Now featuring *Amanda Knox*
“Here comes my sister! She’s an American girl.”
Randolph Miller in Henry James, Daisy Miller, 1878.
The American girl is different. Daisy Miller horrified European America and much of Europe with her cheerful boldness, so Henry James killed her with a villainous miasma. Why?
There are two stories in Daisy Miller. First, the comedy of manners: an heiress goes to Europe and shocks American-European high society with her free-and-easy, potentially lewd American ways. Second, the public-health story: an heiress goes to Europe and dies of malaria. James mushes these two not-very-gripping stories together: if heiress A is the same person as heiress B, the feeling of meaning emerges. (more…)
For a realistic picture of the life of the centaur you can’t beat the sequence “Hercule et les Centaures” in Heredia’s Les trophées. He gets down to the nitty-gritty — the seating arrangements for the various sorts of inlaws at centaur weddings, for example, or the stresses put on the centaur marriage by husbands who are continually sneaking off to score blonde chicks, and by wives in heat galloping off to run with the thoroughbreds.
And he went into a private room by himself. Through the two open windows he could see people in the windows of the houses opposite. Broad puddles quivered like watered silk on the drying asphalt, and a magnolia at the edge of the balcony filled the room with its perfume. This scent and the cool of the evening soothed his nerves; and he sank onto the red divan under the mirror….. (Sentimental Education)
I feel guilty, because Flaubert probably spent hours writing that paragraph, but when I came to it I just skimmed past, because who cares? Likewise, when the woman Frederic has pursued for years takes him on a guided tour of her husband’s ceramics factory in order to keep him from declaring his love, that’s hilarious, but did Flaubert really have to spend two days reading up on ceramics just so he could have Mme. Arnoux use the terms “drabblers” and “roughing shop” correctly? There’s tons of that stuff, and Flaubert worked so hard on it, but I just don’t care.
Is not Mme. Arnoux, heaping up facts into a barrier making communication impossible, the very image of the realistic novelist? Or is it Frederic, the obsessive lover, who is reminded of his supposed beloved by every tiny detail of pretty much anything? (Here we are, back with Petrarch again).
Nonetheless, with Sentimental Education Flaubert, after several false starts, finally succeeded in writing a non-annoying novel. I will even go further, and declare that in this book, Flaubert came as close as any novelist ever has to portraying the real nature of the man-eating Catfish of Love, in all its vast stupidity.
Frederic is the most inept seducer ever, and he ends up relaying messages between the wealthy man to whom he has attached himself, the man’s wife whom he is intent on seducing, and the man’s mistress whom he is also intent on seducing (though 200 pages into the novel he still hasn’t scored*) — and then after that he starts offering each of them relationship counseling. There’s no way those scenes could be improved. And then, when the rich man’s lovely wife finally comes to Frederic’s place, alone — but only to wheedle a substantial never-to-be-repaid loan out of him in order to save her beloved husband from bankruptcy. Afterwards Frederic finally makes his play, after years of pining, and she responds with a lecture on prudence that could have come from a Kansas housewife. And then finally Frederic fights a comic duel to defend the good name of M. Arnoux…. or maybe Arnoux’s wife’s good name… or maybe Arnoux’s mistress’s good name. (M. and Mme. Arnoux were the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of their time.)
However, it’s useless. It’s hard to make an antiwar movie because movies have to be exciting, and the excitement will be objectively prowar. Same for anti-drug messages. Every book about high society explains that people in high society are shallow and heartless, but high society rolls on untouched, and the moths still flock to the candle, using these novels as guidebooks. Love affairs in novels always end badly, but that makes no difference at all – people who don’t already have an incurable love itch don’t even bother to read them. The stories might have some restorative and comforting effect for those who have already been terribly singed, but they don’t keep anyone away from the flame.
Early in the morning they went to visit the palace. Going through the main gate, they saw the whole facade in front of them.: the five towers with their pointed roofs and the horseshoe staircase at the far end of the courtyard, which was flanked on the left and the right by two lower buildings. In the distance, the moss-covered paving stones blended with the fawn tint of the bricks…etc., etc.
This is the Fontainebleau Palace, and he goes on for the greater part of four pages. It’s like Sir Walter Scott.
*Frederic finally does score on page 283, but you just know that his triumph will end up turning to ashes in his mouth.
“Is it true that you’re going away?”
“Yes, in a few minutes”.
“In a few minutes?… and for good?… Shall we never see you again?”
Sobs choked her.
“Good -bye! Good-bye! Kiss me, please.”
And she clasped him fiercely in her arms.
