Pastiche of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

For a class I took my last term of college, I wrote pastiches of three different French authors—Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust—all depicting undergraduate life at Caltech. I set out to answer the question, approximately “What do the lenses these artists provide tell us about science in the twenty-first century?” I’m publishing them here with commentary at the end of each pastiche targeted at readers with no familiarity with French literature. This post is the first in a series of three.

The Safety of Mathematics

“It may be vacuous, but at least it’s self consistent!” – Hugh Everett

—The only rational pursuit in life is the accumulation of wealth, said Liam. From a position of economic power, one can reshape the world according to his values, and can truly make positive change.

Liam had gotten this naive notion from his reading of HPMoR and from Peter Singer, and to him it seemed to descend so directly from irrefutable axioms that he was astonished when his listener didn’t immediately agree.

His listener was Emilia Bowman, a junior planetary science major, who like many Techers took very little care in her physical appearance, but who was still quite pretty. Up until this instant, she had been listening to Liam with bored indifference—mingling with the new frosh was one of her duties as an upperclassman, but not one that she particularly enjoyed. But Liam’s pronouncement intrigued her. For Techers, any idea that cannot be phrased in terms of a concretely testable hypothesis is not worth discussing. The lounges of the Caltech Houses are full of mathematical and scientific facts, but devoid of moral and political discussion, thus protecting the Techers from the embarrassment of being wrong if the pendulum of the moral majority swings too far one way or another: The culture of scientific inquiry is abstracted beyond the concerns of politics. This abstraction provides safety, but people like Emilia are bored by intellectual safety. Without fully understanding why, Emilia found herself feeling alert, and she removed her hands from her pockets to drum her fingers against the palm tree under which she and Liam sat.

A few weeks at Caltech had caused Liam to forget to be suspicious of his peers. In Georgia, he had needed to pretend that dinosaurs coexisted with men just to graduate high school, and arriving at Caltech he was full of fear of ostracization and ridicule for being poor, and for being from the South. But upon discovering that Techers were kind, and were eager to talk about evolution and sex and atheism and myriad other topics that had been taboo, Liam found himself shedding years of practiced constraint. It was because of this newfound liberation that Liam mistook Emilia’s amused smile for encouragement, and he began gesticulating and speaking animatedly of utility, late capitalism, and John McAfee.

Emilia listened to Liam’s testimonial with ironical pleasure. His ideas were patently absurd, but she found the conviction with which he expressed them charming. It takes a certain type of bravery to risk being wrong, she thought to herself. And I have to admit this frosh is exceptionally good-looking. The hunger evident in Liam’s eyes when he talked of vast riches might have scared her coming from an older man, but his expression’s stark contrast with his youthful femininity instead produced in her a cute effect, like a lion cub play-pouncing on a mouse that induces one to forget that it will someday grow into a formidable beast.

Emilia needled Liam with questions, which he answered with eloquence, and pleased with his own eloquence he talked faster and faster and with more and more confidence, until Emilia, abandoning her usual reticence on political questions felt herself taken over by the thrill of academic discourse. She began sharing with Liam her own political observations. Small indiscrepancies in her world view, unaddressed for years, now came to light, and she began formulating new theories with the clarity of thought that only comes in those rare instances when we forget to consider how our opinions might be received.

—For my SURF the summer after my frosh year, she said (and here she allowed herself to be sidetracked by the specifics of her research, but I will not subject the reader to the tedium of novel scientific inquiry). …And so there I was doing shots with these professors, on my right hand side a woman who had recently gotten tenure for her work on rocket propulsion, on my left this guy who was still only an adjunct professor, but he was also making six figures as a part time analyst for a mining company.

—What’s wrong with that? asked Liam, unsure of the source of the horrified tone Emilia had adopted.

—What’s wrong with it? Nothing necessarily. It all depends on your political outlook. What disturbs me is the willful ignorance. Rocket propulsion. Rocket propulsion! She thought she was propelling us to the space age.

