stendhal but one
principle, in its place on an equality with others. Zola’s analysis
of this side of Beyle is really masterly ; and he proves without
difficulty that the only connection between Beyle and the present
naturalists is one of creed, not of execution—that Beyle did not
apply the principle he believed in. The setting of his scenes is
not distinct. Sometimes it is not even sketched in ; and here


                        218 Henri Beyle

Zola draws an illustration from a strong scene in Le Rouge et le
, and shows how different the setting would have been
in his own hands. Beyle is a logician, abstract ; Zola thinks him-
self concrete, and concrete he is—often by main force. This is a
sad failure to apply the doctrine of relativity to oneself. Beyle
errs sometimes in the same way, and some of his attempts at local
colour are very tiresome, but on the whole he remains frankly the
analyser, the introspective psychologist, the man of distinct but
disembodied ideas. He recognised the environment as he recog-
nised other things in his fertile reflections, but he was as a rule
too faithful to his own principles to spend much time in trying to
reproduce it in details which did not directly interest him. It
was therefore natural that his celebration by the extremists should
be short-lived. Most of them do him what justice they can with
effort, like Zola, or pass him over with some such word as the
” dry ” of Goncourt. His fads were his own. None of them
have yet become the fads of a school, though some principles that
were restrained with him have become battle-cries in later times.
His real fads are hardly fitted to be banners, for they are too
specific. In very general theories he generally kept rather sane.
His real difference from the school that claimed him for a father
half a century after his death, is well suggested in the awkward
word that Zola is fond of throwing at him, ” ideologist.” The
idea, the abstract truth and the intellectual form of it, its clearness,
its stateableness, its cogency and consistency, is the final interest
with him. The outer world is only the material for the ex-
pression of ideas, only the illustrations of them, and the ideas are
therefore not pictorial or dramatic, but logical. The arts are
ultimately the expression of thought and feeling, and colour and
plastic form are means only. You never find him complaining,
as his friend Mérimée did, that the meaning of the plastic arts


                        By Norman Hapgood 219

cannot be given in words because for a slight difference in shade
or in curve there is no expression in language. All that Beyle
got out of art he could put into words. He made no attempt to
compete with the painter like the leading realists of the past half-
century. Other arts interested him only as far as they formed,
without straining, illustrations for expression in language of the
feelings they appeal to. It was with him in music as it was in
painting, and often his musical criticism is as charming to the
unattached dilettante as it is annoying to the technical critic who
judges it in its own forms. Beyle names the sensation with
precision always. His vocabulary has fine shades without weakening
fluency. In choosing single words to name single sensations is
his greatest power, and it is a power which naturally belongs to a
man whose eye is inward, a power which the word-painters of the
environment lack. Everything is expression for Beyle, and
within the limits of the verbally-expressible he steadfastly remains.
His truth is truth to the forms of thought as they exist in the
reason—the clear eighteenth-century reason—disembodied truth.
” It is necessary to have bones and blood in the human machine
to make it walk. But we give slight attention to these necessary
conditions of life, to fly to its great end, its final result—to think
and to feel.

” That is the history of drawing, of colour, of light and shade,
of all the various parts of painting, compared to expression.

” Expression is the whole of art.”

This reminds one again of Mérimée’s statement, that Beyle
could see in the Moses nothing but the expression of ferocity;
and an equally conclusive assertion (for it is in him no confession)
is made by Beyle in reference to music, which he says is excellent
if it gives him elevated thoughts on the subjects that are occupying
him, and if it makes him think of the music itself it is mediocre.


                        220 Henri Beyle

Thus Beyle is as far from being an artist as possible. He cares
for the forms of the outer world, he spends his life in looking at
beauty and listening to it, but only because he knows that that is
the way to call up in himself the ideas, the sensations, the
emotions that he loves almost with voluptuousness. The basis of
genius, he says, in speaking of Michelangelo, is logic, and if this
is true—as in the sense in which he used it, it probably is—Beyle’s
genius was mostly basis.

