Stendhal’s romanticism has been described by Erich Auerbach in terms of “atmosphere,” a unifying relation of place, person, and time that we find in the works of Walter Scott and the medievalism of Coleridge and Keats; it is in fact a new conception of history, a sense that different peoples breath different atmospheres and are formed by the air that they breathe. Describing Balzac, with
The same intellectual attitude–namely romanticism–which first felt the atmospheric unity-of-style of earlier periods so strongly and so sensorily, which discovered the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as well as the historical idiosyncrasy of foreign cultures (Spain, the Orient)–this same intellectual attitude also developed organic comprehension of the atmospheric uniqueness of its own period in all its manifold forms. Atmospheric Historism and atmospheric realism are closely connected; Michelet and Balzac are borne on the same stream. The events which occurred in France between 1789 and 1815, and their effects during the next decades, caused modern contemporaneous realism to develop first and most strongly there, and its political and cultural unity gave France, in this respect, a long start over Germany; French reality, in all its multifariousness, could be comprehended as a whole. Another romantic current which contributed, no less than did romantic penetration into the total atmosphere of a milieu, to the development of modern realism, was the mixture of styles to which we have so often referred; this made it possible for characters of any station, with all the practical everyday complications of their lives–Julien Sorel as well as old Goriot or Madame Vauquer–to become the subject of serious literary representation (473-4).
Auerbach’s is a essential account of Romanticism and historical awareness; Stendhal is an inventor of the current. But there is something crucially different in Stendhal’s Romanticism, which is captured in Christopher Ricks’ remarking: “one could suggest that in the end Byron was precluded from being as great a writer as his contemporary Stendhal because Byron’s language and culture made it perilously easy for him to treat as mere affectation certain matters–or certain styles–of embarrassability or unembarrassability about which Stendhal was obliged to be in deadly earnest.” (Keats and Embarrassment). Stendhal too treats as affectation certain matters and styles–but it is almost always, for Stendhal, the affectations of self-presentation, and the reasons that characters provide for justifying their actions, their lives’ arcs. These reasons he finds not patently false, and not even necessarily self-deceptive, but instead flimsily contingent, nests in which lives play out, composed of the detritus of popular opinion, memories of earlier generations, voguish reading, and varyingly bogus histories of institutions, nations, and roles to which people aspire. They are affectations of motive, self-justification, action, and belief, which have in common the atmosphere that is the junk heap of history upon which people live and vie for status. Byron, at his best in Don Juan, can perceive much the same, albeit with less of a sense of the depth and solidity that the heap provides: it’s a solid ground on which Stendhal’s characters stand. But what Stendhal does imagine with “deadly earnest” are the feelings of his characters as they go about living; their passions, humiliations, embarrassments are no entirely real for him, and entirely situated, not in some pristine inner world or transcendent dimension of emotion, but on the junk heap also. They are feelings that are always socially and historically known and realized, that could not be known and realized another way, but that are real, intensely real, nonetheless. Even when they are born out of affectations, and presented or concealed by further affectation, they are not affected themselves. They provide the raw nerves of shame, humor, and pity that run through Stendhal’s prose.