Stendhal on the Seven Stages of Romance and Why We Fall Out of Love: Timeless Wisdom from 1822
By Maria Popova
Love is perhaps the most fertile subject of literature, music, and all the arts. Kurt Vonnegut believed you’re only allowed to be in love three times in your life. It has been described as a matter of bravery, a limbic revision, the greatest insurance against regret. For Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, it is simply, sweetly walking hand in hand. But how, exactly, does love take hold of the heart?
In 1822, French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better-known by his pseudonym Stendhal (January 23, 1783–March 23, 1842), penned On Love (public library) — a timeless treatise attempting to rationally analyze the highest human emotion, rediscovered through a passing mention in the diaries of Susan Sontag (who famously and perhaps ironically wrote, “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”)
Stendhal sets out to bridge “the deeply sensitive and coolly analytical,” beginning with a taxonomy of the four main types of love:
There are four different kinds of love:
1. Passionate Love. This was the love of the Portuguese nun, that of Heloïce for Abelard, of the captain of Vésel, and of the gendarme of Cento.
2. Mannered Love, which flourished in Paris about 1760, and which is to be found in the memoirs and novels of the period; for example those of Crébillon, Lauzun, Duclos, Marmontel, Chamfort, and Mme d’Epinay…
A stylized painting, this, where the rosy hues extend into the shadows, where there is no place for anything at all unpleasant – for that would be a breach of etiquette, of good taste, of delicacy, and so forth. A man of breeding will know in advance all the rituals he must meet and observe in the various stages of this kind of love, which often achieves greater refinement than real love, since there is nothing passionate or unpredictable about it, and it is always witty. It is a cold, pretty miniature as against an oil painting by one of the Carrachi; and while passionate love carries us away against our real interests, mannered love as invariably respects those interests. Admittedly, if you take away vanity, there is very little left of mannered love, and the poor weakened invalid can hardly drag itself along.
3. Physical Love. You are hunting; you come across a handsome young peasant girl who takes to her heels through the woods. Everyone knows the love that springs from this kind of pleasure, and however desiccated and miserable you may be, this is where your Love-life begins at sixteen.
4. Vanity-Love. The great majority of men, especially in France, both desire and possess a fashionable woman, much in the way one might own a fine horse – as a luxury befitting a young man. Vanity, a little flattered and a little piqued, leads to enthusiasm. Sometimes there is physical love, but not always; often even physical pleasure is lacking. ‘A duchess is never more than thirty in the eyes of a bourgeois,’ said the Duchesse de Chaulnes, and the courtiers of that just king Louis of Holland cheerfully recall even now a pretty woman from The Hague who was quite unable to resist the charms of anyone who happened to be a duke or a prince. But true to hierarchical principles, as soon as a prince came to court she would send her duke packing. She was rather like an emblem of seniority in the diplomatic corps!
The happiest version of this insipid relationship is where physical pleasure grows with habit. Then memories produce a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be grand passion. One thing is certain though: whichever kind of love produces the pleasures, they only become vivid, and their recollection compelling, from the moment of inspiration. In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.
Occasionally in vanity-love, habit, or despair of finding something better, results in a friendship of the least attractive sort, which will even boast of its stability, and so on.
Although physical pleasure, being natural, is known to all, it is only of secondary importance to sensitive, passionate people. If such people are derided in drawing rooms or made unhappy by the intrigues of the worldly, they possess in compensation a knowledge of pleasures utterly inaccessible to those moved only by vanity or money.
Some virtuous and sensitive women are almost unaware of the idea of physical pleasure; they have so rarely, if I may hazard an expression, exposed themselves to it, and in fact the raptures of passionate love have practically effaced the memory of bodily delights.
There are some men who are the victims and instruments of a hellish pride, a pride like that of Alfieri. These men, who are cruel perhaps because like Nero they are always afraid, judge everyone after their own pattern, and can achieve physical pleasure only when they indulge their pride by practicing cruelties upon the companion of their pleasures. … Only in this way can they find a sense of security.
Instead of defining four kinds of love, one might well admit eight or ten distinctions. There are perhaps as many different ways of feeling as there are of seeing, but differences of terminology do not affect the arguments which follow. Every variety of love mentioned henceforth is born, lives, dies, or attains immortality in accordance with the same laws.
In a chapter titled “Concerning the Birth of Love,” Stendhal outlines the process by which love takes hold. Particularly interesting is his concept of crystallization, a kind of madness Sylvia Plath so elegantly captured — the projective idealization with which we tend to see our beloveds, submerging their complete humanity in our selective, romanticized versions of reality.
