Flaubert: Correspondence Tome I, 1830-1851
Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. 1: ‘In my hot youth,’ 1798-1810, Vol. 2: ‘Famous in my time,’ 1810-1812, Vol. 3: ‘Alas! the love of Women!’ 1813-1814
Writing to his exasperated and exasperating mistress, Louise Colet, the twenty-five-year-old Flaubert makes a sharp distinction between his taste in art and life:
…autant j’aime dans l’art les amours désordonnées, et les passions hurlantes, autant me plaisent dans la pratique les amitiés voluptueuses et les galanteries sentimentales. Que tu trouves ça rococo ou ignoble, c’est possible. Avec de l’ardeur il y a moyen que ce ne soit pas ennuyeux, avec du coeur que ce ne soit pas sale. [To Louise Colet, February 27, 1847, p. 443]
(…as much as I want in art disordered loves and howling passion, just so much in practice do I like sensual friendships and sentimental affairs. You may find this rococo or ignoble. With some warmth it does not have to be boring: with some heart, it does not have to be dirty.)
This separation between art and life is made to order for keeping Louise Colet at bay. Elsewhere, and a few years later, Flaubert makes the distinction more definitive:
Quand on veut, petit ou grand, se mêler des oeuvres du bon Dieu, il faut commencer, rien que sous le rapport de l’hygiène, par se mettre dans une position à n’en être pas la dupe. Tu peindras le vin, l’amour, les femmes, la gloire, à condition, mon bonhomme, que tu ne seras ni ivrogne, ni amant, ni mari, ni tourlourou. Mêlé à la vie, on la voit mal, on en souffre ou en jouit trop. L’artiste, selon moi, est une monstruosité,—quelque chose de hors nature. [To his mother, December 15, 1850, p. 720]
(When one wants, small or great, to meddle with the works of God, one must start, if only for hygienic reasons, by finding a vantage point from which one cannot be fooled. You can paint wine, love, women, glory only if you yourself, old fellow, are not a drunkard, nor a lover, nor a husband, nor a soldier boy. Involved in life, we see it badly, suffer or enjoy it too much. The artist, as I believe, is a monstrosity—something outside nature.)
Posterity has played tricks with Flaubert’s distinction: many of his admirers today consider the greatest of his masterpieces to be his letters, entangled in his immediate affairs and innocent of the single-minded purity of line and form that he worked so hard to impose on his novels.
The editor of the new edition of the correspondence (of which the first volume has recently appeared), Jean Bruneau, wishes to put things back in their proper categories, to restore the barrier between life and art. He makes, however, a curious but revealing slip. Flaubert, he claims, would have been dismayed by our view of his correspondence as a work of art. We may converse with Flaubert, through his letters, as Flaubert himself conversed with the Essays of Montaigne, but—Bruneau adds—there is a fundamental difference: the Essays of Montaigne are a work of art, and the correspondence of Flaubert is not.
Montaigne, however, would have been equally dismayed by this judgment. He preferred to draw the line between art and nature quite differently, although he was perhaps the first writer who fully understood that the line was indefinitely displaceable. If habit was second nature, he observed, perhaps nature was only first habit. To view the Essays as art is perfectly legitimate, of course, the posthumous consternation of the writer notwithstanding. Like the letters of Flaubert, the essays of Montaigne have altered in their function as the years have passed. The aesthetic form of Flaubert’s correspondence, too, is now there for everyone to see.
In the worst sense, first of all. There is a lot of fancy artistic writing in the letters of a kind that Flaubert disdained to admit even to the early versions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. In a letter to Louise Colet, we find:
Voilà l’hiver, la pluie tombe, mon feu brûle, voilà la saison des longues heures renfermées. Vont venir les soirées silencieuses passées à la lueur de la lampe à regarder le bois brûler et à entendre le vent souffler. Adieu les larges clairs de lune sur les gazons verts et les nuits bleues toutes mouchetées d’étoiles. Adieu ma toute chérie, je t’embrasse de toute mon âme. [September 28, 1846, p. 368]
(Winter is here, the rain is falling, my fire burns, this is the season of long, indoor hours. Now are to come the silent evenings when, by lamplight, we watch the wood burn and hear the wind blow. Farewell to the large patches of moonlight on the green lawns, to the blue nights flecked with stars. Farewell, my darling, I kiss you with all my heart.)
Probably he assumed she would like this kind of purple style: perhaps he even thought she deserved it. There are not many such passages, but they were evidently a kind of release to the young Flaubert.
