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Think Like a Demigod’

Madness and debauchery are two things that I have probed so deeply, where I have found my way so well by my own willpower, that I shall never become (I hope) either a madman or a Marquis de Sade.”

—Flaubert to Louise Colet, July 7, 1853

…live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.”

—Flaubert to Colet, August 21, 1853

1.

Most cultivated readers, critics, and literary historians would, I believe, rank Gustave Flaubert among the ten best novelists of all time. He earned that honor toward the close of the Romantic era primarily on the basis of a single book, Madame Bovary, in which he harnessed and disciplined the effusiveness of his early writing. Behind Madame Bovary stands a corpus of less-known writing and a surprisingly eventful life.

We recognize Flaubert in one composite image based on two Nadar photographs taken about 1865. Flaubert was then in his mid-forties. The photographs show a well-tailored, mostly bald, middle-age man with a bedraggled walrus moustache and a dreamy expression. He looks like Grover Cleveland. This may be Flaubert’s spit-and-image, but it is also a near incognito for the author of Madame Bovary writing in his early thirties. For we know that in his prime, Flaubert was tall and robust, with long blond hair and a beard. Maxime du Camp described him as “of heroic beauty.” Other friends referred to him fondly as “mon géant” and even as an Adonis. Flaubert also had a strong, well-modulated voice which could dominate a room and, in day-long sessions of reading his works aloud, hold his listeners.

This was the striking figure who survived many serious encounters with epilepsy beginning at age twenty-two, who on the advice of two friends gave up hopes of publishing his first novel, who traveled for a year and a half in Egypt and the Near East, and who wrote to his absent mistress a vividly revealing, almost daily account of the five-year labor to compose Madame Bovary.

The incognito produced by Nadar’s photographs is mostly of Flaubert’s own making. He refused to let Madame Bovary be illustrated; pictures, he said, would usurp the essential work of the reader’s imagination. Similarly, he showed great reluctance over letting himself be photographed or sketched. The paucity of portrait images of him is not fully redeemed by the caricatures hurled at Flaubert by the Paris press, most of them delighting in his walrus moustache.

Partly because he occupied all three of the principal nineteenth-century literary roles—the Romantic, the realist, the art-for-art’s-sake aesthete—Flaubert’s reputation has grown dramatically since his death in 1880. But, compared to Dickens and Chekhov and Balzac, the number of straightforward biographies devoted to Flaubert is unexpectedly small. Two seminal works appeared in French by Albert Thibaudet (1922) and by René Dumesnil (1932). After a pause during which extensive new materials, particularly letters, were amassed and collated, the British took over with Enid Starkie’s two-volume study (1967 and 1971) and Herbert Lottman’s competent single volume (1989). During that period it was as if Jean-Paul Sartre’s three-volume The Idiot of the Family (1971–1972) had blanketed the field of Flaubert studies in a cloud of suspicion and misjudgment. The appearance of Geoffrey Wall’s Flaubert: A Life suggests that Sartre’s noxious cloud may have dissipated.

Flaubert was as precocious as Rimbaud, who wrote his important works between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. Instead of running away to Paris and writing poetry, Flaubert stayed in Rouen, where his father was a well-known surgeon, and made up wild and classical entertainments with his brilliant younger sister; he filled notebooks with romantic plots and grotesque characters, and got himself thrown out of the Rouen lycée for disputing a punishment. In these years he formed the first of four passionately close male heterosexual friendships which sustained him through much of his career. The best known of these companions, Maxime du Camp, shared Flaubert’s years in Paris as a law student, accompanied him on a three-month walking-camping trip around Brittany in 1847 and on an eighteen-month exploration of the Near East, published Madame Bovary by installments in his literary review, and, despite serious quarrels, remained close until Flaubert’s death at fifty-eight.

A great number of women played a part in Flaubert’s life, with whom he could practice shameless debauchery as well as resolute abstinence. The women who marked him were all older than he. No one ever displaced his devoted mother. His idealized love as an adolescent for a maternal beauty he met on the beach at Trouville was succeeded but not obliterated at eighteen by a passionate sexual encounter with a thirty-five-year-old hotel keeper in Marseille. Flaubert’s turbulent liaison with the beautiful and ambitious Louise Colet, twelve years older, produced interludes of sensual satisfaction, prolonged separations, and hundreds of pages of high-relief amorous and upbraiding letters heavily laced on his side with literature. Only Flaubert’s letters have survived.

In his early forties Flaubert drew close to a woman eighteen years his senior whose prolific writings he had earlier disdained. This deeply affectionate, chaste, utterly trusting intimacy with the notorious liberated novelist George Sand complemented Flaubert’s male friendships during his last two decades. It is as if the aging feminist revolutionary and the grumpy middle-aged pseudo-misanthrope had been converted to each other’s literary convictions. And from this pair flowed another moving and historically absorbing correspondence—of which we fortunately have both sides. They liked to call themselves “the old troubadours” and visited each other’s home. Sand died before she could read the jewel of a story “A Simple Heart,” which Flaubert wrote in response to her criticisms of his work and practically to her specifications.

