I first turned to the pickup artists after losing in love. Or, to be precise, winning—and then losing. Rachel and I had followed each other silently around our university’s campus in the way that only a university campus allows. We had “fortuitous” meetings in the café (where we each knew the other would be); tried to overhear conversations in the stairwells (where we formed ridiculously false portraits of each other); and, closest of all to real contact, sat next to each other once in the library (where we got no work done). This went on for the better part of a year, during which she kept the top position in my imagination’s rankings, the position we reserve for the woman we are going to marry, but who just doesn’t know it yet. And then one day we met. One of my friends knew one of her friends; they came over to talk; we were introduced. I was the older, wiser graduate student, she the impressed undergraduate—but not too impressed, because she was from New York City—and she later admitted that when she asked me out the next week she was nearly certain I would turn her down uncomfortably. We met for drinks at the bar where no one goes, walked back to my house, started drinking again, and eventually made it out to my back porch. The kiss was the giveaway. Rachel was frantic—not sexually, but passionately—and I was so cocky that I calmed her, like a skittish horse: “easy … easy.” And so, from that moment, I was dissatisfied: her ass didn’t look right in her jeans, her breasts were too soft, her underwear was bizarre. I told my friends the following day it was a good thing she was leaving town for most of the summer, so I could get out guilt-free after a few weeks. For those who had ears to hear, what I was saying was, essentially: “Her ass didn’t look right in her jeans.”
It didn’t take long for everything to change. I came by foot to pick her up, walking down a street whose trees were finally becoming lush in the heat of May, and then up to a garden just as green. And there she was, in a white dress, only a few strands of hair falling to her neck. It was a moment of paralysis—like Werther’s first vision of Lotte, handing out bread to her siblings, in her white dress—but it was all mine, just for me. In that split second, I was lost.
It would be difficult to narrate the coming weeks, because they were a descent by small degrees from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. We began happy, or at least I did. We spent an hour once cataloguing with astounding detail each of those times we had seen each other on campus. We spent another hour lying on the floor of my unfurnished living room, listening to Sigur Rós, kissing each other’s faces. I was handsome, she was beautiful; people told us we looked like each other. But little by little I began to lose control. I called her house too frequently, to the point of pestering her roommates. When we were together I couldn’t tear myself away: I would suggest picking up food and eating it at her house so that we didn’t have to be apart. Eventually it became clear that she was indulging me to avoid confrontation before she left for the summer. Not yet entirely out of my mind, I had a sense for what was going on, but it took a while for me to start hating myself. That began, properly, on the night we said goodbye. As she lay on her bed, already sleepy, I stood by the door, and she uttered what were assuredly the most poetic words I ever heard from her, before or since: “Remember, as you walk home through the night, be bold.” She chuckled afterwards, aware of her own pretense, but the message had already been sent.
Several painful months later, she told me in a parked car—we were already having frank philosophical conversations about our past—that once upon a time she had seen me in the library, at the head of a group of my friends, and thought: “That guy is a badass.” She thought that I was a man, just like her powerful father. The implication of the statement was obvious: I once was a man, but I wasn’t anymore. To be honest, I can’t say I disagreed with her at the time.
The pickup craze began in 2005, with the publication of Neil Strauss’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. The book remained high up on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a month, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and spawned not only a follow-up by Strauss himself, but also countless imitations in print as well as a cable television show. Despite being packaged like a bible—leather-bound, gold leaf pages, and a tassel for a bookmark—and despite its chapter headings—”Select a Target,” “Approach and Open,” “Demonstrate Value,” “Disarm the Obstacles,” and so on—The Game is less a how-to book (say, a pickup “bible”) and more a narrative of the author’s time spent in the (then-underground) “pickup community.” And what a narrative it is: within the space of two years, Strauss was transformed from a short, skinny, balding, let’s-just-be-friends type into one of the greatest pickup artists in the world. At the height of his “gaming” activity he had eight steady sexual partners—who all knew about each other—and was maneuvering himself into threesomes on a regular basis. The Game is the Great American Success Story for the testosterone-driven, club-going male; it is easy to understand its popularity.
But the book has an unsettling and enchanting effect on the more old-fashioned among us as well, and in this the theme of manliness is front and center. Strauss’s primary contact in the world of the pickup artists, the man who indeed becomes his friend over the course of the narrative, is “Mystery”—the pseudonym of one Erik von Markovik, then already among the acknowledged leaders of the seduction community. And although Mystery is clearly indebted to the legends of seduction who preceded him—most prominent among them Ross Jeffries, the guru who applied the techniques of neurolinguistic programming to the hypnosis of women—his own method forms the basis of nearly every interaction in the book. Mystery is responsible for many innovations, to be sure, but the key to the method is, unquestionably, that the pickup artist ignore, tease, or even insult the targeted female, accustomed as she is to constant, beleaguering attention from men. That is, the message of the pickup artists is at its core an age-old one: women love men who are mean to them—or at least a little mean to them. If you believe that women want to be flattered, wooed and obeyed, we are told, guess again. Women want limits to be set, they want to be played with, they want manliness—and it is best to establish the dynamic right from the start. As Mystery puts it: “I don’t alienate ugly girls; I don’t alienate guys. I only alienate the girls I want to fuck.” And when the age-old message is tied to a comprehensive system that brings superior results—Mystery shows his students a portfolio of the models, actresses and strippers he has seduced—that message becomes difficult to resist. The good-hearted reader struggles as he feels his cherished notions slipping away: “If this is what women really want, then why shouldn’t I? …” Or: “Shouldn’t I get on board, while I am still young? Shouldn’t everyone experience this kind of life once?” Or, most painful of all: “If only I had done some of this when I met so-and-so…”
So how does it work? It begins in a bar. PUAs (pickup artists; this will be the first in a long line of acronyms and other assorted jargon) do often ply their trade during the day, sometimes even on the street—this is called “day game” and has its own nuances—but the classic location for seduction is the trendy club or bar. For the most part the pickup artist “sarges” alone (i.e., operates alone—the term comes from the name of one of the cats of an early pickup artist), but a “wingman” or “wing” can play a role as well (among other things, he makes the pickup artist who is “running the set” look good). After a target is chosen, she must be approached within three seconds—this is the “three-second rule,” one of Mystery’s inventions. The thought behind it is twofold: first, if a man looks for too long at a woman, she might begin to think he is creepy, or, possibly worse, a coward; and second, if a man looks for too long at a woman, he might indeed become a coward, he might lose his nerve. When it is time for an approach, the approach always comes from an angle, from ten o’clock; this is less intimidating, but also conveys sufficient confidence. The pickup artist always smiles.
The first words spoken to the group (and it will usually be a group, because “women of beauty are rarely found alone”) are an opener, which is delivered along with a false time constraint. The time constraint—”my friends are waiting for me so I have to go in a few minutes, but…”—serves to eliminate anxieties that the pickup artist will never leave; anyone who has been approached in a bar, male or female, knows this feeling. The pua opener—what follows the “but” in the time constraint—is unlike the come-on lines we have always heard: “Come here often?”; “What’s your sign?”; “I must be in heaven, because you are an angel.” The puaopener seeks instead to start a conversation, nothing more, nothing less. Typically, it asks for an opinion, which both makes the intrusion plausible and, even better, allows women to offer their advice (because who doesn’t love giving advice?). One opener that has been “field-tested,” the “jealous girlfriend” opener, asks the group what a friend (imaginary, of course) should do in the following situation: his new girlfriend has become more and more opposed to his continuing contact with his ex-girlfriend from college. Now, of course it makes sense that the current girlfriend should have pride of place. But the ex-girlfriend is just a friend at this point—and anyhow, they are still such important figures in each other’s lives! Is that really fair?
