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How Does Love Crystallize? Stendhal Responds


Love, just like beauty, is one of the most fertile topics of literature, music, and art in general. –– A phenomenon we all aspire to, no matter how it’s manifested, and it is its own end. But, how is it exactly that love takes over us?

The French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, wrote On love, a treatise that attempts to rationalize the loftiest of human emotions and all its steps. The book was rediscovered due to a line in one of Susan Sontag’s diaries which read: “Nothing is mysterious, not any human relation. Except love.”

Stendhal begins by pointing the taxonomy of the four main types of love.

  1. Passionate Love.
  2. Mannered Love.
  3. Physical Love.
  4. Vanity-Love.


From there, in the chapter “On the birth of love,” Stendhal describes the process of feeling love. Here is one of the most visual and precise reflections on the stages of a romantic relationship. Stendhal introduces the metaphor of crystallization: a projection we tend to make upon our lover, which romanticizes and leads us to obsess over our particular versions of reality. The stages of love, according to Stendhal, are the following:


1. Admiration.

2. You think, ‘How delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her,’ and so on…

3. Hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure. Even the most reserved women blush to the whites of their eyes at this moment of hope. The passion is so strong, and the pleasure so sharp, that they betray themselves unmistakably.

4. Love is born. To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.

5. The first crystallization begins. If you are sure that a woman loves you, it is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from Heaven, unknown as yet, but certain to be yours.

Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen:

At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.

What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.

You hear a traveler speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her!


The phenomenon that I have called crystallization springs from Nature, which ordains that we shall feel pleasure and sends the blood to our heads. It also evolves from the feeling that the degree of pleasure is related to the perfections of the loved one, and from the idea that ‘She is mine.’

6. Doubt creeps in. First a dozen or so glances, or some other sequence of actions, raise and confirm the lover’s hopes. Then, as he recovers from the initial shock, he grows accustomed to his good fortune, or acts on a theory drawn from the common multitude of easily-won women. He asks for more positive proofs of affection and tries to press his suit further.

He is met with indifference, coldness, or even anger if he appears too confident. In France there is even a shade of irony which seems to say ‘You think you’re farther ahead than you really are.’ A woman may behave like this either because she is recovering from a moment of intoxication and obeying the dictates of modesty, which she may fear she has offended; or simply for the sake of prudence or coquetry.

The lover begins to be less sure of the good fortune he was anticipating and subjects his grounds for hope to a critical examination.

He tries to recoup by indulging in other pleasures but finds them inane. He is seized by the dread of a frightful calamity and now concentrates fully. Thus begins:

7. The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof that ‘she loves me.’

Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ‘she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters, ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth.

The lover’s mind vacillates between three ideas:

She is perfect.

She loves me.

How can I get the strongest possible proofs of her love?

The most heart-wrenching moment in love is the realization that you have been mistaken, and that a whole framework of crystals have to be destroyed. You begin to feel doubtful about your entire process of crystallization.

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