Rethinking Romance with Stendhal's 'On Love'

Rethinking Romance with Stendhal's 'On Love'

Matthew Stahlman
Matthew Stahlman
15 min read
Stendhal’s De l’Amour, Mongie, Paris, 1822

Insomnia has its hazy, surreal benefits. “If you’ve never read Stendhal’s On Love, well, you should,” my professor informed me, in a rapid-fire email exchange that took place, improbably, at 3:31 AM. (Somehow, we were both awake.) At the end of the trading of messages, I groaned at the prospect of adding something else to my reading list, set the laptop down, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But my trust in the suggestions of an authority figure was rewarded, as it often is: the next week I found myself not only reading On Love but enjoying it, while formulating questions, thoughts, and ideas in response. The text, a courtship manual of sorts from 1822, is sophisticated and lively.

The key term Stendhal introduces, which is central to his vision of romance, is (to use the Americanized spelling) “crystallization”; the term refers to a twig thrown into a salt mine which, when “taken out two or three months later … is covered with brilliant crystals.” Beautiful patterns form around something that wasn’t necessarily beautiful to begin with, so that, once the process has taken place, the original thing is scarcely recognizable. By analogy, to fall in love with someone involves a transformation of your way of seeing; consequently, for instance, a lover need not be beautiful in any objective sense, your standards of beauty change to match the person in whom you are interested. “The moment he is in love, the steadiest man sees no object such as it is,” writes Stendhal. “Even the minor defects of [a lover’s] face, a small-pox mark, for example, touches the heart of a man who loves, and, when he sees them in another woman, sets him dreaming far away.” To Stendhal, the most impressive forms of love require passing through this experience. Much of the text is devoted to reflections on the specifics of how and why crystallization occurs, and considerations as to how to make it proceed best.

I must detail a couple of nuances of crystallization, as Stendhal describes it, which will be important for the reflections that follow. First, note that crystallization is a complex phenomenon, a seven-step process which may play out over months or years, beginning in “admiration” and culminating in a “second crystallization” (which “forms proofs out of the diamonds of the idea,’she loves me’”). Crystallization is a gender-neutral concept: though there are, in Stendhal’s estimation, differences in how men and women experience the process (and he devotes a chapter to just this issue), that it occurs in both sexes is established. Nevertheless, men are expected to initiate courtship; female modesty is a norm that is assumed to be beneficial for everyone. “Modesty … is the mother of love: impossible, therefore, to doubt her claims,” Stendhal writes. A lack of modesty can kill the delicate process: though the second crystallization is the critical step which “ensures love’s duration,” it is “entirely absent from the passions inspired by women who yield too soon.” For better or worse, this is the vision of courtship that Stendhal treats as foundational: one that is involved and passionate but often slow-moving, and which relies on female modesty as a buffer of sorts to keep everyone involved from yielding to impulses that would undermine that which is developing.

After outlining the nature of crystallization, On Love’s structure breaks down; the bulk of the text consists of a disjointed tangle of oblique but engrossing insights, anecdotes, and aphorisms. There are chapters on jealousy and pride, on the 1822 equivalent of revenge sex, on whether or not educating women better would improve romance (Stendhal is totally in favor; the text’s proto-feminist streak, and the obvious effort he puts into empathizing with concerns specific to women, is one of its more charming facets), on the different romantic practices of the different European societies. It would be impossible to do On Love justice in this space. But I thought I’d present here a couple of themes that came to mind as I was reading this text, themes that speak to our normative romantic practices in 2017-2018. I’ll sidestep the usual Tumblr-ready criticisms – yes, the text is heteronormative; yes, it makes generalizations about ethnic groups and cultures (and certainly about the sexes, of which there are only two) – and linger on a couple issues that stand out, about which Stendhalian romantic practices are sharply at odds with our own.


Is Stendhal – or, rather, the kind of romance he endorses – creepy? I mean this adjective in its current morally-charged sense, the sense that Nathan Heller talks about here: the word describes someone who is both “arresting and unsettlingly weird,” whose “behavior suggests unknown potential,”; the term helps “brand the people whom, for our own safety, we might rather keep at bay.” In Heller’s estimation, “creepiness is often judged to be a male problem,” because “creepiness carries a vague, erotically-tinged threat, and men are classically predatory.” That’s all largely correct, I think. The word seems to have become not just an evocative adjective but a key term in the moral vocabulary of many, gaining a standing alongside other terms of a similar valence: recently, for instance, I saw a young man at the local farmer’s market in a shirt that said “No Sexism, No Racism, No Homophobia … No Creeps.” (As someone who spent formative years reading Richard Rorty, I found the spectacle simultaneously funny and sad: it turns out that some people walk around with their Final Vocabulary literally displayed across their chests.) So the term is morally interesting.