In the meantime, of course, the pickup artist needs to watch his body language—or train himself into the proper body language beforehand. PUAs are quite fond of watching movies with famously “alpha” protagonists—James Dean, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt—and routinely copy their stances and gestures, practicing in front of a mirror. They seem to know everything that one could possibly desire to know: where to put their hands, where to put their feet, what to do with their weight. They know how to manipulate a woman out of her barstool so they can slide into the seated position (the position of power). They know how to rock backwards slightly when delivering openers—again, so that their interlocutors fear they might leave at any moment.
Soon it is time for a “neg.” Here is the insulting, the teasing—the alienation, as Mystery put it. When the opportunity arises, the pickup artist finally acknowledges his target, whom he has either been ignoring or only addressing as part of her group. But it is hardly an acknowledgment: it is a mild insult, or a backhanded compliment, and always delivered in as casual a way as possible so that the intention to insult can never be detected. At the target’s first attempt to join the conversation: “Whoa, your friend is pushy guys, is she always like that?” Or after she smiles: “Your nose is so cute; I love the way it wrinkles up.” The thought is that depriving a woman of attention and validation will lead her to seek it from you; Strauss puts it best when he says that to neg a woman is to treat her like a bratty little sister.
But the victory of the pickup artist can only be guaranteed by demonstrating value. In the abstract, this involves establishing that the pickup artist is different from other men, intriguing in some way, superior. Most of the time, however, because of the historical accident of the culture’s foremost practitioner having been interested in magic as a child, this is achieved via a number of pseudo-mystical “routines”: esp, handwriting analysis, various personality tests. (In Mystery’s own case, there are actual magic tricks involved, but he knows better than to introduce them as “magic tricks.”) In one routine, “the cube,” the target is asked to picture a cube in the desert. Then she is asked: How big is it? What is it made of? What color is it? Then she pictures a ladder, a horse, flowers, a storm. Sure enough, the cube represents her ego, the ladder her friends, the horse her lover (or her own sexuality), the flowers children, the storm her problems. Is the ladder leaning on the cube? Her friends depend on her. Is the horse bigger than the cube? She wants her lover to dominate her. And so on. That the details of the routine are purely arbitrary is not lost on the pickup artists—there exist bountiful variations, in which the terms are shifted around according to whim, the flowers representing one thing, the ladder another. The idea is just to get the target talking about herself, and in a style that comes naturally; after all this is “chick crack,” catnip to women, who according to the pickup artists love any and all psychological speculation, particularly when tinged with the supernatural. And the pickup artist displays his value by engaging the opposition precisely in that territory, the realm of fog and intuition; but he doesn’t just engage her in this realm, he dominates it, beating her at her own game. That is value.
The playbook has many, many pages left at this point: the target must be isolated; a connection must be made (something traditionalists try to do first but the pickup artist knows to do later); and comfort must be built to allow for an eventual transition to the “sex location.” (And on all of these subjects, and indeed on those above as well, there are thousands and thousands of posts on various internet forums.) But there is one more wanton and controversial play in the book that deserves mention: the neutralization of lmr—last-minute resistance. When the time comes, returning to the pickup artist’s house should be easy, since the target is familiar with the place from dropping by earlier in the night (the pickup artist needed to stop off quickly for something he forgot). Once she is in the front door, he accomplishes her transfer from living room to bedroom through an excuse like “I want to show you a video—but the television is in my room.” At this point in the seduction both parties know what is going on, but excuses do need to be made. In the bedroom (where there are no chairs), the pickup artist sits on the bed with the target, but nowhere near her (how confusing). When the time comes for physical escalation, he makes sure to always take two steps forward and one back. But at some point he could hit a wall—this is lmr. A woman, the pickup artists tell us, desires sex just as much as a man does; but because sex represents more of an investment for her, and because she has been culturally “programmed” to avoid the label “slut,” she will resist right up until the end. At the first sign of obstruction of this kind, the pickup artist can “blast” it with a “freeze-out.” The pants go on, the light goes on, the candles go out. The pickup artist is sorry, but when a woman tells him to stop, it kills the mood for him; he knows very well that no means no. Teased by something just out of her reach, the girl will eventually relent. If necessary, the pickup artist will again let his words take care of political correctness while his body takes care of what it wants: he will agree with her—”I know, this is so wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this”—all the while removing her clothes and encouraging her body along the path of its desire. In this as in all things the pickup artists are closers; they close the deal. They number-close, they k-close, they f-close. Number closing is getting a number from a girl; k-closing is short for kiss-closing; and f-closing, officially, is short for full-closing. But the “f” stands for that other word as well.
The pickup juggernaut has been rolling on vigorously since the publication of The Game. Mystery finally came out with his vh1 television show, The Pickup Artist, and published his own book, The Mystery Method: success that would seem deserved, considering what he has done for the industry. The story of Erik von Markovik’s metamorphosis into Mystery is astounding. For seven years (sometimes it is ten), he went to bars and clubs and slowly honed his method into what it is today. Every part of the method received fine tuning as necessary: if women were losing interest, say, because he waited too long to move from the final stage of the “attraction phase” to the opening stage of the “comfort phase,” he would shave off a few minutes or a few stories, then try again with the new settings for a couple of months. For years he endured rejection after rejection, eventually enjoyed successes, then systematized his results and unleashed them on the world. To this day, every pickup artist, master pickup artist and would-be pickup artist is sarging the clubs using his techniques, and boasting about it using his vocabulary. Mystery has something in common with other men of genius in that he does not always seem aware of his true calling; like Franz Liszt angling for the priesthood, he has always insisted that he is a magician, and has always had a David Copperfield-like fame as his ultimate career goal. But make no mistake about it, he is a marvel of charisma and a demon of charm. A popular YouTube clip shows Mystery in a series of “sets” in various bars and clubs. In one, he interrupts a woman with a long, drawn-out “aaaaaand … back to me,” then fills the shocked silence with a story of his own. The three women in the group are indeed stunned, but smiling, and far from objecting; they are in the presence of some kind of greatness, even if it is not clear exactly what kind. Mystery’s pseudo-intellectual rants can irk, to be sure, but his antics make up for it. When Neil Strauss is invited by two women to their hotel room in the early stages of The Game, he goes to Mystery for advice. Go over to the hotel, he tells him, and as soon as you arrive run a bath, then take off your clothes and get in. The crowning detail? Mystery prefaces this advice with: “Just do what I always do.”
