Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”, II

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…. etc., etc.

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 Frédéric, 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  Giant Catfish of Love, in all its vast stupidity. (Yes, man-eating. Woman are not Flaubert’s job).

Frédéric is the most inept seducer ever, and he ends up relaying messages between M. Arnoux (the wealthy man to whom he has attached himself), Arnoux’s lovely wife (whom he is intent on seducing), and Arnoux’s also-lovely mistress (whom he is also intent on seducing, though several hundred pages into the novel  he still hasn’t scored with either).* And then, after that, he starts offering each of them relationship counseling. There’s no way these scenes could be improved.

And when  the Mme. Arnoux’s wife finally does comes to Frederic’s place, alone, it is only to wheedle a substantial never-to-be-repaid loan out of him in order to save her beloved husband from bankruptcy; when Frédéric makes his play, after years of pining, Mme Arnoux   responds with a lecture on prudence worthy of a Kansas housewife. Finally, Frederic fights a comic duel to defend the good name of M. Arnoux…. or maybe Mme. Arnoux’s good name… or maybe Arnoux’s mistress’s good name. (Les Arnoux were the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of their time.)

It’s useless. It’s hard to make an antiwar movie because movies have to be exciting, and the excitement will make them objectively prowar. Same for anti-drug messages. And 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 already have an incurable love itch seldom even bother to read them, and if the do they don’t get the message. These 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.

** In fact, Hugh Hefner modeled the Playboy Lifestyle (TM) and the Playboy Philosophy (TM) on The Great Gatsby, which he read as a tribute to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and his concept sold like hotcakes.

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 7:00 pm  Comments (4)  

The end of civilization as we wish we had known it

Berthelot went on with his dispiriting revelations, at the end of which I exclaimed:

“So it’s all over? There’s nothing left for us to do but to rear a new generation to exact vengeance?”

“No, no,” cried  Renan, standing up and going red in the face, “no, not vengeance! Let France perish, let the Nation perish; there is a higher ideal of Duty and Reason!”

“No, no,” howled the whole company. “There is nothing higher than The Nation!”.

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules Goncourt (tr. Baldick, NYRB 2007),  p.172: September 6, 1870.

The captain remarked that was fighting between the Turkish troops and the Serbians, who are in revolt. The Russians intend to stir up a quarrel and then sit by and reap their reward. Since England, France, and Germany see that it would be to their detriment if Russia were to have full access to the Dardanelles Straits, they have been earnestly deliberating as to how they might protect them…. In their hearts the Russians fear the assistance that the English might render to the Turks, so they do not dare to act presumptuously. Since the Turks have recently agreed to settle the trouble in Turkey, their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war. (January 13, 1877)

Kuo Sung-t’ao, The Record of an Envoy’s Journey to the West, in J.D. Frodsham, The First Chinese Embassy in the West, p. 65, Oxford, 1974

“There is nothing higher than The Nation!”. The invading Germans had just captured Napoleon III with his army, and Paris was surrounded. The Second Empire was overthrown and a provisional government proclaimed, but the military situation remained grim and within five months France would surrender and be forced to accept an unfavorable peace. Very few Frenchmen held to Renan’s humane universal values; the call for vengeance was much more compelling. (As far as that goes  Germany, now become an empire alongside Britain and in place of France, wasn’t satisfied with the outcome either, and would soon enough come back for more.)

Seven years later Kuo Sung-t’ao, the first Chinese ambassador to England, kept a record of the long sea voyage  taking him to his post. During his trip he improved his knowledge of the Western nations and the relationships between them, and as it happened, at the time when he reached the Mediterranean Russia and Turkey were engaged in a dispute about Serbia, with all the other powers hovering on the wings to keep things from getting out of hand.

“Their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war”, wrote the Ambassador.  And he was right for the moment, but he had put his finger on the place where the general war would in fact break out 37 years later. In 1914 it was Russia v. Austria-Hungary instead of Russia v. Turkey, but it was the same game.