Sentimental Education, tr. Baldich, end of Part One.
As a young man, away from home for the first time, Flaubert was “imperiously possessed” of the idea of castrating himself.
Geoffrey Wall, “Introduction” to
Gustave Flaubert, Three Tales
The romantics were the shock troops and sappers who softened up the honky world for the consumer society. With liberty and equality, anyone could presume to want anything they wanted, without being accused of encroaching on others’ prerogatives. The aggregate quantity of desire multiplied exponentially, as Malthus pointed out, whereas the quantity of possible satisfaction increased only slowly, if at all. And to be too easily satisfied was shameful; an attainable or attained object was by definition degraded and unworthy. Last year’s chic outfit is this year’s wipe rag. Kant, Lamartine, and Novalis taught us that only the Ideal is good enough, and marketing picked it up from there.
Equality and liberty did not preclude competition, and with improved means of transportation and communication the field of competition came to be the whole world. Every literate young man imprisoned in one of the modern European languages was drafted into a global contest — first to find the most unattainable ideal of them all, and then to immolate himself on that ideal. No wonder the motherfuckers were whiny.
And yes, “himself”. Bitches weren’t part of this, except as unattainable ideals. No hopeless striving for you, ladies!
Probably Plato was well-intended when he devised his celibate reform version of erotic obsession, but Jesus Christ! What a monster he unloosed upon the world!
Bouvard and Pecuchet
Gustave Flaubert tr. Polizzotti
Dalkey Archive 2005
Realism is just one phase in the long whine of the literati. Courbet always excepted, realism is always satirical or polemical and has about as much to do with reality as romance novels do. When you read a realistic novel, it’s always important to figure out The Moral of the Story.
The moral of Bouvard and Pecuchet is roughly as follows:
Copy clerks should continue to live as copy clerks even if they inherit tons of money.
Self-education is a crime against nature.
Parvenus are morons and dumbshits who speak only in cliches, have no taste, and always fuck everything up.
In general, only morons and dumbshits take an interest in science and technology, which are mostly crap anyway.
Parvenus shouldn’t study agronomy — partly because they always fuck everything up, but also because agronomy is crap. Same for medicine.
It’s impossible to learn to farm, and besides, who would ever want to try?
If a hailstorm destroys a parvenu’s orchard, it’s because parvenus are morons and dumbshits.
On page 32, Bouvard and Pecuchet’s stacks of wheat spontaneously combust because they stacked it using the Clap-Meyer method from the Netherlands. What a couple of dumbshits.
NOTE 1. We should never sneer at the romance novel, the most durable of all literary forms. Romance novels have been written and read continuously since God knows when. St. Augustine complained about them, Dante complained about them, Cervantes complained about them, Kleist complained about them, but the romance novel is invulnerable and laughs at the whiny literati. Most of Hamlin Garland’s works were romance novels. Sinclair Lewis began his career writing romance novels. Realism is just a fad, whereas romance novels will still be around when New York , London, and Paris are crumbling wastelands inhabited only by the wind.
NOTE 2. Readers of DeGuignet’s Memoirs of a Breton Peasant will recall that DeGuignet’s agricultural innovations, even though they were productive and successful, were scorned by the pious Catholic peasants of his neighborhood. What a dumbshit.
Dubliners is Dublin as Stephen Dedalus was able to see it. The Dubliners of that time could not have been as uniformly pitiful, mediocre, and unworthy of respect as Dedalus shows them to have been. Dubliners is realism, but it’s tendentious and symbolist realism, with obsessive-compulsive tics which only got worse during Dedalus’s later career. (Not that there are any other kinds of realism).
Realism supposedly mean “showing things as they really are” or something like that, but what a can of worms that turned out to be! First it meant stories about actuality (including the ugly aspects of actuality) as opposed to stories about imaginary ideal worlds. So far, so good. Then some writers (Flaubert) came to think that a perfectly-written novel would show the Real Truth of a situation, rather than just being a story. Then others (Ibsen) came to think that the truth of realism would motivate people to make the world a better place. Still others (Zola) titillated thir audiences with masses of vivid but unpleasant detail leading to some sort of point. Dedalus’s work was the climax, and he trumped Flaubert by claiming that certain privileged instants, properly written up, showed you the very truth of the very truth. This was all just the return of idealism. Actuality is crap, but Writing is truth. The cesspool of human life transfigured by Art.