One of the striking aspects of Flaubert’s life is how early he perceived and accepted the shifting contours of his own existence. At twenty-four in the second month of his correspondence with Louise Colet, he wrote like a sixty-year-old looking backward on his career. “It’s all mathematical,” he explained. His existence as an ordinary person had ended with the epileptic crisis at twenty-two and the premature deaths soon after of his respected father and beloved sister. Since that multiple trauma, he “divided everything into two parts”: the immense multicolored spectacle of the outward world and the inward world refined and concentrated by “the open window of intelligence.” Another version of this alternation between two poles appears in the second epigraph above written during the throes of composing Madame Bovary. Flaubert knew himself to be as much a creature of literary and social circles as he was “the hermit of Croisset.” He kept telling himself that he had a will of iron, capable of making huge sacrifices to the inward domain. Increasingly he came to associate that domain with a single word: “Art” with a capital A.

2.

Geoffrey Wall has translated Madame Bovary and edited his own selection of Flaubert’s letters for Penguin Classics. It would be hard to devise any better basic training to write a literate biography of the novelist. Wall has produced a readable synthesis of the vast supply of printed materials on Flaubert with little attempt to seek new sources. The opening chapters are well documented, and then Wall relies increasingly and justifiably on Jean Bruneau’s magnificent Pléiade edition of Flaubert’s correspondence. (Four of the announced five volumes have appeared.) Wall follows the obvious divisions of Flaubert’s life, set principally by geography, by the protracted compositions of his works, and by major external events like wars, revolutions, and financial uncertainty. Flaubert: A Life moves fairly steadily toward the long central chapter, “The Pangs of Art,” concerned with the composition, publication, critical reception, public trial, and acquittal of Madame Bovary. Wall also writes a sympathetic and informative chapter about the tonic friendship and copious correspondence between Flaubert and George Sand.

Yet even in the carefully written first half of the book, Wall allows himself some dubious generalizations:

It requires little ingenuity to suggest that Flaubert’s richest satirical aggressive impulses were rooted in the fascinations of anality.

Looking for the Mother was already the great theme of Flaubert’s erotic quest.

The Colet Effect—for we may call it that—was generated by the volatile, hazardous substance she herself compounded with lavish care from echoes, images and reflections….

It is not so much Wall’s faint Freudian allegiance that troubles me; it is rather a hovering impulse to reductionism that moves away from the particulars of Flaubert’s life and work. Wall’s captions for the illustrations have the same penchant for type casting: “The Rich Friend,” “The Other Friend,” “The Mother,” “The Public Face” (for one of Nadar’s 1865 photographs). The book sounds at moments like a modern morality play.

Here is Wall’s opening sentence. “Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, doctor of medicine and father of Gustave Flaubert, was a man whose life could be read as an illustration of the bourgeois virtues.” “Civic virtues” and “scientific virtues” would both supply a more accurate description of this admirable man who served his community, his profession, and his family with devotion. But Wall wants to introduce as soon as possible a hypothesis about the allegedly nefarious role of the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century France. A few chapters later, Wall proposes a moral conversion supposedly undergone by Flaubert at age twenty-five:

Against the tide of this anxious bourgeois discipline, against the smooth, insidious flow of official religiosity, Flaubert resolved to cultivate the polemical visions of a human energy that was simultaneously artistic, sexual and religious. This resolution is first put forward here in Blois.

Perhaps. As the second epigraph above affirms, Flaubert never overcame a profound ambivalence toward every aspect of bourgeois living. (What are we to make of the fact that on this walking trip around Brittany that carried them first to Blois, Maxime du Camp’s and Flaubert’s passports listed their profession as “rentier,” i.e., someone who lives off investments?) But Wall does not acknowledge that the self-discipline that Flaubert learned by sustained effort of will during the composition of Madame Bovary was as much a matter of bourgeois discipline as it was of revolutionary or artistic discipline. After the chapter on Madame Bovary, Wall writes these terse phrases on the first page of the following chapter about Salammbô: “After five years of Madame Bovary, five years in the company of pusillanimous mediocrity, [Flaubert] was now eager for action of a more spacious and decisive kind.” “Pusillanimous mediocrity?” Do these words describe the reckless, ardent, foolish woman that is Emma Bovary? Hardly. They summon up the image of a tawdry bourgeois slattern, a stereotype not imagined by Flaubert. He stated flatly yet slyly, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Baudelaire recognized her as temperamentally a man. Wall, after misrepresenting Emma, welcomes the barbarian extravagances of Salammbô because they will “drown” or perhaps “burn” the bourgeois reader. Wall has a weakness for casual bourgeois-bashing. As one reads on in his uneven biography, one comes to expect flashes of deep-seated animus both toward Flaubert’s complex character and toward his highly varied writings.

