Tuesday, September 29, 2015

He praised its cathedral and its pies - the aesthetic sensibility of an idiot - or, a gesture towards meaning

What do the patterns, repetitions, and obscurely linked details in Sentimental Education mean?  Oh, so many things.

1.  Individual psychology.  Some of the patterns are created by the characters, perhaps unconsciously.  They are also created by Gustave Flaubert, but they are given to the characters.  It is Frédéric who always notices ribbons and who associates them with his love affairs.  He may not realize he is doing this.  He is not especially perceptive.

2. Heightened perception.  But sometimes he is more perceptive.  Flaubert signals these moments with his signature semicolon lists.

Cisy recalled the happy days when, mounted on his sorrel, with a monocle in his eye, he had ridden along beside carriage doors; these memories intensified his anguish; an unbearable thirst scorched his throat; his feet sank into the sand; it seemed to him that he had been walking for eternities. (2,3)

Poor Cisy is about to fight a duel in which he assumes he will die (he is incompetent) so all sort of trivia becomes intensely interesting to him (“At the corner of a path a woman in a madras kerchief was talking to a man in a smock”).  Meanwhile Frédéric is experiencing something similar, even if he is less certain or terrified of death.  So we have not just one but two characters who are suddenly unusually alive and perceptive, and the entire passage, a famous one, is written accordingly.  “A ray of sunlight, passing through the leaves, fell upon them; and to Cisy’s eyes they seemed to shine like silver vipers in a pool of blood.”  The sacking of the Tuileries Palace is another good example (dog alert!).

Love and death, those are the cause of heighted sensitivity in the characters, when they become – well, when they become more like Gustave Flaubert, when even a dip like the novel’s hero develops an aesthetic sensibility.

Actually, there is a simpler impulse that has a similar effect, hunger, thus the frequent menus of multi-course meals.  It is not quite right to say that Flaubert describes the dishes.  He writes as if he were the waiter.

Food reminds me of one of my favorite lines in the novel.  I have nowhere to put it, as an aside:

And, when it was pointed out that she was a native of Chartres, he went on:

‘Chartres!  Now that’s a pretty town.’

He praised its cathedral and its pies…  (2,4)

Frédéric is an idiot.  Also, I missed the pies when I was in Chartres and now feel cheated.

To my initial point, the use of random details to create moments or states of heightened emotion and as the kinds of semi-conscious patterns people construct to make meaning out of their lives – “Then a vague memory occurred to him of other evenings like this, with similar silences,” to repeat a quotation I used yesterday – is psychologically sharp and fairly new as a technique of characterization, or new when used to this extent.  Not actually new; what ever is?  Meanwhile, Leo Tolstoy has discovered, from different aesthetic grounds, how to do the same thing.

Note that none of what I have described really requires a reader to consciously perceive the patternings any more than the characters do.  Sentimental Education can be successfully read and enjoyed as if it is not a radical avant garde anti-novelistic gesture (see Himadri do just that), in part because it is still a novel with all of the usual features – characters, plot, meaning.  Flaubert, anticipating the French theorists of a century later, is aware to an unusual degree that he is simulating characters and meaning within an artificial form, but no reader has any obligation to notice.

#3 on the list will be Beauty and #4 will be Metaphysics.  And I have one more point to make about heightened perception, this time of the reader.


  1. Whatever my perception of this novel, I am enjoying absorbing your take on it.

    That line about admiring the cathedral and the pies of Chartres reminded me – possibly in a Flaubertian manner – of an evening many years ago when my wife and I had attended a performance of Sophocles’ “Electra”. It was a production of nerve-jangling intensity (Fiona Shaw had played Electra), and we were trooping out afterwards, stunned into silence. Suddenly the silence was broken by a voice saying: “Wasn’t that green dress Chrysostemis was wearing really lovely?” It seemed comically incongruous, but it would be unkind and ungenerous merely to attribute this to the speaker’s shallowness or stupidity: after having had one’s mind battered by the contents of that uncompromising drama, we all, I think, needed something to bring us down to earth from those lofty tragic heights, which, elevated and sublime though they may be, we humans cannot inhabit for too long.

    Now, Flaubert’s almost throwaway line juxtaposing – to wonderfully comic effect - Chartres Cathedral and the pies certainly indicates the shallowness of Frédéric’s response: Frédéric is, as you say, an “idiot”. But I wonder if it may be taken more generally to indicate also our inability – the inability of us all, not just Frédéric – to inhabit those elevated heights for any long stretches of time. For, no matter how transported we may feel by the glories of Chartes Cathedral, our minds are bound to turn, sooner or later, to what we will have for lunch.

    (And like yourself, I too regret not having pies when I was in Chartres.)

  2. Yes, we all get to that point sometime, don't we? We are all idiots at times, necessarily so.

    1. Perhaps especially when it comes to French desserts.

    2. Now, I did have the signature Chartres bonbon, Le Mentchikoff.

  3. "He praised its cathedral and its pies…"
    Brecht would say he got his priorities wrong: "Grub first, then ethics". Or aesthetics.