Sunday, March 29, 2009

Flaubert & Modern Realism

In my last posting, I showed you a remarkable analysis of some lines from Madame Bovary. It is the work of the great German philologist, Erich Auerbach, who goes on to characterize Flaubert's style--a style that he, Flaubert, invented precisely to serve the purposes of modern realism--in the following paragraph:

In Stendhal and Balzac we frequently and indeed almost constantly hear what the writer thinks of his characters and events; sometimes Balzac accompanies his narrative with a running commentary--emotional or ironic or ethical or historical or economic. We also frequently what the characters themselves think and feel, and often in such a manner that, in the passage concerned, the writer identifies himself with the character. Both these things are almost wholly absent from Flaubert’s work. His opinion of his characters and events remains unspoken; and when the characters express themselves it is never in such a manner that the writer identifies himself with their opinion, or seeks to make the reader identify himself with it. We hear the writer speak; but he expresses no opinion and makes no comment. His role is limited to selecting the events and translating them into language; and this is done in the conviction that every event, if one is able to express it purely and completely, interprets itself and the persons involved in it far better and more completely than any opinion or judgment appended to it could do. Upon this conviction--that is, upon a profound faith in the truth of language responsibly, candidly, and carefully employed--Flaubert’s artistic practice rests.

You can't write that way without imposing on yourself the strictest discipline. Flaubert showed the way, and some of the finest writers of the 20th century followed him: T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, for instance.

In Preludes and The Wasteland, for instance, the poet disappears, becomes an invisible presence. Things, places, events seem to speak for themselves. That is an achievement of style.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Madame Bovary (1859)

The subtitle of the book I quoted from in my last posting, Mimesis(1946) by Erich Auerbach, is "The Representation of Reality in Western Literature." This great and famous book is not (I suspect) as well known as it should be. I know of no other that is even remotely like it.

What does Auerbach mean by 'representation'? 'Mimesis' is the ancient Greek word for 'imitation.' It is the word that Aristotle uses in his Poetics when he says that epic poetry, tragedy, comedy and music are forms of imitation. We needn't concern ourselves here with trying to understand what Aristotle meant by 'imitation'(I don't mean to imply that I do); 'representation' is how Auerbach understands it and that's good enough.

How, Auerbach asks, does literature 'represent' (or 'reflect'?) reality? What can we infer about a writer's world from his or her use of the available stylistic and rhetorical resources? What can we infer from a particular style about how the writer understands the world? Or thinks the reader ought to understand the world? These questions are crude, abstract; I'd do better if I showed you an actual case-study: Flaubert's' novel of 1859, Madame Bovary as a triumph of pure style. And I do mean 'pure': it's as if the narrator, the author, had disapeared and the facts were speaking for themselves. This ideally pure style became the goal of several generations of future writers, including Eliot and Hemingway.

Here are few lines from Madame Bovary , part 1, chapter 9, with analysis and commentary by Auerbach. (If you are not already familiar with this novel, Emma Bovary is a beautiful, charming and rather shallow young woman, recently married to a decent but dull young small-town doctor. Her mind, such as it is, has been formed by a steady diet of early 19th century pulp-fiction, highly 'romantic' stuff, not exactly bodice-rippers, but moving in that direction. Finding that her life is not the least bit romantic, she is not only bored but revolted by her husband, her surroundings, her life, everything.)

But it was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow, would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her table-knife.

The paragraph presents a picture--man and wife together at mealtime. But the picture is not presented in and for itself; it is subordinated to the dominant subject, Emma's despair. Hence it is not put before the reader directly: here the two sit at table--there the reader stands watching them. Instead, the reader first sees Emma...and he sees the picture first through her; directly, he sees only Emma's inner state; he sees what goes on at the meal indirectly, from within her state, in the light of her perception. The first words of the paragraph, "But it was above all at mealtimes..." state the theme and all that follows is but a development of it. Not only are the phrases dependent on the prepositions "in" and "with", which define the physical scene, a commentary on "she could bear it no longer" in their piling up of the individual elements of discomfort, but the following clause too, which tell of the distaste aroused in her by the food, accords with the principal purpose both in sense and rhythm. When we read further, "Charles was a slow eater," this, though grammatically a new sentence and rhythmically a new movement, is still only a resumption, a variation, of the principal theme; not until we come to the contrast between his leisurely eating and her disgust and to the nervous gestures of her despair, which are described immediately afterward, does the sentence acquire its true significance. The husband, unconcernedly eating, becomes ludicrous and almost ghastly; when Emma looks at him and sees him sitting there eating, he becomes the actual cause of her boredom and despair; because everything else that arouses her desperation--the gloomy room, the commonplace food, the lack of a tablecloth, the hopelessness of it all--appears to her, and through her to the reader also, as something that is connected with him, that emanates from him, and that would be entirely different if he were different from what he is.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Politics of Boredom in THE RED AND THE BLACK by Stendhal

