Marie-Henri Beyle, also known as Stendhal, was born in
Grenoble on 23 January
1783. Before becoming a famous writer,
he took part in Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy,
Germany, Russia and Austria as aide-de-camp to General
Michoud. Known for such masterpieces as The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse Parma, Stendhal always
considered his treatise on Love to be
his principal work.
Inspired by his own obsession for Mathilde Viscontini Dembowski, the great French author dissects his own passion and through his knowledge of history, literature and philosophy objectively examines the phenomenon of love.
In one of his most provoking chapters, he analyzes his own experience of loving passionately for many years someone who did not return his love and so places Unrequited Love as one of the phenomenon’s most powerful forms. He says:
The sight of anything extremely beautiful, in Nature or the arts, makes you
think instantly of your beloved…Everything sublime and beautiful becomes
a part of your beloved’s beauty and the unexpected reminder of happiness
fills your eyes with tears on the instant. In this way a love of the beautiful,
and love itself, inspire each other (Stendhal, 62).
One of the reasons this form of love remains so powerful for so long, according to Stendhal, is that as the real memories of the beloved fade into the unconscious past, only the sensations the beloved inspired remains in the present consciousness of the unhappy lover. Not being able to diffuse sensation with recollection, makes the senses of the unhappy lover vulnerable to physical stimuli randomly encountered (such as a scent that reminds a man of his beloved’s perfume) and by the very nature of its unexpectedness recalls the passion more vividly. The unhappy lover then learns to pair exhilaration with the contemplation of his beloved and eventually comes to despair the loss of his unhappy love. On this potential loss, Stendhal says:
You no longer enjoy thinking of your mistress, and even though you are
prostrated by her harshness you think yourself unhappier still to have lost
interest in everything. A thoroughly miserable and depressed blankness
follows a state of mind which, despite its agitation, nevertheless saw all
Nature fraught with novelty, passion, and interest (64).
Before the loss of unrequited love a simple encounter with a rose might excite a sacred inner contemplation that elevates a mundane afternoon into something symphonic. After the loss of this kind of love, however, a rose is just a rose.
Stendhal. Love. 1822. Trans. Gilbert & Suzanne Sale.
Penguin Books, 1975.