What does “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” mean?

March 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Apparently, Gustave Flaubert said at some point (I haven’t been able to find the source in a web search), “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” — “Madame Bovary, that’s me.” Thus a million essays were born.

There’s no way that Flaubert was literally identifying with Emma Bovary’s swooning, fanciful, impressionable mind. A mind like Emma’s couldn’t have executed so ruthlessly and dispassionately a plot like that of her novel.

So what would Gustave see of himself in Emma? A creditable subset of her traits: imagination, passion, sensuality, intelligence, even a kind of ambition. In Emma these traits lead (in such a beautifully unfolding fall) to cruelty, frivolity, and futility.

Flaubert was also a romantic, a dreamer, a lover of old and grandiose fables. His favorite of his works, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, was inspired by a painting of that old moral tale (and how like Emma that Flaubert found his inspiration in a painting).

The difference between Gustave and Emma is what Flaubert did with his imagination, eventually. He recognized that imagination is imagination, fiction is fiction, and he set his to the task of composing a completely ordered universe after his vision. (People with fancies as rich and pure as Flaubert’s can never be happy realizing their visions with the crude material of their lives.) To look at it another way, he did dispassionate work with passion.

This leads me to think that for those with the purest imaginations, the difference between productive and unproductive fantasy is a mental act of separation: one’s life from one’s art.

(You notice how easy it is for people to separate their “lives” from their “work”? They can point to their jobs and say, “That’s not me. That’s just what I do.” I’d bet this is especially true for the great ones.)

Emma directed the energy of her imagination toward her life — that’s a delusional undertaking. Flaubert directed his toward what he recognized as an utter fantasy — a book, ink on a page, the most useless and impractical of things.

One last thing (for you essay writers): So, is Madame Bovary really about Flaubert? Is it an alternate universe where he contemplates a less disciplined version of himself?

I like to think about a larger set of questions instead: is great writing ‘personal’? Is it in some sense about its author? Is it a more or less metaphorical depiction of the author’s life and time and state of mind?

Yes, kinda, and no.

Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s book — it’s a distillation of his genius, and in that sense, it’s utterly personal. There’s no use pretending the book is a free-standing stone now that its author is dead. Someone produced that work, and as a matter of respect for the human mind, we shouldn’t forget that.

It can’t be stressed enough: A person writes a book. A person has a great idea. A person invented the wheel. (See how ridiculous you sound when you substitute one of these for ‘person’: era, ethos, movement, culture, nation, organization, paradigm, school of thought…)

But the question of how much we know Flaubert’s mind once we’ve read his book, or what in the story corresponds to what episode of his biography, or person in his life, or corner of his psyche, is completely incidental.

Look at it this way: when you listen to a director’s commentary on a DVD, at least one of you has their tongue in cheek.

Ban the Test of Time

March 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the most insidious ideas I’ve ever come across — right up there with, let’s see, censorship, humility, sequels… — is The Test of Time.

The Test of Time — and this is why it’s particularly dangerous — gets invoked so casually, so often, and so implicitly that it’s easy to let it go unchallenged. It seems like an airtight no-brainer, right? If you want an authoritative, reliable indicator of what’s worth listening to or looking at or reading, look no further than the reputations conferred by decades. Right? The past’s selective memory leads us to Beethoven, Flaubert, Picasso — it’s good at what it does!

But The Test of Time is a siren song. By that I mean it’s a tempting evil warping our youth and stultifying our imaginations. The problem is that The Test of Time is most earnestly used in present judgment.

When I see or hear people ask the worthwhile question, “What is literature? What is a work of art? How do we know what’s worth our attention?”, a solid thought-terminating cliche of an answer is never far behind: “It’s what stands The Test of Time.” Simply look back over what we know, and the answer is obvious: the good art is defined by the fact that we know it’s good.

Three reasons this drives me nuts:

  1. It’s an easy answer. What are you supposed to say to that? “No, Anna Karenina sucks. The sum of human curiosity is wrong.” The notion has ostensible validity — the worst kind of validity.
  2. It’s tautological. So it doesn’t even answer the question, or have any substance.
  3. It encourages incuriosity. It validates incuriosity, sanctifies it even. Why appreciate something for yourself when there’s an extrinsic test to tell you what to think?

Let me talk about the third point, which is what I talk about when I talk about evil. Imagine your child or your student or your friend comes to you and asks “How can I discover this book’s beauty, or understand its lack thereof? How can I know good from bad? What are the joys people speak of when they celebrate a work of art?” Now imagine your answer: “A book is beautiful because it stands The Test of Time.”

What you are instilling in this formerly curious scholar is that the way to understand what makes a book good (or a painting, or a piece of music…) is to, first, die without giving it a serious thought, and then, to let their children and grandchildren reap the benefit of more courageous and inquiring readers. This, apparently, is the path to aesthetic enlightenment.

If somebody asks you why Anna Karenina is a good book, talk about anything — the richness of its characters’ interactions, the patterns of their dreams and introspections and regrets, Karenin and Vronski’s twin baldnesses — anything other than the fact that it’s already famous. You might actually encourage them to read and think (and see and listen…) more deeply. And this is the only way to overthrow the tyranny of easy, received ideas.

Worst of all, where does The Test of Time leave you in the consideration of present-day writing? What makes this book good and that one bad if they’re both less than ten years old? Is it the more fashionable one? The more unfashionable? The more topical? None of these can be right, can they? The Test of Time is useless here — worse than useless, since it recommends putting off the question instead of considering it. There’s only one right approach, and it’s not easy at all — the better one can only be determined by picking up each, reading each, and encountering each as a new imaginative undertaking. Then, when you’ve stretched your own imagination in order to better understand the author’s, then you’re in some position to speak about whether this one is good or that one is bad.

But The Test of Time doesn’t care what you think, does it? It cares only what a mass of people think for long enough, or what opinion a certain mass of people can successfully entrench in the culture. And that’s why The Test of Time is bullshit. You can’t study it in a lab, you can’t illuminate it with reflection or discussion, and you can’t hone the instinct in yourself. It has every quality of holistic drivel.

So let’s ban The Test of Time. Call people out on it when you hear it. (Hell, link them here.) Don’t let it gain traction or ease into credibility. Despite its easy authority, we can fight it! One day, if people like you and me work hard enough, The Test of Time will be on a par with “new math”. And then, the monkey off our backs, the demon slayed, the siren silenced, we can talk about the words on a page again.

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