Wednesday, September 30, 2015

rising like flowers blossoming out - I admit that Flaubert is a realist - the true reality is in the writer's language

One last note on Flaubert’s plain style.  In this passage, something terrible has happened.  An infant has just died:

She [the mother] sank on to the edge of the divan, where she sat with her mouth open and tears pouring from her staring eyes.  Then a torpor came over her and silence fell on the room.  The furniture had been overturned.  Two or three napkins were lying on the floor.  Six o’clock struck.  The night-light went out.  (3,4)

The clipped sentences and imprecise number of napkins are all in the French original.  Thousands of subsequent “minimalist” writers have tried to recapture the effect of this moment.  The same flat style that is tedious when describing a dinner party becomes sublime in the presence of death.  Who would criticize such a scene for lacking ornament?  Many of those later writers, especially those who wrote short fiction, thought something like “Why not just cut out the boring dinner party scene and just keep the really powerful moment?”  And some succeeded in doing just that, while others only managed to make emotionally rich moments dull.

4.  Beauty.  Such moments are among the easiest in Sentimental Education to call beautiful, as are the moments of elevated language, the garden of asparagus “which looked like a little forest of feathers” (2, 5) and so on.  I could imagine an aesthetic in which the flatter, plainer, duller passages are meant to contrast with – pump up the significance of – the heightened moments.  A risky strategy, boring the reader. 

Men sitting at a narrow table were placing lumps of paste on revolving disks in front of them; their left hand scraped out the inside while their right stroked the surface, and vases could be seen rising like flowers blossoming out.  (2, 3)

Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through.  Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface.  They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.

I have increasingly wondered why Flaubert was so committed to the form of the novel.  Why do so much research if the good part is the part you make up?  Why not write prose poems, or Finnegans Wake, or The Rings of Saturn?  The latter gives me a clue.  Flaubert, I am often told, is a “realist.”  And he is.

5.  Metaphysics.  Here I need help.  I am going to get it from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946, tr. Willard Trask).

Auerbach describes Flaubert as a kind of mystic of reality, the devotee of a theory “of a self-forgetful absorption in the subjects of reality” (486).  The purpose of the artist is “to transform reality through style; transform it so that it would appear as God sees it, so that the divine order – insofar as it concerns the fragment of reality treated in a particular work – would perforce be incarnated in the author’s style” (357-8).  The representation of reality by the artist is more beautiful and meaningful than reality because the representation is more real.

There is a strong dose of Schopenhauer here, although I doubt he is Flaubert’s source.  The artist – the great artist? – is, in a limited way, able to glimpse the real reality behind the usual false reality which he then represents as a new false but improved reality.  And that’s the best you can hope for.  Thus the subject does not matter, the characters do not matter (although being able to take jabs at some bourgeois enemies is a pleasant bonus), or they only matter arbitrarily as material for the creation of the marvelous new object.  “[I]n his book [Madame Bovary] the world consists of pure stupidity, which completely misses true reality, so that the latter should properly not be discoverable in it at all; yet it is there; it is in the writer’s language…” (489).

No one is obligated to believe any of this to read Flaubert successfully.  I believe Flaubert believed it.  A number of later writers, too.


  1. In other words, Flaubert is to dinner parties what, say, Cézanne is to apples, right? The apples aren’t interesting: what’s interesting is the way Cézanne depicts them. And because the representation is more real than reality, Cézanne’s apples are more beautiful and more meaningful than any real apple can be. I’ve certainly never looked at any real apple in the same way as I have looked at Cézanne’s representations.

    But I wonder if there’s another way of approaching this. The style, i.e. the manner of representation, does not necessarily give the representation a greater beauty or significance than the reality, but, rather, invests the reality itself with a significance that it would not otherwise have had.

    Once upon a time, literature used to concern itself with lofty and elevated matters – gods and goddesses, then kings and queens and princesses and bishops, declaiming in high-flown rhetoric on the profundities of life and of death, and so on. By Flaubert’s time, literature had become more democratic: the subjects weren’t kings and queens and princes and princesses: they were ordinary people in ordinary walks of life, doing ordinary things – like going to boring dinner parties. The subject of the artist is no longer the transcendent, but the mundane. So now, the artist, so as not to bore either the reader or himself, has to find significance in the mundane; the artist has to *transform* the mundane. If the modern writer cannot, as Homer or Virgil did, depict the transcendent directly, then that mundane reality must be invested with some sort of transcendence.

