Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Honey, pepper, incense roses, with another odour still - the disorienting scents of Salammbô

Since literature began no one has ever undertaken anything so absurd.  (Flaubert, in an 1858 letter, on the writing of Salammbô).*

Salammbô is Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 historical novel about Carthage in the 3rd century BC.  The venal, money-grubbing Carthaginians refuse to pay the mercenaries they employed in the First Punic War.  The mercenaries wage war on Carthage for three years, and are eventually destroyed.

I knew, and know, almost nothing about this war, or about ancient Carthage.  Few do; few did.  Flaubert chose the subject for just this reason: readers have no strong associations with historical Carthage.  They don’t see anything.  A novel set in ancient Rome or classical Sparta or Cleopatra’s Alexandria is already contaminated by art and historians and literature.  Carthage is a blank.

Flaubert thus had enormous freedom.  He used this freedom to load himself down with information, to impose enormous constraints on himself.  He pillaged hundreds of volumes of history and archaeology and abandoned an early version of the novel after an 1858 trip to Tunisia.  Flaubert needed the constraints to create the world of the novel.  In this way, I’m not sure that Salammbô is so different than most conscientious historical novels.  Flaubert did not want freedom.  He wanted power.

The reader is at Flaubert’s mercy.  When we read a story, we fill it’s world in however we can.  Some readers are presumably better at this than others, but we all do it.  Clothes, faces, architecture, trees, gestures – great fiction writers are adept at giving us the right hooks on which we can hang all of the less essential pieces of the fictional world.

Salammbô, plunges the reader into the middle of a foreign and bizarre world, damaging his ability to imagine its world, forcing us to rely exclusively on Flaubert.  We obviously still bring our own resources, some mishmash of the Bible and movies about Cleopatra and mysteries set in Rome, but Flaubert then continually disorients the reader’s assumptions with incongruent names, customs, and details.  For example:

It was a huge lion with his four limbs fastened to a cross like a criminal.  His huge muzzle fell upon his breast, and his two fore-paws, half-hidden beneath the abundance of his mane, were spread out wide like the wings of a bird.  His ribs stood severally out beneath his distended skin; his hind legs, which were nailed against each other, were raised somewhat, and the black blood, flowing through his hair, had collected in stalactites at the end of his tail, which hung down perfectly straight along the cross. (Ch. II)

The illustration, which Flaubert would have hated, is from a 1928 edition.  The crucified lions are presumably something that he found in a book.  The great touch that Flaubert adds is at the end, his gruesome imagining of the smallest details of this terrible scene.  The lions run through the entire novel, a theme much like the horse motif in Madame Bovary.  Near the end of the novel, we in fact return to this scene from the beginning.  It’s a magnificent piece of architecture, this book.

Another example, less grisly.  The clothing of Salammbô, our heroine, is always described in detail.  It is never quite what I expect – peacock headdresses, hair powder made of “violet sand.”  I loved this accessory:

She had as ear-rings two little sapphire scales, each supporting a hollow pearl filled with liquid scent.  A little drop would fall every moment through the holes in the pearl and moisten her naked shoulder.  Matho watched it fall. (Ch. XI)

Those are nice ear-rings, huh?  A page later, Conan detects hints of “honey, pepper, incense roses, with another odour still.”  Again, for all I know, Flaubert actually saw these in a museum in Egypt or Rome.

The later equivalents of this technique, where the names and geography, the background and foreground, are all so disorientingly foreign and weird are in fantasy fiction.  Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. Edgar Rice Burroughs books about John Carter of Mars.  The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt (I think – I’m looking at a copy I know I read and remember nothing, but, of course, random weirdness is hard to remember).  These were all writers who were also pushing back against their own readers.  Don’t just fill in the scenery with the usual pseudo-medieval knights and wizards stuff.  Pay attention – this is weird, this is cool, this is new.

It’s very strange to think of Gustave Flaubert as a key influence on the pulp fantasy novel.  Maybe he wasn’t.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  Well, if the reader sees it, it’s there, which is just what Flaubert did not want.

* Flaubert to Ernest Feydau, Oct. 1858, Selected Letters, Penguin Classics, 1997, tr. Geoffrey Wall, p. 263.


  1. I have seen another Flaubert fan (or more?) rave about this novel. You're making me wonder why. Perhaps it was "ironic" praise?

  2. Hi A. R.

    I’ve never considered Carthage as being exotic. They were traders like us. After three major wars with Rome, after Virgil and the Aeneid, after the folklore of Hannibal, (and given the fact that with better decisions Hannibal might have defeated Rome) and considering the Phoenician alphabet and the importance of St. Augustine, why would the French at the time of Flaubert see Carthage as Martians or the like? Is this an orthodox literary view? My background is philosophy and history.


  3. Vince, I would argue the point, but given that you read a post about crucifying lions and thought "Exotic? No - just like us!" I will just concede that and many other points.

    As for orthodoxy - when society women began dressing as Salammbô at masked balls, and when Alfons Mucha painted this beauty, I doubt their actions were meant as a tribute to St. Augustine and the Phoenician alphabet, but I am open to the argument.

    Peacock headdresses, man. Peacock headdresses.

    Richard - were those raving Flaubert fans Baudelaire, Gautier, Sand, and Hugo? 'Cause they were not being ironic. They thought Salammbô was a triumph. They could see what Flaubert was doing. What was he doing?

  4. Hi A. R.

    My observation was that Carthage, the real place, the historical location, was not exotic. It wasn’t even very far away.

