Nineteenth-Century French Studies 15.1-2 (1988-87): 191-193.

CROUZET, MICHEL. Nature et société chez Stendhal. Lille: Presse Universitaire de Lille, 1985. 235 pp.

[Reprinted with permission of Nineteenth-Century French Studies]

The subtitle of the latest study by Michel Crouzet, "la révolte romantique," reveals this work's filiation with two of Crouzet's previous studies, Stendhal et le langage (Gallimard, 1981) and La Poétique de Stendhal (Flammarion, 1983). In the former, Crouzet examined Stendhal's "mal aux mots" and his revolt against language, which he situated in the general crisis of language from the eighteenth century to the present. This crisis culminated for Stendhal in an attempt of reconciliation with language, the departure point for Crouzet's latter study, since Stendhal's mistrust of language was, in many ways, the source of his "poétique" or "esthétique du sublime." An essential aspect of Stendhal's "révolte romantique," then, is his reflection on the place of the individual between nature and society, the material for Crouzet's present analysis: emphasizing the fundamentally egoistic nature of "beylisme," Crouzet speaks of a Stendhal-Narcissus "qui surtout a redouté la 'tyrannie de la face humaine," et contests "’les autres' (significativement en italique chez lui) parce qu'ils sont les autres, et que le 'Ci git Moi tué par les autres' est le maître mot du Narcisse révolté contre le fait de n'être pas le Seul, ou de ne pouvoir rallier les autres à soi" (18-19). Crouzet thus poses a fundamental aspect of his study: Nature et société chez Stendhal is an examination of the conflict between Stendhal's narcissistic desire for a pure "être" (nature) and his difficult reconciliation with a distasteful, but unavoidable mode of existence, " 'être et société et être 'associe' à un autre, aux autres, mythiques et gêneurs, ou confisquateurs de son être" (19). But another important aspect of this study is found summed up by the title of chapter I, "Tout commence à Rousseau," and by one of its sentences: "C'est donc de Rousseau dans Stendhal qu'il faut parler" (21). For, throughout this study, Crouzet shows to what extent Rousseau is "le 'tuf’ de l'univers beyliste: le 'gisement mental' à jamais exploité"; he argues not only that Rousseau furnishes the "première clé" for understanding "le triste drame de la jeunesse d'Henry Brulard, les profondes contrariétés morales qui ont fait son caractère, et aussi bien sa manière d'aller à la recherche du bonheur en politique" (21), but also that Stendhal's encounter with Rousseau's thought was the departure point for the dual conflict which underlies Stendhal's ethics and aesthetics: the contempt for the "social" and the concomitant conflict with the self.

