The Red and the Black: Julien’s game.

What two things do Nancy Mitford’s 1960 parlour comedy Don’t Tell Alfred and the 1959 Gary Cooper maritime adventure flick The Wreck of the Mary Deare have in common?

  1. They have at the centre of their plots an obscure chain of unpopulated islets in the English Channel, the Minquiers (or “Minkies”, as Gary Cooper calls them).
  2. By happenstance I found myself reading one and watching the other on the same evening in 2008.

A meaningless coincidence, but because of it Mitford, Cooper, and the Minkies will forever be linked in my imagination.*

***

Here’s another coincidence. Much of the action in the middle section of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black occurs in the French provincial capital of Besançon, a town that to my recollection I’d never heard of before. (A forgivable lapse of memory: I learn via Wikipedia that Besançon makes an appearance, disguised under the Latinized name “Vesontio”, in Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.)

Besançon is the first stop on Julien Sorel’s journey from small-town obscurity to the heights of French society. He spends some unhappy months as a student in a seminary there, befriending the rector, who will eventually help him get appointed as secretary to a rich nobleman in Paris. By the end of the novel Julien finds himself back in Besançon – in prison.

Putting aside Stendhal, I opened up a collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton, and came across this:

For some time I had been wandering in quiet streets in the curious town of Besançon, which stands like a sort of peninsula in a horseshoe of river. You may learn from the guide-books that it was the birthplace of Victor Hugo, and that it is a military station with many forts, near to the French frontier. But you will not learn from guide-books that the very tiles on the roofs seem to be of some quainter and more delicate colour than the tiles of all the other towns of the world; that the tiles look like the little clouds of some strange sunset, or like the lustrous scales of some strange fish. They will not tell you that in this town the eye cannot rest on anything without finding it in some way attractive and even elvish, a carved face at a street corner, a gleam of green fields through a stunted arch, or some unexpected colour for the enamel of a spire or dome.

This helpfully augments Stendhal’s meagre description of Besançon as “one of the most beautiful cities in France”. Never having previously heard of the place, now I’d like to go there.

But the essay that appears just before the one quoted above is as eerily relevant to the reader of The Red and the Black. It’s called The Contented Man:

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been “through” things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other side quite unchanged…

[W]e may ask of those who profess to have passed through trivial or tragic experiences whether they have absorbed the content of them; whether they licked up such living water as there was. It is a pertinent question in connection with many modern problems.

Thus the young genius says, “I have lived in my dreary and squalid village before I found success in Paris or Vienna.” The sound philosopher will answer, “You have never lived in your village, or you would not call it dreary and squalid.”

Julien Sorel, with his self-destructive pride and ambition, is the epitome of the small-town Uncontented Man, so much so that I’m tempted to theorize that Chesterton marked his visit to Besançon by reading The Red and the Black and writing these two essays back-to-back – except that they originally appeared in collections published three years apart.

Just a coincidence.

***

Working as a secretary in the house of the Marquis de La Mole, Julien is introduced to the Marquis’ daughter Mathilde. Beautiful, haughty, and too intelligent to take seriously the elegant fatuities of the young men of her social circle, Mathilde is attracted to her father’s clever new secretary, though he’s an uncultured hick from the provinces, far beneath her station.

Julien in his pride interprets Mathilde’s interest as mere condescension, and responds coldly; this only intrigues her further. Eventually, after many mutual misunderstandings, Julien realizes that he has accidentally captured the heart of the most eligible girl in Paris, and he determines to seduce her.

Unfortunately, after the successful seduction, he discovers that he’s in love with her – and worse for him, she discovers it too. As his sangfroid melts into gooey fondness, her admiration turns to contempt. She rebukes herself for ever having cared for him. He can only mope about, casting sad-eyed glances her way, while she ignores him to gossip with her society friends.

Before long, Julien runs into a frivolous Russian playboy, Prince Korasov, who diagnoses the situation:

“[She] is profoundly self-centered, like all women to whom heaven has given either too high a rank or too much money. She looks at herself instead of looking at you, so she doesn’t know you. During the two or three outbursts of passion for you that she’s allowed herself to indulge in, with great efforts of imagination, she saw in you the hero of her dreams, not what you actually are.”

