Crystallized Desire: On Stendhalian Love

By Robert ZaretskyMay 17, 2021

Crystallized Desire: On Stendhalian Love
ON JUNE 13, 1821, Marie-Henri Beyle quit Milan, the city where he had lived for seven years, to return to Paris. Several years later, he recalled that he left “with a sum of about 3,500 francs, reflecting that it would be a fine thing, once I spent it all, to blow out my brains.” Once back in Paris, the thirtysomething Beyle knocked about aimlessly, wandering from art gallery to art gallery, gazing at paintings while struggling to forget the reason for his suicidal thoughts. Returning to his apartment, he attempted to write a romantic tragedy, but found himself mostly sketching pistols in the margins.

Try as he might, Beyle could not fall out of love with a woman, Matilde Dembowksi, née Viscontini, who had refused to fall in love with him, and even refused to give him the time of day. What she did give Beyle, however, was the inspiration, while still in Milan, to write about this experience. In December 1821, the manuscript Beyle had written and posted from the city finally reached him in Paris. Published under the title De l’amour, the two-volume book was mostly ignored by critics and readers. Yet thanks to this work and its author — who had recently adopted the nom de plume Stendhal — we can mark the 200th anniversary of the invention of modern love.


As Tina Turner might ask, what’s love got to do with a pandemic that, hatched more than a year ago, continues to roost over our lives? Quite a bit, of course. Relationships have been tested in unusual, perhaps unprecedented ways, and often found wanting. Consider the headlines of news stories since last March. “Move In? Get Divorced? The Pandemic Forces Couples to Decide.” “The New Relationships that Fizzled Out in Quarantine.” “This Is What Happens to Couples Under Stress.” “Love is essential: Some EU countries relax rules for separated cross-border couples.”

Love might be essential — after all, it brought these now struggling couples together — but what is it? “It’s physical, only logical,” Turner insists, and we “must try to ignore that it means more than that.” But she and the songwriters behind her hit, Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, know, as does Stendhal, that it does mean more than that. While Turner gropes for the word — “If I tend to look dazed, I’ve read it someplace / I’ve got cause to be / There’s a name for it / There’s a phrase that fits” — it happens that Stendhal had already fitted the phrase two centuries ago: crystallization.

Stunned by his discovery, Stendhal marked the event, scribbling (in English) along the margin of a book: “Day of Genius.” Not the genius of an Archimedes or Galileo, Darwin or Curie, but a kind of genius nevertheless, one galvanized by Stendhal’s desperate attraction to Dembowski, a Milanese native who had married and, after having two children, separated from a brutally abusive Polish officer. Along with her regal beauty, Dembowski’s revolutionary politics captured Stendhal’s romantic imagination. She was involved deeply enough with the Carbonari, a network of Italian patriots committed to overthrowing the authoritarian regime imposed by Austria, that she was briefly arrested and questioned by the imperial police. Little wonder he blurted, in one of his many letters, that “if it was necessary, during his long and lonely evenings, to kill someone to see you, I’d become a killer.”

Far from being a remorseless killer, Stendhal was often a klutz. Yet what Stendhal lacked in physical qualities — his complexion was ruddy, his hair thinning, and his body thickening — he copiously made up for in wit and intelligence. These charms faltered, however, in his initial efforts to win over Dembowski, and fell completely flat after his lunatic jaunt to Volterra. When he learned that Dembowski had gone to this small town for a few weeks to visit her children at their school, Stendhal, incapable of facing the prolonged absence, traveled to Volterra as well.

His avowed intention was to catch the occasional glimpse of Dembowski — French does not then seem to have had a word for “stalking” — but his plan went awry. By way of disguise, Stendhal had donned a pair of green glasses — yes, green glasses — upon entering Volterra in his carriage. When he removed them to speak with his innkeeper, though, Dembowski strolled past the lodging at the very same moment. Having recognized him — though one wonders how she would have failed to do so even had he been wearing his green glasses — Dembowski sent him a letter, announcing she never wished to see or hear from him again. Moreover, she dismissed this man, who rightly knew he was exceptional, as “prosaic” — a remark that wounded Stendhal as deeply as the rejection itself.

