Thursday, February 3, 2011

Like a drop of water on a red-hot plate - the violent Salammbô

Salammbô is the most violent 19th century novel I have ever read, or read about.  Other candidates for this honor are welcome.

The trees behind them were still smoking; half-burned carcasses of apes dropped from their blackened boughs from time to time into the midst of the dishes.  Drunken soldiers snored open-mouthed by the side of the corpses, and those who were not asleep lowered their heads, dazzled by the light of day.  The trampled soil was hidden beneath splashes of red.  The elephants poised their bleeding trunks between the stakes of the pen. (end of Ch. I)

“Poised” sounds odd – the French is “balançaient.”  Regardless, this is just the end of the first chapter, in which a splendid feast for the Mercenaries erupts into typically horrific violence.  The scene is set, violence explodes, calm returns – Flaubert uses this pattern in many chapters.  The violence and destruction accelerate, flesh is rended, tortures are inflicted, corpses are heaped.

I’m using this odd passive voice because the point of view in the most violent scenes is rarely that of an individual but of a group (sound familiar, Emily?), the citizens of Carthage or the riders of the war elephants or the left flank of the Mercenary army.  The subject is often “they”:  “Sometimes they [marching Carthaginian soldiers] would see what looked like the eyes of a tiger-cat gleaming in a bush by the side of the road” (Ch. IX).  But the point of view flits around wildly, as is typical with Flaubert.

Walter Scott set the standard for fictional battles in Waverley (1814) – fix on a single character and follow him across the historical battlefield.  The author might have to stretch a detail or two to make sure his character sees everything the author wants the reader to see.  One can think of Fabrice at Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma or any number of scenes in War and Peace for more sophisticated examples.  Flaubert ignores all of this.  He would have been an outstanding writer of military history, except then he would not have been able to dwell on what he really cared about: blood, suffering, wounds, death.  Chapter XII begins “Twelve hours afterwards all that remained of the Mercenaries was a heap of wounded, dead, and dying,” and then Flaubert really gets going.  “The foot trod on” – no, let’s just move on.

The novel ends with a series of three climaxes, each more violent than the next.  Carthage has to destroy itself to save itself, that’s the theme of Chapter XIII, “Moloch,” an orgy of child sacrifice, Carthage throwing its own sons into the flames:

The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour.

The citizens demand that General Hamilcar sacrifice his son as well, and at this point the reader might begin to feel a hint of something resembling sympathy.  Since Hamilcar’s son is Hannibal, the famous one, prosecutor of the Second Punic War, we can be certain that he is not sacrificed.  Perhaps there will be a spot of relief?  No.  Wrong novel.  Leave it at that.

Salammbô has no heroes, no center of sympathy, no one to root for, another result of the obscure setting – what reader really cares which side wins the war, the brutal and destructive Mercenaries, or the corrupt, empty, child-sacrificing Carthaginians?  It’s a sadistic novel.  I’ve never read Sade’s work, and I hope I never will, but that’s the tradition Flaubert is working in, although he thankfully seems to have little or no interest in sexual violence.  Flaubert’s novel, like certain poems of Baudelaire, or Isidore Ducasse’s Maldoror, or the Zola of Thérèse Raquin, is anti-humanist, not just skeptical but profoundly pessimistic, verging on nihilistic.

The novel is, in all sorts of odd ways, a shadow version of Les Misérables, published the same year.  Hugo’s novel, Hugo’s Paris, is also filled with corruption and cruelty, but the book is humanistic, an angry protest, an exhortation to reform.  Flaubert is after something else.


  1. "balancer" is usually "to swing" or "to sway." I'm not sure why the elephants wouldn't be swinging their trunks; it seems an elephantine thing to do.

  2. It does. The translator thought something was missing - no idea what it was. Some aural effect? "Poised" echoing "soil" in the previous sentence? Probably just an error.

  3. "It’s a sadistic novel."

    A few days ago I finished Elizabeth Costello by Coetzee. His alter-ego makes the argument that not only should readers avoid sadistic novels, i.e., ones that show people being degraded and humiliated, but that writers should avoid writing them. Something of the soul is contaminated by congress with cruelty. But then E. Costello also claims that the novelist is a zoo keeper: there's a huge amount of waste that animals produce, and someone's got to take care of it, with open, stinging eyes ....

  4. Elizabeth Costello is more than a bit like Amateur Reader. Her creator allows her to say some things that he might like to believe, or wonders if he does believe, but to which he won't really commit himself.

    The strange thing is that to Flaubert, the writing of this chronicle of horrors is an act of beauty. The paradox is central. He might say the novel is not contaminating but cleansing.

  5. You just uttered the b-word, you did.

  6. Flaubert is comfortable with the idea of beauty. It is, almost by definition, the thing he is creating.

    An ongoing project, of which this week is a piece, is to figure out what the devil he means. I need to revisit A Sentimental Education, and read more of his letters, and work on my French.

  7. I believe that's what most wars or even economies are: people fighting the system are doing it for their own good, those being fought are there for their own good. Who cares about the man on the streets? or the one dying of hunger? One can classify this as a nihilistic view but it is what pertains. Pockets of extreme wealth and numerous of poverty-stricken individuals. Expenditure for wars could change the lives of billions but because it enriches the few it must be fought. This is not just a pessimistic view, it is the reality.

  8. The novelist may be a zoo keeper and deal with waste, I can accept that, it may be a form of tending beauty. But really -- h'really -- don't read Sade.

  9. Nana, I've seen attempts to ethically justify Salammbô as an anti-war novel - demonstrate the horrors of war, etc. I have doubts. I think the way you describe it is closer to the truth.

    I've read enough of Sade - just little excerpts - to keep me away from more. And I should emphasize again, Flaubert's novel is horrifying enough as it is, but is in no way interested in sexual violence. I was nervous that a rape scene might be on its way, but no. The passage that is most explicitly about sex is a celebration of homosexual soldiers! It's a little ways into Ch. 14.

  10. What an intense scene you quote! Since I am obsessed with the Iliad right now, I immediately started thinking how different this feels from what Homer is doing. "Identifying" with Achilles (or solidly rooting for him) is complex proposition--partly because he isn't always appealing but more because the Trojans are extremely appealing. Readers are left feeling the huge cost of war because we feel so connected to the side we know will lose.

    I'm so proud of myself for finally getting that when you talk about a narrator/author like Nick in The Great Gatsby, you are talking about yourself as a character writing a blog. Thanks for hitting me over the head enough that I caught on.

  11. The Iliad is plenty gory, isn't it? And wet - I'm thinking of the scene where Achilles battles a river.

    In Homer, each individual death is detailed - each casualty is named. One can imagine a number of reasons for this, but one effect is to make sure the reader attaches some value, some degree of honor, to each death.

    Salammbô has more in common with the dark vision of The Aeneid, actually, which has more undifferentiated mass slaughter.

    I agree that the Achilles of The Iliad is less a hero to root for than a problem to be solved.

    Now, that last thing. I used to deny I was a writer. I said so in my little "About" description - "not a writer." This was a running joke for a while, one that only I found funny, but it paled and I changed the description. What I do here is not blogging - it's writing.