The most disappointing feature of Flaubert: A Life is that it grows sketchy toward the end and then comes to a virtual stop four years before Flaubert’s death. “I would happily relinquish Flaubert here, in the full splendor of his achievement….” And so Wall does. Only six more pages squeeze by before the curtain comes down. Was there a deadline to meet? Did Wall find himself stymied without the final volume of the Pléiade correspondence? In any case, the reader is deprived of any information at all about Henry James’s meetings with Flaubert in Paris, or about the important Sunday afternoon receptions for Flaubert’s friends, including Turgenev and Zola, at his Paris apartment, or about the wrenching break with his loyal friend Edmond Laporte, who had been helpful to Flaubert financially, or about the encyclopedic reading, extensive field work, and disciplined schedule for his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. Wall’s truncated ending, whether petulant or neglectful, is so close to disabling that I cannot recommend his biography to the discriminating reader. One will find Flaubert reliably in two places: Herbert Lottman’s Flaubert: A Biography (1989) and Flaubert’s own irrepressible letters.1

3.

Three further aspects of Flaubert’s life and work are touched on in Wall’s book. Can one describe and make sense of something called “Flaubert’s aesthetic”? Most critics have discovered in his writings a prolonged alternation of loyalties between temperamental Romanticism and earnestly acquired realism. But Flaubert shouted mocking insults at realist doctrines all his life and took shelter often in an art-for-art’s-sake attitude toward language and form. Wall proposes early in his book a medical aesthetic based on the fact that Flaubert was a surgeon’s son and grew up next to a hospital, a morgue, and a dissecting room. Wall quotes Flaubert from 1853 remembering his sometimes macabre youth: “External reality has to enter into us, almost enough to make us cry out, if we are to represent it properly.” Later Wall suggests a “medical-gothic” aesthetic: “Mortal pain is an insistent feature of Flaubert’s realism.” This insistence on direct experience slights the countervailing tendency in Flaubert’s attitude as an artist toward detachment and imagination. “The less one feels a thing, the more apt one is to express it as it is.” Wall himself quotes from Flaubert’s lengthy manifesto-like letter from Egypt to his mother explaining his opposition to marriage:

You can portray wine, love, glory, on condition…of being neither a drinker, a lover, a husband or a soldier. Immersed in life, you cannot see it clearly, too taken up with its joys and sorrows. To my mind an artist is a monstrosity, a thing outside nature.

Flaubert the monster-artist remains a very elusive figure, effectively hidden behind the Grover Cleveland exterior.

Thus Flaubert, the bon bourgeois, also avoids notice. From most dependable accounts and from his own inexhaustible letters, we can form a fairly clear idea of the hermit-artist in dressing gown declaiming his lines in the solitary Normandy house and, at the other extreme, of the enterprising pursuer of experience to the reaches of the upper Nile, to the lowliest brothel, and into the blood-curdling imaginary dungeons of the Marquis de Sade’s universe. But in pursuing these extreme roles, Flaubert did not abandon his profound attachment to “bourgeois virtues” of hard work, family loyalty, professional responsibility, and devotion to one’s friends.

Flaubert had a very unsteady connection to anything that might be called a public. But his friends never deserted him; they loved his enthusiastic responses to extremes of grotesque and sublime, and smiled at his willingness to dress fashionably and be received at the imperial court of Napoleon III. When he wrote to George Sand, “Maxim: hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue,” he knew full well that he was referring to himself and to Sand as bourgeois. Far removed from politics, such a statement celebrates the all-embracing principle of blague, joke, caricature, grotesque, and satire that saved the bourgeois nineteenth century from itself. There was very little of republicanism or of democracy in Flaubert’s social attitudes. They included an unhidden nostalgia for some form of legitimate aristocracy. Drawing on the formidable accumulation of bourgeois virtues, Flaubert was able to devise a modus vivendi to deal with the extremes that afflicted him, including madness and debauchery. He also perceived and savored the subtleties of ironic conformity.