HERE is what happens in the soul:
2. You think, ‘How delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her,’ and so on…
3. Hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure. Even the most reserved women blush to the whites of their eyes at this moment of hope. The passion is so strong, and the pleasure so sharp, that they betray themselves unmistakably.
4. Love is born. To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.
5. The first crystallization begins. If you are sure that a woman loves you, it is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from Heaven, unknown as yet, but certain to be yours.
Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen:
At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.
What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
You hear a traveller speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her!
The phenomenon that I have called crystallization springs from Nature, which ordains that we shall feel pleasure and sends the blood to our heads. It also evolves from the feeling that the degree of pleasure is related to the perfections of the loved one, and from the idea that ‘She is mine.’
Stendhal even illustrates crystallization in a visual analogy where the city of Bologna signifies indifference and Rome stands for perfect love. The traveler begins in Bologna, indifferent, then moves through the four stages of crystallization — Admiration, Acknowledgement, Hope, Delight — and arrives in Rome in love, having enormously amplified the merits of the beloved. He allegedly drew this diagram on the back of a playing card while en route to the Salzburg salt mine.
The outline continues:
This is what happens next to fix the attention:
6. Doubt creeps in. First a dozen or so glances, or some other sequence of actions, raise and confirm the lover’s hopes. Then, as he recovers from the initial shock, he grows accustomed to his good fortune, or acts on a theory drawn from the common multitude of easily-won women. He asks for more positive proofs of affection and tries to press his suit further.
He is met with indifference, coldness, or even anger if he appears too confident. In France there is even a shade of irony which seems to say ‘You think you’re farther ahead than you really are.’ A woman may behave like this either because she is recovering from a moment of intoxication and obeying the dictates of modesty, which she may fear she has offended; or simply for the sake of prudence or coquetry.
The lover begins to be less sure of the good fortune he was anticipating and subjects his grounds for hope to a critical examination.
He tries to recoup by indulging in other pleasures but finds them inane. He is seized by the dread of a frightful calamity and now concentrates fully. Thus begins:
7. The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof that ‘she loves me.’
Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ‘she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters, ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth.
It is the pre-eminence of this truth, and the road to it, with a fearsome precipice on one hand and a view of perfect happiness on the other, which set the second crystallization so far above the first.
The lover’s mind vacillates between three ideas:
1. She is perfect.
2. She loves me.
3. How can I get the strongest possible proofs of her love?
The most heartrending moment of love in its infancy is the realization that you have been mistaken about something, and that a whole framework of crystals has to be destroyed. You begin to feel doubtful about the entire process of crystallization.
And yet, crystallization isn’t necessarily a bad thing — in fact, Stendhal argues it might be the key to the essential attachment phase of love that biological anthropologist Helen Fisher identified nearly two centuries later. He writes:
The second crystallization ensures that love will last; for you feel that the only alternatives are to win her love or to die. The very idea of ceasing to love is absurd when your convictions are confirmed moment by moment, until the passing months make love a habit. The stronger your character, the slighter the impulse to inconstancy.
Crystallization goes on throughout love almost without a break. The process is something like this: whenever all is not well between you and your beloved, you crystallize out an imaginary solution. Only through imagination can you be sure that your beloved is perfect in any given way. After intimacy, ever-resurgent fears are lulled by more real solutions. Thus happiness never stays the same, except in its origin; every day brings forth a new blossom.
Underpinning his rationalist analysis of love is a kind of reassuring caveat, recognizing the all-too-familiar notion that love isn’t something we can will or will away. Stendhal notes:
Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. It is chiefly in this that mannered love differs from passionate love. The charms of your beloved are not a matter of self-congratulation, except as a stroke of luck. Finally, there are no age limits for love.
In fact, he argues that love at a later age is always richer and more enduring than young love:
For the very young, love is like a huge river which sweeps everything before it, so that you feel that it is a restless current. Now a sensitive person has acquired some self-knowledge by twenty-eight; she knows that any happiness she can expect from life will come to her through love; hence a terrible struggle develops between love and mistrust. She crystallizes only slowly; but whatever crystals survive her terrible ordeal, where the spirit is moving in the face of the most appalling danger, will be a thousand times more brilliant and durable than those of the sixteen-year-old, whose privileges are simply happiness and joy. Thus the later love will be less gay, but more passionate.
On Love is a sublime read in its entirety, full of the era’s delightfully quaint biases but also of timeless, boundless, universal human truth. Complement it with a contemporary read on the paradoxical psychology of why frustration is necessary to satisfaction in love and philosopher Erich Fromm on how to master the art of loving.
Published November 29, 2012