There is a certain sense in which Stendhalian love isn’t creepy at all: the figure of the creep, as Heller describes it, is strange, awkward, transparently not someone who fits in with his surroundings, and in contrast naturalness, smoothness is something Stendhal prizes quite highly in courtship. “The whole art of love, as it seems to me, reduces itself to saying exactly as much as the degree of intoxication at the moment allows of … it is better to be silent than to say things too tender at the wrong time.” To be weird, to be too forward, to be out of touch which the social graces, is a bad thing. Elsewhere in On Love, Stendhal describes a certain form of behavior, often associated with creepiness, which a certain sort of contemporary feminist might call Nice Guy Syndrome: a man puts too much expectation, too much fantasy, towards a particular object of affection, and then, when that person doesn’t return the affection, becomes bitter and resentful: “from afar off and without looking they enfold things in that imaginary charm, of which they find a perennial source within themselves, long before sensation, which is the consequence of the object’s nature, has had time to reach them”; eventually, when the infatuation is revealed as illusory, the resulting shock to his self-esteem makes him unfair to that which he appreciated all too highly.” Stendhal disapproves of this sort of behavior. So there are aspects of Stendhalian love that don’t seem very creepy at all.

But at the same time, there are some macro-level courtship behaviors in play here that may be unsettling to us. Of particular interest is the norm that one (specifically, a man) value a beloved highly, feel something like obsession, long before sexual activity occurs. At one point, for instance, Stendhal compares two male romantic archetypes, Don Juan (the seducer) and Werther (sensitive, obsessive, maybe something of a Nice Guy; someone for whom crystallization can occur) – and decides that Werther, ultimately is a more admirable figure, and probably happier in the long term, as well.

Chez Le Pere Lathuille, 1879, by Edouard Manet

This, to our ears, may seem creepy – Stendhal’s repeated insistence on respect for women notwithstanding. There’s an old blog post by a young Scott Alexander that is highly relevant to this subject; the post is quite good, though treating Lyndon Johnson as an exemplar of male sexual behavior is probably not the greatest rhetorical choice Scott has ever made. He describes the way people who are well-socialized into Not Being Creepy experience courtship – with a kind of performative apathy that often seeps into the relationship itself – and contrasts this with the way he experienced courtship before he was thus socialized, which aligns with the way some of the older married couples he knows experience it – as one party’s conviction that such a relationship was meant to be, which the other party may or may not have come around to share. Alexander wonders aloud whether performative apathy and extreme stigmatization of romantic obsession serve us well.

It may be that we simply know more about what works and what doesn’t than Stendhal, or even Alexander’s elderly acquaintances, knew. Maybe relationships work better when they’re based on lust and casual attitudes than on crystallization; maybe Don Juan simply makes for a better lover, or boyfriend, or husband, than Werther does. We should consider this possibility. But I think there’s something more subtle, and rather troubling, going on: certain apparently unrelated contemporary social mores have affected our romantic practices, and perhaps not for the better.

In outlining this point, I draw on an insight from Mark Edmundson. In my last piece for Quillette, I mentioned in passing Edmundson’s work; he’s a University of Virginia professor and author of the book Why Read?, which meditates on the state of humanities education. Therein, one of the primary characterizations he makes of his students is that they are “devotees of spectatorship and consumer-cool,” and “very, very self-contained,” traits largely a function, he thinks, of the influence of television (“Those who appeal most on TV over the long haul are low-key and non assertive … enthusiasm quickly looks absurd”) and the internet, and of the ways to which young people are marketed. But whatever the source, the cult of cool is all-encompassing. “In the current university environment, I saw, there was only one form of knowledge that was generally acceptable,” Edmundson writes. “And that was knowledge that allowed you to keep your cool.” He is disturbed by this ethos, in part because he sees it as meshing all too well with the attitude one must take as a bureaucrat in an empire: to perform that duty one must take up “an abstract an unfelt relation to the world and its peoples – a cool relation, as it were,” and to indulge in pleasures that “confirm the current empowered state of the self, and not challenge it.” For Edmundson, all of this is very troubling indeed, and he sets about developing a classroom methodology that combats this tendency: one that demands that students make themselves vulnerable by discussing their fears and weaknesses.

The relevance of Edmundson’s insights to Alexander’s point, and to the question of Stendhal’s creepiness more generally, should be obvious. If this “reign of consumer cool” is as pervasive as Edmundson thinks it is, surely its weirdnesses must influence sexual mores, too. And what could be more antithetical to “cool” than to feel – or heaven help us, to act upon – overwhelming desire? For one thing, one’s cultivated image of lordly self-possession is broken; for another, desire puts one in a vulnerable position, a compromising position – that is, one might get hurt. What’s more, to feel passion and articulate it to someone who might not feel it back – to essentially say, as some of the successful wooers Alexander describes had said, “I know you don’t feel it yet, but you and I would be really good together” – is essentially a mildly authoritarian, paternalistic gesture: though it doesn’t demand submission, it suggests that one’s current thinking is limited, and that there are things that could be good for somebody that they themselves can’t see yet. (As such, it is similar in kind to my professor’s nocturnal suggestion that I read Stendhal, though the stakes are obviously much higher in the case of romance.) Besides being deeply troubling to current morality for other reasons, such a gesture violates the code of cool, since, rather than “confirm[ing] the current empowered state of the self,” honoring the desired’s lordliness, it asks for other things that are antithetical to coolness: vulnerability, humility, trust.

