'I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes': Rereading Stendhal’s Souvenirs d’Égotisme

'I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes': Rereading Stendhal’s Souvenirs d’Égotisme
Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, was a celebrated 19th-century French writer who is said to have had over a hundred pseudonyms. Known best for his masterpiece Le Rouge et le Noir (Red and Black), Stendhal was known in his lifetime as a rather eccentric figure, full of contradictions and paradoxes: a fact he was aware of himself. In his Souvenirs d’Égotisme (Memoirs of an Egotist), Stendhal brings his powers of analysis to bear upon himself, asking: “What kind of man am I? Do I have common sense, do I have common sense and profundity too?” This little book recounts his time in Paris between 1821 and 1830, and was written in just thirteen days in June and July 1832. It is unfinished, and was published fifty years after his death.

Today Stendhal’s Memoirs would be classified as creative nonfiction. This is a relatively new name (coined in the 1980s) for an old way of writing, often referred to as belles lettres. In their book Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Susanne Paola emphasise the importance of being artful in this kind of writing: “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit lies,” says their epigraph from Emily Dickinson. Creative nonfiction aspires to art, and art necessarily involves some artifice. The same idea was expressed by Oscar Wilde in The Decay of Lying: “Lying and poetry are arts—arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other—and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. Indeed, they have their technique, just as the more material arts of painting and sculpture have, their subtle secrets of form and colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate artistic methods.” It is not enough just to be sincere in writing true life stories; one must also craft them so that they can have the desired effect upon the reader. Miller and Paola cite Jeanette Winterson in this regard: “The bad writer feels that sincerity of feeling will be enough; and pins her faith on the power of experience. The true writer knows that feeling must give way to form.” Indeed, according to Wilde, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Stendhal, however, declares his intention to be absolutely truthful and sincere in his Memoirs: “I am profoundly convinced,” he says, “that the only antidote that can make the reader forget the perpetual I’s the author will be writing, is a perfect sincerity.”
The author moves us by relating his failures and his miseries, rather than irritating us with an account of his successes. He even takes a dig at his own writing style from time to time

How do we reconcile the two ideas? Is Stendhal being inartistic in being “perfectly sincere?” Of course not! This “perfectly sincere” book is as artful as Wilde could have wished. In the very beginning, Stendhal states his intention to suppress all his happy memories so as not to spoil them for himself by recounting them: “I was afraid of deflowering the happy moments that I encountered if I described them or anatomized them. Well that’s just what I won’t do, I’ll skip over the periods of happiness.” Stendhal loved dissimulation and masks. Doris Lessing says as much in her Foreword to the Memoirs: he was an unhappy child who learned early on to hide his real feelings and critically observe and pass judgement on the unkind people around him. And his translator, Andrew Brown, notes in his Introduction to the book how Stendhal was expelled from his beloved Milan in 1821 on suspicions of being a spy, and how this admirer of Napoleon – who had fought in his armies – might have felt the need to hide behind his many pseudonyms to ward off suspicions that he might be a Revolutionary:

His “real” name, after all, was Henri Beyle, “Stendhal” was merely the best-known of his many pseudonyms—and again, together with the play-acting that was such an integral part of his character, it may have been politically expedient for someone who never shook off the suspicions of the reactionary authorities dominating the post-1815 European settlement to keep people guessing as to his “true” identity or “real” name.

Brown also asserts that we should not take Stendhal’s professions of truthfulness at face value: “While the gusto of Stendhal’s fragmentary notes, his refusal to be bored, is a way of creating pleasure, we must beware of thinking that it is in itself any mode of truth[…]these jottings are no more ‘authentic’ than the sustained, mannered, composed sentences found, for example, in the Memoirs of Stendhal’s bête noir, Chateaubriand.”

I agree. Stendhal himself betrays in many places his love of masks. His first thought on entering Paris after leaving Milan is not to let anyone know what he is going through:

“The worst of all misfortunes,” I exclaimed, “would be for those unemotional men, my friends, in whose company I am going to live, to find out about my passion, and for a woman I never had!”

I said this to myself in June 1821, and I see in June 1832, for the first time, as I write this, that this fear, repeated a thousand times over, has in fact been the governing principle of my life for ten years. It’s the reason why I became so witty, something that was…the block, the butt of my scorn in Milan in 1818 when I was in love with Métilde.

I entered Paris, which I found worse than ugly, a real insult to my suffering, with a single idea in my head: not to be found out.”

