What is the source of wisdom?
We are not born understanding thermodynamics or quantum mechanics, nor are we skilled innately to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 or to perform spinal surgery. The knowledge required for such undertakings comes from long years committed to education and training.
But what are the intellectual requirements for offering insights into the deepest human mysteries? Do “highbrow” and “lowbrow” matter when the subject is the meaning of love?
I would argue not, and I would offer into evidence the testimony of two witnesses to support my case.
Born in Grenoble in 1783, Stendhal grew up in an affluent and cultured home. His father was a barrister in the local high court of justice. As a student he excelled in literature and mathematics. In 1799 he left Grenoble for Paris, ostensibly to prepare for the entrance examination to the École Polytechnique. In fact, he hoped to pursue a career as a playwright. Stendhal’s literary ambitions were diverted by the Napoleonic wars. Through family connections, he received a military commission and held a number of administrative posts in Germany and Austria. He followed the Grande Armée into Russia, watched Moscow burn, and nearly lost his life in the retreat.
After Napoleon’s fall, Stendhal settled in Italy and became part of the fashionable intelligentsia in Milan. He published works on art and music, and carried on numerous romantic affairs, though the chief object of his desire, Métilde Dembowski Viscontini, rejected him, a loss that haunted him for the rest of his life. (Métilde was married to a Polish officer, 30 years her senior, at the time.)
In 1821, he returned to Paris where he wrote On Love, his attempt to rationalize that most enigmatic of human emotions. He analyzes love in stages, explaining: “This is what takes place in the soul.”
We’ll return to Stendhal presently.
My next witness is Dolores “LaLa” Brooks. Her background differs from Stendhal’s.
LaLa Brooks was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1947, the second youngest of eleven children. She sang in her church choir. At the age of 13, she was discovered by the mother of one of the members of the Crystals, a girl band, and invited to join. The other two band members were 15 and 18. They needed a replacement for their lead singer, who had gotten pregnant.
In 1963, when LaLa was 15, the Crystals recorded Then He Kissed Me, a song produced by Phil Spector, creator of the Wall of Sound musical technique. Then He Kissed Me was a success, peaking at Number 6 single in the U.S., and Number 2 in the United Kingdom. It has remained popular through the years. In 2006, Pitchfork Media rated it Number 18 of the 200 greatest songs of the 60s, describing it as “some of the sweetest minutes in all of pop music.”
For older readers remembering, and younger readers discovering, here is LaLa Brooks and the Crytals singing Then He Kissed Me 50 years ago.
Stendhal and LaLa Brooks expressed their views on love in different eras, from the perspectives of different worlds. It is doubtful whether the songwriters — Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry – consulted Stendhal when they worked on the lyrics. But compare them, and witness the universality of love.
Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance.
He looked kinda nice and so I said I might take a chance.
In the first three stages of love for Stendhal, the adventurer feels a tingling sense of admiration, and wonders what it would be like to kiss and be kissed. She (I am changing the pronoun gender since Stendhal wrote from a male perspective) studies the perfections of the object of her admiration.
When he danced he held me tight
And when he walked me home that night
All the stars were shining bright
And then he kissed me.
In the fourth stage of love, Stendhal’s adventurer feels “pleasure in seeing, touching, feeling, through all the senses and as near as possible, an object to be loved and that loves” her. And, yes, for Stendhal, no less than for the Crystals, the stars play their role: “Love resembles what we call the Milky Way in heaven, a gleaming mass formed by thousands of little stars, each of which may be a nebula.”
Each time I saw him I couldn’t wait to see him again.
I wanted to let him know that he was more than a friend.
This is Stendhal’s fifth stage, what he terms the “crystallization.” (Perhaps he did foresee the Crystals.) “The lover delights in decking with a thousand perfections the man of whose love she is sure: she dwells on all the details of his happiness with a satisfaction that is boundless.”
I didn’t know just what to do…
Stendhal calls his sixth stage “the birth of doubt.” The lover is racked with worry and insecurity. Perhaps, she frets, she has shown too much assurance. She worries that she will be told: “You are not quite as far as you think.”
So I whispered I love you.
And he said that he loved me too
And then he kissed me.
He kissed me in a way that I’ve never been kissed before,
He kissed me in a way that I wanna be kissed forever more.
The seventh stage is Stendhal’s “second crystallization, which forms diamonds out of the proofs of the idea—‘he loves me.’” The lover, now given proof of his love, “discovers new charms” in her beloved, and, in her rapture, “her heart forgets to beat.”
I knew that he was mine so I gave him all the love that I had
And one day he took me home to meet his mom and his dad.
Then he asked me to be his bride
And always be right by his side.
I felt so happy I almost cried
And then he kissed me.
The Crystals, in the sweet innocence of their era, when “bitches” were female dogs and “ho’s” were farming implements, knew that physical love should follow, not precede, total emotional commitment. LaLa Brooks was not about to give all the love that she had until she was assured that he is hers. Now Stendhal, in his personal life, was a notorious womanizer, who suffered horribly from syphilis in his final years. It is doubtful whether he was ever invited home to meet his lovers’ mères et des pères. But in his writing on romantic love, he agreed with LaLa Brooks that physical love is the final, late step toward fulfillment: “In passion-love intimate intercourse is not so much perfect delight itself, as the last step towards it.”
I’m about to rest my case. Stendhal may be the subject of PhD dissertations in Romantic Literature Departments. The Crystals may be the subject of the Golden Oldies collections of aging yuppies. But in their exploratory ventures into the mysteries of love, Stendhal and LaLa Brooks met at the same junctures, and uncovered the same treasures.
I hear an objection. Classic works such as Stendhal’s De L’Amour, critics say, will live on forever, while cotton candy singles like Then He Kissed Me may be sweet for an hour but they offer no lasting value or substance.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. You judge.
Here is LaLa Brown singing Then He Kissed Me in September 2013, fifty years after her original performance. There are no surviving videos of that 1963 recording, so we can only imagine what she looked like then. But listen to her voice and watch her face half a century later. She is timelessly wise and innocent.
You feel so happy you’ll almost cry.