Mystery handed over the reins of his website to his partner Nick Savoy (a.k.a. Savoy) in 2007; mysterymethod.com now redirects to lovesystems.com, a slickly designed operation that advertises $1,500 “workshops” and $3,000 “bootcamps” on its front page. The men at Love Systems have an ambivalent relationship to the outside world that is shared by much of the pickup community. On the one hand, true to their theorizing, they are brash and unapologetic in the way they talk about women and sex; on the other they recognize the need for some measure of restraint and a presentable public face. In this latter regard Love Systems has certainly been trying: in addition to the boot-camp announcements, their front page features their various media appearances prominently, media appearances in which they generally behave themselves like gentlemen. In April of 2008 Nick Savoy and Scott “The Don” made their case on Dr. Phil, and were well-received, largely. Dr. Phil, for his part, supported their endeavors, comparing the approach techniques to a woman’s toilette or her pushup bra. (He did say “full close” once—but sadly the viewer cannot see the reaction from Savoy and The Don.) Dr. Phil’s producers devised an experiment, sending two women to a bar in which a handful of Love Systems trainees were operating. The women, approached presumably along with others, were then brought on the show to give their feedback. Valerie and Holli said a number of things—they liked hearing stories, they didn’t like that the men neglected to talk about themselves—but the highlight is clearly the demeanor of Savoy and The Don. These are men who live and breathe the difference between what a woman says and what she really thinks. And indeed, these men also live and breathe the difference between what they themselves say and think. To see them in the audience, giving encouraging responses to the women, smiling at Dr. Phil’s jokes, applauding as the camera pans through the crowd during the closing credits—these are delicious moments for one who is in the know.
When The Game was released in 2005, the majority of the newspaper reviews dismissed it out of hand. The reviewers were intrigued by the phenomenon, and in many cases even joined Strauss for a night on the town. But their elbows did plenty of work, nudging the reader, who of course was on the same side of the joke as the reviewer: both reader and reviewer knew that these men were not worth taking seriously. And even if they were taken seriously, they were kept far, far away from the reviewer’s own world. One very perceptive writer, who saw first hand the frighteningly easy success of the techniques, closed his review with an awkward joke. Strauss assured him that if he met the journalist’s girlfriend he’d be sure to tell her that he behaved like a good boy. The journalist responded: “You are never, ever meeting my girlfriend.”
But are the pickup artists really all that far away from our world? Consider for example thepua principle of “abundance.” The pickup artist never gets hung up on a particular woman—this would be “one-itis,” which almost always leads to rejection; women can smell the desperation and instinctively avoid a pained lover. Instead, the pickup artist operates in abundance as a “frame of mind,” in an almost Zen-like state of simultaneous avowal and denial. Women want men who don’t need them; this is as sure a sign as any that the men are worth something, higher up in the hierarchy than they are. And so the pickup artist keeps as many leads and partners going as he can, in a sense never desiring any one of them, but in another sense desiring them all. But even among non-PUAs these principles apply: everyone knows that it is more difficult for a man to find a girlfriend when he is in a “dry spell”; and, like it or not, women of all shapes and sizes find men more attractive when they know that other women find them attractive. The pickup artist’s practice is only a hyperbolic exploitation of these principles. And even if this practice can still be criticized, precisely because it is hyperbole, there are many cases in which the pickup artists end up on top plain and simple: pursuing the same ends as the rest of us, just doing it better. When two people have met each other and enjoyed each other’s company, when should they call each other again? What should their emails and text messages say? Should they go to dinner? Try to run into each other? The pickup artist knows the answers to these questions, knows how to act in each of these situations in a way that is more elegant, more confident, and more advanced than the ways we act—in a way that is, simply put, more effective.
Strauss cautions as well against the assumption that the pickup artist’s craft will only beguile the less intelligent. If anything, he says, intelligence brings with it greater imagination, and therefore greater enjoyment of the pickup artist’s talking points: thinking about psychology is more fun for those who are better at thinking about psychology. (And if the “routines” the pickup artist “runs” still seem a bit silly, one could easily imagine a souped-up version of the Game, a Mystery Method for women with intellectual interests.) And what about “classiness,” a good upbringing? When Strauss and Mystery travel to Belgrade to visit Strauss’s childhood friend Marko—and to sarge some women, of course—they meet Marko’s Serbian one-itis, Goca. Marko wants to marry her, and is careful to do everything “right”: he buys her flowers, takes her on dates, holds open the car door for her. But Strauss attracts her despite himself, and one night she slides into bed next to him. Marko is “sweet, but just a friend,” she tells him, as she sucks his lip into her mouth. Strauss does eventually extract his lip, and himself, from the situation, but the lesson remains; it is a passage that will rankle every skeptical reader of The Game, because we have all had a Goca, and it turns out that she is a woman like any other. Pop-science classics like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene are standard reading for the pickup artists; and all the evolutionary theory that serves their purposes makes its way into their discourse. Women are women just as much as men are men (or more so, if that is possible): they respond to cues unconsciously, whether they want to or not. They respond with their hearts, their minds, and—as is frequently intimated, more or less darkly—with their genitals. That one is the dagger.
If the pickup artists have often been dismissed for being tacky—for lack of a better word—the deeper critique has always been a moral one. Accusations of rape have come from a few voices in the feminist front, but for the most part there is agreement that the business of the pickup artists is to some degree disrespectful and exploitative. Even if much of the pualanguage can be explained away by their boys-will-be-boys mentality, indulged with a smile as their hands are caught in the cookie jar, some of it seems to bring misogyny to new, absurd heights. For example, in a section of his book entitled “Punishment/Reward,” Mystery explicitly compares conversation with a female human being to the training of a dog:
The solution dog trainers have formulated is this proven procedure: After the correction for bad behavior, structure a challenge for the dog to do something correctly. Right after you shake the jar [of pennies, to punish the dog], say, “Sit,” and help the dog sit. Then reward it with love and affection: “Good girl!!!” “Yes, good boy!” … Humans are the same way. … [W]hen we correct a woman’s misbehavior, we must then immediately structure an opportunity for her to jump through an easy hoop, thereby rewarding her for it.
The pickup artists, however, would and do defend their theory and its rhetoric—and possibly even a passage like this one—by emphasizing once again that profound gap between what women say they want and what they really want. Talk is cheap, or at most an aphrodisiac; at the end of the day, all that matters is who is sliding into your bed.
On another score, the pickup artists even come out ahead in the moral reckoning. Up front as they are about their intentions (seen but not heard, of course), they do not operate as so many non-PUAs do, lulling a woman, perhaps a social inferior, into the expectation of commitment—only to discard her after some suitable number of weeks with the usual breakup song and dance. The pickup artists are playing a game, the game that lends Strauss’s book its title, and according to them women are playing it also. They are all partners in the same enterprise. If the pickup artists are getting all of the sex, it’s simply because they are better at playing: they have trained at home and practiced in the field, and now are reaping the rewards. True, occasionally the game claims a victim, normally a player who, alas, didn’t know she was in a game and fell in love accidentally. But this is a lesser evil than that other, systematic deception, and so the pickup artists can say with a (relatively) clean conscience: all is fair in love and war.
But even if one accepts all of the pua rebuttals, even if one is allured again and again by the very real possibility of all the perfume, slender waists and blowjobs one can shake a stick at—even then there is the creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right here, that something must be wrong, that something is missing. And what is missing is: love. Despite the puacoarseness in this matter—their recasting of love as mere one-itis—love has a chance in this battle because it can appeal to the pickup artists’ own interests. Arguments that turn on fairness or altruism just aren’t going to cut it here, and so, taking a page from Plato’s Republic, we are better off looking into the souls of the pickup artists themselves. Indeed, the best commentators on the phenomenon—Wesley Yang in n+1, for example—have always pointed in this direction, as has every internet spectator who has ever complained vaguely of “shallowness.” And to be fair, Strauss himself levels this same accusation in The Game: by the end of his book he has performed an about-face so complete that we might accuse him of stacking the deck by playing up the debauchery of the book’s earlier pages. He falls in love with Lisa, a bandmate of his new friend Courtney Love, and the experience poisons him against his former pastime. While Mystery descends into a world of insanity, infidelity and bickering, “broken on the inside” as all pickup artists have come to seem, Strauss recognizes that “to win the game is to leave it” and proceeds to do just that, embracing his new monogamy. And, by the way: Marko eventually gets his Goca.