    Joyce did this. So, in his hands, an ordinary day in the lives of ordinary people going about their ordinary business becomes a mirror of the Odyssey. One may say that this deflates the heroic, but looked at another way, it elevates the everyday.

    But Flaubert’s artistic and moral aims are different: he is not interested in elevation. The subject is not the finding of the transcendent within the everyday, but the failure to do so. But whether one chooses to depict the transcendent within the mundane, or to depict the failure to achieve transcendence, either way, the transcendent itself must be evoked. So, by highlighting throughout the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the transcendent beauty of his representation of reality, and, on the other, the wretched dullness of what is being represented, the whole texture of Flaubert's novel seems stamped with a profound sadness and disillusion.

    1. "I’ve certainly never looked at any real apple in the same way as I have looked at Cézanne’s representations."
      But have you ever tasted Cézanne’s representations?

    2. Note from Plato: Have you wondered how the ideal form "apple" tastes? Hmmm.

    3. To paraphrase idealist Hume, is the flavor of the apple in the apple or in the one who tastes the apple? Before answering, please consider how the flavor of cow-pies must taste delicious to flies.

    4. We must find an ideal apple-eater before we can answer the question. But I am inclined to think that the ideal apple tastes like a Washington state Pink Lady.

      Wouldn't the Platonic fly find all things delicious?

    5. Look, Wuthering Expectations is becoming a philosophy blog. Soon we will be shoving fat men in front of trains in the service of knowledge.

  2. Well said. For most readers - and writers - I think you are right. Representation heightens reality. And really, that is much of what I get out of Flaubert, too. I am not a mystic.

    I was tempted to mention Cézanne at several points here - so glad you mentioned him. He is the perfect example in visual arts, with later artists seeing him moving towards abstraction even though he did not see anything like abstraction. He was painting what he saw.

  3. FYI, as I have noted this morning at Beyond Eastrod, today marks the publication anniversary of the first installment of _Madame Bovary_, a novel that I am bold enough to nominate as the "best" French novel; my preference for _MB_, however, might be influenced by limited reading of French literature. And then, of course, there is the folly of selecting anything as being the " best."

    Now, as for representation v. presentation, that is quite the "can of worms." Those who write about the aesthetics of literature have spilled a lot of ink with opinions about the distinctions. As a half-baked Neoplatonist myself (well, sort of), I think all art is representational, with higher forms controlling everything, but realist writers seek to "hide" that representation (subjective copying of forms) within the disguise of presentation (ostensibly objective offerings). Does any of that drivel make any sense?

  4. Yes, Flaubert was a kind of Neoplatonist. The artist glimpses the world outside of the cave and creates the shadows for those of us who for some reason cannot look away from the cave wall.

    Madame Bovary is a good choice for best French novel. I prefer it to Sentimental Education, perhaps because I feel I understand it better. I won't argue with anyone who prefers "A Simple Heart" to both.

  5. I can't pick a best novel, or even a best French novel, because I have trouble comparing dissimilar things. Voltaire, Potocki, Roussel, Beckett, Hugo, Jarry, Perec -- they all wrote wonderful French novels too, but they were all doing very different things. Is what they were doing better or worse that what Flaubert was doing? I have no idea.

    However, I can say that the last novel I read -- "Zastrozzi," written by Shelley when he was a troublesome teen -- was pretty bad. It was endearing, though.

  6. Zastrozzi! I am impressed. Reading about it was enough for me, I guess.

    I am not going to pick a Best French Novel. I have read too many qualified candidates that are, as you say, too different. Just comparing contemporaries - say Hugo vs. Flaubert - puts me in different aesthetic and ethical worlds.

  7. "Zastrozzi" is short and entertaining. One sentence tickled me so much I wrote it down: "Her symmetrical form, as borne away by the four officials, looked interestingly lovely." Bravo, little Percy!