In an effort to suture these wounds, Stendhal set out to prove in On Love not only that he was the least prosaic of men, but that Dembowski amounted to little more than, well, a bare tree branch in his act of falling madly in love.


On Love is not a novel, Stendhal warns, nor is it entertaining. While the first claim is sort of true — it is not a novel, but it is certainly novelistic — the second claim is so very untrue. This collection of observations on love, which often lead to quirky literary digressions or transparently autobiographical accounts of Stendhal’s flopped love affair, fascinates as much as it flummoxes. In part, this is thanks to Stendhal’s knack for aphorism. Who needs a treatise on aesthetics when we know that “beauty is the promise of happiness”? On the hypocrisy of sexual inequality and mores, he writes: “It is a much greater crime against modesty to go to bed with a man one has seen only twice, after three words of Latin spoken at church, than to yield in spite of oneself to a man one has loved for two years.” As for love, Stendhal catches us on the back step, affirming it is “a miracle of civilization” — a sublime passion through which “something imagined becomes real.” Not seems real, mind you, but is real.

But the book also fascinates for the way Stendhal, like a love-struck mathematician who has lost the ability to speak in any language other than algebra, channels his chest-bursting emotions into terse and analytic language. In Chapter IX, his goal — to describe love “with all the bleakness of science but also its accuracy” — achieves its most renowned expression. The chapter runs all of three lines: “I am doing my best to be dry. I want to silence my heart, which believes it has much to say. I always tremble to think I have set down a truth, when I have only inscribed a sigh.”

Among the truths about love Stendhal does set down, one of his has proved as compelling as those of Socrates and Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium: crystallization. Rather than the drive to glimpse a transcendental idea or drive to find one’s lost half, Stendhalian love is the drive to imagine the other as one’s beloved, lost half or not. Love is formed in the workshop of our imagination, becoming more real than any object hammered into being in the workshop of an artisan or even of nature.

To illustrate this insight, Stendhal turns to that Austrian salt fortress — a.k.a. Salzburg — and the mines that lay beyond its walls. Toss a bare branch into one of the caves, Stendhal observes, and return in a few months: you would not recognize the stick. Now encrusted with a coat of brilliant crystals, what had been a bare branch has been reborn as an object of blinding beauty. So, too, with the cavern of our imagination. Toss inside the image of another person, give it not just the time, but the care to crystallize, and this “image with a thousand further perfections becomes your greatest pleasure.” If you doubt these perfections are real, Stendhal would only sigh that you, mon pauvre, have never been in love. With most emotions, he declares, “desires have to adopt to cold reality; with love, reality is eagerly shaped according to your desires.”

In 1825, four years after he left Milan, Stendhal’s great love died. While I have not visited her grave, I like to think inscribed on the marker is Matilde Viscontini Born 1790, Métilde Dembowski Reborn 1821.


Our need to love and, more broadly, our need to imagine are among the countless casualties of the coronavirus. We are separated, of course, from those we love. The emotional toll of these separations is beyond calculation. We are not enjoying solitude — a state, Stendhal notes, essential to love — but instead are exiled to the internet, the virtual world where our imaginations go to wither and die. Equally incalculable, though, is the cost of being cut off from our fellow human beings. Along with solitude, Stendhal insists, society is also vital to the working of our imagination. It is in the world, not on a screen, that we might encounter the individual with whom, through the act of crystallization, we will fall in love.

With the end of the pandemic, we will again be with those we have long loved. No less important, we will be with those who, thanks to what Stendhal calls the “audacity of love,” make us consider blowing out our brains.


Robert Zaretsky’s new book, Plague Stories, will be published next February. His next book will be on how Stendhal can save your sanity, if not your life.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!