The sovereign nation-state is a war machine and the international order is a system for scheduling wars.  Already by 1870 culture was pretty much at the service of the state, and by 1914 most of the left and avant-garde enthusiastically committed themselves to the murderous, pointless Great National Causes of their various homelands, all hell broke loose, and the world was never to be the same again.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Present King of England, Scotland and Ireland

Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria Herzog von Bayern, King of Bavaria, England, Scotland, and Ireland

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm  Comments (25)  

You can’t tell the players without a program

France around 1830 was rich in factions and tendencies, and you can’t read about the French literature of the first half of the 19th century without running into a large number of competing groups — political, literary, or simply social. So I have compiled a list.

France changed its form of government four times between 1787 and 1830 (plus another couple of changes during the revolutionary period), and in 1830 partisans of most of the past regimes were still around. The main political factions were the ultra-royalists, the Girondin republicans, the Jacobin republicans, the American-style republicans, the Bonapartists, and the moderate semi-liberal royalists who took power with the July Revolution. Besides these there were utopian socialist followers of Fourier or Saint-Simon, but while they got their ideas out, they didn’t really have a political role, and whatever groups the bottom 70% of the population had were regarded with fear and disdain.

The only faction that was probably lacking was one supporting the overthrown Restoration government. The Bourbons had been imposed on France by England and Germany after Napoleon’s defeat, and while they weren’t royalist enough for the ultras, they were too royalist for everyone else. This set a pattern for France — the moderate royalist regime established in 1830 didn’t make anyone happy either, and examples could be multiplied.

In the literary world, the big split was between the romantics just coming onstage, and everyone else:  the classicists, philosophes, and republicans. To begin with, the romantics were led by Charles Nodier of l’Arsenal (a library), but around 1830 Victor Hugo seized power for his Cénacle, and a little after 1830 Théophile Gautier and Petrus Borel established the Petit Cénacle, which included younger writers. (Nodier, Hugo, and Gautier became famous for praising the writing of anyone who ever brought them a manuscript.) The first two groups were just salons, but many of the members of the Petit Cénacle were housemates, and they threw rowdy parties of a type which should be familiar to many readers.

Most of the factional activity took place among the romantics. The romantic factions were Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary Bousingots, the political Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les  Muscardins (dormice), Les Dandys and Les Bohème.*  (more…)

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 1:42 am  Comments (6)  

My Fossil Railroad

(Update Below: June 1, 2010)

During my bicycle-barhopping expeditions in the Wobegon area I keep running into the Soo Line, often in little country towns that barely exist (Miltona + Carlos +  Forada, combined population 805, 5 or 6 taverns). This freight line, which kept chugging  along when the famous passenger railroads dwindled and almost died*, was founded by a Minneapolis milling group in 1883, during the era when the milling and railroad monopolies were competing to screw the farmers and each other. Its original purpose was to bypass Chicago and ship flour from Sault St. Marie to the East by boat. (“Soo” comes from “Sault”.) (more…)

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Comments (6)  

Blogging Glob’s “Bog People” bog

He is not dead, but sleeping

P.V. Glob, tr. Bruce-Mitford, The Bog People, 1965/1969.

Without having read it, I’ve been citing this bog (“book” = “bog” in Danish) for years now just for the euphony, and now I can trump that.

Even without the snappy title the book would be intrinsically worth reading, if only for the 64 pages of well-done black and white pictures of ~ 2,000 years old human sacrifices and other relics. Ideal bog conditions (not every bog will do) have preserved many bodies so well that they’re often thought to be recent murder victims, and one body was successfully fingerprinted. Such finds are common in Denmark, neighboring areas of Germany and the Netherlands, and parts of the British Isles (but not Sweden or Norway).

Glob’s archaeology is presumably out of date (too much mutterrecht, for one thing), but his history of how these discoveries have been handled in Denmark over the centuries is interesting.  In every era the police have usually been called first, with the local priest called next during  the earliest period, either to give the bodies a Christian burial or to exorcise them. During the 19th century bodies were sometimes treated as curiosities and could become circus exhibits,  but nowadays everything is routinely handled by scientists.

