Intimate Notebook 1840-1841
The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas
Although marred by tiresome affectations of style, Professor Brombert’s book is a full and very suggestive scrutiny of Flaubert’s love-hate of realism, as it is woven into the texture of his narratives. Flaubert’s own ambiguities on the subject are clear. “I abhor what has been called realism, although they make me out to be one of its high priests,” he wrote to George Sand. He hated reality. (Or rather it disgusted him; that is also an attraction.) Art held priority over life. If so much of his work is minutely drawn from everyday life, he forced himself to depict it (in Professor Brombert’s words):
partly out of self-imposed therapy to cure himself of his chronic idealism, partly also out of a strange and almost morbid fascination…. Art for him was quite literally an escape… For hatred of reality…was intimately bound up with an inherent pessimism—and pessimism in turn was one of the prime conditions of his ceaseless quest for ideal forms.
In resilient moments he called himself an old “romantique enragé“: even, a troubadour.
All this is well known; we know an enormous amount about Flaubert and Professor Brombert brings all the important critics into his net. But, a good deal owing to Marxist and Christian criticism, the quite gratuitous notion has got about that Flaubert was not what he ought to have been. He ought not to have been “an alienated bourgeois”; yet, surely, a vast number of great artists are alienated from their dispensation and especially in the nineteenth century. Alienation is a cant term for a necessary condition. The “hatreds” of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert, or Proust are the characteristic engines of a century bemused by its own chaotic energies. The force of criticism from an outside position of Marxist, Christian, or psychoanalytical neo-conformity is now fading and one is at least heartened to see Professor Brombert applying himself to “the unique temperament and vision that determine and characterize a novelist’s work as we find them in the text.”
There can be two weaknesses in this kind of criticism; first it puritanically denies side glances at biography, social influences, etc., but rather hypocritically assumes that we have had these necessities privately at the back door. Professor Brombert is not too strict here; how could one leave out the effect of atheistic medical observation and the morgue on Flaubert’s mind? Even Flaubert’s obsession with style seems to have something of medical specialization in it. Secondly, the critic may find too much in the text and build comically top-heavy theories on images and symbols, as one finds, for example, when this kind of criticism deals with Dickens: all that talk of baptismal water! (I have only one doubt about Professor Brombert’s attention to key words: this is when he catalogues the symbols of liquefaction.)
In Flaubert’s case the danger is usually small for he was the most conscious of artists; a most ardent collector of echoes and symbols …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Omission June 1, 1967