To what was Dublin being invidiously contrasted? Not to anywhere on the face of this earth. You could have made a tour of the other second-rate capitals of Europe, from Christiana to Helsingfors to Vilnius or whatever they called it then to Cracow or whatever they called it then to Brunn to Laibach to Barcelona or whatever they called it then, and you’d find Dedaluses at every stop grumbling about provincialism, puritanism, and mediocrity. And don’t think that it was any different in the great capitals; grumbling is what realists do.*
Catholicism had taught Dedalus that ours is a fallen, degraded, crappy world, but it also had given him a way of dealing with that world. After he had discarded the Catholic coping mechanisms he still faced the degradation, and that’s what he wrote about. Progressives and radicals had tried to convince him that the crappy world of actuality could be made ideal by politics, but he couldn’t believe that either (especially not in Ireland) so he just documented the crappiness. Dedalus has been praised for his Olympian detachment, but it was the Olympian detachment of a hanging judge. No character in Dubliners is worthy of any respect at all, and only a few are even blameless victims. The Irish have been branded as provincial and chauvinist for their rejection of Dedalus’s writing, but what else could they have done?
Realism is sometimes thought of as a protest against poverty and oppression, but usually it wasn’t, certainly not in this case. This is bourgeois liberal stuff. Dedalus’s subject is the middle class and its hangers-on, and the Irish peasantry and proletariat only get brutish walk-on parts. In the bourgeois liberal world, everyone is equal and has his or her shot at the ideal, but that chance is an infinitesimal one. The less attainable something is, the more ideal, and winners are so few and far between that when they show up they have no idea what to do next. The competitive middleclass world with its infinite opportunity offers no role models for happiness. It’s like the Olympics – globalized competition makes one poor bastard the world champion while consigning all of the billions of others ito defeat. Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
Dedalus actually did become the world champion, but only posthumously, so he had no chance to enjoy it and probably couldn’t have done so if he’d had a chance. On the way up he developed perfectionist tics. In the beginning fiction had been a rough product hacked out for a penny a word, but gradually it became a prestige item. Talented people like Dedalus, who once would have gone into serious fields, starting choosing fiction right off at the beginning, so that while still quite young they had learned all the tricks that Balzac and Dumas and Tolstoi and Flaubert had spent years of their lives discovering. Writing fiction became too easy, and out of boredom and self-doubt Dedalus and his peers started adding complications.
Dedalus’s first tic was symbolism. Fiction, including realist fiction, had always invested undue importance in particular events. A story was not just something that happened, it told you something important. In effect, the seemingly commonplace events in novels were all symbols – and here we are back at idealization again. Dedalus lays the symbolism on thick. In Dubliners, for example (as one very helpful annotator explains), a pious spinster’s route on a shopping trip takes the shape of a cross. This is weirdly reminiscent of the old Dick Tracy comic strip, where the artist attached written labels to whichever things he thought the reader should know about that he had trouble drawing — except that it doesn’t make any sense. Even if it’s Christmas day, what does shopping for cakes have to do with the crucifixion? (Not even the right holiday).
Dedalus’s second tic, fanaticism about the details of real-world Dublin, makes the novelist’s job more complicated and also responds to doubts about the truth of fiction. How can fiction be true? For example, for decades Balzac worked twelve-hour days in order to write four novels a year. He couldn’t possibly have spent enough time out in the world to actually know what was going on there. He had to have been extrapolating wildly — he justified his overreach via a kind of spiritualism, whereby with a single glance into a family’s living room he could learn enough to tell their whole story, as if telepathically. This is already Dedalus’s epiphany, more or less, but the truth of Balzac’s claim is not at all obvious. The suspicion that novelists are just making sit up will always be there, and that’s as it should be.
Presumably it was after Dedalus had panicked about whether his writing really did capture the truth of Dublin that he became absurdly punctilious about the names of places and of streets, about the details of the shrubbery, about the exact dates of this and that, about the weather and phase of the moon on a given day, and so on. He was trying to silence his doubts about the truth of his writing, but his efforts were vain. He had to know that the big questions – for example, whether the Dubliners were really as miserable as he portrayed them to be – had nothing to do with the names of pubs or the distances between them. It was just obsessive-compulsiveness. He could just as well spent his time picking at his ear until it started to bleed, or rocking back and forth while chanting nonsense syllables.
* Gustave Courbet, the first and greatest of the French realist painters, may have been an exception. He came from an atypical provincial background and a family of rich peasants who were also politically radical, and it seems that he never really became Parisian. His attitude toward his subjects seems to have been matter-of-fact rather than indignant or condescending. Some of the realist paintings his critics disliked portrayed poor and humble people, but a big part of their problem was that Courbet’s nudes were fat. Fat people! Yuck.