Enter the Dark Inversion

It was directly related to that great convulsion in the European spirit which we associate with the rise of Romanticism and with such historic event as the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon.

This psychic upheaval was reflected in philosophy, music, painting and all the arts. But nowhere was its true nature revealed more tellingly than in a profoundly significant change which began to emerge at the time in the way writers conceived stories; and which has continued to have the most far-reaching effect on the way stories have been told in our modern world ever since.

The Ego Takes Over

Stories present to us what amounts to a kind of basic road-map of human nature and behavior, governed by an absolutely consistent set of rules and values.

These values, like the archetypal structures which shape stories, are programmed into our unconscious in a way we cannot modify or control. The essential message implicit in that programming is that the central goal of any human life is to achieve the state of perfect balance which we recognize as maturity, and how the central enemy in reaching that goal is our capacity to be held back by the deforming and ultimately self-destructive power of egocentricity.

Hero Archetype

Hero Archetype

The Hero as Egotist

One of the most famous novels of the Romantic era was Stendhal's The Scarlet and the Black (1830). The young hero, Julien Sorel, is on the verge of adult life, living at home with his father and brothers in an obscure French provincial town. Sorel is scorned and physically ill-treated by his practical, unimaginative family, not least for his reading of books.

But far from being kindly, Julien is consumed by malevolence, hugely ambitious and obsessed by Napoleon. He originally dreamed of joining the army, but realized that the Church would be a better road to power and position than soldiering. He announced his plan of becoming a priest, and centered his ambitions on beautiful Parisian women and the far-off city of Paris as a symbol of the Self.

Sorel has two attributes which enable him to triumph in social tests, striking good looks and phenomenal memory, which allows him to learn whole books by heart at ease. He learns the Latin New Testament and became tutor to the children of the mayor of the town. He wins the heart of the mayor's wife (an older woman) and begins an affair. (shows us the hero caught in a tie to "Mother', in a state of arrested inner development, having no real Mother in the story.) When it attracts embarrassing attention, he throws her over.

He leaves town for a seminary, seeing his contemporaries there in terms of rivalry and domination. He wangles an invitation to dinner with the bishop, visiting from Paris. He impresses the bishop by reciting lengthy passages from Horace, and earns a trip to Paris to become secretary for the most powerful man in France, the fabulously rich Marquis de la Mole.

So far we have seen how Sorel's fantasies center around three familiar aspects of the central goal--winning power and position, union with the opposite sex, and the idea of ultimate Self-realization--but only seen through the dark, inverting glass of his all-consuming egotism.

Unlike the fairy-tale hero who has usually lost a father, Sorel is without a mother. There is no feminine influence in his life at all.

Once in Paris, Julien wins the adoration of the Marquis's daughter, Mathilde (portrayed in terms of egocentric domination and subjection: 'you are my master', she tells him, 'reign over me forever'). She become pregnant and they decide to elope; the the Marquis relents and agrees to settle on them a huge income.

It seems all is set for a sickly and pasteboard 'happy ending', with Sorel united to his 'infantile anima' and destined to 'succeed to the kingdom' as the chosen heir to the Marquis's empire.

Then suddenly out of the past, disaster strikes. His discarded former mistress writes a letter to the Marquis, blackening his Sorel's character unmercifully. Enraged and frustrated, Sorel returns to his home town and attempts to shoot the vengeful 'Dark Mother' in church. Inevitably he is arrested and sent to the guillotine.

The story ends with an extraordinary funeral ceremony, celebrated by 20 priests in a cave high up in the mountain, lit by countless candles. A sorrowing Mathilde buries Sorel's severed head. Three days later the mayor's wife dies of grief.

Plunge to Destruction

This story is not like a conventional Tragedy. In its outward form it is much more like a Rags to Riches story which only switches abruptly to Tragedy in its closing scenes. Right from the start, Sorel is thoroughly ego-centered. He does not show any of the qualities necessary to bring the hero to a happy ending. He is a completely two-dimensional character, defined almost solely by his ruthless ambition.

Not for a moment is there any sign of that gradual inner transformation which marks out a proper Rags to Riches hero. Nor do we see him going through the dark inner transformation of a truly tragic figure either.

For nine-tenths of the story we see this cardboard creation going through all the outward motions of a successful climb from Rags to Riches: until suddenly the whole thing falls apart, and, like Icarus, he plunges to destruction.

A Projection of the Author's Ego

The Scarlet and the Black represented something almost entirely new in storytelling. Whereas earlier storytellers down the ages had imagined their stories in accordance with the values of the Self, here was an author quite consciously creating a hero to defy those values. Sorel was a projection of Stendhal's own egocentricity, as he identified with this hero's rivalry with all the world, and with his effortless climb up the social and sexual ladder.

Far from seeing his hero as a monster of egotism, in fact, Stendhal viewed him with the utmost sympathy. He saw him as the new, post-Napoleonic hero of humble birth, defying an oppressive class structure to battle his way upwards, in a world in which there were only the strong and the weak, and in which everyone was fundamentally, equally egotistical.
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