Stendhal’s unrequited love for Métilde Dembowski is well known; he dwells on her memory at length in this book. It seems that the book is an attempt to describe his unhappiness at that time, and how he dealt with it. But he was not one to become jaded where women were concerned. He talks endlessly about the many women he found attractive, ruing at the same time the fact that he had squandered away opportunities to be intimate with them:

How many successes I’ve missed! How many humiliations I’ve suffered! But if I had been more astute, I’d have become disgusted to the point of nausea with women, and thus with music and painting […] Instead of that, in everything concerning women, I have the good fortune to be as naïve as at the age of twenty-five.

Naïveté is a good thing, because it enables him to preserve that freshness of heart that he prizes above all else, even if he has to deceive himself to attain it. It is of the utmost importance to realize that for Stendhal, illusion is far superior to reality. In his book Rome, Naples, and Florence, he chides a fellow Frenchman for dragging him out of his trance in the streets of Milan:

When I am in Italy, the mere presence of a Frenchman spells the instant and unfailing annihilation of all my happiness. I am strolling in the gardens of Paradise, drowsy with the taste of dreams, enchanted with the folly and sweetness of make-belief; there comes a tug at my sleeve, and there he stands beside me, reminding me that it is cold and raining and well past midnight, that there are no lamps in the street where we are walking, and that we shall probably get lost and fail to find our way back to the inn where we are staying, and maybe fall in with robbers into the bargain.

All of Stendhal’s pleasure comes from reverie and imagination. He says the same thing in Memoirs. He is happiest strolling in streets where no one knows him: “I’d love to wear a mask; I’d be delighted to change my name. The Thousand and One Nights, a book that I adore, fills more than a quarter of my thoughts. I often think of Angelica’s ring; my sovereign pleasure would be to change myself into a tall, blond German, and to stroll round Paris in that guise.”

How, then, can we believe such a man when he says that he is only interested in perfect truth and honesty? He is a “shape-changer,” as Andrew Brown calls him, and employs literary strategies that make his persona an endearing one. This persona is almost childlike; enthusiastic; tender and emotional--though not foolish or uncritical; appreciative of simplicity, extremely sensitive, irritable, and a connoisseur of the fine arts. It is extremely likeable, in spite of its blunders, contradictions, and harsh criticism of others at times. One is inclined to think that this is no accident, but the result of a deliberate design, even if it was conceived on a subconscious level.

In his Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate outlines the qualities that make a good personal essayist. One of those qualities is vulnerability. The personal essayist deliberately reveals his or her vulnerability to the reader: “The spectacle of baring the naked soul is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor. Some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay. Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists.”

We can see that Stendhal employs this and other strategies in his Memoirs to an extraordinary degree. The result is that the reader finds the author charming, rather than merely solipsistic. The author moves us by relating his failures and his miseries, rather than irritating us with an account of his successes. He even takes a dig at his own writing style from time to time as in Chapter Four: “Where was I? [...] Good God, how badly written this is!” He also keeps criticizing himself for his shortcomings: “I lived for ten years in this salon, received politely, well esteemed, but every day less close to people, except to my friends. That’s one of the failings of my character. It’s this failing which means that I don’t blame men for my lack of advancement.” He calls himself “gauche,” but he also finds other liberals “outrageously inane.” He cannot stand coarseness and talks about his “excessive nervous irritability.” He is “mortally shocked by the tiniest nuances” and finally declares that “one can know everything, except oneself.” He often talks about becoming witty and cheerful because he was unhappy, and declares that he often seemed to be the opposite of what he really was.

Miller and Paola say that we read “literature--and perhaps especially creative non-fiction literature—to learn not about the author but about ourselves; we want to be moved in some way.” An artfully written memoir gives us a glimpse of ourselves, not the author. This is because, as writer Bill Roorbach says, “in memoir we get the whole truth, and not only the verifiable facts. In memoir, we get how it feels to be at the center of an exotic kingdom—the kingdom of the self, and from this we learn what it is to have a self.” The whole truth contains contradictions and paradoxes. It would therefore be fitting to sum up this discussion in Stendhal’s own words:

I am animated, passionate, wild, and sincere to excess in friendship and in love, until the  first cooling off. Then, from the wildness of a sixteen year old I pass, in the twinkling of an eye, to the machiavellianism of a fifty year old and, after a week, there’s nothing left but melting ice, a perfect chilliness.

Naveed Rehan, PhD, is an independent scholar