The strongest traces of historical memory, as well as the manner in which these embers of the past are extinguished, can be found when one compares the dreams of successive generations. What one aspires to after all is shaped by the beliefs and expectations of those who came before us, and the reality of how one lives up to or fails to live up to those aspirations is what one bequeaths to the next generation. This question is particularly interesting to consider when one explores discusses generations that are divided by some kind of cataclysmic break, such as war or revolution, as borne out by a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
“… one must remember well that people who destroy an aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have seen its splendors and they have allowed themselves, without knowing it, to be pervaded with the sentiments and ideas that it had conceived. Therefore, at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved, its spirit still drifts over the mass, and its instincts are preserved long after it has been defeated.”
An earlier passage backs up this point when Tocqueville refers to how the French, even with all the turbulence and disruption caused by the revolution, found the courage and fortitude to fight off the united militaries of the European monarchies during the War of the First Coalition. But how long is it before the aristocratic spirit – and the pursuit of glory it inspires – dissipates and dreams of battlefield renown become viewed as a primitive and atavistic yearning, or the desire to create a work of art for the ages appears as quixotic as tilting at a windmill? The novels of Stendhal and Flaubert provide an interesting point of comparison for how drastically dreams and ambitions can contract from one generation to the next.
The Red and the Black is set during the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), which brought the Bourbon dynasty back on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena. Its protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter in the provinces. But he is obsessed with visions of Napoleonic glory and dreams of achieving fame in battle. His favorite reading is The Bulletins of the Grand Army, which reported on the actions of Napoleon’s forces and their enemies. Although he never fights in a single battle, Julien continually turns to military metaphors (conquest, siege, feint) when reflecting on his ambitions and the obstacles he encounters in fulfilling them. Although Julien wins a prized commission in the army from his future father-in-law, the shrewd and perspicacious Marquis de la Mole, as Allan Bloom notes, the novel portrays Julien as a bedroom warrior, defying injury and death to sneak around the houses of his lovers, rather than braving enemy fire as an officer of the hussars.
Sentimental Education takes place in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1848. The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, is young enough to be the son of Julien Sorel. But the differences between the two young men are dramatic. Where Julien is passionate, ambitious, and driven, never taking his eyes off his visions of glory or acting (or even thinking) in a manner contrary to his passions, Moreau is something of a schemer and dilettante. In the event that his passions run up against obstacles, he makes back-up plans, which also come to grief because of his inability to commit himself. When he finds himself rebuffed by Mme. Arnoux, the object of his passion, he initiates a relationship with the prostitute Rosannette. But the life he has with her provides no outlet for his ambition, so he becomes the lover of the cold and unscrupulous Mme. Dambreuse, who has a wealthy husband and whose support he hopes will catapult him to a position of fame and prestige. His ventures in politics prove just as fruitless and abortive. Attempting to gauge public opinion during a period of erratic political shifts, he gives speeches in which he attacks the rich and terrifies his wealthy sponsor. When Moreau presents himself as an earnest republican, voicing his support for a speech that calls for the state to seize the banks, abolish legacies, and create a fund for workers, the person giving the speech blasts him for having refused to fund a democratic newspaper in the past. The distracted and desultory nature of his personality, moreover, makes its impact felt on the level of narrative construction, which appears increasingly fractured, incomplete, and unresolved.
One of key differences between the two novels is that Moreau does not ever compare himself to historical models, whereas Julien is highly conscious of how the heroes he admires would look upon his actions. It is not only the image of Bonaparte that has evaporated by the time Moreau arrives in Paris from the provinces, but also that historical consciousness as such, which would have served as a vessel for the feelings, values, and thoughts of the old aristocracy, has largely dissipated. As René Girard puts it,
“Julien Sorel is followed by a whole crowd of young men who come, like him, to ‘conquer’ the capital. They are less talented but more greedy. Chances of success are not wanting but everybody wants the most ‘conspicuous’ position, and the front row can never be stretched far since it owes its position purely to the inevitably limited attention of the crowd. The number of those who are called increases constantly but the number of the elect does not. Flaubert’s ambitious man never attains the object of his desires. He knows neither the real misery nor the real despair caused by possession and disillusionment. He is doomed to bitterness, malice, and petty rivalries. Flaubert’s novel confirms Stendhal’s dire predictions on the future of the bourgeois” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 136).
As it stands, what Julien achieves in his short life far outweighs what Moreau accomplishes in his much longer one. Julien, after many hardships, wins the hand of the proud Mathilde de la Mole and a landed title, which he then hurls away to return to his hometown to shoot his former lover, Mme. de Rênal. In prison, Julien rediscovers his love for Mme. de Rênal and, as Girard has argued, arrives at a full understanding of his life and the lives of others. Even execution does not appear to be a terrible fate: “Death did not seem to him, in and of itself, horrible. His whole life had been nothing but a long preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (475). At the end of Sentimental Education, by contrast, Moreau also reunites with his true love, but then sends her on her way. Experience has worn out his ambitions and drained his hopes, rendering him apathetic. When he sees Mme. Arnoux, the problem of having to get rid of her later on, after sleeping with her, extinguishes the feeble remnants of his passion.
One of the key causes of the discrepancy between their levels of passion, vitality, and freedom, I think lies in their dreams. Julien has Napoleon and his Marshals towering over him. While he does not match their feats on the battlefield, their unparalleled example serves as a source of strength for his meteoric rise from the provinces to the exclusive circle of the Marquis de la Mole. Moreau has no such figures to spur him on, and while it is common in our age to explain his failures according to a lack of role models rather than to a deficiency of character, it is clear that the Moreau has grown up in a very different age. Whereas Sorel and his kin were social climbers dreaming of military glory, Moreau and his generation have as their “ideals” the social climbers themselves. They do not mistake dreams for reality, rather they fail to understand that their perspective rests on a dream, and is nourished by the dream.
Thinking about the rapid rise of South Korea from dire poverty of the postwar years to the wealth and affluence of the present brings me back to the works of these French novelists. I wonder whether we will see a similar dynamic playing out in the coming years. The generation that built the South Korean economy and won its freedom from military dictatorship has been called Korea’s “greatest generation.” But what does the future hold for their children? Will they become the Frédéric Moreaus to the elder generation’s Julien Sorels? I think in times of hardship and poverty, many Korean people found in themselves the determination and strength of purpose to overcome their circumstances and build a modern industrial economy. Of course, some failed, but many more reached deep within themselves to accomplish a goal that must have appeared impossibly remote a few decades ago. But when people have choices, and grow up in conditions of comfort, a large number of them, larger than those who did not survive the transition, fail or fall short in the occupations they’ve chosen. Necessity strengthens the will and fixes the mind, while choice weakens the will and distracts the mind, because failure becomes an option. This shift is perhaps no more than the movement of a historical cycle, and perhaps it is too risky to act pre-emptively to forestall changes that are probably inevitable. But one does have the obligation to speak before the thought itself is swept up into oblivion, when something otherwise can exist at least in the mind.