But what does this celebrated romantic bliss really look like? It is, sadly, a little disappointing. In Strauss’s hands, love becomes merely the opposite of whatever the pickup artists are doing: so, for example, he spends every day with Lisa instead of making her wait to hear from him, as a true pickup artist would in his ltr (long-term relationship) management. In fact, despite the admittedly genuine affinity between the two of them, Lisa’s primary value for Strauss seems to lie in her impermeability to the wiles of pickup technique. But, details aside, it really doesn’t matter what amount of abandon Strauss can muster to tell his love story; that story will always look tepid beside the novelty, incisiveness and sleekness of the pickup-artist narrative. It’s just too overwhelming. Other responses to the pickup artists on behalf of love are not much help either, amounting at most to an unreflective gesture of pity for the pickup artists’ wasted lives. The trouble with all of this is that the failure to provide a thorough defense of “our” values—not just an explication of them, but a rhetorically effective affirmationof them—leaves the way clear for the pickup artists to triumph. We need to make sure that love can stand a chance against the bounty promised by pua technology; that love can genuinely quell our anxieties about manliness.
It may be true that the world has changed—our pickup artist literature and our reality dating shows announce a brave new one, at least when it comes to interaction between the sexes (or within them, for that matter). But one element of the old world, the ideal of romantic love, survives in quite a few forms in our popular, bourgeois culture. Not least among these is of course the Hollywood film; the experience of a heart warmed despite itself in a darkened theater is as good a reminder as any that love still has a place in our twenty-first-century jumble of values. But love in Hollywood, even if it exceeds in scope and exuberance the reflections on love by Neil Strauss and the pickup-bloggers, is nevertheless only a remnant, a leftover from a discourse even more exuberant. To meditate on popular film and other contemporary manifestations of the love-ideal, even if informative in its own right, would be to miss an opportunity to cut out the middleman and return to the source. The best expressions of love, it turns out, came to pass long before our time.
The Western obsession with passionate love is generally acknowledged to have its roots in the phenomenon of “courtly love,” that rare and highly mannered practice of twelfth-century French nobility. Known to us today through the poetry of the troubadours and explored in the complex Roman de la Rose, the typical case involved the chaste pursuit of an unattainable woman of the court by a knight or lesser nobleman—a spiritualized endeavor that had little or nothing to do with sex. A second, modern, bloom begins with the great pre-Romantic theorist of love, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who maintains this tradition of spiritualization and indeed intensifies it, attempting to bind romantic love to marriage, and—perhaps thereby—putting love on a pedestal higher than any it had ever before occupied. His epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, though largely forgotten today, was one of the most-read books of the entire eighteenth century; it exercised a commanding influence not only over Rousseau’s properly Romantic successors but also over any number of the great novelists of the nineteenth century: Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and so on. But among all these descendants of Rousseau, the one best suited to our purposes is undoubtedly the Frenchman Marie-Henri Beyle—an author better known by his pseudonym: Stendhal.
Though his reputation today rests on his novels The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal was also a prolific writer of essays, novellas, biographies (of Mozart and Rossini, among others), travel literature, literary criticism (including the influential Racine et Shakespeare), and, perhaps most important next to his novels, autobiography. He is often noted for his early introduction of realism in the development of the novel, or his general psychological acuteness in the depiction of his characters, both of which accomplishments are indeed impressive—but just as impressive or more is what he has to say about love. To an attempted debunker of love, Stendhal is a terror. Secure in his conviction that passionate love is the only worthwhile activity for man, he is nevertheless deeply versed in the theories and convictions of the other side; it would seem, then, that he has chosen his allegiances for good reason. He is one of love’s great theorists, and one of its most vivid painters.
As a sample, consider the romance of Fabrizio del Dongo and Clélia Conti in The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal’s hymn to his beloved Italy, published in 1839, just three years before his death. Fabrizio, a young Lombard aristocrat, is the book’s ambiguously heroic hero. As the story opens, he leaves his family to join Napoleon in the republican cause; he bumbles his way through Waterloo, wandering among the fields, buying horses and having them stolen, and eventually convalescing in an inn, partly from wounds suffered in a fight with fellow soldiers. This is hardly an auspicious beginning for a romantic lead, and it is never quite clear (and not in a particularly interesting way) whether Stendhal is parodying Fabrizio or not—this just one of the many infelicities the novel is so often criticized for, criticism made easier by the knowledge that it was written—dictated—by an infirm Stendhal in less than two months. But Fabrizio does redeem himself, and in a deeply Stendhalian way. Thrown in prison for an alleged murder that was in fact a very brave act of self-defense, he manages to land squarely in his life’s fundamental adventure: he falls in love. As he is being carried off to his cell, Fabrizio catches sight of Clélia Conti, who it turns out is the daughter of General Fabio Conti, the Minister of Police in Parma and therefore the Governor of the prison. Clélia’s face is a familiar one, however; seven years before, when Fabrizio was 16 and Clélia was just 12, the two met on the road from Lake Como to Milan. In a police mix-up, Clélia and her father had been pursued from the lake; since they now needed to go with the police to Milan, but were on foot, Fabrizio’s family offered to take Clélia in their carriage, saving her from an unpleasantly dusty walk. In a moment of confusion, while stepping on the footboard to climb into the carriage, Clélia accidentally fell into Fabrizio’s arms. Fabrizio thought to himself: “What a fellow-prisoner she would make … She would know how to love.” Later, in the carriage, they blushed with every glance.
This history is still fresh in the minds of the two when they meet again at the prison; when Fabrizio sees Clélia, he takes the opportunity to remind her of their common past, but she is stricken, unable to speak. Soon enough we discover that she didn’t need to speak, because her eyes have done all the work for her—Fabrizio is climbing the stairs to his prison in the sky, not yet even in his cell, when he discovers that the look of authentic, impassioned pity from her face has erased all the despair he might have felt at being imprisoned. He now cares only about seeing her again, and soon enough is given the opportunity. In one of the more charming inventions to have come from Stendhal’s spatial imagination (his autobiographical writings are filled with hand-drawn maps of houses and streets), Fabrizio’s cell is located in a tower that is itself placed on top of another tower: the tower-above-the-tower has its base 180 feet in the air. Arriving in his new home, Fabrizio discovers that he can see very clearly all the way to the Alps, almost a hundred miles away. But he can also see Clélia. Just as fantastical as a tower sitting on the roof of a tower (and just as fun), there is also a residence, sitting on the same tower: the General’s palazzo, in which his daughter is visible for a brief period of every day, tending to her birds. The two lovers begin an intricate visual courtship, with carefully rationed looks from Clélia and inventive attempts at communication from Fabrizio. When wooden blinds are installed in the cell to block the prisoner’s view of the Alps (and to destroy his morale), Fabrizio first bores a hole through them, inserting a wire to give Clélia a sign of his presence; then he cuts out an entire hand-sized chunk of the blind and pokes his face through. Later he writes letters on his palm with a piece of charcoal.