In short, I think our rejection of Stendhalian forms of love on the basis of creepiness stems not from some great advance we’ve made in terms of how we treat one another, but from a set of mores that are much more contingent, and of much more ambiguous value, than we realize. The problem with a concept like creepiness is that its attribution is, at bottom, a reflection of subjective reports of inner sensation: so-and-so is creepy because so-and-so’s actions make us feel weird when we’re around them. In general, these sensations and the beliefs they engender are trustworthy: our instincts have evolved the way they have for a reason, and there are many cases in which it’s quite prudent to stay away from someone on the basis of these uneasy feelings, and on the basis of the actions that roused these feelings within us. But inner sensations, and our interpretations thereof, are also vulnerable to suggestion, to groupthink and influence from the mores of the society in which we live – even when these influencing mores aren’t themselves healthy. This may lead to a careless conflation of ambiguous behaviors — behaviors that merit sustained reflection rather than quick condemnation – with harmful ones.

It’s healthy to critique our moral concepts, particularly concepts that are flung around as unreflectively as creepy sometimes is. Using Stendhal as a foil seems like a good way to go about it, given that, though his perspective on romance seems at least as perspicuous as our own, his advice seems to run flagrantly afoul of contemporary norms.

Dating Codes

Even asides from the presence of injunctions against it on the grounds of creepiness, is crystallization possible for us, given contemporary sexual practices? Obviously, a general answer can’t be completely satisfactory; the array of ways people find to spend their lives argues against it. But I think there are some things that argue against the possibility. For crystallization requires spending a very long time in the presence of another before sleeping together, and there are things that would get in the way of experiencing such. It would be easy to rail against hookup culture, Tinder, the general expectation among young people that if you don’t sleep together fairly soon after meeting that you are going to be Just Friends, etc – and perhaps all of that is, rightly, to be considered a hindrance. But there’s another aspect to the situation, less contemplated, that ought to be attended to, and that’s the following: crystallization is, definitionally, only possible if two people spend a great length of time in one’s presence, acting naturally, and building a relationship that can later be sexualized. And I’m not sure those conditions for the possibility of crystallization are happening frequently enough, for most people, that romance of the sort Stendhal idealizes can actually happen.

More specifically, I’m thinking of a passage penned by the essayist Cristina Nehring. In a (paywalled) Harper’s piece, she deplores:

…the bizarre situation of our contemporary American society, in which we are in principle forbidden to have relationships not merely with our students (if we are teachers) and our teachers (if we are students) but also with our doctors, lawyers, counselors, therapists, deans, co-workers, clients, employees, or employers–virtually anyone, in fact, with whom we might come into natural contact in the course of everyday life. The result? We find ourselves driven in numbers to dating services and singles clubs, where we spend large amounts of money to meet normal people in abnormal and usually highly stressful contexts.

Nehring lambasts an absurd state of overt romance-seeking – a state given to pretense, artificiality, and intentionality to the point of desperation – and sees part of its cause in our being “in principle forbidden to have relationships” with “virtually anyone … with whom we might come into contact in the course of everyday life.” In other words, a big problem is the codes that, in the interest of protecting people from sexual exploitation, forbid relationships between the members of some professional or vocational organization and those whom they serve. (Perhaps she’s exaggerating a little about the pervasiveness of such codes – but the phenomenon is real.) Nehring, here and elsewhere, sees the “antiromantic bias” of a certain sort of institutional feminism as the culprit, and argues for alternatives. To her, it simply won’t do to tolerate a set of romantic norms that, damaged by what she perceives to be an obsession with victims, grant us erotic encounters which are “streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence.”

Though potentially rewarding, a thorough analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of such rules can’t be carried out here. (Nor can a discussion of the link Nehring sees between the death of romance and the death of great art – another potentially fascinating topic.) I’ll just note that, if Nehring’s analysis is right, our current ways of circumscribing romance largely destroy the possibility of it, at least in the form Stendhal prizes the most highly: a form that requires ease, openness, sustained contact, and patience, rather than the desperation Nehring sees in the singles’ clubs. I’ll also note that the problem, if it is a problem, may get worse if, as Cathy Young worries, flirting between co-workers becomes more taboo, given its possible conflation with sexual harassment. Sustained, ambiguous contact between the sexes is something like a necessary condition for crystallization; it can seem that the spaces wherein such contact is possible get scarcer and scarcer under the gaze of a grim moralism.