Mérimée says that though Beyle was constantly appealing to
logic, he reached his conclusions not by his reason but by his
imagination. This is certainly making a false distinction. Beyle
was not a logician in the sense that he got at conclusions indirectly
by syllogisms. He did not forget his premisses in the interest of
the inductive process. What he calls logic is an attitude or quality
of the mind, and means really abstract coherence. Of what he
himself calls ideology, with as much contempt as Zola could put
into the word, he says that it is a science not only tiresome but
impertinent. He means any constructive, deductive system of
thought. He studied Kant and other German metaphysicians,
and thought them shallow—superior men ingeniously building
houses of cards. His feet seldom if ever got off the solid ground
of observations into the region of formal, logical deduction.
” Facts ! facts ! ” he cried, and his love of facts at first hand,
keeps him from some of the defects of the abstract mind. Every
statement is independent of the preceding and the succeeding
ones, each is examined by itself, each illustrated by anecdote,
inexact enough, to be sure, but clear. There is no haze in his
thought. When Mérimée says that it is Beyle’s imagination and
not his logic that decides, he is right, in the sense that Beyle has
no middle terms, that his vision is direct, that the a priori process
is secondary and merely suggestive with him. ” What should we


                        By Norman Hapgood 221

logically expect to find the case here ? ” he will ask before a new
set of facts, but if his expectation and his observation differ, he
readjusts his principles. It is no paradox to call a mind both
abstract and empirical, introspective and scientific ; and Beyle’s
was both.

This quality of logic without constructiveness shows, of course,
in his style. There is lucidity of transition, of connection, of
relation, among the details, but the parts are not put together to
form an artistic whole. They fall on to the paper from his mind
direct, and the completed book has no other unity than has the
mind of the author. As he was a strong admirer of Bacon and
his methods, it is safe enough to say that he would have accepted
entirely this statement about composition as his own creed :
” Thirdly, whereas I could have digested these rules into a certain
method or order, which, I know, would have been more admired,
as that which would have made every particular rule, through its
coherence and relation unto other rules, seem more cunning and
more deep ; yet I have avoided so to do, because this delivering of
knowledge in distinct and disjoined aphorisms doth leave the wit
of man more free to turn and toss, and to make use of that which
is so delivered to more several purposes and applications.” He is
the typical suggestive critic, formless, uncreative, general and
specific, precise and abstract : chaotic to the artist, satisfactory to
the psychologist. It makes no difference where the story begins,
whether this sentence follows that, or where the chapter ends.
There are no rules of time and place. His style is a series of
epigrams, and the order of their presentation is almost accidental.
” To draw out a plot freezes me,” he says, and one could guess it
from his stories, which are in all essentials like his essays. To
this analytic, unplastic mind the plot, the characters, are but
illustrations of the general truths. The characters he draws have


                        222 Henri Beyle

separate individual life only so far as they are copies. There is
no invention, no construction, no creation. Moreover, there is no
style, or no other quality of style than lucidity. He not only
lacks other qualities, he despises them. The ” neatly turned “
style and the rhetorical alike have his contempt. Most rhetoricians
are ” emphatic, eloquent, and declamatory.” He almost had a
duel about Chateaubriand’s ” cime indéterminée des forêts.” Rous-
seau is particularly irritating to him. ” Only a great soul knows
how to write simply, and that is why Rousseau has put so much
rhetoric into the New Eloïse, which makes it unreadable after
thirty years.” In another place he says he detests, in the arrange-
ment of words, tragic combinations, which are intended to give
majesty to the style. He sees only absurdity in them. His style
fits his thought, and his failure to comprehend colour in style is
not surprising in a man whose thought has no setting, in a man
who remarks with scorn that it is easier to describe clothing than
it is to describe movements of the soul. He cares only for move-
ments of the soul. The sense of form might have given his work
a larger life, but it is part of his rare value for a few that he talks
in bald statements, single-word suggestions, disconnected flashes.
This intellectual impressionism, as it were, is more stimulating to
them than any work of art. These are not poetic souls, it is
needless to say, however much they may love poetry. Beyle is
the essence of prose and it is his strength. He loved poetry, but
he got from it only the prose, so much of the idea as is in-
dependent of the form, Mérimée tells us that Beyle murdered
verse in reading aloud, and in his treatise De l’Amour he informs us
that verse was invented to help the memory and to retain it in
dramatic art is a remnant of barbarity. The elevation, the
abandon, the passion of poetry—all but the psychology—were
foreign to this mind, whose unimaginative prose is its distinction.


