Stendhalian Interlude

I’m listening to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in the car, a wonderful

Farnese Tower, Castell'Arquato, Parma

Farnese Tower, Castell’Arquato, Parma

work of novelistic “realism” set in the early 19th century world of Italian city-state court life. Stendhal’s portrait of these small time courts is none too flattering, but neither is its chief alternative: “From the whole business one can derive this moral, that the man who mingles with a court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and, in any event, makes his future depend on the intrigues of a chambermaid. On the other hand in America, in the Republic, one has to spend the whole weary day paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the street, and must become as stupid as they are; and there, one has no Opera.”

The hero of the story, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a figure of perfect aristocratic early Romantic integrity–the sort of man who brashly leaves his suffocating palace life in Como to join the army of Napoleon, only to reach him right as the Battle of Waterloo is concluding. For Fabrizio, the only thing that matters is to get confirmation that he has actually participated in a battle–any battle–something about which he is never quite certain.

Since prisons and prison life (and even prison escape!) have been a subject of discussion here at the Center for Law and Religion Forum this past week, and since a large portion of the key section of The Charterhouse of Parma occurs in a prison (the Farnese Tower in Parma, at right), I thought the following was interesting. The prison warden, a General Fabio Conti, is a detestable person and fairly universally hated, including by many of the guards (to say nothing of the prisoners). At one point, it appears that he may have died by poisoning. But he revives. Yet rather than feeling crushed by the news, the prisoners sing his praises. Stendhal writes:

Fabio Conti was a jailer who was always uneasy, always unhappy, always seeing in his dreams one of his prisoners escaping: he was loathed by everyone in the citadel; but misfortune inspiring the same resolutions in all men, the poor prisoners, even those who were chained in dungeons three feet high, three feet wide and eight feet long, in which they could neither stand nor sit, all the prisoners, even these, I say, had the idea of ordering a  Te Deum to be sung at their own expense, when they knew that their governor was out of danger. Two or three of these wretches composed sonnets in honor of Fabio Conti. Oh, the effect of misery upon men! May he who would blame them be led by his destiny to spend a year in a cell three feet high, with eight ounces of bread a day and fasting on Fridays!

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