The lingering prospect of madness raises the topic of Flaubert as a pathological case. Wall overlooks recent neurological accounts and offers a less reliable version of Flaubert’s epilepsy than Lottman’s biography does. But so far as I can determine, no biographer or critic has paid adequate attention to an exchange of letters Flaubert had with Hippolyte Taine in 1866. They had become friends in Paris. Taine was one of the more impressive intellectual presences in France during the last half of the century. Remembered until a few decades ago by graduate students as author of the theory of literary production based on “race, milieu, moment” and as a historian of the Revolution, Taine believed that his major contribution to knowledge and science was the two-volume De l’intelligence (1870) on the psychology of perception and language and on the formation of the self. Based in part on interviews with mental cases and prominent artists (including Gustave Doré) and writers, the nine-hundred-page book develops a theory of consciousness as a form of “true hallucination.”2 Fairly early Taine discusses the relations in the mind between imaginary images and “true” sensations of the world around us, essentially a competition between illusion and reality. After quoting two historical cases, Taine writes:

The characters I create,” writes the most exact and lucid of modern novelists in a letter to me, “affect me deeply, they haunt me; or, rather, I haunt them: I live in their skin. When I was writing about Madame Bovary taking poison, I had such a distinct taste of arsenic in my mouth, was poisoned so effectively myself, that I had two attacks of indigestion—two very real attacks, for I vomited my entire dinner.”

Affect me deeply” is apparently Taine’s slightly toned down version of Flaubert’s original statement that his characters could “drive me insane” (m’affolent). In either version Flaubert’s description displays a vivid instance of what Taine would call hypertrophied imagination. But Taine has failed to grasp that Flaubert is an even better witness than Taine realizes. Twenty lines further on in the same letter, the novelist makes the very distinction Taine is trying to emphasize:

Incidentally, do not confuse the inner vision of the artist with that of a man suffering from actual hallucinations. I know those two states perfectly: there is a gulf between them. In genuine hallucination there is always terror; you feel that your personality is slipping away from you; you think you’re going to die. In poetic vision, on the contrary, there is joy. It is something that permeates you. Nevertheless, here too you lose your bearings.

In other words Flaubert the novelist remains cognizant of his mental states and maintains control over them. In a genuine hallucinatory episode such as Flaubert experienced in his early epileptic attacks, discrimination and control are lost. These two letters, both solicited by Taine with carefully worded and numbered questions, provide the best description, both subjective and objective, that we have of Flaubert’s conflicting states and how he struggled to cope with them. (Both letters appear in full in Steegmuller’s selection.) The great ragout of physiology, philosophy, personal response, and social commentary poured out in Flaubert’s letters begins to taste convincingly like the inexhaustible pot-au-feu Montaigne’s essays offer us. Both authors are prepared to dwell as long on the savor of a ripe melon as on the significance of a moral dilemma.

Flaubert called his earliest piece of extended narrative Memoirs of a Madman. I believe he also unobtrusively signed two of his masterpieces with a brief but searing incident of hallucination, of fleeting yet unmistakable madness. In both cases the person afflicted belongs to the peasant culture, close to the land and to local customs. Old Rouault, Emma Bovary’s widowed farmer father, informed by letter that his daughter is on her deathbed, literally spurs his nag all night in order to reach her faster. Along the way, he “felt himself going mad,” watches his whole past replay, and suddenly sees Emma lying dead on her back on the road in front of him. “He pulled on the bridle and the hallucination disappeared.”

In the story “A Simple Heart” the deaf old servant Félicité, carrying the body of her beloved parrot to Honfleur to be stuffed, is knocked unconscious in the road by a passing mail-coach and barely recovers. A little later on her journey, a “faintness” overwhelms her and her whole life reappears to her “like the waves of an incoming tide.” Scholars have pointed out that this scene from Flaubert’s last completed collection transposes the scene and the circumstances of his first major epileptic attack as a young man in January 1844. That episode, which some regard as evidence of Flaubert’s weakened grasp of reality, he himself associated with two of his most stalwart characters, each incarnating human integrity. Flaubert never turned his back on fools and madmen among whom he was willing to count himself at least intermittently.

There is a precious form of statement, as close to platitude as to proverb, that joins the superficial with the profound, the hackneyed with true wisdom. We come gradually to understand that Flaubert stated and enacted in the alternating circumstances of his life and writings a dynamic that the great Flaubert scholar Jean Bruneau paraphrased as follows: “L’artiste ne peut pas à la fois représenter et vivre.” (“The artist cannot at the same time depict life and live it.”) Existence, possibly not for the artist alone, displays its deepest unity in reciprocating action, in oscillation between opposed tendencies. Don’t try to do or to be everything at once.

I find it reassuring, even consoling, in a little collection of pithy sayings called The Yogi Book to come upon this Flaubertian truism: “You cannot think and hit at the same time.”

  1. 1

    Francis Steegmuller’s selection and translation is still available from Harvard University Press. Wall’s shorter volume of letters is published by Penguin.

  2. 2

    The first author mentioned in André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924) is Taine, with particular reference to his treatment of “true hallucination.” Daniel C. Dennett opens his book Consciousness Explained (1991) with a prelude entitled “How are Hallucinations Possible?”

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