The significance of these rare passages is more complex, however, and central to Flaubert’s philosophy:
Encore maintenant ce que j’aime par-dessus tout c’est la forme, pourvu qu’elle soit belle, et rien au-delà. Les femmes qui ont le coeur trop ardent et l’esprit trop exclusif ne comprennent pas cette religion de la beauté abstraction faite du sentiment. Il leur faut toujours une cause, un but. Moi j’admire autant le clinquant que l’or. La poésie du clinquant est même supérieure en ce qu’elle est triste. [To Louise Colet, August 6 or 7, 1846, p. 278]
(Even now what I love most of all is form, provided it be beautiful and nothing more. Women, their hearts too passionate and their minds too exclusive, do not understand this religion of beauty with the sentiment removed. They always want a cause, a purpose. I myself admire tinsel as much as gold. The poetry of tinsel is even superior in that it is sad.)
We arrive here at the frontiers of the grotesque. The sadness of the poetry of tinsel paradoxically brings back the sentiment that has been abstracted from the religion of beauty, and returns the sense of life to the beautiful forms, from which it was banished by Flaubert’s touchingly puerile ideal of aesthetic purity. Nevertheless, the sadness can come into being only as a measure of the distance of art from life.
For the early Romantics, even for Hugo, the grotesque was the eruption of life into art, the refusal to admit a separate sphere for art in which it could impose its own standards. For Flaubert, it has become a means of isolating art, of removing the possibility of “a cause, a purpose” for art. The Romantic tradition has begun to turn sour for Flaubert, and the tensions between literature and life have grown more difficult to control.
Tinsel becomes here the symbol of his art not only because it has no practical value, but no cultural value as well. The poetry of tinsel resists all the demands of morality, culture, and the ordinary commerce of life; its sadness is a function of its purity and its isolation. Protected by its barrier of grotesque bad taste, it can withstand all other pretensions.
For Flaubert, the grotesque is not, therefore, the natural monsters (dwarfs and gargoyles) of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Victor Hugo that testify to the irrepressible creative forces of reality which can never be contained by the rules of classical art: it is rather the simple ordinary human act drained of all sense, of all cultural meaning. Flaubert hangs on the wall Callot’s etching of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, a work he loved and wanted to own for a long time, and writes to Louise Colet:
Le grotesque triste a pour moi un charme inouï. Il correspond aux besoins intimes de ma nature buffonnement amère. Il ne me fait pas rire mais rêver longuement. Je le saisis bien partout où il se trouve et comme je le porte en moi ainsi que tout le monde voilà pourquoi j’aime à m’analyser. C’est une étude qui m’amuse. Ce qui m’empêche de me prendre au sérieux, quoique j’aie l’esprit assez grave, c’est que je me trouve très ridicule, non pas de ce ridicule relatif qui est le comique théâtral, mais de ce ridicule intrinsèque à la vie humaine elle-même et qui ressort de l’action le plus simple, ou du geste le plus ordinaire. Jamais par exemple je ne me fais la barbe sans rire, tant ça me paraît bête. [August 21-22, 1846, pp. 307-308]
(The sad grotesque has an extraordinary charm for me; it corresponds to the inner needs of my clownishly bitter nature. It does not make me laugh but dream at great length. I seize it wherever it is found and as I carry it within me as everyone does, that is why I love to analyze myself. The study amuses me. What prevents me from taking myself seriously in spite of a solemn temperament is that I find myself quite absurd, not with that relative absurdity which is the theatrically comic, but with that intrinsic absurdity of human life itself that appears in the simplest action or the most ordinary gesture. For example I never shave without laughing, as it seems so idiotic to me.)
This conception of the grotesque transforms it from the counterweight to classical beauty into the guarantor of classical perfection. The beauty of Flaubert’s art appears above all when the subject is understood as absurd, senseless, drained of meaning: the beauty can then be perceived free from all other pressures. In his last novel, the two clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet, create a wonderfully eclectic garden out of their studies of landscaping, one of their many attempts to understand culture: the center of it is a romantically shaped rock, laboriously pieced together with cement, which rises “like a gigantic potato.” They invite their friends to dinner; with the champagne they open the curtains of the salon, and reveal the garden:
C’était, dans le crépuscule, quelque chose d’effrayant. Le rocher, comme une montagne, occupait le gazon, le tombeau faisait un cube au milieu des épinards, le pont venitien un accent circonflexe par-dessus les haricots, et la cabane, au delà, une grande tache noire, car ils avaient incendié son toit de paille pour la rendre plus poétique.
(It was, in the twilight, something frightening. The rock dominated the lawn like a mountain, the tomb made a cube in the middle of the spinach, the Venetian bridge a circumflex accent over the beans, and the rustic hut, beyond, a large black blot, as they had burned its thatch to make it more poetic.)
The perfection of Flaubert’s cadences, their relentless and untranslatable beauty, is not in contrast to the absurdity of the scene but indifferent to it; the beauty is, if at all, only intermittently ironic as these cadences are spread indiscriminately over everything. All human activity is equally senseless, a kind of neutral material apt without exception for transformation into art.