Korasov outlines a scheme by which Julien can manipulate Mathilde’s jealousy to win her back. And this is where The Red and the Black begins to uncannily resemble a handbook of “game”, that semi-competitive sport wherein aspiring male “players” use principles divined from evolutionary psychology to imitate the “alpha” behaviours of our primate forebears and render themselves irresistable to women.

“Game” as propounded by its most eloquent evangelist, the blogger known as Roissy, is about 50/50 misogynistic bullshit and disturbingly spot-on social analysis. I refer you to Roissy’s Sixteen Commandments Of Poon. (Gird yourself, good liberals.)

Sixteen Commandments Of Poon The Red and the Black

Women want to feel like they have to overcome obstacles to win a man’s heart… The man who gives his emotional world away too easily robs women of the satisfaction of earning his love. Though you may be in love with her, don’t say it before she has said it.

He was astonished by the sorrow in her eyes; it was so intense that he scarcely recognized them. He felt his strength abandoning him, so mortally painful was the act of courage he was imposing on himself. “Those eyes will soon express nothing but cold disdain,” he thought, “if I give into the joy of loving her.”

Make her jealous. Flirt with other women in front of her. Do not dissuade other women from flirting with you. Women will never admit this but jealousy excites them. The thought of you turning on another woman will arouse her sexually. No girl wants a man that no other woman wants.

“Answer me at least,” she said at length in a supplicating tone of voice, but without daring to look at him. …”So Madame de Fervaques has stolen your heart from me…Has she made for you all the sacrifices to which my fatal love led me?”

A gloomy silence was Julien’s only answer.

Give your woman 2/3 of everything she gives you… Give her two displays of affection and stop until she has answered with three more. When she speaks, you reply with fewer words. When she emotes, you emote less… Refraining from reciprocating everything she does for you in equal measure instills in her the proper attitude of belief in your higher status. In her deepest loins it is what she truly wants.

Julien abandoned himself to his great happiness only at times when Mathilde could not read it in his eyes. He scrupulously performed the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time. Whenever her sweetness, which he observed with astonishment, and her unquestioning devotion to him were about to rob him of all his self-control, he had the courage to leave her abruptly.

Keep her guessing. True to their inscrutable natures, women ask questions they don’t really want direct answers to. Woe be the man who plays it straight – his fate is the suffering of the beta. Evade, tease, obfuscate. She thrives when she has to imagine what you’re thinking about her, and withers when she knows exactly how you feel.

He knew very well that the next morning, by eight o’clock, Mathilde would be in the library; he did not go there until nine o’clock, burning with love, but with his head dominating his heart. Not one minute went by, perhaps, without his repeating to himself, “I must keep her constantly occupied with this great doubt: ‘Does he love me?’ Her brilliant position, and the flattery of everyone who speaks to her, make her a little too sure of herself.”

You shall make your mission, not your woman, your priority… Despite whatever protestations to the contrary, women do not want to be “The One” or the center of a man’s existence. They in fact want to subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose, to help him achieve that purpose with their feminine support, and to follow the path he lays out.

His mind was preoccupied; he responded only halfheartedly to her expressions of ardent tenderness. He remained taciturn and somber. Never before had he appeared so great, so adorable to her…

[W]hat explanation could there be for Julien’s air of severity? She did not dare to question him.

She did not dare! She, Mathilde! From then on, there was something vague, mysterious, almost terrifying in her feeling for Julien.

Terrifying indeed. My biggest objection to “game” is that I fear it might be true. Are we really just prisoners of our genes, fated to fulfil the gender roles of our chest-thumping ancestors? Are women really happier when they “subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose”?

And what about men? The problem with game is that it’s misnamed. Game is no fun. Bending a woman to your will is a hell of a lot of work, and if you want the woman to stick around, the work never ends. Like Julien, you have to disguise your feelings, keep your mistress guessing, “scrupulously [perform] the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time”. Julien himself, once he’s completed his conquest, is miserable about it. His heart truly belongs to his earlier lover, the guileless Madame de Rênal.

