This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, see our privacy statement

New Left Review 90, November-December 2014


AMBITION VS DUTY

We publish below two succinct essays from Il Romanzo, the five-volume survey of the novel as a form, edited by Franco Moretti and published by Einaudi between 2001 and 2003, which come from a section entitled ‘The Inner Landscape’, devoted to works of the nineteenth century exemplifying the new map of the passions. One of these, Rossana Rossanda on Dostoevsky’s Idiot as a rare representation of goodness in fiction, appeared in NLR 18. In this issue, Francesco Fiorentino and Enrica Villari address the two opposite values of ambition and duty, taking Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir as a classic of the first and George Eliot’s Middlemarch as one of the second. Texts of notable elegance, alone neither requires further introduction. In conjunction, however, they offer a pointed illustration of contrasts within the moral-political universe of French and English letters in the epoch after Waterloo. Stendhal’s admiration—never uncritical—for the figure of Napoleon, under whom he served in Russia, and detestation of the Restoration order, is explicit in the narrative of his novel. Less well-known are his trenchant views of English society, of which he drew up a systematic survey after the last of his three visits there, in 1826: still in the grip of a selfish aristocracy, a middle class impervious to any idea not connected to profit, labourers reduced to thinking machines, a culture saturated with the compulsions of work and religion—horrible tristesse de l’Angleterre, une vie pure de joie—whose pervasive idiom was cant. Eliot, when she helped edit the Westminster Review, with which Stendhal had connections in its Benthamite days, was a translator of David Strauss, of Feuerbach and Spinoza. But religious scepticism never became any kind of political radicalism: sharing Carlyle’s view of the French Revolution, fearful of mob violence in 1848, she refused even Mazzini as a dangerous conspirator. By the time of her great novels, she was a cautious conservative, warning working men not to get above themselves and declining any support for women’s suffrage. For her the figure of ambition was the unscrupulous intriguer who is the villain of Romola. Its antithesis was the modest sense of duty, freely chosen and best practised in private life, that becomes the moral of Middlemarch. It was a lesson congenial to Victorian society, where the Queen was among Eliot’s admirers. Enrica Villari ends her fine reflection on the novel with a passage from a French champion of Eliot’s vision of the world, counterposing it to that of Zola. The first critic to advance a Darwinian theory of literary evolution, Ferdinand Brunetière is today mainly remembered as a leading supporter of the verdict on Dreyfus.

francesco fiorentino

AMBITION

The Red and the Black

Ambition was long an object of disapproval, an occasion for shame. [1] This is a translation of ‘L’ambizione: Il rosso e il nero’, in Franco Moretti, ed., Il romanzo, vol. 1, Rome 2001. ‘We cannot pronounce the word “ambitious”’—wrote La Mothe Le Vayer in the mid-seventeenth century—‘without leaving a stain on the person of whom we speak, so unfailing is its negative implication.’ [2] François de La Mothe Le Vayer, Oeuvres: Vol. 2, Paris 1662, p. 88. As an ‘unruly passion for glory and fortune’ (so defined in Antoine Furetière’s dictionary of 1690), ambition was conceived as a form of concupiscence, not for worldly goods (like avarice) or sensual pleasures (like lust), but for power and what would have been called success. Its goal was being rather than having. It diverted attention from the one real good, since (again according to Furetière) ‘true ambition seeks only the reward of admission to heaven’. Any other kind was condemned by theologians and preachers, in keeping with express pronouncements in patristic literature and the Summa Theologica.

Subscribe for just £45 and get free access to the archive
Please login on the left to read more or buy the article for £3

Username:

Francesco Fiorentino, ‘Ambition’, NLR 90: £3
Password:
 



If you want to create a new NLR account please register here

’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’