Nature et société chez Stendhal is therefore organized around the implicit dialogue between Jean-Jacques and Narcissus, from an exploration of "un rousseauisme qui se confond avec l'être même de Stendhal" (chapters I and II, "Le Disciple de Rousseau") to a final inquiry into the signification of Stendhal's expression "se dérousseauiser" (chapter XI). En route, after defining in chapter II what Stendhal's early conception of nature and society owed to his encounter with Rousseau, as "le modèle de toute compréhension de la chute de I'homme," Crouzet examines the various aspects of this "modèle": first, the fundamental alienation which society integrates in the individual through "la temporalité" (chapter III), the substitution of social time for the pure existence of the present; and "la vanité" (chapter IV) and "l'hypocrisie" (chapter V), each undermining an immediate relationship to nature through imitation, conformity and dissimulation which degrade the liberty of pure being. Despite a possible solution posed by Stendhal through the certitude of his heroes' "devoir" and their affirmation of an implicit "serment" ("je ne suis lié à autrui que par ma fidélité à ma liberté," 80), Crouzet suggests that this "contractual" arrangement of the "moi" nonetheless threatens "la perfection et la pureté de sa particularité," since "la nature" acts "comme modèle idéal et lointain d'une relation perdue et idéale dont la société évidemment n'est que le vague résidu ou le négatif caractérisé" (81). This "chute dans le monde social" (chapter VI) opens a second, implicit division in which Crouzet outlines the manifestations of this "chute" for the beyliste: "la froideur sociale" and the synonymous "sécheresse," which extends to the perception of "laideur" and to the "hantise du mal," for Stendhal's heroes in particular, for "l'homme de coeur" in general. And following Rousseau's postulate of an equilibrium between "bonté" and "bonheur," i.e., "nature" defined as "le fait d'être dans la bienveillance ou l'indivision, d'être dans l'immédiateté d'un Moi-tout" (99), it follows that the apprehension of the "blessure" and the "mal" in society would result in Stendhal's rejection of the social "clôture de l'intérét" (chapter VII) based on his redefinition of society's corrupting form of egoism, "pouvoir de détacher chacun de chacun par un attachement exclusif à soi" (104). Such a redefinition implies two natures of the "moi," one that is "haute," "pure," the other "basse," "corrompue," and Crouzet suggests that the negative counterpart of the figure of Narcissus is this redefined "égoïsme" "qui donne son sens à la 'denaturation' ou à la 'separation' sociale" (106), i.e. the "mauvaise nature" (chapter VIII) whose elements Crouzet examines under the forms of "1'égoïste," "bassesse et petitesse" and "le convenable.

In the final chapters, Crouzet considers a third aspect of the evolution of Stendhal's conception of "nature" and "société": despite the fact that the social "négociation" remains a "piège" (chapter IX), always betraying nature, which "n'est que dans l'idéal" (153), Stendhal achieves a compromise with society, revealed through his narrative heroes, i.e., "que l'on ne peut être sans 1'échange et la mise en circulation de soi comme signe social ou effet à faire endosser" (152). Thus, rejecting Rousseau as "un enthousiaste ridicule" and "un infortuné," the "révolté corrigé" will accept that "la sociability relève d'une attente modérée et d'une technique de séduction ou d'échanges," i.e., "de dormer pour avoir, et d'offrir pour recevoir" (153). From this perspective, Crouzet examines "La Femme sans coeur. Erotisme et société" (chapter X), the effects of alienation ("froideur," "sécheresse") which the social "négociation" imposes on what he calls the third type of Stendhalian heroine (e.g., Mme de Bonnivet, Mme de Fervaques, Mme Grandet), "ce type de féminin aux limites de la féminité, . . . Amazone d'un singulier héroisme, celui du conformisme" (160). But, if Stendhal "rejects" Rousseau from 1804 onward and vows to "se dérousseauiser," it is essentially "un problème de style," Crouzet concludes, Rousseau's excesses, "l'excès d'intériorité ... ou 1'excès d'exigence éthique, sentimentale, personnelle," constituting a form of "suicide moral" (169). In a particularly felicitous formulation, Crouzet sums up Stendhal's ambivalence in regard to Rousseau: "Tout le beylisme est sans doute dans le bon usage de cet excès; bon usage qui implique qu'il soit communicable, qu'il n'abolisse ni le moi ni les autres" (168). Despite Stendhal's acceptance and even extension of Rousseau's example "d'une liberté vécue pleinement dans sa destinée unique," of someone capable of "être soi et le dire" (170), he does so while clinging to several "antinomies" (chapter XI), consequences of Rousseau's conception of nature: on the one hand, fictional heroes whose freedom is active and earthly, the "moi" lived as individual in "nature," i.e., in freedom; but, on the other hand, a refusal to reconcile the individual and the "citoyen," valorizing "la vie privée, jugeant toute époque au bonheur auquel chacun est habitué" (175). Crouzet thus shows more clearly than ever that the series of paradoxes in Stendhal's "conflit nature-société" are the source from which he draws strength in his subsequent reflections, a fundamental ambiguity at the heart not only of a "problème de style," but more significantly,
of "le problème de la civilisation" (178), or "la modernité" in Stendhal's works.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University

Return