Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Signs of Reading and the Subject of Love in Stendhal's De L'amour

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Signs of Reading and the Subject of Love in Stendhal's De L'amour

Article excerpt

Stendhal's De l'amour (1822) analyzes the structural elements of love's unfolding, including seemingly inconsequential details and obscure associations of sentiment at work in the amorous subject. In seeking the origin of love in the lover, Stendhal discovers the psychical process he will name cristallisation. Crystallization structures the examination of love mapped out in De l'amour, but Stendhal organizes the lover's experience of it around a more semiotic problem: that of reading. As the writer reminds his reader: "J'ai besoin qu'on se rappelle qu'en amour tout est signe" (84). The figure of the lover as reader permeates Stendhal's analysis, and the most important result of this is crystallization. Stendhal describes crystallization in many ways throughout De l'amour, but one of the most straightforward definitions occurs in the second chapter: "Ce que j'appelle cristallisation, c'est l'operation de l'esprit, qui tire de tout ce qui se presente la decouverte que l'objet aime a de nouvelles perfections" (32). Crystallization becomes the code of the lover's reading, and as such it is the motor of love, and thus names the fact that everything in love is a sign, further designating multiple operations that control the lover's semiotic system.

As part of a system, crystallization is not an isolated phenomenon but the motivating factor in a chain of meanings that makes the lover a reader. As both originator of the chain and part of the chain, crystallization also demonstrates love's constitutive dilemma: doubt--called forth through the functioning of crystallization--is absolutely necessary to love's apparition, and yet, doubt is what threatens love and the lover's status. If we analyze love as a semiotic system based on crystallization, we gain a crucial aspect in understanding the ways in which Stendhal's text simultaneously upholds and overturns the configuration of binary positions associated with love, such as subject/object, and passive/active. (1) A close reading of the lover as reader in De l'amour will help us to explain Stendhal's analysis of the subject of language in love, and his depiction of the subject of love in language.

In a first move we will discover that crystallization is a process of repetitive (re-)reading supported by the lover's imagination but over which he ultimately has no control. That is, the lover's desire subjugates him to signs whose referents are nothing more than the space for the generation of more signs; the lover's reading creates the links between the steps of crystallization. Then we will turn to some examples of the lover's search for and creation of signs that reflect his desires, focusing in particular on the peculiar occulting of reality in crystallization. Love may be a semiotic system, but we will find that there is no decidable sign of love and that this has profound consequences for the subject. One of these consequences--what I will call a sentimental binary--will be sketched in detail through an examination of doubt's effect on the lover's position in enunciation, especially through a comparison with an essay not published originally with De l'amour but nonetheless part of its landscape, "Le Rameau de Salzbourg." Finally, in elucidating the ways in which Stendhal stages love as a malady in and of language, we will turn to the textual structure of De l'amour as an enactment of the struggle of the lover as reader.


In order to understand crystallization, we need to return to Stendhal's outline of the "sept epoques" of love:

1. L'admiration

2. Quel plaisir de lui donner des baisers, d'en recevoir, etc.!

3. L'esperance

4. L'amour est ne

5. Premiere cristallisation

6. Le doute parait

7. Seconde cristallisation (37)

This seven-step process is at the heart of Stendhal's text. The last three stages clearly take precedence both in the process and in Stendhal's analysis. …

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