No soul is purely virtuous, none fully corrupted
I have heard the name Stendhal all my life. Shameful as it is to admit, I have a degree in Literature and had never picked up any of his work. I had created the very wrong idea that he was a sort of a boring French philosopher, an idea perhaps caused as a result of a certain pretentiousness adopted by people who talked about him. Or perhaps it was the people severely over-pronouncing his name that turned me off. Either way, the fault lies with me.
A few weeks ago, I randomly ran into something about "The Red and the Black" online, mentioned it out loud and my mother (who has read it at a very young age) jumped to say that although she did not remember every detail, she had never forgotten that book. My sister, who always sheds the light of truth on many of my misconceptions about things or people, said that Stendhal is not considered boring. On the contrary, he was considered pretty "spicy" for his time. I knew the book was somewhere in the house but had no hope of finding it. As I entered my room, there it was, in front of me. At that moment, I thought "one must always buy books when one has a chance to." Even if you do not read the book at that moment, one day you will desperately look for it and if it is not there, the moment passes and you may never read it. What a terrible waste it would have been if I had not read this.
Rarely, if ever, have I seen such an impeccably written book. One cannot deny the feelings involved – those of the characters and our own as we read it – but it is so exact in its phrasing, so clear in the points it is making, that at times it feels almost scientific. Yet, there is so much feeling in it. In his "study" of ego, love, and society, Stendhal's strategy is clear yet playful, a bit conniving, yet very sensitive. He manipulates you in the same way the characters manipulate each other, yet you understand how human they - we - all are in their "weaknesses".
Perhaps Stendhal's heartfelt, rather than scientific, clarity in describing such complicated characters, in defining such massive and unclear notions or feelings such as “love”, “society”, “hypocrisy” is where this book's success lies. Having recently watched "Selma", a film about Martin Luther King Jr. I understood more about what made MLK who he was. Virtue and heroism are always advertised first but, for me, these are merely theoretical ideas which can never truly be confirmed. And why should they be? Apart from the actual message MLK had to give, the man's concrete attributes were his absolute clarity of mind, his ability to communicate that clarity to the people, all wrapped in a certain unrelenting intensity and passion about the message given. People equipped with these do have a standing chance at challenging the collective-thinking mass that is society. This combination is rare considering that clarity can undermine passion and, conversely, passion can cloud clarity. When both exist, as they do in MLK Jr. and Stendhal, we should be an attentive audience.
Returning to the book, I would like to say that at no moment here can you truly "side" with any of the characters. This is not a book for people who like to find "comfort" in the characters or to "care" for them in order to read the book. Sympathizing with any of them is possible, yes, but dangerous in what it entails. Stendhal himself warns against assuming clearly defined roles for ourselves. The rebel, the moral, the slave to love, the superior, the inferior and so on. “The Red and the Black” is a - perhaps sad - reminder that a person’s search for total clarity in life is futile. The red desire and the black despair are two powerful forces inside everyone. No soul is purely virtuous, none fully corrupted.
Reading Stendhal, I thought, this is what literature is all about. You think you are reading about something other than you - something kilometers, centuries, worlds away – when the whole time, you are finding yourself in every corner.
Note: You can find traces of Stendhal's story in Woody Allen's "Match Point". Similar to the book, the characters in the film are the appropriate results of the society which surrounds them. Results of the pressures and hypocrisy which causes a certain level of delusion and self-deception. The desire to use good looks to fulfill one's objectives (whatever those may be), the unstoppable urge to fulfill every desire while hiding it, wanting everything without the "humiliating" consequences are all common themes between the two. Unlike the book, the characters in the film are more obviously negative, more purposeful in their actions, and while in "The Red and the Black" there is potential of understanding love and honor, in "Match Point" there are no traces of these highly theoretical phenomena. In both, you initially find it difficult to care for the characters. They are weak, morally and spiritually corrupt, flaky at times, etc.. But, therein lies the genius of "The Red and the Black". If you cannot learn to at the very least understand these characters, it seems that you will not understand yourself and, thus, will have a hard time caring for anyone in the real world. I love the book more than the film but I would suggest reading and watching them both.
You can read a nice film summary & review here