Friday, January 15, 2010

Flaubert's Wastelands: Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education

Having recently reread Flaubert's A Sentimental Education (1869) I want to say that this is the most important, most modern, most intelligent political novel of the 19th century.  

The title, which is ironic, may put you off; I didn't understand it for a long time. 

Our word 'sentimental' suggests nothing so much as a moral and emotional fog, and I assume that the French word works the same way. A sentimental novel or poem plays to only the most obvious and conventional feelings and ideas.

The 'hero' of this novel is a fool and a weakling who inhabits a moral and emotional fog and never learns anything. No one learns anything. This is not a book about self-education in difficult times like, say, The Education of Henry Adams (1907).

This is a novel without a center, or a direction, or a hero, or a point of view; you can think of it as an answer to Victor Hugo's epic, Les Miserables (1862) with it virtually superhuman hero, Jean Valjean "There are no hero, no villain, to arouse us, no clowns to entertain us, no scenes to wring our hearts. Yet the effect is deeply moving. It is the tragedy of nobody in particular but of the poor human race itself reduced to such ineptitude, such cowardice, such commonness, such weak irresolution—arriving, with so many fine notions in its head, so many noble words on its lips, at a failure which is all the more miserable because those who have failed in their roles have even forgotten what roles they were cast for." (Edmund Wilson)

Since Frederick Moreau, the 'hero' of this novel is merely a wealthier, luckier and better educated Emma Bovary,
let us continue the discussion of Madame Bovary begun in my previous 'essays' (3-23-09 and 3-29-09)—or, I should say, my shameless pillaging of Erich Auerbach's essay about that book (in Mimesis) which keys off the following lines:

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.

Auerbach's commentary runs as follows: "Nothing particular happens in the scene, nothing particular has happened just before it. It is a random moment from the regularly recurring hours at which the husband and wife eat together. They are not quarrelling, there is no sort of tangible conflict. Emma is in complete despair, but her despair is not occasioned by any definite catastrophe; there is nothing purely concrete that she has lost or for which she has wished. Certainly she has many wishes, but they are entirely vague—elegance, love, a varied life; there must always have been such unconcrete despair, but no one ever thought of taking it seriously in literary works before; such formless tragedy, if it may be called tragedy, which is set in motion by the general situation itself, was first made conceivable as literature by romanticism; probably Flaubert was the first to have represented it in people of slight intellectual culture and fairly low social station; certainly he is the first who directly captures the chronic character this psychological situation. Nothing happens, but that nothing has become a heavy, oppressive, threatening something. How he accomplishes this we have already seen; he organizes into compact and unequivocal discourse the confused impressions of discomfort which arise in Emma at the sight of this room, the meal, her husband. Elsewhere too he seldom narrates events which carry the action quickly forward; in a series of pure pictures—pictures transforming the nothingness of listless and uniform days into an oppressive condition of repugnance, boredom, false hopes, paralyzing disappointments, and piteous fears—a gray and random human destiny moves toward its end.

"The interpretation of the situation is contained in its description. The two are sitting at table together; the husband divines nothing of his wife's inner state; they have so little communion that things never even come to a quarrel. Each of them is so immersed in his own world—she in despair and vague wish-dreams, he in his stupid philistine self-complacency—that they are entirely alone; they have nothing in common, and yet they have nothing of their own, for the sake of which it would be worthwhile to be lonely. For, privately, each of them has a silly, false world, which cannot be reconciled with the reality of his situation, and so they both miss the possibilities life offers them. What is true of these two, applies to almost all the other characters in the novel; each of the many mediocre people who act in it has his own world of mediocrity and stupidity, a world of illusions, habits, instincts and slogans; each is alone, none can understand another, or help another to insight. Though men come together for business and pleasure, their coming together has no note of united activity; it becomes one-sided, ridiculous, painful, and it is charged with misunderstanding, vanity, futility, falsehood, and hatred. What the world would really be, the world of intelligence, Flaubert never tells us; in his book, the world  consists of pure stupidity which completely misses reality, so that the latter should not properly be discoverable in it at all; yet is there; it is in the writer's language, which unmasks stupidity by pure statement; language, then, has criteria for stupidity and thus also has a part in that reality of the intelligence which otherwise never appears in the book.