                        By Norman Hapgood 223

Perhaps this limitation is kin to another : that as novelist Beyle
painted with success only himself. Much the solidest of his
characters is Julien Sorel, a copy trait for trait of the author,
reduced, so to speak, to his essential elements. Both Julien and
Beyle were men of restless ambition, clear, colourless minds, and
constant activity. Julien turned this activity to one thing, the
study of the art of dominating women, and Beyle to three, of
which this was the principal, and the other two were the compre-
hension of art principles and the expression of them. In his
earlier days he had followed the army of Napoleon, until he
became disgusted with the grossness of the life he saw. What
renown he won in the army was for making his toilet with com-
plete care on the eve of battle. From the Moscow army he wrote
to one of his friends that everything was lacking which he needed,
” friendship, love (or the semblance of it), and the arts. ” For sim-
plicity, friendship may be left out in summing up Beyle’s interests,
for while his friendships were genuine they did not interest him
much, except as an opportunity to work up his ideas. Of the two
interests that remain, the one expressed in Julien, the psychology
of love, illustrated by practice, is much the more essential. Julien
too had Napoleon for an ideal, and when he found he could not
imitate him in the letter he resigned himself to making in his
spirit the conquests that were open to him. The genius that
Napoleon put into political relations he would put into social
ones. All the principles of war should live again in his intrigues
with women.

This spirit is well enough known in its outlines. Perhaps the
most perfect sketch of it in its unmixed form is in Les Liaisons
, a book which Beyle knew and must have loved. He
must have admired and envied the Comte de Valmont and the
Marquise de Merteuil. There is here none of the grossness of the


                        224 Henri Beyle

Restoration comedy in England. It is the art of satisfying
vanity in a particular way, in its most delicate form. It is
an occupation and an art as imperative, one might almost say as
impersonal, were not the paradox so violent, as any other. What
makes Stendhal’s account of this art differ from that of Delaclos
and the other masters is the fact that, deeply as he is in it, he is
half outside of it : he is the psychologist every moment, seeing
his own attitude as coldly as he sees the facts on which he is
forming his campaign. Read the scene, for instance, where
Julien first takes the hand of the object of his designs, absolutely
as a matter of duty, a disagreeable move necessary to the success
of the game. The cold, forced spirit of so much of intrigue is
clearly seen by Beyle and accepted by him as a necessity. He
used to tell young men that if they were alone in a room five
minutes with a beautiful woman without declaring they loved her,
it proved them poltroons. Two sides of him, however, are always
present ; for this is the same man who repeats for ever in his book
the cry that there is no love in France. He means that this
science, better than no love at all, is inferior to the abandon of
the Italians. The love of 1770, for which he often longs, with
its gaiety, its tact, its discretion, ” with the thousand qualities of
savoir-vivre,” is after all only second. Amour-gout, to point out
the distinction in two famous phrases of his own, is for ever
inferior to amour-passion. Stendhal, admiring the latter, must have
been confined to the former, though not in its baldest form, for
to some of the skill and irony of Valmont he added the softness,
the sensibility, of a later generation, and he added also the will to
feel, so that his study of feeling and his practice of it grew more
successful together. Psychology and sensibility are mutual aids
in him, as they not infrequently are in ” observers of the
human heart,” to quote his description of his profession. ” What