—Her research is being weaponized! cried Liam with sudden comprehension.

—Exactly. And look. I’m agnostic on pacifism, Emilia said as if discovering her words for the first time as she pronounced them; like, of course sometimes violence is justified. And exactly when and where is a difficult question. I wouldn’t fault the professor for having a different view on that than I do. What I fault her for is her willful ignorance. Like. What do you think the death toll was of the people present at this party? Do you think any of them thought they’d killed even one person? Of course the thought of responsibility┬ánever crossed their minds. They just follow the career path laid out for them. They study whatever subject attracts money and prestige. That’s the nature of modern violence. It’s abstracted beyond recognition. Murder is committed without the perpetrator even being aware.

Liam was deeply moved by this story, and found himself uncertain of how to verbalize the impression Emilia had formed in him. Staring into Emilia’s brown eyes, he felt a tear run down the side of his nose, and made no effort to conceal it. It is completely appropriate, he thought, that I feel such pain at this unknowing element of warfare and oppression.

—When one commits crimes it should be done with enjoyment, said Liam, finally breaking the silence. The power a hitman feels when he fires at his target at least slightly redeems the murder.

—Exactly, said Emilia; we’re so insulated here in urban America. We benefit from war without feeling the euphoria and despair of that kind of commitment to an idea or to a people or to a homeland, or to…whatever else wars are fought for. How can we know whether a war is worth fighting when we can’t feel the cost? How can we feel the depth of commitment needed for combat without being forced to make those life-or-death decisions?

—We’re cowards! said Liam. All of us are cowards. We live in fear of responsibility and so we experience a muted existence. This is just what I was saying earlier about the global poor. We can forget our ideals and live comfortable lives; or we can work hard, earn to give, and become powerful enough to really make a difference.

And so it was that these two managed to spend hours intellectually invigorated and deeply moved by each other’s company, and it wasn’t until 3 am that Emilia had to depart, saying with sincere regret that she needed to get some sleep before her 9 am class the next morning.

—Well, it was nice to meet you, said Liam. And he cursed himself for his sudden awkwardness. He found that he had placed his hand on her bare arm, and warm tendrils climbed up his wrist from where their skin touched. Overwhelmed by the power of the sensation, he quickly removed his hand. He hoped that it was too dark for her to see the flushing of his face. Well. Good night. Sleep well, he added, hoping to distract her from what had just transpired.

—Good night. Nice to meet you too, Emilia smiled, somewhat touched by the frosh’s stilted politeness. She slept soundly that night. The relief after having synthesized certain ideas that she hadn’t even realized were lying dormant inside her gave her a peace of mind she had not experienced in years. The thought of romance did not cross her mind because she had never before imagined that a twenty-year-old woman might develop feelings for an awkward kid of just eighteen. To her Liam was simply a person whose company she very much enjoyed, and to whom she hoped to speak again very soon.

Liam on the other hand, hardly slept at all. Within minutes of lying down, he felt that heaviness in his stomach that we experience when we’ve spoken too quickly and too honestly, when we’ve exposed our innermost selves to the judgments of other people. He mentally cataloged everything he had said, and noted now in the deafening silence of his dorm room all the little inconsistencies in his logic, and all the ineligancies of his phrases. Without an audience, comments on which he had congratulated himself at the time sounded vapid and trite. And worse, Emilia had struck him with her quick wit and profound intelligence. She must have been aware of all his logical and rhetorical missteps, and now was probably laughing about him with her upper middle class Californian friends. He even went so far as to doubt her sincerity: She made too much eye contact; she spoke too loudly, her speech was too rushed. She had said repeatedly that Techers didn’t talk about politics. How could he have missed such an unsubtle hint? Was she making a mockery of him by imitating his mannerisms?