"Emma Bovary, too, is completely submerged in that false reality, of human stupidity, as is the 'hero' of Flaubert's other realistic novel, Frederick Moreau, in A Sentimental Education."

In his aimlessness, emptiness and futility, Frederick is a the perfect observer of the 'events' of 1848-51; he is himself indeed an apt metaphor for that vast panorama of emptiness and futility. No one knows what's going on, or who's fighting whom, or why; different people pop up fighting first on one side then on the other; all are convulsed with ferocity and hatred; atrocities are committed easily and casually; the social contract, if there ever was one, is ripped apart and stamped on by ignorant armies or mobs of the left and right. Intelligence is nowhere to be found—nowhere but in the limpid, beautiful clarity of Flaubert's prose. (If you think Flaubert is merely a biassed bourgeois, try making sense out of any non-Marxist account of those years, which merely served to bring forth another, weaker, less intelligent Napoleon to power.)

Here, for example, is a (partial) description of the faded glory of Fonainebleau, where Frederick and his mistress, Rosanette, have gone to get away from the meaningless noise and violence of Paris: "Early next morning they visited the palace. Going in through the gate they had a view of the whole façade with its five pavilions, their steeply pitched roofs and the sweep of the horseshoe staircase at the far end of the courtyard. Seen from a distance the lichen on the cobble-stones blended with the tawny bricks and the whole palace, rust-colored like an old suit of armor, had something coldly regal about it, a sort of melancholy military grandeur." (Though Frederick could not have said this, he—unlike Rosanette—is able to feel that melancholy grandeur.)

For several days, Frederick and Rosanette enjoy a sort of honeymoon, an idyllic journey through a totally beautiful and virtually deserted countryside, until Frederick hears that a friend of his has been wounded in the fighting. Abandoning Rosanette (this is typical) he hurries guiltily back to Paris. Here, among other sights of destruction is what he sees: 

"In this district the aftermath of the uprising was awesome. The street surfaces had been churned up from end to end; on the wrecked barricades were the remains of buses, gas-pipes and cart-wheels; the scattered black puddles were presumably blood. Where the plaster of the houses, riddled with projectiles, had flaked off, you could see their framework underneath; shutters dangled down like limp rags, held on by a nail. Where staircases had collapsed, the doors opened on to empty space and you could see into bedrooms with their wallpaper hanging in shreds. Sometimes quite fragile objects had survived; Frederick caught glimpses of a clock, a parrot's perch, some engravings." 

Only Flaubert can hold both these images in his mind, of a distant, ceremonious, almost mythical past at Fontainbleau, and the houses of Paris in 1848, arbitrarily and unceremoniously gutted, their pathetic innards exposed by the random gunfire of ignorant armies. Look hard at these images, appreciate them for what they are and connect them if you can; Frederick couldn't connect them even if he were interested in doing so and there certainly isn't anyone else who would be, either in the novel or maybe even in France at that time. What is the connection between the pre-modern civilization that built that "coldly regal" Fontainebleau and the class hatreds that were tearing France and Paris to pieces in 1848? The answer I suppose would have to include Napoleon Bonaparte, that brilliant student of Machiavelli who had observed at first hand that politics is war by other means, and was still a hero decades after his death despite the fact that he had bled France white.

The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and Flaubert's novel is an answer to that as well as to Les Miserables. Victor Hugo thought liberal humanism was destined to win out; Karl Marx thought something more radical would triumph; both thought history had a built-in or providential direction: history  knows where it is going. Now we know—and at what a price!—that that is not true. Flaubert got there first.