In 1950s a tabloid newspaper claimed that the recently-discovered  Tollund Man was a recent murder victim, but that hooplah died down once the radiocarbon dating came in.  In one instance the railway freight agent rather unreasonably insisted on charging the high fresh-cadaver price for the shipment of a bog body, even though it was encased in a much larger quantity of peat, which ships much more cheaply. (This will remind some Americans of an old humor piece, “Pigs is pigs”, in which a railway agent charges the per-hog price for shipping guinea pigs.)

Sinister bogs figure in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Hamsun’s Mysteries, and presumably many other Scandinavian literary works. And since Christ’s death on the cross was an atonement and substitute for this kind of spring sacrifice, my post is timely.


Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 7:17 pm  Comments (6)  

An iron law of literary history

In early 19th century France, drinking from human skulls was regarded as eccentric

Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope

Enid Starkie, Petrus Borel, New Directions, 1954

The pioneer French avant-gardeist Petrus Borel (fl. 1830-1840) was noted for his extravagant attitudes and behavior and his violently republican political beliefs. His bitter, cynical fiction sold poorly, and before he abandoned writing he lived for a considerable time in real poverty.  By and large his writings have been forgotten, and he is generally regarded as having been important as a personage, and perhaps as an influence, but not as a writer.  (On this more later;  I have some books on order and wonder whether Borel might not be due for a revival.)

Enid Starkie, by contrast, is an Anglo-Irishwoman* of good family who spent her life going from success to success and who played a major role in introducing such authors as Rimbaud to English-language readers. Her biography of Borel is good for what it is, and it also can serve as a literary history of the time. She does not have the carefulness of contemporary biographers and occasionally takes stories too much at face value, but that’s more than made up for by the good anecdotes she passes along as a consequence of that.

The problem with Starkie is this: like every other biographer of a starving artist I’ve ever read, from time to time Starkie feels compelled to kibitz , or to wonder why Borel did the things he did, or to suggest maybe he was partly at fault for his difficulties, or to suggest other ways he could have gone at things. Borel is not the best case to make my point, since the value of his work is uncertain, but I have also seen similar attitudes taken toward artists like Musorgsky, Satie, and Nerval whose merit is unquestioned.

Subject to correction, I would like to generalize this into a law. There are no starving or avant-garde biographers. The biographers of starving artists will always have more common sense and be much more comfortably situated than their biographees, and in every case some degree of condescension must slip into their work. Readers are invited to suggest counterexamples.

As a corrective principle I’d like to propose that if the person you’re writing the biography of has been dead for a century or more, they should (except for idiot kings, mass murderers, etc.) be assumed to deserve a considerable degree of respect; whereas the same is not necessarily true of biographers.

* Along with Joanna Richardson’s The Bohemians and Pamela Pilbeam’s The 1830 Revolution in France, Starkie’s book has also led me to suspect that well-born Englishwomen, however hyphenated, are not the best choices for writing about Frenchpersons of any description.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 1:51 am  Comments (7)  

Victor Hugo on Cephalopods

To believe in the octopus, one must have seen it. Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.

Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod were only able to make the Chimaera; God made the octopus. When God wills it, he excels in the execrable. And all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece.

Its most terrible quality is its softness. A glutinous mass possessed of a will — what more frightful? Glue filled with hatred.

At night and in its breeding season, it is phosphorescent. This terror has its passions. It awaits the nuptial hour. It adorns itself, it lights up, it illuminates itself; and from the summit of a rock one can see it beneath, in the shadowy depths, spread out in a pallid irradiation, — a spectre sun.