Details are laid upon details—the inner lives of the two characters are artfully wrapped around their physical circumstances. Clélia is convinced that Fabrizio is in love with his aunt, the duchess; Fabrizio is ignorant of the various rumors of his impending execution, and cannot understand the resulting fluctuations in Clélia’s mood; they grasp at the meaning of each other’s gestures, filling in the gaps with their own imaginations. Through it all, Stendhal convinces us that this love is of the utmost seriousness for both of its participants. When Fabrizio first removes the section of the blind that he has cut away and shows his face to Clélia, she trembles so much that she spills the water intended for her plants; and Stendhal tells us, matter-of-factly: “This moment was incomparably the finest in Fabrizio’s life.” Fabrizio, until this point in the narrative the master of every heart he encountered, “was all too aware that the eternal happiness of his life would oblige him to reckon with the Governor’s daughter, and that it was within her power to make him the most wretched of men.” It is sentiments like these that Stendhal claimed to find in the hearts of real Italians, and it is sentiments like these that help redeem Fabrizio. As Balzac puts it in a famous 1840 review, Stendhal, in order to uphold Fabrizio as his hero, “was under an obligation … to endow him with a feeling which would make him superior to the men of genius who surround him.” Fabrizio does not need genius: “Feeling, in short, is equivalent to talent.”
The greatest statement of Stendhal’s ideas on love is his much earlier work, the 1822 On Love. Part fiction, part philosophy, part memoir, part collection of aphorisms, it is a book impossible to categorize. To go along with the eccentricity of its structure, the status of its authorship is ludicrously difficult to figure out: Stendhal treats the book as his own work in his many prefaces, then disowns it in a footnote to the very first section, attributing it to the recently deceased Italian Lisio Visconti—who is later, inexplicably, referred to in the third person in the text itself. At another point Stendhal uses the word “I,” then adds a footnote (presumably in some later edition) begging the reader to forgive the mistake. But even if the book can seem a bit of a free-for-all, it is packed with gems. For instance, in the chapter “Concerning Glances”: “Glances are the big guns of the virtuous coquette; everything can be conveyed in a look, and yet that look can always be denied, because it cannot be quoted word for word.” Or the brilliant advice on curing love (if it can be done at all, that is): “The healing friend must always be on hand to keep commenting as much as possible on the events which have taken place in the love affair, and to ensure that these reflections are long, wearisome, and pointless, so that they begin to sound like commonplace.” And the more radical option: “The unkind woman may be accused of some embarrassing physical defect which it is impossible to verify; if the calumny could be verified and found true it would very soon be disposed of by the imagination, and forgotten. It is only imagination that can resist imagination…”
Yet the book participates in Stendhal’s mission all the same: it is a celebration of passionate love. This is announced in the prefaces, where Stendhal warns that any reader who has never experienced the “foolishness” of love, or who is concerned only with money or scholarship, should throw the book away immediately. And in Stendhal’s famous quadripartite categorization of different kinds of love, passionate love comes out on top; it is the original of which the other three are pale shadows: physical love, “mannered love” and “vanity-love.” The essence of passionate love, what grants it the nobility that the others do not possess, is what Stendhal callscrystallization. Just as the naked branch of a tree will gather diamond-like crystals if it is dropped into a salt mine, a lover will gather perfections about the crooked timber of his beloved. Needless to say, the concept is familiar to us—consider Freud’s “overvaluation of the love object,” or the general psychoanalytic category of “idealization.” It is Stendhal, however, who spins it out into a rich texture of observation and insight, an achievement with few equals in the history of writing on love.
And Stendhal knows the pickup artist already, in 1822. Not our pickup artist, but a figure very similar to him. There had always been pickup “theory” of some kind or other, such as Ovid’s frank advice on meeting women at the theater, or Jean de Meun’s completion of the Roman de la Rose—nothing approaching today’s pickup artists in efficiency and attention to detail, but enough to form a tradition of sorts. And in Stendhal’s time as in our own, the seducer was an acknowledged character type: the nearest literary model for Stendhal was the Vicomte de Valmont, in Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses; the nearest personal model Stendhal’s own uncle, Romain Gagnon, a ladies’ man who was something of a big fish in the small pond of Grenoble. But Stendhal not only knows the pickup artist, he also keeps him close, even defining himself in relation to him. In one of the first sections Stendhal wrote for On Love, the chapter “Werther and Don Juan,” he introduces Don Juan, remarkably, as follows: “Allow me to sketch the portrait of my most intimate friend.” That portrait is given alongside Werther’s, and Stendhal presents it in all fairness. He admits that Don Juan possesses genuine virtues: fearlessness, resourcefulness, poise, wit—all of which allow him to avoid the many embarrassments his counterpart will inevitably endure. His very real brilliance even prevents Stendhal from deciding in Werther’s favor. In fact, by the end of the chapter Stendhal declares a relativist-style toss-up: “But after all, if he takes the trouble to examine his own mind, each man has his beau idéal, and it always seems to me a little absurd to try to convert one’s neighbor.” That may be so, but there is no secret about how Stendhal feels, and whether he wants to or not (he wants to), he delivers a well-nigh fatal blow. Don Juan, it turns out, has spent his life in a special kind of ignorance. The lover knows something of the experiences of Don Juan, but the opposite cannot be said:
From the point of view of the Don Juan passionate love may be compared to a strange road, steep and difficult, which at first, it is true, leads through delightful groves, but soon loses itself among jagged rocks not the least attractive to ordinary eyes. Gradually the road climbs among high mountains and through a dark forest whose huge trees shut out the light with their thick towering foliage, bringing terror to the hearts of those unaccustomed to danger.
After many painful and humiliating wanderings as if through an endless, tortuous labyrinth, suddenly one turns a further corner and comes upon a new world, Lalla-Rookh’s wonderful valley in Kashmir.
How can the Don Juans, who never set out along this road, or at most take only a few steps along it, how can they have any idea of the view at journey’s end?
The great mistake of the pickup artists, of Don Juans, of seducers in general, is to think that the lover is a failed version of themselves. The lover, they say, tries to “get the girl,” but just doesn’t know how—and if he learned their techniques he would. The trouble is that there is no agreement on just what this “getting” is. And, in fact, if the lover were to adopt the techniques of the pickup artists, his “getting” would become impossible. For a woman’s sexual surrender does not count as “getting” for the lover. Nor, for that matter, does her love, if the lover does not love her also. The lover’s “getting” requires his own experience: his own adventure, his road through the mountains and forests. And the reward in the valley is not sexual satisfaction; it is a proof of love. The greatest moment in Fabrizio del Dongo’s life is not a conquest, sexual or military. It is the sight of the woman he loves, shaking before his eyes.
For Stendhal, love ennobles because it makes all else beautiful; both nature and art take on a new glow when one is in love, in part because one sees the beloved in every sunset, every painting. Because she has been made perfect in the process of crystallization, all that is beautiful in the world becomes part of her, a larger her, spread out over the world—naturally, then, anything beautiful will remind one of her. Love is reverie, it is akin to the artistic process. And akin to the artistic product as well: if music were always perfect, Stendhal tells us, we would never need to fall in love. Then again, he admitted almost in the same breath, perfect music only ever deepened his intoxication with his beloved.