(The chief exception is college. Title IX horror stories aside, one’s undergraduate years remain a time in which there’s enough sustained possibility of sexual contact that crystallization can occur. But many people, of both sexes, are not ready at 20 or 21 to be their best romantic selves yet — nor should they be expected to be. Adults, too, need the possibility of romance, and to grant a sexual freedom to 20-year-olds that is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from the sort of freedom they’ll experience in the rest of their lives is not an ideal, or even reasonable, way to structure a society.)

Anyway, here’s one way of framing this issue. Imagine we have a choice between two possible societies. In one, like the society we have now, sex and romance themselves are largely left unsanctioned – that is, one can sleep with whoever one wants to sleep with, provided everyone consents – but, in actuality, relationships with “most of the people with whom we might come into contact” in the course of our days are usually off-limits, thanks to workplace rules, professional codes, and, especially, an atmosphere of fear (fear both of sexual harassment and of being perceived to be a harasser). In the other society, sex outside of marriage is largely disapproved of – but you can marry anyone who’ll enter into a union with you, provided consenting age; there are no, or very few, outside forces hindering two people from choosing one another.

Humans really, really like to moralize about sex, and a society free of some kind of rigorous constraint in this arena may be an unrealistic hope. So, given these two options, are we making the right choice? Are we sure? The more I reflect, the more I begin to suspect that the marriage-normative society would actually be a happier place to live than our own. At least there, crystallization (and thus, if Stendhal and Nehring are right, romance) is a live possibility for most, to a much greater degree than it is here. Moreover, in the marriage-based society, one is granted a degree of freedom (not just theoretically, but actually) over one’s own choices that is unknown to us: a person there, as here, must repress most of the sexual desire they feel – but at least there one gets a much freer choice over which desires to repress and which to act upon. Of course, with this greater freedom comes greater responsibility, since in this instance sexual consummation is synonymous with something like a life-commitment.

It Wasn’t Like How We Think It Was

In closing, I want to reiterate a point I made in my earlier Houellebecq piece, a point that Nehring, incidentally, knows well: that, for those of us who feel frustrated with the current state of Western erotic culture, it is crucially important to find perspectives that are genuinely different from that culture, on the basis of which one can fashion a critique of that culture. This is extraordinarily difficult, given the reach of our ways of thinking worldwide; it’s not as if one can simply go to Europe on holiday and have one’s perspectives broadened, because, in many of the ways that matter, Europe is awfully Americanized (and vice versa). But finding this critical standpoint is possible, and one of the ways we can do it is by studying the social mores of the past, studying them as live options, ways of living that we don’t automatically assume are inferior to our own and that we actively contemplate adopting. When we do this, we often discover that past attitudes and past lives were rather different from what our prior assumptions might have led us to expect.

Ask someone, a non-scholar, what 19th century sexual ethics were like, and they are likely to invoke one of a couple of tropes: that society was “Victorian” and thus repressive, or that the existence of patriarchy meant that women’s power was limited. But when one reads Stendhal, the richness of the lives of the people in this milieu are manifested, and it’s not obvious that to reflexively frame these societies as repressive or cruel is warranted. To be sure, the British, specifically, are described as being overly prudish – “an Englishwoman takes it as an insult,” says Stendhal, “if you pronounce before her the name of certain garments” – and the power afforded to women is a different sort than we are used to and seems circumscribed, though not as much as one might think. But the stories told by Stendhal, the lives (some apocryphal) he reflects upon – the girl who (foreshadowing Oscar Wilde) falls in love with a man because his name is “Edward”; Alberic, at the opera, desiring no one but his pock-marked mistress; the Russian princess who dotes on a man with no nose – these lives, and the world in which they take place, are far more interesting and sophisticated than our preconceptions might indicate.

Thus it would seem that our notions about 19th century – our desire to paint it as repressive and backwards in its sexual practices, relative to us far more enlightened creatures – says more about us than about them. At the risk of dropping an F-bomb (the epithet in question is “Foucault”), it seems that even if these caricatures contain an element of truth, they are surely simplifications with a motivated, mythological dimension that work subtly to justify the set of mores we find around us now, and to curtail the possibility of escape. (It’s easier to accept the limitations of contemporary sexual practices if one sees them against the backdrop of a past that, one is convinced, was far worse.) As such, rethinking our relationship with the past may be a necessary condition for the development of a critical standpoint with regards to the moral universe of our own day – the creeps, dating codes, and so forth, which are so ubiquitous but which, at present, we struggle to discuss intelligently.

Art and Culture

Matthew Stahlman

Matthew Stahlman is a post-baccalaureate student and writer living in Portland, Oregon.