Monday, June 04, 2007

A good thing about the novel "The Red and the Black" is that it doesn't say why it is called that.

It is about the son of a fairly well-off peasant who runs a saw mill in nineteenth century France. The father beats the son a lot.

One of the chief characteristics of the son throughout the book is that he is angry. Being beaten by his father would probably be enough reason. Also, he wants to rise and do much better than his father and be higher in the pecking order.

Because he is smart and the local high ups see that he is smart, he does have chances to rise. He gets an education far more than most people of his background would get.

Which takes him to the piont of seeing how arbitrary are the ways that power and money are spread around and not spread around. Another reason to be angry.

As he is being educated, he says to himself that if when he gets to Paris as an educated adult, the church is most powerful, he'll go into the church. If when he gets to Paris, the army is most powerful, he'll go into the army. The red--the army--and the black--the church. Whateverm says the ambitious young man.

People who train him and see how talented he is and could be, expect him to buy into their system of looking at things, whatever that might be. They expect he will sincerely and through his whole self say, yes, this is the true way to look at thing. Whatever, he says inside himself.

His real problem is that he doesn't realize the limits of his smartness. He grew up around other people like him and he was smarter than them. He notes, as he rises that some people with power and/or money are stupid. But not all. He doesn't notice how smart the smarter powerful people are.

If he goes against them and he does he would be well-advised to plan very carefully.

He is young and driven, in his rebellion, by rage and sexual desire. Being run by those two things, and not pausing to think means he functionally doesn't have access to his intelligence. He is putty in the hands of any experienced older person who wants to smash him, and since he does things that are bound to tick people off, they do want to smash him and they do.

He never arrives in Paris as an educated adult to choose, cynically, his path. He doesn't live that long.

Red and black are also the colors of gambling--roulette wheel and cards. He was a great gambler, but he will not think. At important moments, he's all impulse.

A long thinking gamber was his creator, Stendhal, the author of the book. Stendhal, who died in the 1840's said his writing career was a bet that people would read him in 1935.

He was read plenty when he was alive, but a lot of people like that aren't read a hundred years later. He's now within sight of being read 200 years after he lived.

The specifics of politics and church in the book are not always easy to understand. The way that the hero is smart and yet stupid enough to destroy himself seem familiar and still available.


Stendhal's characters always have a lot of energy. He did too. He used at least 127 pseudonyms. Stendhal, no first name, was the one that he used on his first writing that had any success, so he kept it.

The main character in "The Charterhouse of Parma" is also high energy, but he has more resources to start with and isn't self-destructive. I like the part where he goes to the battle of Waterloo, very important several day battle where Napoleon was defeated for good.

The hero couldn't figure out how to enlist and didn't really try. He just showed up at the battleground and wandered around and saw various things. Later he asked people, "Was I at the battle of Waterloo?"

He was, but nothing he saw was like his idea of a famous and important battle.

Battles are like that. Some people really want to be at them, but they usually aren't like what the person who wanted to be at them pictured.