And yet in all of this there is a note of desperation. Or more than a note—a theme of sadness in love that at times overwhelms its exaltation, and always at least threatens to do so. There are passages in On Love where Stendhal seems to equate unrequited love with love in general, as if this were its purest form: consider the choice of Werther as the antipode to Don Juan, for example. The book is filled with discussions of jealousy and attempts to get over despair which show the dark side of love, the brutal suffering that we necessarily risk when we make a real go of it. And in Stendhal’s reports from the early nineteenth-century aristocratic social scene of Europe’s great cities, there are so many suicides that one wonders if there was anyone left standing by the time the book went to press. Is Stendhal just being true to his phenomenon, or is there something more going on?
There is in fact something more, for On Love was a brave but failed attempt by its author to overcome an oppressive passion. Stendhal would never fully recover from his one great love, Métilde, the woman whose image, even after her death, would appear to him persistently as “a tender, profoundly sad phantom.” It all began with Stendhal’s arrival in Milan in 1814. Fresh from his rather extraordinary brush with history—he was present at Napoleon’s retreat from Russia—he found his way to the city that had already captured his soul, having resolved to live there on his veteran’s half-pay and the small annuity left to him by his grandfather. (Restoration France was not so hospitable to Bonapartists, Stendhal correctly surmised.) At the outset of this period of cultural tourism Stendhal took up again with the woman who was something like the Rosaline to his Juliet, Angela Pietragrua, who had previously been happy enough to entertain him on his visits to Italy, but now began to chafe under his new semi-permanent residence. Their eventual break features as its highlight a story that may or may not be apocryphal, but in either case resembles the drama, maybe even the histrionics, that would find its way into Stendhal’s novels: having gained the confidence of one of Pietragrua’s maids, Stendhal was informed that his beloved had taken other lovers besides him. To confirm, he arranged with the maid to hide himself in a closet—from which vantage point he then observed an entire rendez-vous, not three feet away. He was initially amused, apparently, then deeply depressed. Small potatoes, however; the deepest depression was yet to come.
Stendhal met Matilde Viscontini Dembowski, the wife of a Polish general, in early 1818, and promptly fell in love with her. Métilde (the French form of her name, the one used by Stendhal) was an intelligent and resolute woman, the type Stendhal had been waiting for. The two once conversed, memorably to him, of “Dante, love, Saint-Preux, and the letters of the Portuguese nun.” And Métilde was a freedom fighter, associated with the Carbonari, the revolutionary group working to expel the Austrians from Italy: she had even successfully endured an interrogation by Metternich’s police—surely for Stendhal a woman could not get any stronger than that. His love for Métilde went to farcical, touching extremes. He once followed her from Milan to Volterra—a journey of about 200 miles—where she was visiting her children. Snooping around in his “disguise,” a new jacket and a pair of green glasses, Stendhal was nevertheless discovered, rebuked, and punished: from that point forward he was not allowed to pay visits to Métilde in Milan more than once a fortnight. Stendhal’s entire being then became dependent on whatever mood Métilde happened to have during his visit; each two week period of his life was shaped by the few hours with her that preceded it. (The incident is narrated in On Love—with the names changed, of course.) Métilde, for her part, wanted nothing to do with Stendhal, other than to harvest some of his flattery, perhaps. Mostly she took pains not to allow any rumors to be generated. For Métilde was a previously fallen woman: fleeing her abusive husband, she was known to have associated with the liberal poet Ugo Foscolo during her stay in Switzerland. The affair was no affair at all, in fact only a friendship, but her departure from her marital home made conditions ripe for scandal (an affair under “normal” conditions would probably have been overlooked). And so Métilde avoided Stendhal in part because of his libertine reputation—which was most likely alternately a wound and a consolation for him. His letters tell the real story, however, and it is mostly a story of wounds. In one of them he writes: “There are moments during the long lonely evenings when, if it were necessary to murder in order to see you, I would become a murderer.” After he had returned to France—expelled from Italy, more or less, because of his friendships with Carbonari, and questionable passages in his writings—he briefly considered assassinating Louis xviii.
Stendhal founded his theory of love on imagination. That especially human faculty was for him the source of all that is valuable in love: he thought that without it we would be mere animals, or mere savages, and—in his more extreme but also perhaps more lucid moments—he also thought amorous possession could itself be an evil, since it did away with the unique pleasures of the imagination. How can we “crystallize” perfection once we have become familiar with imperfection? Of course, in light of the abject desperation Stendhal suffered at the feet of Métilde Dembowski, all of this appears a bit suspicious. There is authenticity in loving when that love is not requited; to stick to one’s guns in this way is to stay true to one’s own desires, a possibility closed off to a seducer. But although this pain might be praiseworthy, although one might decide that living life without the pain just wouldn’t be worthwhile—even then, surely, we can still say that requited love would be better. The lover, even the perversely Stendhalian lover, would have to admit this. If he didn’t, there would be something disturbingly paradoxical, possibly soul-destroying, about the whole thing. Why spend all that time loving if one doesn’t actually want what one claims to want?
But once we accept this much, there is no very big step to the next question: What exactly can we do to get what we want? In a sense, both Fabrizio del Dongo and Stendhal did as much as they could. Fabrizio presses his suit with all the urgency available to him, trying the limits imposed by his jail cell; and Stendhal, in addition to writing impassioned letters, becomes his beloved’s unwitting travel partner. But in another sense Fabrizio and Stendhal are doing nothing: each is merely subjecting himself with greater and greater intensity to the will of his beloved—and then hoping for the best. Fabrizio is successful and Stendhal is unsuccessful, probably because Fabrizio is a handsome nobleman and Stendhal is not. From the seducer’s perspective, however, this is just dumb luck, and we can certainly imagine a situation in which Fabrizio would be unsuccessful (consider, for example, that during all of his persistence Clélia thought that he was his aunt’s lover). Is subjection then the only option?—a subjection that risks the slide into a possibly years-long misery like Stendhal’s? Can we not do something? Can we not somehow change our behavior, even our being—but stop short of full-blown seduction? Or, put another way: Can we become better at love without becoming pickup artists?
Stendhal has one more story to tell us. It is an unsettling story, from the unsettling life of Julien Sorel, the protagonist of Stendhal’s masterpiece, The Red and the Black. One of the great characters in the history of Western literature, Sorel is full of complex and varied motivations, capable of crippling timidity, but also lofty and incomprehensible deeds. He begins the novel as a humble carpenter’s son and ends up a celebrity of sorts, capturing the imagination of all of France. Born in Verrières, “one of the prettiest towns in all Franche-Comté,” he manages to find an escape for his sensitive soul from the horrors of his brutal, petit-bourgeois family: he becomes tutor to the children of the town’s mayor, thanks to his superb knowledge of Latin and his freakishly powerful memory. There he meets his first love, the lady of the household, Madame de Rênal. The affair proceeds in fits and starts, clumsy beginnings and, indeed, endings; most importantly, it is a first love for both of the parties involved, despite Madame de Rênal’s marriage and children, and despite the Napoleon-obsessed Julien’s attempts to view the affair as a strategic victory on his part. After some time the two eventually achieve a real purity of feeling, which persists, both in Julien’s mind and in the mind of the reader, as a counterweight to what happens in the second half of the novel.
