«2.1 Introduction In January 1857, Gustave Flaubert received a summons at his address in Croisset to attend court to face charges that the publication ...»
Readers of Madame Bovary complained not only about the mediocrity of Emma’s surroundings and her behaviour, the prevailing moods of boredom and eroticism, but the lack of any countervailing force. There was no virtuous ﬁgure to stand against this vapid woman, nobody of superior morals whose force might console the reader. Emma’s husband Charles is an incompetent ignoramus at the bottom of the medical ladder whose attempt to restore some kind of social respectability to their marriage goes badly wrong when he botches an operation to remedy the village idiot’s clubfoot. The local pharmacist Homais—in many ways Emma’s true foil—is an intellectual fool who feeds his vanity on exactly the kind of opinions Flaubert went on to satirise in his Dictionary of Received Ideas. There is, however, one character in the book, as Allan Bloom noticed, who might be the author visiting his own creation, although his appearance in the novel is so ﬂeeting and incidental it could easily be overlooked. It is the character of the great surgeon Dr. Larivière, who is called in at the end to treat Emma when she is writhing in agony from the arsenic she has taken: he is described by Flaubert as being “hospitable and generous, like a father to the poor, practising virtue without believing in it, he might almost have passed for a saint had not his mental acuity caused him to be feared as a demon” [2, p. 299].
It was precisely the impartiality of this ﬁgure of the physician—there are three in the novel: Charles, Emma’s husband, the lowly medical ofﬁcer, Dr. Canivet from Rouen, a vulgar surgeon who gets called in to perform an amputation subsequent to Charles’ bodged job of clubfoot repair, and the aforementioned Dr. Larivière— which was cast back in Flaubert’s face by the critics of the time. Flaubert was accused (particularly by those who knew his father had been a doctor in practice in Rouen) of being a surgeon who had missed his vocation: it was perfectly acceptable for medical reports to appear in professional journals but the novel ought not be the arena for an anatomist-clinician who wished to shove his readers’ faces in the bloodand-guts reality of operations. “We should no longer talk of literature,” wrote the critic Alfred Nettement, “we are in a dissection room and we have just read an autopsy report” [13, p. 129 and cited in 5, p. 145]. Flaubert had transgressed the rules of good taste, and committed a contextual sin. Not only had he not included a morally exemplary character to counter the ﬂightiness of Emma, but he as author had shirked the task of telling readers how to judge this “provincial tale.” Letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, 18 March 1857.
14 I. Bamforth As Flaubert himself insisted, this was precisely the form impartiality and detachment had to assume. One of his fundamental aesthetic principles was that the artist should not subordinate his conception of the work to a cause, whether it be political, moral or instructive: “there is no literature of good intentions: style is everything”12 [11, p. 507]. Subjecting a work of art to an extrinsic morality was, for him, the true contextual sin. By defending the autonomy of art, Flaubert uncovered the complexity of what normally constitutes “evidence”, and the real difﬁculty of drawing moral judgements.
2.3 The Work
Flaubert’s strategy was to turn terms on their heads. The good should not be the precondition for a work of literature; it ought to be an effect generated by the work itself or—to use the term beloved by the spiritualists of his century—an ‘emanation.’ A work successful in its own terms cannot be bad. Works written with the express intention of being edifying are, on the other hand, doomed from the outset to aesthetic failure; they are obliged to foreshorten the riot of the human scene to a narrow perspective reﬂecting the stance of a narrator or personage whose sole function in the work is to give voice to contemporary morality. That was precisely his criticism of the book which appeared as he was writing his own great novel, and would go on to become the best-selling book of the nineteenth-century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The submission to an extrinsic code also applied, in Flaubert’s view, to writers who wrote out of a desire to preach to the masses, like the social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon, whose followers advocated a state-technocratic form of socialism and wrote books with a ‘message’ (as in the diktats of Socialist Realism a century later), as well as to the hordes of successful contemporary writers who wrote syrupy, wholesome novels for which, as he told Louise Colet, he knew the exact formula: “Lend it a sentimental ending, a mock nature, virtuous peasants, a few commonplaces about morality, with a touch of moonlight among the ruins for sensitive souls, the whole thing intertwined with banal expressions, tired comparisons, stupid ideas—and I’ll be hanged if it doesn’t become popular”13 [11, p. 251]. It is a choice irony that it is precisely this kind of ‘noble’ novel which Emma and her ﬁrst lover imagine they are acting out in their adulterous liaison among the ‘disappointments of life.’ There was more. If the good is something that emerges from the work itself, then the logic of impartiality can be driven further. The morality to which Flaubert felt he was expected to conform was itself immoral, being based on a contrived, artiﬁcial, dichotomous notion of morality, as if there was a clear dividing line between the material world and the spiritual, the bad and the good. In a letter to his mother, Flaubert denounced in particular what he saw as the musty bigotry of the ‘moral Letter to Louise Colet, 15 January 1854.
Letter to Louise Colet, 27 February 1853 (my translation).
2 Literature and Ethics: Learning to Read with Emma Bovary 15 corset’ imposed on young women. The censoriousness, stufﬁness and rigorism of traditional morality often hid a prurient interest in the lewd and salacious: Flaubert was amused to hear, some years after his trial, that the chief prosecutor had been exposed as the pseudonymous author of lubricious poems. Clearly it wasn’t only the ﬁctional inhabitants of Yonville l’Abbaye in his novel who exhibit the hypocrisy of a bourgeois morality that tolerates vice under the mantle of virtue. Flaubert’s provincial characters are experts in lip-service and sham, full of good intentions but ultimately self-interested and manipulative in securing their own ‘interest’: the pharmacist Homais—the prototypical man of today—seeks to win the favour of Emma’s husband Charles, so that he will turn a blind eye to his illegal practice of medicine (for the sake of ‘advancing’ Science); and Emma’s two lovers are ready to drop their mistress the moment the whole masquerade of their adulterous relationship with her threatens to jeopardise their social standing.