You mustn't think, however, that this is primarily a book about politics or history. It is about the futility and emptiness of a life such as Frederick Moreau's, a kind of upper-middle class everyman, that is devoid of purpose, or principle or faith or belief. All Frederick cares about is his own pleasures. Even his love for Madame Arnoux, one of the two decent people in this novel, does nothing to change his character or modify his habitual self-regard or his endless talent for self-deception. The novel ends, flatly, with Frederick and his old friend, Deslauriers, now middle-aged, neither of whom has learned anything, looking back on their empty, futile lives. "Ah, that was our best time," says Frederick. "Could be? Yes, that was our best time," says the other. This is one of the saddest books I have ever read.


  1. Hello Piers,

    So, continuing from my last comment, given that the average person these days, as well as in the future, is not going to take the time to read Flaubert, much less fully grasp Flaubert, are there any shorter stories, any simply myths, that can convey to the huddled masses the moral catastrophe, and subsequent physical calamity, that mediocrity invites?


  2. Excellence, even competence, in anything is rare; no one is good at everything; we are all mediocrities, more or less, especially when it comes to recognizing excellence. I think I know good writing when I see it. It has taken me a long time to recognize the greatness of Flaubert's "Education". I think you are mistaken in your apocalyptic view of mediocrity; it's the human condition—just getting by, muddling along. Don't confuse mediocrity and stupidity. You have to want to be stupid . . . .

  3. Hello Piers,

    Please, allow me to clarify myself. It is true that no one is an expert at everything, but we all have passions in certain areas. My view of mediocrity is the choice to be average... the choice to sacrifice our unique passions. It is my view that when people choose to sacrifice their unique passions, they tend to do silly things like secretly collect figurines and dolls. I don't think people sacrifice their passions out of stupidity, but ignorance. I don't think the average person understands the process.

    The truth is that the universe is so complex that we cannot be experts at everything; we all must have our specialties. For a healthy society to endure, we must all pursue our individual passions, in our separate directions, so the fruit of our labor can be shared with one another and we all benefit. The Communist Manifesto, and other such forms of tyranny, holds that the individual passion is destructive to the common good.

    Today, we are in a position where, because of politics and ignorance, people are, like communists, pursuing mediocrity. You are correct in saying that we are all, in essence, mediocre, but the destruction from the pursue mediocrity is what I was talking about. The problems we see in our society today, I would argue, are largely cause by a mentality that has people choosing to enslave themselves to the credit industry and banks, just so they can have a flat screen TV like everyone else. (not very different than collecting dolls and figurines) Again, I don't think it's stupidity, but ignorance... and who is responsible for ignorance? The person without passion in that area for not seeking out such knowledge, or the person whose passion it was that didn't produce fruit for the average person?


    P.S. It is clear to me that I am using this opportunity to reaffirm certain choices in my life. So, please understand that this is just my perspective and that I don't mean to be confrontational. :)

  4. People choose to be mediocre? I don't think so.

    Just because one has a passionate interest in something, makes it good? The more intense the passion the better it is? Any passion?

    Why is it silly to collect dolls and figurines? Or anything else?

    You think you know how to rank all the different goods of this world. You think you know which are low and unimportant goods, which are more important, which are most important—the highest goods of all.

  5. Hello Piers,

    People do choose to be mediocre...I've seen it with my own two eyes, and have even experienced it's foul taste in my mouth in the past (experience is the basis for understanding).

    Any passion is better than no passion. Better still if a person is honest and responsible for their passion.

    Collecting trinkets is silly if it is to avoid reality.

    And, I most certainly do know how to rank all the different goods in this world, low and unimportant, least and highest of all... for me. And there is not a soul in this universe that can make me doubt my ability and responsibility to do such.

    Take care...

  6. The exchange is avoidably polemical, the writer wielding the upper hand. Let Arthur Conan Doyle interpose:"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself---but talent instantly recognizes genius."