After a detour at a seminary in Besançon—the book’s title refers to the red of the military and the black of the clergy, the life Julien would have wanted and the one he was forced to accept, respectively—the setting shifts to Paris. There Sorel accepts a position as secretary to the influential Marquis de la Mole, a man who seems to have dedicated his life to changing his title from Marquis to Duke, but who is nevertheless an exemplar of the oldest, most established nobility of France, the legitimate cream of the crop. In his house in the Faubourg Saint-Germain there will play out a love affair described by Stendhal with such force that a reader cannot but wince in recognition. For the Marquis has a daughter, Mathilde (this is surely not a coincidence, even with the slight difference in spelling), and she is as beautiful and intimidating as they come: a perfect “10,” her value compounded by her stratospheric social status; the most desirable woman in the most desirable neighborhood, the prom queen for all of Europe. Julien intrigues her with his intellectual’s arrogance, so refreshing beside the flattery of her insipid circle of admiring half-men, a group of young nobles who quake at the thought of liberalism’s return (the story is set just before the events of 1830, which loom over the novel just as World War I does over Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). Mathilde wants a man of action, a man who recalls the times of Richard iii, and finds him, oddly, in Julien. The two begin to exchange letters, which is surely a tribute to Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, since Julien and Mathilde have the leisure and the privacy to speak to each other whenever they want. Soon there are suspicions on Julien’s part—it is a woman who also takes down his model, Molière’s Tartuffe—but he agrees to an assignation. One does in fact occur, and then another, but eventually, sure of being loved, Mathilde loses interest, and Julien is cast into a misery he had not previously known to be possible. In a passage uncomfortably chilling to anyone who has even once experienced the rejection of a fickle lover, Stendhal describes a decisive moment in their affair:
After this terrible blow, frantic with love and misery, Julien attempted to argue himself back into favor. Nothing could have been more absurd. Argue yourself out of being disliked? But reason no longer had any control over his actions. Blind instinct compelled him to delay this final determination of his fate. He felt that, while he was still talking, it would not be all over. Mathilde did not listen to him; the sound of his words irritated her. She could not have believed he’d have the audacity to interrupt her.
Mercifully, Julien is distracted from his suffering by a top-secret diplomatic mission in the service of the Marquis, which after some adventures carries him to Strasbourg. There he runs into an acquaintance of his, a Russian, Prince Korasoff—and not a moment too soon. Julien thirsts to share his story with someone, and he could not have found a better interlocutor. Korasoff, delighted that a Frenchman is actually listening to him, proceeds to advise Julien on the proper way to regain Mathilde’s heart, surprised all along that Julien could be so naïve (apparently all Russian gentry were pickup artists at the time). The heart of Korasoff’s counsel is the recommendation that Julien actively pursue some other woman in the extended social circle of the de la Mole family, a plan he helps realize with a very special gift: a series of 53 letters. Julien is to copy the letters out and send them to the new target—an assault on propriety beginning with highfalutin trivialities but gradually incorporating riskier intimacies. Having taken a real liking to his new friend, Korasoff even offers Julien a cousin’s hand in marriage; Julien refuses the offer, and takes the advice instead.
The experiment, then, is set to go. It is clear on the one hand that Julien is not a pickup artist, or not merely one: he is deeply in love, wracked with one-itis, with his aim firmly in sight. But on the other hand he is not leaving matters in Mathilde’s hands: he is playing the game he is forced to play. Can we not excuse him because he loves her? Is this not the solution we have been seeking all along? Has Julien not become a synthesis of sorts, both a lover and also an “artist”—a passionate man who tames his passion for the right end?
Come what may, Julien does not falter. He returns to Paris, and to Mathilde’s surprise he does not beg, and he does not plead—he just goes about his business seducing the pious Madame de Fervaques. This includes a strategy session with a previous suitor and an exiled Spanish count; and regular, extraordinarily insincere, conversation with the new object of his affection in the drawing room of the de la Mole mansion. Julien fulfills his duty, but wearily, not bothering to open many of Madame de Fervaques’ letters to him, and even forgetting to change the names in one of Prince Korasoff’s letters when copying it into his own hand. His strategy is successful nevertheless: on one occasion, receiving an envelope from Madame de Fervaques’ porter, he is observed by Mathilde. She guesses correctly the source of the communication, loses her composure and cries out to him. Julien, stunned, almost yields to her as she throws herself in his arms. But the warnings of Korasoff remain with him in his time of need; he knows that if he just once reveals his true feelings he will be despised, and so he spurns her, coolly and diplomatically. The charade is kept up in the weeks to come, even as the two resume their former intimacy: Mathilde is finally in love and could not be happier; Julien is also in love, but his eyes only show it when hidden. Absurdly, the state of affairs is maintained all the way up to Mathilde’s pregnancy.
Julien does finally confess his love to Mathilde, but at that point the game is over; he is her master, and she is his slave. No matter what the outcome, however, what remains with us is the disjunction between the two lovers, the sense that they are like two people taking part in two completely different conversations, even though their words are directed at each other. The experiment, then, ends in a disquieting paradox: Julien can only have the woman he loves if he does not, for all intents and purposes, love the woman he loves. He has tried to become simultaneously lover and pickup artist, but his failure makes him, when all is said and done, only a pickup artist. He “gets” the girl in the one way—but not the other.
Stendhal is not known for his flowery prose. It is true that the plumbing of psychological depth in Red and the Black affords more occasions for this sort of thing than the spare, show-don’t-tell realism of Charterhouse; but we could nevertheless describe Stendhal’s style in Red and the Black with words like “breezy” or “brisk.” Yet it is hard to imagine a more moving evocation of Julien Sorel’s dilemma than the one Stendhal gives us, as the young man feigns love for Mathilde’s rival, Madame de Fervaques. Unable to show his passion for Mathilde, but overwhelmed by that passion all the same, he is caught:
“Ah,” he said to himself, hearing the empty words his mouth had pronounced, as if he had been emitting strange noises, “if I could cover those pale cheeks with kisses, and you never felt them!”
If it is impossible to combine the two extremes, lover and pickup artist, we might do better trying to find some ground between them. This is easier said than done, certainly, or easier sketched than filled out—but at least we can expect some help from Stendhal, even if that help will be a little difficult to locate. Stendhal, as we have seen, is something of a double agent, even if his allegiances ultimately lie on the side of the lovers. But just as he knows the shortcomings of Don Juan, Stendhal also knows the shortcomings of Werther. Julien Sorel is a response to this painful knowledge, an attempt in fictional form to overcome this separation. This attempt may fail, but there are others in Stendhal’s oeuvre.
It is a commonplace in the reception of On Love to call attention to Stendhal’s uniquely binary, or ambivalent, approach to his subject matter: he seems to be both fully absorbed in the phenomenon of love and also a detached observer of it; both “emotional” and “analytic.” Often in the making of the observation it is the trivial aspects that are emphasized—that Stendhal excelled in mathematics as a young man, that he is fond of categorizing, etc.—but the core is deep: Stendhal has somehow, someway, succeeded in being both part of something larger, swept away by it, and so to speak controlled by it; and also larger than the same thing, sweeping it up, controlling it. In a handful of places in the book, this intriguing authorial strategy finds itself reflected in Stendhal’s advice about love. These moments are the book’s real treasures.