What Flaubert suggests, in his endless curiosity at the diversity of human wheeling and dealing, is that where vice can prosper under the disguise of a clear bourgeois conscience, it becomes more difﬁcult to grasp a character like Emma in the traditional categories of good and bad. Her actions and thoughts are, in fact, as hard to decipher as the intentions of her creator. She is irresponsible, which was precisely the quality Henry James hoped for his work in 1885 when he complained that George Eliot (whose masterpiece Middlemarch bears essentially the same subtitle as Flaubert’s [9, p. 1]) was altogether too knowing in the way she wrote: characters should have their own life within novels.14 Indeed, at those moments in the novel when Emma displays charity and generosity she is also in the grip of envy, rage and hate. “She had such tender words and such lofty looks, so many ways of her own, that one could no longer distinguish egoism from charity, nor corruption from virtue” [10, p. 333]. Like those around her, Emma has middling, quite conventional thoughts; she distinguishes herself from the mediocrity of her entourage only in one respect: she has an overwhelming passion, a thirst for the absolute, like St Anthony, the desert anchorite whose temptations preoccupied Flaubert for much of his writing life.15 That is why she holds no charms for Homais, the comically self-satisﬁed rational man whose ﬁrst words are “You’ve got to keep up with the times!” Emma is a provocation to the novel’s readers to feel differently—to avoid the decorum, Flaubert is signiﬁcantly absent in Martha Nussbaum’s magisterial Love’s Knowledge, although her remarks on Henry James’s way of being responsible to his created story (The Golden Bowl), even when its characters are ungovernable “in the old plastic, irresponsible sense”, and the reader’s way of responding to the text are germane to my argument: “We notice the way we are inclined to miss things, to pass over things, to leave out certain interpretative possibilities while pursuing others” [14, p. 144].
Anybody who encounters Flaubert’s last book The Temptation of St Anthony (1874) will have no difﬁculty at all accepting his contention that he was not a realist: seven dramatic tableaux present a night of ordeals in the life of the fourth-century anchorite Saint Anthony, who withdrew from society to live a life of prayer in the desert. Flaubert was obsessed with this Christian anchorite, completing drafts of his book in 1849, 1856 and 1872 before ﬁnal publication. Flaubert though it was a masterpiece; it was a critical disaster. The spectacle of a saint tempted by false beliefs and worldly treasures is of course wildly suggestive in terms of Flaubert’s own career—“Saint Antoine, c’est moi!” is what he ought to have said about himself.
16 I. Bamforth pieties and perceptive automatisms which govern moral judgement and broaden their experience of the world that surrounds them, whether it happens to be the stony streets of provincial Normandy or, more improbably, the sands of the Egyptian desert.
The ‘moral’ of the art which Flaubert advances aims to cultivate a new kind of receptivity in the reader; it seeks to break with what he saw as the bourgeois order’s ‘autolatry,’ its conviction in the rightness of its own moral sensibility, its cult of the self. And that includes any attempt by the author to make his work a showcase for his own personality. It is necessary “to have sympathy for everything and for everyone,” he wrote to a correspondent16 [11, p. 785]. Indeed, as a logical extension of this conviction, a writer’s ethics can only mean not falling into an idolatry of the act of writing itself.17 What counts is the work, and not the way taken to get there, however agonisingly ‘heroic’ it might seem in retrospect. As Marcel Proust, a close reader of Flaubert (and a successor often regarded as the emblematic ‘heroic’ writer), put it, criticising the aestheticism of the English writer John Ruskin, in Time Regained, “It would be absurd to sacriﬁce to the symbol the reality that it symbolises” [15, p. 795]. This kind of sacriﬁce is a writer’s perpetual temptation, especially in France where the love of literature is more likely than anywhere else, according to the philosopher Jacques Bouveresse, to assume “the trappings of a religion” [3, p. 56]. We can see the monastic Flaubert struggling with this paradox himself in his letters, one of the most fascinating documents in the entire literary corpus of a writer’s effort to express the truth. After all, the truly ethical writer might just be St Anthony, who wrote nothing at all. What remains is the sacerdotal image.
The classic French moralists of the past were great writers not only because of their stylistic assurance but because they were free of any narcissistic urge to defend their place in the scheme of things: they were clear-sighted, forthright and unforgiving, including with themselves. Attentiveness to the perceptual world stands in opposition to the routines of the ordinary world of wear and tear: it is able to surprise and astonish. Rodolphe, the serial seducer in Madame Bovary, embodies its obverse: his practised dedications to Emma rapidly dull and fade. After the fervour of his ﬁrst meetings with Emma, she becomes a somewhat indistinct presence in his life—she is just another name on a seducer’s list of conquests. She has lost her novelty. Flaubert’s own aesthetic strategy to combat habituation and monotony is to draw out the emotional context behind conventional feelings by attending to the hardly perceptible but telling detail. Gaps and blanks become as important as the explicitly pictured. A tissue of banalities can suddenly reveal a tiny ﬂeck of discord, unnoticed by all except the narrator. When Léon one evening in the company of Homais spies the teeth of Emma’s comb “biting” the hair piled up on her head, the minor detail seems ominous beyond the very ordinary reality it represents. Emma’s “Ah!” which concludes their dialogue when Charles tells her of his grief about his father’s death, says everything Letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, 12 December 1857.
Asked in an interview by Georges-Elia Sarfati what the phrase ‘ethics and writing’ suggested to him, the contemporary French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut replied: “Off the cuff, I’d say ethics consists of not falling into the idolatry of writing” [16, p. 72].