It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn the eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

(Excerpted from five pages of Toilers of the Sea, II iv 2, “The Monster”: Toilers of the Sea, p. 157; Les Travailleurs de la mer, p. 199) (more…)

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 2:43 am  Comments (4)  

The Discovery of the Bourgeoisie

The Bohemians, Joanna Richardson,  A.S. Barnes, 1969

The 1830 Revolution in France, Pamela Pilbeam, St Martin’s Press, 1991

Bourgeois doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. Bourgeois, in France, means roughly the same as philistine in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. Once upon a time…. it was enough to be pink-cheeked and clean-shaven, with a square shirt-collar, and a stove-pipe hat, to be apostrophized with this injurious epithet.

(Theophile Gautier, in Le Moniteur universel, Dec. 31, 1855;  Richardson,  p. 52.)

Before Marx were the bousingots.  According to Pilbeam, the political factions of the 1830 revolution were not class-conscious, and to the extent that class lines can be detected between them, they did not match the distinctions described by Marx.  She also concludes that the streetfighters who made this and later 19th century revolutions happen were never the beneficiaries of the revolutions. Gautier’s anti-bourgeois convictions were not political, and the political bousingots were not really progressive.

The bourgeois and the bousingot are enemy twins, and, and you can’t have one without the other. The bousingots usually lose, and the cagy ones  jump ship (as Gautier did). But the bourgeoisie always produces more of them.

Gautier’s bouzingos (his spelling) were mostly just literary dissidents. The slightly later street-fighting bousingots were urban artisans and undifferentiated political rebels.  Their enemy, the newly-discovered bourgeoisie, has pretty much dominated France ever since.

We miss that in the United States, because what we go to France for is avant-gardists, not  ordinary folk. Two generations of American college students have learned that France is populated primarily by existentialists, surrealists, symbolists, Marxists, decadent aristocrats, bohemians, and so on — but no!. The petty bourgeoisie dominating France is the pettiest of them all.

“Bousingot”:  not in your dictionaries.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm  Comments (3)  

Deadly Ernest

Miss Mary Augusta to Matthew Arnold: “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will you not always be wholly serious?”

As we know, Europe during the 19th century was infested with a toxic seriousness from which there could have been no peaceful escape. Bourgeois ambition, bourgeois respectability, respect for the law, rigid notions of chastity and purity, exquisite refinements of class distinctions and of the cruelties of class, devout adherence to ideals both religious and secular, love of country, an ethic of self-sacrifice, a booming but ruthlessly competitive economy, sound fiscal policies, and efficient public administration ultimately led to two bloody and pointless (but well-organized and efficient) wars, and in 1914 the world as we would have liked to have known it came to an end, and we entered the world of blood and iron.

The name Ernst / Ernest can be used as a marker of this horrible seriousness. This name, which is derived from the Old High German eornest (“grimly serious, fighting to the death”) spread from Germany to England along with the Hanoverian dynasty (Georges I-III) and I think that it is fair to conclude that the seriousness did too, and that with due reservations it can be called The German Seriousness. (Earnest, it turns out, is an entirely different English word which was, in effect, treated as a different spelling of Ernest; and the name Ernest was taken to signify earnestness, and in fact earnestness certainly could include bloodthirsty military eornest-ness:  “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”)

French and British decadents and bohemians fought The German Seriousness as best they could, but there was no hope. Despite heroic offensives like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (whose protagonist is a dreadfully serious preacher’s kid named Ernest who slowly wises up during the course of the book), the cause of unseriousness was doomed from the start. In 1871 seriousness definitively gained the day in France, where Thiers had ten thousand or more fundamentally unserious Communards murdered, and by 1895, when Wilde was sent to jail and his life ruined,  the war had already been lost. One of the last victims of this horrible plague was Ernest Hemingway, who blew his head off  in 1960.

For bovious reasons the name Ernst disappeared from American life after 1917 or so, and Ernest and Earnest have been declining since the 50s and probably will fall out of the top thousand soon enough. How much we will gain from this is uncertain; the “life’s a joke” approach to the world characteristic of our present wise leaders  appears to be only marginally less horrible.


Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 6:53 pm  Comments (3)