Boredom makes its first appearance (in the West) in Stendhal's novel The Red And The Black (1830). Having quoted the passage in which the hero, Julien Sorel, complains of being bored out of his mind, Erich Auerbach (Mimesis, 1946) comments as follows:

The boredom which reigns in the dining room and salon of this noble house is no ordinary boredom. It does not arise from the fortuitous personal dullness of the people who are brought together there; among them there are highly educated, witty, and sometimes important people, and the master of the house is intelligent and amiable. Rather, we are confronted, in their boredom, by a phenomenon politically and ideologically characteristic of the Restoration period. In the seventeenth century, and even more in the eighteenth, the corresponding salons were anything but boring. But the inadequately implemented attempt which the Bourbon regime made to restore conditions long since made obsolete by events, creates among its adherents in the official and ruling classes, an atmosphere of pure convention, of limitation, of constraint and lack of freedom, against which the intelligence and good will of the persons involved are powerless. In these salons the things which interest everyone--the political and religious problems of the present, and consequently most of the subjects of its literature or that of the recent past--could not be discussed, or at best could be discussed only in official phrases so mendacious that a man of taste and tact would rather avoid them. How different from the intellectual daring of the famous eighteenth-century salons, which to be sure did not dream of the dangers to their own existence which they were unleashing! Now the dangers are known, and life is governed by the fear that the catastrophe of 1793 might be repeated. As these people are conscious that they no longer themselves believe in the thing they represent, and that they are bound to be defeated in any public argument, they choose to talk of nothing but the weather, music, and court gossip. In addition, they are obliged to accept as allies snobbish and corrupt people from among the newly rich bourgeoisie, who, with the unashamed baseness of their ambition and with their fear for their ill-gotten wealth, completely vitiate the atmosphere of society. So much for the pervading boredom.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


First, in the 15th century, there was the adjective 'tedious' from the latin 'taedium' (weariness, disgust). Lydgate uses it apologetically, (I quote, loosely, "I won't say anymore about her sorrow lest it prove tedious...") and Tindale uses it the same way in translating Acts, 24.4: "Lest I be tedeous unto thee . . .". Some of the citations in OED are amusing: Tillotson, in one of his sermons (1694)says, "I may be tedious but I will not be long." And in J. Mitford's Letters and Reminiscences (1845): "Johnstone ain't a drinking man nor a wife-beater, but he makes her a tedious husband." The word has also taken on, as early as 1509 the sense of our modern word 'boring' ("so when the father is tedious and old." It wasn't until 1692 that the abstraction, 'tedium', began to appear. That word sufficed until 1852, when Dickens in a stroke of his usual genius not only coined the word 'boredom' but identified it as a 'malady' (in Bleak House 2.28.253). But that word didn't appear out of nowhere; before there was boredom there was the noun (roughly the same as 'ennui') and verb 'bore' which appear more or less simultaneously and unacountably out nowhere around 1750--"etymology unknown" says the OED. The first person to be 'bored' was Byron who remarks in Don Juan (1823) that "Society is now one polished horde,/ Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored." The word 'boring' (i.e. the practise of annoying or wearying others) didn't show up until 1868 when it was identified as a "fine art."

Why wasn't the English languaage content to make do with the French word 'ennui'? After all, look at all the other words we have happily taken over from that language.
'Ennui' perhaps is too abstract, too generalized: a kind of spiritual emptiness or melancholy or, as the OED says, "The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack interest in present surroundings or employments." A bore however is someone who bores--and here the sense of being drilled or bored into is probably relevant; boredom can be a malady that one suffers from, but it can also be a form of suffering that one inflicts on others. Either way, word or thing, boredom is quintessentially part of the modern condition.