The best among them may be the curious chapter of On Love entitled “Concerning Intimacy.” The chapter’s stated theme, unaffectedness, first leads to some head-scratching: Stendhal of all people is counseling transparency in the transactions of love? Has he not shown us already that this is suicide? But slowly he explains himself, and a fascinating paradox takes shape. According to Stendhal, being natural is not at all, well, natural—it is an art. It takes effort. The kind of thing he has in mind is familiar enough once he spells it out, but an extraordinary thing nonetheless: unaffectedness in conversation (or “naturalness,” in a more literal and more awkward translation of the French) is something one needs to work toward, step by step. One must set the stage carefully for the right moment to present itself; and then, when it does, one must speak from the heart. And not too late, either—there is a right time for everything. It is as if the mood between two partners in a conversation has a will of its own. The challenge is to be attuned to it. As Stendhal writes: “The whole art of loving seems to me, in a nutshell, to consist in saying precisely what the degree of intoxication requires at any given moment.”
This unnatural naturalness, this choreographed approach to the clumsiness of truth, is a perfect illustration of the synthesis we have been narrowing in on: the elaborate preparations for naturalness are an attempt to master a situation, but the moments of naturalness are themselves an act of surrender. One prepares for intoxication; but one is nevertheless intoxicated. One yields carefully; but one nevertheless yields. This precarious mixture of the active and the passive is the middle ground between a yearning, hopeless love and a ribald pickup artistry. It is love mediated through art, an artistry of love.
The lover should take his cue from Stendhal. The balancing act called for must be duplicated at every level and at every moment: always a genuine passion, and always a compensating restraint. If the lover is truly in love, he will be bursting to ask, bursting to tell, bursting to know and to make known. But he must always be patient, always willing to bide his time, to keep his sweet sentiments and his ardent gestures to himself until the time for them arrives. And though the beloved may waver in her affection, the lover cannot let his faith be shaken. Like Stendhal’s ideal conversation with its moments of preparation and moments of naturalness, the love affair as a whole contains moments of distance and moments of closeness; the lover must always adapt, stay ready, and roll with the punches.
Words are especially dangerous. Not only must the “I love you” be indefinitely postponed, but a whole lot else as well. The love affair should be an escape from the everyday, from the routine of the discursive; whoever does not understand the importance of what is unsaid in love does not understand love at all. When, in one of the decisive moments of The Charterhouse of Parma, Clélia Conti’s father falls ill in a near-poisoning, she realizes just how high are the stakes in her love for Fabrizio, and swears on the spot to the Virgin Mary that she will never lay eyes upon him again. Much later in the story, the ever-daring Fabrizio manufactures a ruse that lands him in the same room as Clélia, in the house where she has taken refuge. As soon as she sees through the disguise he has assumed to gain entrance to the house, she runs to the corner of the room and hides her face in her hands. But nearly immediately she gives him a hint: “It is already a great deal more than you deserve if, by some distorted and probably criminal interpretation of my vow, I consent to listen to you.” Fabrizio requires a few seconds, but eventually he understands. He snuffs out the candle. Clélia throws herself in his arms and—her vow intact, because she cannot see him—exclaims: “Dear Fabrizio, how long it has taken you to get here!” When their affair resumes, they meet in the dark, and make love in the dark. Always.
Clélia and Fabrizio show that the most earnest love can go hand in hand with the most cunning eroticism. Even if the pickup artists have developed the craft of seduction to a degree of refinement not yet seen under the sun, they still cannot claim the erotic arts for themselves. The pleasure and duty of restraint belong just as much to love as they do to mere seduction. And so the proper antidote to the poison of the pickup artists is not a staid, predictable courtship absent of vitality, followed by an equally staid and predictable relationship. The antidote is rather to have the best of both worlds, love and eroticism. In an important sense, “the game” belongs to the lover much more even than it belongs to the pickup artists, because with the lover the game is redeemed and heightened. The lover’s eroticism is always subject to a greater end, an end greater than himself: it is flirtation in the service of commitment, complication in the service of sincerity, playfulness in the service of seriousness.
But remember that love cannot simply be the seduction of someone who happens to be the lover’s beloved: that path leads to paradox and despair, as Julien Sorel was kind enough to show us. Julien’s crucial error was to separate his love from his “technique,” to use eroticism like a tool for the attainment of some unrelated end. And he paid the price: crying in his arms, Mathilde was in love with someone, to be sure—but it wasn’t really Julien. There is only one way out. The lover must combine his passion and his restraint, as much as possible, in the very same moment. In other words, it is not enough that playfulness be taken up in the service of seriousness; the seriousness must always be present alongside the playfulness, bound up with it in a constant synthesis. This means that the lover will have to show his hand every once in a while, even if he is quick to hide it again. And this also means that love will always bring with it some portion of terror. Because his heart is at stake, the lover will feel the terror of losing the beloved, even in the moment she gives herself to him. This is the terror the seducer believes he has bypassed. Maybe he has—but in doing so the chance for love has slipped through his fingers. Because he does not sow, he cannot reap. There is no way around this.
When I look back now on what happened with Rachel, I am still filled with regret. But my disappointment with myself is tempered by the knowledge that my greatest failure was not the failure to acquire her, but rather, odd as it seems, the failure to do justice to the erotic itself. Another way to put this is that I spoiled the chance the two of us had to create something beautiful. Not the chance I had, but the chance we had. Nobody knows how many more times we would have reveled in the details of the flirtation that brought us together, how many more albums we would have listened to on my living room floor, how many more people would have told us we looked like each other. But also—nobody knows how many times we would have trembled in fear at each other’s absence. I only regret not being prepared for all of this then.
Which is not to say that Rachel was wrong when she gave me that peculiar command, on that last night: “Be bold.” She was right; I should have been bold, and I wasn’t. But the boldness needed was not the excessive manliness of the pickup artists. It was a manliness at once more humble and more daring; it was the courage to face up to whatever is greater than us in love, and the presence of mind to spring into action when the time comes.
I am a passionate lover. You might be too. We might have been born that way, even. I was very, very young—prepubescent—the first time I was so captivated by a girl that I could not speak in her presence. When I was in college, I suffered a debilitating passion that frequently kept me in my darkened dorm room for an hour at a time, writhing in hope and despair. She and I once ended up trapped in a bathroom together when we were drunk at a party. She was clearly interested in making out; I wanted a declaration of love. As the knocking and complaining on the other side of the door became more and more distracting, she got fed up and left. When I told a friend how I was feeling, he said: “You mean you’re like a 12 year old girl?” I was as a matter of fact 22 at the time, and I was ashamed. I am not any longer. Stendhal turned 36 in the year that he succumbed to Métilde Dembowski, and Goethe seemed to spend an entire lifetime falling in love. These men do not have a special dispensation because they are uncommonly good at putting words next to each other; the Romantic temperament is available to the rest of us as well. If you are a passionate lover, then, know that you are not alone. And do not lament your condition.
Yet you should also know that you are one of a dying breed. True, the reach of Romanticism is long and profound—it is undeniable that we in the West are still the descendants of Stendhal. But love is fading fast. Long ago, the world provided much of our eroticism for us, by leaving us few options other than restraint. Now we no longer have Madame de Rênal’s happy home, or Fabrizio’s prison walls, to do us the favor of getting in our way. Were Stendhal to visit us today, this would no doubt be one of his first observations: love has become too easy. Or, rather, love has become too difficult, because sex has become too easy. If you take up love today, then, you take on an extra burden: the burden of creating your own eroticism, of conjuring up walls and limits out of thin air to replace the ones we have lost. You have no choice in the matter. Love was hard enough already; it has only gotten harder. Your love will exhaust you. But it will be worth the trouble.