                        By Norman Hapgood 225

consideration can take precedence, in a sombre heart, of the never-
flagging charm of being loved by a woman who is happy and
gay ? ” The voluptuary almost succeeds in looking as genuine as
the psychologist. ” This nervous fluid, so to speak, has each day
but a certain amount of sensitiveness to expend. If you put it
into the enjoyment of thirty beautiful pictures you shall not use
it to mourn the death of an adored mistress.” You cannot dis-
entangle them. Love, voluptuousness, art, psychology, sincerity,
effort, all are mixed up together, whatever the ostensible subject.
It is a truly French compound, perhaps made none the less
essentially French by the author’s constant berating of his country
for its consciousness and vanity : a man who would be uneasy if
he were not exercising his fascinating powers on some woman,
and a man whose tears were ready ; a man who could not live with-
out action, soaking in the dolce far niente ; a man all intelligence,
and by very force of intelligence a man of emotion. He would
be miserable if he gave himself up to either side. ” In the things
of sentiment perhaps the most delicate judges are found at Paris—
but there is always a little chill.” He goes to Italy, and as he
voluptuously feels the warm air and sees the warm blood and the
free movements, the simplicity of heedlessness and passion, his
mind goes back longingly to the other things. ” All is decadence
here, all in memory. Active life is in London and in Paris.
The days when I am all sympathy I prefer Rome : but staying
here tends to weaken the mind, to plunge it into stupor. There
is no effort, no energy, nothing moves fast. Upon my word, I
prefer the active life of the North and the bad taste of our
barracks.” But among these conflicting ideals it is possible
perhaps to pick the strongest, and I think it is painted in this
picture : ” A delicious salon, within ten steps of the sea, from
which we are separated by a grove of orange-trees. The sea


                        226 Henri Beyle

breaks gently, Ischia is in sight. The ices are excellent.” The
last touch seems to me deliciously characteristic. What is more
subtle to a man whose whole life is an experiment in taste, what
more suggestive, what more typical, than an ice ? There is a per-
vading delight in it, in the unsubstantiality, the provokingness, the
refinement of it. ” In the boxes, toward the middle of the
evening, the cavaliere servante of the lady usually orders some ices.
There is always some wager, and the ordinary bets are sherbets,
which are divine. There are three kinds, gelati, crepè and
pezzidiere. It is an excellent thing to become familiar with. I
have not yet determined the best kind, and I experiment every
evening.” Do not mistake this for playfulness. The man who
cannot take an ice seriously cannot take Stendhal sympathetically.

Such, in the rough, is the point of view of this critic of character
and of art. Of course the value of judgments from such a man in
such an attitude is dependent entirely on what one seeks from
criticism. Here is what Stendhal hopes to give : ” My end is to
make each observer question his own soul, disentangle his own
manner of feeling, and thus succeed in forming a judgment for
himself, a way of seeing formed in accord with his own character,
his tastes, his ruling passions, if indeed he have passions, for
unhappily they are necessary to judge the arts.” The word
” passion,” here as elsewhere, is not to be given too violent a
meaning. ” Emotion ” would do as well—sincere personal feeling.
That there is no end of art except to bring out this sincere
individual feeling is his ultimate belief. He is fond of the story
of the young girl who asked Voltaire to hear her recite, so as to
judge of her fitness for the stage. Astonished at her coldness,
Voltaire said : ” But, mademoiselle, if you yourself had a lover
who abandoned you, what would you do ? ” ” I would take
another,” she answered. That, Stendhal adds, is the correct point


