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For Valentine’s Day: How Love Works, according to Stendhal

Blue Tit In Winter, Gianpiero Ferrari

At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable. 

This brilliant crystallization metaphor is what Stendhal  used to describe the mental process of falling in love; of drawing from everything that happens, new proofs of the perfection of the loved one: no sooner do you think of a virtue than you detect it in your beloved….but your attention is still liable to wander after a time because one gets tired of anything uniform, even perfect happiness.

This, says Henri, is what happens next to fix the attention:

Doubt creeps in. First a dozen or so glances, or some other sequence of actions, raise and confirm the lover’s hopes. Then, as he recovers from the initial shock, he grows accustomed to his good fortune, or acts on a theory drawn from the common multitude of easily won women. He asks for more positive proofs of affection and tries to press his suit further. The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of prove that ’she loves me’.

Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ’she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters, ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth. It is the pre-eminence of this truth, and the road to it, with a fearsome precipice on one hand and a views of perfect happiness on the other, which set the second crystallization so far above the first. The lover’s mind vacillates between three ideas: She is perfect. She loves me. How can I get the strongest possible proofs of her love.?

Since love casts doubt upon what seemed proven before, the woman who was so certain, before intimacy, that her lover was entirely above vulgar promiscuity, no sooner remembers that she has nothing left to refuse him than she trembles lest he has merely been adding another conquest to his list. Only at this point does second crystallization begin, and much more strongly, since it is now accompanied by fear.

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