The Age of Boredom
Have we learned sophistication from the French?
Paris, 1830: Boredom is in high fashion. Stendhal’s realist classic, “The Red and the Black,” is a portrait of the French upper class amidst, as he describes, “…the century’s reigning boredom…” But even as pervasive boredom afflicts the Parisian urbanity, it is the defining mark of their sophistication. Upon his introduction to the nobility, the novel’s ambitious young protagonist, Julien Sorel, is given the following advice in the words of the Latin poet Horace: “nil mirari, never show your enthusiasm.”
If “The Red and the Black” is a makeover story, adopting the Parisian demeanor of indifference is as fundamental to the provincial Julien’s transition as is dressing in the appropriately fashionable attire and not tripping over his own feet. An appearance of general displeasure alone is not enough, as his self-aware friend Prince Korasoff instructs:
…you’re supposed to seem bored. If you’re sad, there’s something deficient about you, something you haven’t yet conquered. It’s a demonstration of inferiority. If you really are bored, on the other hand, this sort of thing would show that whoever’s been trying hard to please you is your inferior. Understand, my dear friend, showing contempt is a serious business.
Stendhal, himself a dandy about Paris (though you wouldn’t think it to look at his portrait; Diane Johnson even writes in her introduction to the novel, “Stendhal himself was far from irresistible to women”), deliberately examines the nexus between urban sophistication and contemptuousness. Provincial society may mock one outright, but don’t be fooled just because Parisians have learned to hide their laughter; as Julien is warned, “You have no experience of this sort of contempt; it manifests itself only in exaggerated compliments.”
But even as he criticizes high society, Stendhal does not deny that contempt is socially desirable. In fact, Julien’s social mobility suggests that though wealth and title (of which he has neither) are socially desirable, so is contempt (of which he has to excess), and that the two can be divorced shows the seeds of meritocracy emerging in urban culture. Like Gordon Gekko’s greed, contempt, for lack of a better word, is good. Contempt works.
Compare Julien’s rise amongst Parisian sophisticates with the fall of George Amberson Minafer in the provincial Midwest in Orson Welles’s film “The Magnificent Ambersons,” based on the novel of the same name. At the turn of the century, the Ambersons were the reigning aristocrats of their small-ish town, and young George’s ruthless contempt for anyone without his last name seems to guarantee his “comeuppance” in the end, as wealth starts to trump title in America. But George’s contempt is sincere. It belies ignorance, rather than sophistication, as he impotently clings to his dissipating superiority in the face of the industrial revolution.
In “The Red and the Black,” however, contempt is a fashion. It’s an affectation that can be employed by anyone, and will always be a cause for admiration. Rather than merely being an indication of inherent superiority, it turns into the source of superiority itself. And as Julien finds himself becoming an equal in Parisian high society, Stendhal shows how wealth and title can thus be trumped by having a sense of style.