                        By Norman Hapgood 227

of view for nineteen-twentieths of life, but not for art. ” I care
only for genius, for young painters with fire in the soul and open
intelligence.” For disinterested, cool taste, for objective justness
and precision, he has only contempt. Indeed, he accepts Goethe’s
definition of taste as the art of properly tying one’s cravats in
things of the mind. Everything that is not special to the speaker,
personal, he identifies with thinness, insincerity, pose. ” The best
thing one can bring before works of art, is a natural mind. One
must dare to feel what he does feel.” To be one’s self, the first
of rules, means to follow one’s primitive sentiments. ” Instead of
wishing to judge according to literary principles, and defend
correct doctrines, why do not our youths content themselves with
the fairest privilege of their age, to have sentiments ? ” There is
no division into impersonal judgment and private sentiment. The
only criticism that has value is private, personal, intimate.

Less special to Stendhal now, though rare at the time in which
he lived, is the appeal to life as the basis of art. ” To find the
Greeks, look in the forests of America.” Go to the swimming-
school or the ballet to realise the correctness and the energy of
Michelangelo. Familiarity is everything. ” The work of
genius is the sense of conversation,” and as ” the man who takes
the word of another is a cruel bore in a salon, ” so is he as a critic.
” What is the antique bas-relief to me ? Let us try to make good
modern painting. The Greeks loved the nude. We never see it,
and moreover it repels us.” This conclusion shows the weakness,
or the limitation, of this kind of criticism, which as Stendhal
applies it would keep us from all we have learned from the revived
study of the nude, because the first impression to one unused to
seeing it is not an artistic one. But the limitations of Stendhal and
his world are obvious enough. It is his eloquence and usefulness
within his limits that are worth examination.

                                                ” Beauty,”

                        228 Henri Beyle

” Beauty,” to Stendhal, ” is simply a promise of happiness,” and
the phrase sums up his attitude. Here is his ideal way of taking
music. He asked a question of a young woman about somebody
in the audience. The young woman usually says nothing during the
evening. To his question she answered, ” Music pleases when it
puts your soul in the evening in the same position that love put it
in during the day.”

Beyle adds : ” Such is the simplicity of language and of action.
I did not answer, and I left her. When one feels music in such a
way, what friend is not importunate ? ” When he leaves this field
for technical judgments he is laughable to any one who does not
care for the texture of his mind, whatever his expression ; for
music to him is really only a background for his sensibility.
” How can I talk of music without giving the history of my
sensations ? ” This is, doubtless, maudlin to the sturdy masculine
mind, this religion of sensibility, this fondling of one’s sentimental
susceptibilities, and it certainly has no grandeur and no morality.
” Sensibility,” Coleridge says, ” that is, a constitutional quickness
of sympathy with pain and pleasure, and a keen sense of the
gratifications that accompany social intercourse, mutual endear-
ments, and reciprocal preferences …. sensibility is not even a
sure pledge of a good heart, though among the most common
meanings of that many-meaning and too commonly misapplied
expression.” It leads, he goes on, to effeminate sensitiveness by
making us alive to trifling misfortunes. This is just, with all its
severity, and the lover of Stendhal has only to smile, and quote
Rousseau, with Beyle himself: ” I must admit that I am a great
booby ; for I get all my pleasure in being sad.”

Naturally enough, ennui plays a great part in such a nature,
thin, intelligent, sensitive, immoral, self-indulgent. It lies behind
his art of love and his love of art. ” Ennui, this great motive


                        By Norman Hapgood 229

power of intelligent people,” he says ; and again : ” I was much
surprised when, studying painting out of pure ennui, I found it a balm
for cruel sorrows.” He really loves it. ” Ennui ! the god whom I
implore, the powerful god who reigns in the hall of the Français,
the only power in the world that can cause the Laharpes to be
thrown into the fire.” Hence his love for Madame du Deffand,
the great expert in ennui, and for the whole century of ennui,
wit, and immorality. Certainly the lack of all fire and enthu-
siasm, the lack of faith, of hope, of charity, does go often with a
clear, sharp, negative freshness of judgment, which is often seen
in the colder, finer, smaller workmen in the psychology of social
relations. It is a great exposer of pretence. It enables Stendhal
to see that most honest Northerners say in their hearts before the
statues of Michelangelo, ” Is that all ? ” as they say before their
accomplished ideal, ” Good Lord ! to be happy, to be loved, is it
only this ? ”

