By Lisa Bensoussan,
Stendhal, the French author of the 19th century, is well-known for his literary works that explore the complexities of human emotion and relationships. One of his most intriguing concepts is that of “crystallization,” which he describes as the process by which a person’s infatuation with another individual intensifies and becomes idealized over time. This idea of crystallization has captured the imagination of literary scholars and readers alike and has been explored in numerous works of literature and film. In this article, we will delve into the history and origins of crystallization, its components, and an illustration. We will also examine the critiques of this theory and its relevance in contemporary literature. Through our analysis, we will uncover the profound insights into human nature that Stendhal’s concept of crystallization provides, and how it continues to inspire and inform literary works to this day.
Stendhal first introduced the concept of crystallization in his 1830 novel De l’Amour (On Love). As you probably guessed, crystallization is derived from the word “crystal”. Just as a crystal takes shape through the accumulation of atoms and molecules and ends up being dazzling, so too does the image of the beloved take shape through the accumulation of perceptions and experiences. Stendhal coined the term “crystallization” when he observed the effects of infatuation on a Bavarian officer who was becoming attracted to his friend, Madame Gherardi, whom Stendhal was accompanying in the Salzburg mines. The officer’s growing interest in Madame Gherardi caused him to see her in a highly romanticized and exaggerated way, which reminded Stendhal of the crystallization of salt on a branch Madame Gherardi was holding.
“Crystallization” thus captures both the gradual, transformative nature of love and the illusory vision of the loved one that can emerge from this process. Stendhal believed that this process occurred in several stages, beginning with the initial attraction and followed by a period of uncertainty and doubt, where the individual vacillates between hope and despair. Finally, the person enters a state of crystallization, where they put the object of their love on a pedestal and see them through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring any flaws or imperfections. He argued that crystallization was not simply a matter of seeing the positive qualities of the object of one’s affection, but rather a process of actively and unconsciously seeking out evidence to support the idealized image that the individual has created. Ultimately, love is a product of the imagination, crafted within the workshop of our minds. Sylvia Plath perfectly illustrates this image in one of her poems, “Mad Girl’s Love Song”, where she repeats multiple times “I think I made you up inside my head”.
Even though Stendhal’s concept of crystallization was inspired by his own experiences with love and relationships, he believed that this process was not limited to romantic love, but could also apply to other forms of affection and admiration. As he saw it as a natural and inevitable part of the human experience, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher picked up this theory again two centuries after him and confirmed it. Indeed, the biologist perceives crystallization as one of the three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems, in this case, attachment. According to her, attachment is driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner. However, Stendhal also recognized the danger of ennobling someone to the point of blindness to their faults. Indeed, he warned against becoming too attached to the glorified image of one’s beloved, as this could lead to disappointment and disillusionment if and when reality fails to live up to the ideal.
Nevertheless, the concept of crystallization has endured over time and has become a popular topic among literary and cultural circles, continuing to inspire contemporary writers, artists, and filmmakers to explore the complex and unpredictable nature of human emotion and relationships. In Sally Rooney’s literary work, which has been adapted into a TV series, Normal People, the author further explores the complexities of crystallization in the relationship between Marianne and Connell. This novel follows the relationship between Marianne and Connell, two Irish teenagers from different social classes. Throughout the novel, as the characters navigate their on-again, off-again relationship, they experience moments of intense idealization as well as disillusionment, just like “normal people”. After all, hasn’t everyone put someone on a pedestal only to be later disappointed by reality?
In conclusion, Stendhal’s concept of “crystallization” remains relevant and valuable in understanding the nature of human emotions and relationships, particularly in the context of romantic love. As the concept suggests, our initial attraction to someone is often based on an idealized vision or imagination of that person, which can lead to heightened infatuation and a distorted perception of their qualities. This idea of love being rooted in imagination rather than reality is an important aspect to consider when examining the complexities of relationships. By recognizing the influence of our own imagination and perceptions, we can approach love and relationships with greater awareness and empathy. The concept of “crystallization” thus serves as a reminder that love is multifaceted and can never be fully understood or predicted and that our perceptions of others are shaped by a complex interplay of internal and external factors.
- “Stendhal on the Seven Stages of Romance and Why We Fall Out of Love: Timeless Wisdom from 1822” by Maria Popova, themarginalian.org. Available here