But then again, what if she was sincere? he wondered, and images of his lips pressed against Emilia’s cheek rushed unbidden to his mind. The girls in Georgia, convinced by the church that substantive conversation was unbecoming, had never engaged with him, so these feelings, usually first experienced at a much younger age, were completely new. What pure perfection, in her smile, in her eyes, he thought, sighing.

—I have never in my life met anyone so intelligent and so eloquent, whispered Liam to himself. And for a moment he experienced the pure bliss of fantasy. But then the impossibility of such a creature reciprocating his feelings tumbled him into despair. After all, he thought I’m only a poor frosh with a weird accent, and she’s probably got all sorts of high-value guys hitting on her constantly. And now with Emilia’s imagined rejection tied to his low status he became angry. What do they have that I don’t? Inheritance and a couple years of experience? And he pictured the ASCIT president or the IHC chair kneeling before Emilia with a bouquet of roses. They wouldn’t feel compelled to remove their hands from her arm. Why should I be so embarrassed when I touch a girl? And Liam felt that to prove his worth, he should earn his right to touch Emilia without withdrawing. He resolved to seduce her starting the following day.

The work this scene imitates, The Red and the Black, was published in 1830, during France’s protracted transition from a feudal mercantilist state with government legitimized by divine right to a representative capitalist state with government legitimized by liberal ideals like democracy and freedom. Although himself anti-feudal, Stendhal is more interested in critiquing the liberal project than in exploring the mechanisms of feudal oppression. The novel is concerned with the ways that newer more abstract means of violence and control rob the individual of sincere experience, and with how the new social hierarchy corrupts idealistic personal endeavor into serving the ends of powerful people.

In my pastiche, two young college students attempt to seriously consider the question of personal responsibility in a world of abstract violence and control. Liam takes a naive version of the Effective Altruist perspective and is concerned about all the good he could fail to do if he doesn’t reach his full potential. Emilia takes a more anarchist view and is concerned about all the evil she could accidentally do if she’s not actively aware of the consequences of her actions. My goal with this piece was to expose the tension and synergy between these points of view. In a world where individuals can acquire absurd levels of personal power, when thinking seriously about the question of personal moral responsibility, we have to both consider our potential philanthropy and the obscure ways that our careers strengthen a social system based on exploitation, violence, and oppression. As foreshadowed, but not explored in this pastiche, neither Emilia nor Liam can maintain the kind of honesty they achieve in this scene in a world in which success necessitates unquestioning dedication to specialized research. If this passage were to continue into a longer work, Liam, who is held to the same incentives as everyone else, would be forced to subdue his qualms and choose fields with money and prestige, thereby betraying the ideals he claims to hold in his pursuit of philanthropic potential.

Liam is based on the main character of The Red and the Black, an ambitious and talented young peasant named Julien Sorel. Julien’s political views, (expressed almost entirely by reference to political thinkers) are a hodgepodge of incompatible left-of-feudal views—he supports both military dictatorship and liberal democracy. Liam’s political views come from friends who remind me of Julien Sorel, and they were not chosen as a coherent set, but rather as a set that I have seen coexisting in individuals and in communities. Liam’s personal failings, therefore, are not intended as a criticism of any coherent set of ideas, but as an exploration of how these ideas function in imperfect form. Ideas don’t exist in idealized intellectual spaces; they exist in the ecosystem of collective human consciousness, and in addition to engaging with the best and most philosophically nuanced version of an idea, it is important to explore its common mutations.

This brings us to the romantic aspect of the scene. In The Red and the Black, Napoleon’s worldview is constantly turning up where it clearly does not belong. Julien falls in love with an older woman and engages on a foolish Napoleonic quest to hold her hand. Similarly, Liam cannot maintain a sincere relationship with another person, as his social thoughts are corrupted by the language of capitalist value. Stendhal’s lens provides clarity to the surprising overlap between the deeply compassionate Effective Altruist community and the deeply hateful The Red Pill community. Political idealism and interpersonal dehumanization are two sides of the same coin, as political and economic language infects our most deeply human experiences and prevents us from engaging naturally with other people.

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