But just as Stendhal keeps in the borderland between vice and
virtue, shrinking from grossness, and laughing at morality, so he
cannot really cross into the deepest unhappiness any more than he
could into passionate happiness. Tragedy repelled him. ” The
fine arts ought never to try to paint the inevitable ills of humanity.
They only increase them, which is a sad success …. Noble and
almost consoled grief is the only kind that art should seek to
produce.” To these half-tones his range is limited through the
whole of his being. Of his taste in architecture, of which he
was technically as ignorant as he was of music, Mérimée tells us
that he disliked Gothic, thinking it ugly and sad, and liked the
architecture of the Renaissance for its elegance and coquetry ;
that it was always graceful details, moreover, and not the general
plan that attracted him ; which is a limitation that naturally goes
with the other.


The Yellow Book—Vol. IV. O

                        230 Henri Beyle

Of course the charm and the limitations that are everywhere
in Beyle’s art criticism are the same in his judgments of national
traits, which form a large part of his work. Antipathy to the
French is one of his fixed ideas, thorough Frenchman that he was ;
for his own vanity and distrust did not make him hate the less
genuinely those weaknesses. Vanity is bourgeois, he thinks, and
there is for him no more terrible word. It spoils the best things,
too—conversation among others ; for the French conversation is
work. ” The most tiresome defect in our present civilisation is
the desire to produce effect.” So with their bravery, their love,
all is calculated, there is no abandonment. This annoys him
particularly in the women, who are always the most important
element to him. He gives them their due, but coldly : ” France,
however, is always the country where there are always the most
passable women. They seduce by delicate pleasures made
possible by their mode of dress, and these pleasures can be appre-
ciated by the most passionless natures. Dry natures are afraid of
Italian beauty.” Of course this continual flinging at the French
is only partly vanity, self-glorification in being able, almost alone
of foreigners, to appreciate the Italians. It is partly contempt
for his leading power, for mere intelligence. In his youth he
spoke with half-regret of his being so reasonable that he would go
to bed to save his health even when his head was crowded with
ideas that he wanted to write. It was his desperate desire to be
as Italian as he could, rather than any serene belief that he had
thrown off much of his French nature, that made him leave
orders to have inscribed on his tombstone :

            Qui Giace
        Arrigo Beyle Milanese
        Visse, scrisse, amò.


                        By Norman Hapgood 231

It comes dangerously near to a pose, perhaps, and yet there is
genuineness enough in it to make it pathetic. He praises the
Italians because they do not judge their happiness. He never
ceased to judge his. Nowhere outside of Italy, he thinks, can
one hear with a certain accent, ” O Dio ! com’e bello ! ” But
the implication is quite unfair. I have heard a common French-
woman exclaim, under her breath, before an ugly peacock,
” Dieu ! comme c’est beau,” with an intensity that was not less
because it was restrained. But restraint was Beyle’s bugbear.
From his own economical, calculating nature he flew almost with
worship to its opposite. He is speaking of Julien, and therefore
of himself, when he says, in Le Rouge et le Noir : “Intellectual
love has doubtless more cleverness than true love, but it has only
moments of enthusiasm. It knows itself too well. It judges
itself unceasingly. Far from driving away thought, it exists
only by force of thought.” He calls Julien mediocre, and he
says of him : ” This dry soul felt all of passion that is possible
in a person raised in the midst of this excessive civilisation which
Paris admires.” Beyle saves Julien from contempt at the end
(and doubtless he consoled himself with something similar) by
causing him, while remaining a conscious hypocrite, to lose his
life unhesitatingly, absurdly, perversely, for the sake of love.
Once he has shown himself capable of the divine unreason, of
exaltation, he is respectable. Where the enthusiasm is he is
blinded ; he cannot see the crudity and stupidity of passion.
Before this mad enthusiasm the French fineness and proportion is
insignificant. He loses his memory of the charm he has told so
well. ” Elsewhere there is no conception of this art of giving
birth to the laugh of the mind, and of giving delicious joys by
unexpected words.”