Roissy, in his bleaker disquisitions on the cruelty of the modern sexual marketplace, communicates despair over the gamesmanship to which men are forced. He blames it all on feminism:

[I]n a mating landscape where women work and earn almost as much as men and, consequently, have devalued the traditional currency of barter in the mating market and shrunk their dating pool, men are responding to this disincentive to bust their balls for diminished sexual reward by dropping out (omegas), doping out (video gaming and porn consuming betas), and cadding about (alphas and practitioners of game).

There’s something to that – something, but not everything. To say “This is how we’re hardwired; accept it” ignores the paradoxical essence of human nature: It’s our nature to struggle to transcend our nature.

Personally, I’d rather we keep on trying to escape the backward pull of our primate progenitors. But in order to pacify our inner chimps, we first need to understand their desires. To that end I’m grateful for Roissy and Stendhal, in somewhat different measures, for documenting the darker manifestations of the human sex drive.

M.

* A while back I described another such coincidence involving Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and an obscure London hotel destroyed in the Blitz.

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6 Responses to “<i>The Red and the Black</i>: Julien’s game.”


  1. 1 Evgeny August 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Hello, Michael.

    Sorry for the offtopic. I failed to see your email, so decided to write in the top post.

    I found your blog while trying to find the best English translation of “Master and Margarita”.

    I’m not sure if you have any interest in the contemporary Russian stuff, but if it’s the case, have you heard about the following band? :

    http://www.orgia.ru/summary_english.php

    Their music is intimately bound to the modern Russian life in the unique way.

    For example, their 2007 album offers a listener a sort of a psychodelic journey as the tracks are going — from the gloomy outlook of reality in #2, to the idea of “hope dies the last” in #3, things worsen in #4 as the “hope dies”, then comes #5 — the manifesto, the listener unifies with the God in a prayer in #6 and during a ritual sacrifice in #7, the time of darkness passes in #8, followed by a journey at a Styx river in #9, resulting in the return to reality in #10 taken with a different sort of a vision.

    Patterns of death and rebirth are a recurring theme of the band and are developed with greater care in the 2010 album.

    Have fun,
    Evgeny.

  2. 2 omnivorish September 22, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I liked Don’t Tell Alfred. Have never read Le Rouge et le Noir – is it good?

  3. 3 orangeraisin September 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    Omnivorish,

    Is “The Red and the Black” good? Yes, though I found reading it a bit of a grind. The main character isn’t all that sympathetic, and after a while you kind of lose patience with his arrogance and self-pity.

    It reminded me of Henry James’ “The Ambassadors”; I guess because of the French setting, and also because Stendhal, like James, is so precise in dissecting how a single tiny word or gesture or misunderstanding can completely overturn relationships between people. During the romance with Mathilde, Stendhal will describe how Julien enters a rendezvous full of self-confidence, only to be shattered by some little thing Mathilde does, spend a while moping, recover his confidence, and be shattered again by some other little thing, all in a few paragraphs.

    Also, like James, Stendhal is obsessive about picking apart nuances of social hierarchy that are perplexing to modern North American readers. Come to think of it, Nancy Mitford does that too.

    M.

  4. 4 omnivorish September 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Hm. It sounds interestig but mildly hard work. Though I recently read Portrait of a Lady and after about 200 pages, could barely put it down – it was sort of a question of acclimatising. Thanks!

  5. 5 orangeraisin September 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Incidentally, omnivorish, I browsed around your blog and really enjoyed it, although I’ve never heard of any of the books or authors you’ve reviewed. I don’t pay much attention to contemporary fiction. In fact, I get vaguely annoyed that they keep pumping out new books when I have no hope of catching up on all the ones written before I was born. I wish the publishing industry would call a temporary hiatus so that everyone could catch their breath, sort through the clutter, and decide which young authors we have room for and which we can put in a cardboard box and carry off to Goodwill.

    M.

  6. 6 queenofparks November 12, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Thanks Orange Raisin. I know what you mean re unending onslaught of new books. I’ve abandoned my book blog for the time being but you can catch me here! O (aka queenofparks)


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