That’s a clip from a 1954 French film of Stendahl’s novel Rouge et Noir, or The Red and the Black.
Monday, November 21, 2011

The Red and the Black

Red symbolizes the military and black is the priesthood. In Stendahl’s novel these represent the two paths of advancement available in post-Napoleonic France. Whether this is factually accurate I have no idea. I am rather dubious of grand generalizations of that nature, but that’s just my own feeling without having done any investigation.

Stendahl’s Julien Sorel is the protagonist in this novel, and he initially toys with the idea of a career as a soldier, but is persuaded to pursue a career in the church. This will provide him with access to power, money, and prestige. He has the gift of a good memory, and is able to memorize the whole of the New Testament in Latin. It should be noted that this is presented as a bit of a stunt. He demonstrates his capacity to recite verses on command, or when given a word, but he does not necessarily understand, or believe the verses that he recites.

Stendahl observes that Julien knows the New Testament by heart, and that he is flummoxed when he is asked to deal with Horace. Some observations seem in order here.

Jerome’s translation dates from the late 4th or early 5th century AD. So it is a good deal later than Horace. Julien’s knowledge of Latin is superficial, otherwise he would be acquainted with the whole range of Latin literature. Julien’s Latin is less pure than the classical Latin of Horace and Cicero. Julien has memorized only the New Testament, not the Old. This may point to anti-semitism, or it may be simply laziness.

Up until Julien’s final, irreparable act, which occurs in Book II, Chapter 35, the novel might take a comic turn like Tom Jones, or Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. The comedies of Shakespeare are actually darker than is usually thought. The lovers are threatened with expulsion or death, and might end up as tragically as Romeo and Juliet. It is only the final marriage at the end that redeems the characters from tragedy. In Julien’s case he makes a fatal move that takes him out of the comic realm, and out of the coming of age novel into a darker realm.

His act is a failed murder, and for some reason he insists on receiving the death penalty. I don’t know whether French law dealt out the death penalty for attempted murder, presumably Stendahl had the legal facts straight, but Julien demands the penalty. Did Julien make the attempt in order to commit suicide? That leads to a whole other realm of philosophical and political inquiry, one which I don’t think Stendahl was interested in.

One way of reading the novel would be to see the final catastrophe as not just a tragic act, but as one that represents the final unfolding of Julien’s hypocrisy. In this unfolding the realization of the failure of his hypocritical moves closes in on him, and he chooses to attack the woman who betrayed him not out of revenge, but because he knows that the inevitable consequence will be his own death. He chooses to attack not in private, which might afford him a reasonable chance of escape, but in public, which guarantees his recognition and swift capture.

Later this peculiar method of choosing death would be known as “suicide by cop.” Julien’s isn’t quite that, since he goes through a trial and an appeal, but the idea is similar.

That execution can be a means of suicide has been used as an argument against capital punishment. Whether that argument has any validity I’ve got no idea.

I started this over a month ago, and I got sidetracked by the preparations for Christmas, so my next posting will bear a much later date.

Next up will be my Christmas reading. The first on the list will be the bio of Steve Jobs.x