(This is not really a quiz. It’s just meant to show that that two classic authors were ahead of their time in more ways than you’d think.)
“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.
a. Danielle Steele, To Love Again.
b. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.
c. Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education.
d. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.
They embraced each other, her small body was burning in his hands; they rolled a few paces in an unconscious state from which he repeatedly but vainly tried to rescue himself, bumped dully against the door, and then lay in the small puddles of beer and other rubbish with which the floor was covered. Hours passed there, hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which he felt he was lost or had wandered farther in foreign lands than any human being before him….
a. Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side.
b. Franz Kafka, The Castle.
c. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead.
d. Grace Metalious, Peyton Place.
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!
Gone but not forgotten
Two and a half millenia ago sexuality was invented by the horrible Greeks and idealized by Plato. Once idealized, sexuality was as robust as anthrax and as insidious as herpes, and could nest dormant in your cells like trichinella or plasmodium . For most people during much of human history, sexuality merely wallowed in the murk like some enormous, slimy, barbeled catfish, and emerged only occasionally to engulf some hapless human victim. But from time to time sexual / anti-sexual idealists like Augustine and Dante encouraged and strengthened the monster, and finally in 1830 (with the July Revolution and the opening of Hugo’s play Hernani) the French romantics and liberals brought the undead creature from mud to land. For almost two centuries now it’s been flopping and wallowing among us, going where it will, wreaking havoc and devouring any who dare come its way.
Many have tried to tame or defeat sexuality, but each attempt has only made it stronger and more horrible. Repression, chastity, marriage, idealization, libertinism, liberation, naturalness, “relationships”, psychoanalysis, bisexuality, intersexuality, transgendering, queering – nothing has worked, and sexuality still claims countless new victims each day. This creature has no benign forms and cannot be resisted, and all we can do now is resign ourselves to our sexual fates, whatever those may be, and hope for some post-sexual Beowulf or Parsifal to come along to drive a stake into the beast’s gigantic, loathsome head.
(The part about the 1830 Revolution in France will be explained in a later post. The rest is all common knowledge, though few admit it. Nineteenth century Frenchmen were as fucked up as 19th century Americans, but in a very different manner.)
As soon as Jove sees Juno, armed as she for the moment was with all the attractions of Venus, he falls desperately in love with her, and says that she is the only goddess he ever really loved. True there had been the wife of Ixion, and Danae, and Europa and Semele, and Alcmena, and Latona, not to mention herself in days gone by, but he had never loved any of them as he now loved her, in spite of his having been married to her for so many years. What then does she want?
If Lucy was the kind of person portrayed in the poem; if Wordsworth murdered her, either by cutting her throat or smothering her, in concert, perhaps, with his friends Southey and Coleridge; and if he had thus found himself released from an engagement which had become irksome to him, or possibly from the threat of an action for breach of contract, there is not a syllable in the poem with which he crowns his crime which is not alive with meaning. On any other supposition, to the general reader it is unintelligible.
(Samuel Butler, Selected Essays, 1927.)
Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding, Bloomsbury, 2003
Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (tr. Baldick), NYRB, 2007
At table she expounded a frightening theory of will-power, saying that everything was the result of an effort of the will, that there were no such things as fortuitous circumstances, that one created one’s own circumstances, and that unfortunate people were so only because they did not want to stop being unfortunate….She spoke of a woman who, in order to attain some unspecified aim, shut herself up for three years, completely cut off from the world, scarcely eating anything and often forgetting about food, walled up within herself and entirely given over to the plan she was developing. And then she concluded: “I was that woman”.
Goncourt Journals, January 3, 1868 (p. 134)
La Païva (Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck) was one of the most famous courtesans of decadent Second Empire France — famous for bleeding her lovers dry. In those days marriages were expected to be loveless and there was no such thing as a relationship, and men who had the wherewithal satisfied their needs for sex, romance, fantasy, ego-gratification, etc. through a variety of more or less openly commercial arrangements. A few of the courtesans became the objects of bidding wars and were able do very well for themselves, and La Païva married several aristocrats and spent the last years of her life in her final husband’s castle. (more…)
My studies of 19th century French literature have led me to the following question: did 19th century Frenchmen have sex with their wives? My researches so far have not turned up any evidence that they did. They seem to have preferred house servants, tubercular working girls, prostitutes, courtesans, opera singers, actresses, other men’s wives, and 17 year old virgins.
It may be, however, that the Frenchman of that era did have sex with their wives, at least occasionally, but either were ashamed to admit it, or else believed that marital sex is not a suitable topic for decent conversation.
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.
(A further development of the previous post. At some point I will join the two posts into one.)
Starkie’s disapproval of Borel reveals itself in sharp passing comments scattered through the book. Borel’s grandiose attitudes, irregular way of life, and lack of shrewdness and worldly wisdom are all blamed for his ultimate defeat, which she interprets as weakness. As far as I know Starkie gets the facts right, with one possible and rather large exception, but she treats Borel’s misfortunes as, in effect, judgments — things that wouldn’t have happened to a better man.
Starkie’s attitude toward her subject does not have to be teased out with the help of sophisticated hermeneutics:
Indeed nothing sound could be expected from the collaboration of two such madmen as Gerard de Nerval and Petrus Borel (p.148)
Neither he nor Nerval had been able to acclimatise themselves to ordinary everyday life (p. 191)
Champfleury describes him as a shabby middle-aged man…. talking solemnly and grandiloquently in archaic language. He still thought of himself as a leader, still tried to assert his ascendancy over others …. only Baudelaire, with his sympathy and understanding for failures, recognized something noble and fine in this tragic wreck….Life however broke Borel as it was never to break Baudelaire (p. 149)
[This is a repeated theme; Gautier was also “a survivor”. Baudelaire, the greatest poet of the age unless it was Hugo, in fact admired Borel and learned from him, which suggests that Borel was, in fact, a leader.]
Petrus Borel was the kind of meteoric personality who is thrown up by violent revolution, whose light burns brightly for a short space, as long as the fashion for destruction prevails, and finally, because he cannot adapt himself to the conditions of a stable society, splutters out into obscurity. (p. 193) (more…)