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Door Thijs Kleinpaste
Literature often mirrors current events. In this column Stendhals The Red and the Black will be discussed: human dignity and morality lie at the heart of every revolution.
Europe has been careless with its democracy. Ever since the Eurozone crisis broke out, democracy has been the victim of severe neglect. When Greek prime-minister Papandreou suggested holding a referendum on his proposed austerity measures, he was quickly put in place by his European counterparts: they would have none of Papandreou’s shenanigans. In 2011, when Berlusconi was replaced by the ‘technocrat’ Mario Monti, many welcomed Monti as the one who would finally take the necessary measures. The tribute some Europeans paid to democracy seems lip-service at most. Democracy doesn’t solve the debt-crisis, hampers quick action and is really only a hindrance in tackling our worst problem! Thank God for technocrats! It is as if some have forgotten that the supreme value of democracy lies not so much in its ability to manage effectively, as in providing political decisions with the highest authority, legitimacy and – most of all – decency. Why this is the case, is most accurately illustrated in The Red and the Black (1830) by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), in which the dem-ocratic, egalitarian promises of the 19th-century collide with a slowly dying aristocratic order.
In The Red and the Black, the young, intelligent but poor Julien Sorel dreams of making it in a world that is still dominated by the aristocracy. Stendhal published his novel just a few months after the July Revolution of 1830, and it chronicles the last years of the Bourbon Restauration. Julien struggles to find his way up the social ladder, always carrying around a portrait of Napoleon, whom he admires. The days of Napoleon stand in sharp contrast with the restored old order, in which privilege dominated. Stendhal attacks the materialism, shallowness and corruption of the French aristocratic society. If there is to be another Robespierre, the aristocratic elites themselves first and foremost are to blame.
One scene between Julien and his employer, monsieur de Rênal, mayor of the small town of Verrières, is especially illustrative. One day Julien feels humiliated after being publicly scolded by monsieur de Rênal, after which Julien angrily confronts him. Monsieur de Rênal (involved in a petty feud about status with some of the other notables in town) is afraid Julien might quit his job: the young man is quite popular in Verrières. But instead of an apology, he offers Julien a raise.
However, Juliens dignity cannot be bought or sold: ‘Mere money, how banal!’ he ponders. He takes the raise because he considers it a moral victory over monsieur de Rênal. The latter, being rather tight, only worries about the extra money he now has to spend on Juliens salary.
Julian and monsieur de Rênal are living in two worlds which are unable to understand each other. Juliens highest aspiration is not just material wealth. He simply hopes to be regarded as an equal so that he can climb through the ranks, and become an acknowledged member of the French society. The promise of a democratic, egalitarian society, stemming from the values of the French Revolution, permeates through Stendhals novel, and causes the agitation between the world Julien wants to live in and the world in which he is forced to live in: working in the service of the aristocracy.
In this sense the novel contains an acute perspective. It is never just about money, Stendhal says. Democracy and democratic cultures are not so much about the ‘best’ or most lucrative decisions, but about human dignity. When it comes to such dignity, Europe doesn’t provide a very hopeful view for the future.
Thijs Kleinpaste studeert geschiedenis aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam en is schrijver van het boek Nederland als vervlogen droom.
Stendhal, The Red and the Black (Het Rood en het Zwart), 563 p. Amsterdam, 2007. Translation: Hans van Pinxteren.
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