Monday, March 24, 2008

Stendhal's Crystallized Nut

This is kind of a useless post, but some might find it amusing, I hope. Near the end of Stendhal's autobiography (Chap. 38), The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal writes about how he hates Paris, especially its cuisine. He has a pithy explanation for his dislike of the Parisian cuisine: "It was the moral constraint which was killing me." Then he goes on -

"Consider the full extent of my unhappiness! I who believed myself to be at once a Saint-Preux and a Valmont (in Les Liaisons dangereuses, an imitation of Clarissa which has become the breviary of the provincials), I who, believing myself to have an infinite capacity for loving and being loved, believed that the opportunity alone was lacking... I had pictured society to myself solely and utterly in terms of the Memoires secrets of Duclos, the three or seven volumes of St-Simon published at that time and novels."

He goes on. And incredibly, despite his complaint about going out to "society," it seems that Stendhal actually met the woman after whom Mme de Merteuil of Les Liaisons dangereuses was conceived!

"I had met with society, and then only at long range, only at Mme de Montmaur's, the original of Mme de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses. She was by then old, rich and lame. Of that I am sure; as for morality, she objected to them giving me only half a crystallized nut when I went to see her in Le Chevallon, she always made them give me a whole one. 'Children take it to heart so," she used to say... This detail about Mme de Montmaur, the original of Mme de Merteuil, is out of place here perhaps, but I wanted to use the anecdote of the crystallized nut to show what I knew of society."

It's bizarre, this anecdote about the crystallized nut. Funny, too. But there's also something tricky & profound in this anecdote of the crystallized nut, in Mme de Montmaur/Mme de Merteuil's insistence on "them" giving Stendhal a whole crystallized nut. I haven't unraveled it yet, but it seems that Stendhal is trying to say something about art & love. How would this apply to Clarissa, or Les Liaisons, if at all? No idea yet. I'm just rambling so far.

But the notion of "crystallization" is a pivotal idea in Stendhal's aesthetics. It first appears in Stendhal's Love, another autobiographical/essayistic book about his unrequited love for a woman named Mathilde Dembowski. In Chapter 2 of Love, Stendhal describes a couple of lovers throwing a twig into the salt mines of Salzburg -

"Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit's claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable... What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one."

Simply put: it's seeing your loved one everywhere, in everything. Then through the process, an ordinary person (a twig) becomes perfected in the lover's eyes (as crystals). But Stendhal extends this metaphor into his theories on art & on literature... the process of making art, too, the evocative power of the artist, is a crystallization according to Stendhal. In a weirdly related manner, Sir Thomas Browne's Garden of Cyrus is literally about this process of crystallization: his crystal is the quincunx, a perfect shape which could be found in all animate and inanimate things, which reflects the perfect design of God. In our own times, the late German writer W. G. Sebald would obsess about the crystals (mentions both Browne & Stendhal's crystals) extensively throughout his works.

I'm going to think about this further and see how it relates to Les Liaisons specifically, and maybe to Clarissa, as Stendhal mentions both by name.

How do you crack a crystallized nut? (Sorry for the poor joke.)

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