As might be expected, Beyle is even more unfair to the


                        232 Henri Beyle

Germans than he is to his countrymen ; for the sentiment, of
which he is the epicure and the apologist has nothing in common
with the reverent and poetic sentiment in which the Germans are
so rich. This last Beyle hates as he hates Rousseau and Madame
de Staël. It is phrase, moonshine, and the fact that it is bound up
in a stable and orderly character but makes it the more irritating.
They are sentimental, innocent, and unintelligent, he says, and he
quotes with a sneer, as true of the race : ” A soul honest, sweet,
and peaceful, free of pride and remorse, full of benevolence and
humanity, above the nerves and the passions.” In short, quite
anti-Beylian, quite submissive, sweet, and moral. For England
he has much more respect and even a slight affection. He likes
their anti-classicism, and he likes especially the beauty of their
women, which he thinks second only to that of the Italians. The
rich complexions, the free, open countenances, the strong forms
rouse him sometimes almost to enthusiasm ; but of course it is all
secondary in the inevitable comparison. ” English beauty seems
paltry, without soul, without life, before the divine eyes which
heaven has given to Italy.” The somewhat in the submissive
faces of the Englishwomen that threatens future ennui, Stendhal
thinks has been ingrained there by the workings of the terrible
law of propriety which rules as a despot over the unfortunate
island. It is the vision of caprice in the face of the Italian
woman that makes him certain of never being bored.

It is not surprising that women should be the objects through
which Beyle sees everything. A man who sees in relativity,
arbitrariness, caprice, the final law of nature, and who feels a sym-
pathy with this law, not unnaturally finds in the absolute, personal,
perverse nature of women his most congenial companionship. He
finds in women something more elemental than reasonableness.
He finds the basal instincts. They best illustrate his psychology


                        By Norman Hapgood 233

of final, absolute choice. Of course there is the other side too,
the epicure’s point of view, from which their charm is the centre
of the paradise of leisure, music, and ices. His hyperbole in
praising art is ” equal to the first handshake of the woman one
loves.” In politics he sees largely the relations of sex ; and in
national character it is almost always of the women he is talking.
Their influence marks the advance of civilisation. ” Tenderness
has made progress among us because society has become more
perfect,” and tenderness here is this soft or, if you choose,
effeminate, sensibility. ” The admission of women to perfect
equality would be the surest sign of civilisation. It would double
the intellectual forces of the human race and its probabilities of
happiness….. To attain equality, the source of happiness for
both sexes, the duel would have to be open to women ; the pistol
demands only address. Any woman, by subjecting herself to
imprisonment for two years would be able, at the expiration of the
term, to get a divorce. Towards the year Two Thousand these ideas
will be no longer ridiculous.”

In this passage is the whole man, intelligent and fantastic, sincere
and suspicious, fresh, convincing, absurd. He is rapidly settling
back into obscurity, to which he is condemned as much by the
substance of his thought as by the formlessness of its expression.
Entirely a rebel, and only slightly a revolutionist, he is treated by
the world as he treated it. A lover of many interesting things
inextricably wound up together, his earnest talk about them will
perhaps for some time longer be an important influence on the lives
of a few whose minds shall be of the kind to which a sharp,
industrious, capricious, and rebellious individual is the best stimulant
to their own thought.

MLA citation:

Hapgood, Norman. “Henri Beyle.” The Yellow Book, vol. 4, January 1895, pp. 207-233. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.