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September 14, 2000

   Wild with Ambition


It takes me a while to get up to speed in the morning. A bowl of Quaker Oats; a stiff cup of coffee; a browse through the New York Post (America's Newspaper of Record); walk the dog … I need a good square hour before I can face the world and its challenges. This morning, however, my leisurely, aristocratic progress to full wakefulness was suddenly accelerated by a piece on page 29 of the Post: an account of Al Gore's televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. VPOTUS was asked the obligatory questions about his preferences in music, food and so on, and he gave the usual kinds of answers: a careful mix of populism and thoughtfulness, with a dash of endearing eccentricity and a touch — just a touch! — of the intellectual. In the course of this, and probably in the service of that last requirement, Mr. Gore's declared his favorite book to be The Red and the Black. My eyes popped; I was wide awake.

If you haven't read it, Stendhal's The Red and the Black is a novel about provincial life in France on the eve of the 1830 revolution, in which the reactionary rule of the Bourbons was replaced by a bourgeois constitutional monarchy. The hero, Julien Sorel, is a clever peasant boy who has nothing but contempt for the world he finds himself in — a world ruled by money and convention, a world that despises cleverness and originality of thought. With perfect cynicism, Sorel enters the Church, this being the fastest way he sees to advance himself in the world. He falls in love with one woman but is betrayed by another, whom he then attempts unsuccessfully to kill while she is at prayer in the town church. The novel ends with Sorel's execution, which he refuses, on grounds of what we should nowadays call "authenticity," to do anything to prevent. Sorel's ambition is of the all-or-nothing sort; he intends to rise to the summits or plunge to the depths, but at any rate to avoid the stultifying, compromising, humdrum middle part of the world.

Sorel is not a particularly unattractive character (though of course he ought to be — that is the novelist's genius). He is, as the author says, "wild with ambition, but not with vanity." Looking on him from a hundred and seventy years on, it is tempting to see him as prefiguring the alienated superman/outsider now so drearily familiar to us. That is how most people read him nowadays, I suspect, and that accounts for his great popularity with adolescents of an intellectual tendency, who feel that they themselves are clever and original in a world of dull conformity — a world in which they must none the less make their way somehow. Nothing is more attractive to bookish youngsters than the fearless, reductionist honesty with which Sorel confronts himself and his world, denying God or any higher purposes, with the exception only of romantic love. The Red and the Black is one of those books you feel very differently about at forty than you did at twenty — unless, of course, you are a permanent adolescent.

In fact, Stendhal's creation is the product of a much simpler time than ours, and he cannot be taken as seriously as the more fully-formed étrangers of the 20th century. The ruthlessness of Sorel's ambition is not offensive to the reader because it has not the scope to do great harm. There is something a bit comical about it; something endearingly human, too. A bit too endearingly for Vladimir Nabokov, who referred to Stendhal's works as "fiction for chambermaids," by which he meant that they were too transparently manipulative of the reader's emotions and expectations. The case for the defense was put by George Orwell, who of course went straight to the book's social point. The novel's core theme, Orwell says, "is class hatred. … As a poor hanger-on in aristocratic families, [Sorel] loathes from the bottom of his heart the snobbish halfwits who surround him. But what gives the book its tone is that his hatred is mixed up with envy, as it would be in real life, of course." (Has anybody ever deployed that inoffensive little phrase "of course" as lethally as Orwell?)

I don't know how seriously we should take our Vice President's claim to be a Stendhalist, or a Sorellian, or whatever it is he wants to tell us he is. Most likely what he wants to tell us is: "I'm a guy who reads heavy French novels." It would be dismally unsurprising to discover, if one could discover it, that Gore had never heard the name Stendhal until the pre-Oprah prep meeting with his minders and media people. "Authenticity" is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when this man pops up on one's TV screen. (The first thing that comes to my mind is to wonder which voice he will be using today: the earnest New Englandish tones of the policy wonk, the tent-meeting revivalist cadences of Populist Al, the wassup-bro faux blackness of Civil Rights Al, …)

These pols all feel obliged to make some claim to literary sensibility — heaven knows why, the literary-sensibility vote can't amount to much compared with, say, the hip-hop-sensibility vote. Bill Clinton, I recall, professed an affinity for Marcus Aurelius back in '92, when it was still possible to believe that he might be telling the truth about anything at all. I confess this unnerved me at the time — a philosopher-emperor! what were we heading for? — but of course it was just something that floated into his head, to be forgotten ten seconds later. (Though the old Stoic had a kind of revenge: the Clinton presidency has indeed been, as Aurelius said of life, more wrestling than dancing.) Perhaps this is another of the same. Perhaps it was being in the presence of Ms. Winfrey that prompted Al to think he should make some claim to bookishness; that lady has been running her own book club for a couple of years now, concentrating — I am relying on my own not-very-retentive memory here — on books about men being beastly to women, or white folk being beastly to black folk, in small southern towns.

Or perhaps it was sincere. Perhaps the Vice President really does see himself as an outsider, a clever boy who must practise hypocrisy to get ahead in a world of dullards, a Nietzschean hero who can turn the world upside-down by the sheer force of his indomitable will, who must either scale the heights or fall into the abyss, but who can never be content in any middle sphere. Is it possible that beneath that robotic exterior beats a heart of existentialist self-awareness, waiting to stun and astound us with audacious deeds? The Red and the Black:  "What great action is not 'extreme' at the moment it is undertaken? It is not until it has been carried out that ordinary people believe it possible." This doesn't bear thinking about. Let us hope that Al Gore is no more than the pedestrian poseur we have all along been taking him for.