    As for the lions, they are just bizarre. There would not be enough lions to full the road with crosses as the Romans did with Spartacus and his men. Surely they are not meant to be taken literally.

    And that people would dress as Salammbo at masked balls is not exotic at all within the context of such an event. I think they rather liked the idea of being sexy and provocative. Salammbo is actually a good choice for a masked ball.

    I’m just trying to understand things. I find this fascinating but I don’t understand it and I think that I should be able to.


  5. Is the issue the word "exotic"?

    "Strikingly unusual or strange in effect, appearance or nature" (Webster's College Dictionary, 1991). Also, foreign.

    The lions - yes, bizarre! Strikingly unususal, strange in effect. Exotic. And of course they're meant literally. Flaubert would demand a citation for your information about the 3rd century BC North African lion population. I don't care that much. It's fiction.

    Your masked ball argument is circular: Wearing exotic costumes to masked balls is normal, therefore the exotic costumes are not exotic.

    Ancient Carthage was, and is, very far away. Neither we nor the 19th century French could visit it. It had been gone for almost 2,000 years. The Romans destroyed every trace of it that they could.

    This little essay from the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled "Exoticism in the Decorative Arts" might give you an idea bout how I am using the term. The most relevant example in the piece is the Napoleonic Egyptian craze. Why did the Egyptian fad have a big effect on art and design, while the Salammbô did not? We're right back to the argument of my post.

  6. One thing those critics may have thought he was doing was being not-bourgeois. This would at least have been important to Baudelaire (who has some poems with a similarly macabre tone) and Sand.

    Another thing I'll remark on: Salammbo, by your account, is largely of a piece (if on a bigger scale and in a different time/place) with some parts of Mme Bovary. Think of that awful botched operation. Or Emma B's death, so clinically observed and so repellent. And other scenes, as well. Both the "romantic" and the "realistic" were carefully researched. It's not so far off, maybe; it's not as if either one is full of winsome charm.

  7. Hi A. R.

    Thank you for being patient with me. I now have some threads to follow. I think I read Salammbo when I was seventeen at the same time I read Nana. Both were selected from the library because of their covers! I have now started to read Salammbo and hopefully some lights will go on.

    I do have one comment.

    My masked ball argument was about exotic behavior not the custom. My thought was that wearing a Salammbo costume to a masked ball would not be exotic behavior while wearing the same Salammbo costume to a normal ball would be. That is what I was thinking.

    If I had to make an argument about the costume, it would be this: wearing a costume to a masked ball does not by itself make that costume exotic. (Non exotic costumes are also worn to masked balls.) That’s all I would want to claim.


  8. I've misplaced the reference, but there's a Flaubert letter in which he describes the particularly grisly episode of the novel that he's working on and then says something like "Baudelaire will love this part!"

    I'm still thinking about how to write about it, but you have anticipated my conclusion, that the aesthetic principles of Madame Bovary and Salammbô are in fact not so different, and I'm not sure that the ethical principles are so different, either.

  9. My argument for the exoticism of Carthage: of my two main mental images associated with the place, one is actually set in Europe (Hannibal and his elephants) and the other consists of the Roman destruction fo the city and the salting of the fields. A Carthage with a heroine in that outfit does seem foreign, or at least, not like anything I know about.

    I didn't actually know this was set in Carthage. That piques my interest. I am taken in by the exotic!

    Also, do you think C.S. Lewis was a fan?

  10. I could have made this clearer - the important thing is the lack of visual associations. With Flaubert, that's all that counts. We, and French readers, knew who Hannibal was and had seen pictures of, for example, Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps.

    But Carthage itself was clean, empty.

    The Napoleon-fueled Egypt fad had an enormous effect on art and design because ancient Egypt was visually rich, endlessly rich. Carthage was not. Even during the fad, people were just mimicking Flaubert. What other reference did they have?

    You would be a good reader for this crazy book. So a lot of it doesn't work. So some of it is almost catastrophically awful. Any good Melville reader says - yes, and?

    That C. S. Lewis question - you know, going by tone and purpose, I would say no, but it is odd, yes it is, that literature does have one more very famous crucified lion.

  11. I read this a long time ago and I didn't like it.

    I think the Punic Wars were really familiar to the reader of Flaubert's time. It reminds me of painful Latin classes in high school. 'Cartago delenda est' : Carthage must be destroyed. That was the motto.

  12. Sorry, sorry. I know what you mean. But Lewis's Aslan wasn't crucified. He was killed, with a knife, on a stone table. Not Carthaginian, I don't think, not this time.

  13. Jenny - no, I know. Symbolically crucified, tied in. Or, not crucified, but "crucified."

    bookaroundthecorner - Granted. Now, what visual associations about Carthage - not Italy, not Rome - does that the history of the Punic Wars give us? Elephants, maybe - now, how were the elephants dressed? Cato is no help with that.

  14. You see, that's why it's not an historical novel : the descriptions aren't based on facts but on a writer's imagination.

    I see you're reading Thaïs. I'll be interested in your take on this. I've Les dieux ont soif on the shelf for this year. I've never read Anatole France.

  15. No. The descriptions are based on facts - Flaubert did a massive amount of research - and on his imagination. The book is a novel. And it is historical. But it is not a history.

    If anyone wants a reference, please see the parallel discussion here, where we are puzzling about cultural difference in the definition of the historical novel. In standard English definitions, Salammbô is obviously a historical novel. book around the corner argues that the French tradition excludes it, that only professional historians are allowed to write historical novels. Georg Lukács and I are not so sure.

    Thaïs appears to be more in the tradition of Voltaire's Zadig.