Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Paul Bourget (1852–1935)
FANCY that when ‘Madame Bovary’ appeared in 1856, even the most alert of French critics, like Sainte-Beuve or J. J. Weiss, would have been thoroughly astonished if some one had said to him:—“Do not deceive yourself; this novel of passion, which everybody is reading and which has suddenly made its author the fashion; this picture of morals, so boldly brushed that it disquiets the governing powers and summons the painter before the censors of morals; this study of style, so brilliantly executed that the most determined revolutionists marvel at it,—in forty years will have become part of the classical tradition of France. Among all the names of the century, that of Gustave Flaubert will be linked with that of Courier alone, in the list of the prose writers of the great Latin line after La Bruyère, Pascal, and Montesquieu. This little book is not an accident. It is an event, and its author is the master whom hundreds of other artists in France and abroad will follow; the man, perhaps, whose ideas will modify most deeply the æsthetics of the century.” Yes, I can see Sainte-Beuve smile at this prophecy, although his valiant essay in the ‘Lundis’ shows how deeply he was impressed by Flaubert’s début. I see witty Weiss shrug his shoulders, although his criticism written at that time shows a stirring of extreme curiosity concerning the newcomer. It is not given to any one to construct the orbit of contemporary works, or to foresee their place with posterity. In certain books and in certain kinds of genius there inheres a hidden force, a latent virtue, which does not at once develop. In the case of Flaubert, for example, we hardly yet see clearly all that he put in his novels, which in reality he himself did not quite comprehend. For if an artist’s contemporaries cannot measure him with exactness, neither can he measure himself. Would it not have amazed Voltaire to learn that he would live only through ‘Candide,’ and Diderot that his work would reduce itself to the ‘Neveu de Rameau,’—two pamphlets scribbled in a few days, the second not even published by its author?  1
  In seeking to discover why a book or a writer grows greater as the years pass, instead of dwindling away with the first successes, one finds that this book and this writer strikingly disclose a moral unity. Nothing that is not typical endures in human memory. The posthumous fame and the influence of Flaubert confirm this great law of literary history. Few writers have more deeply impressed this moral unity upon more diverse works. From that youthful day when he read to his friend Maxime Du Camp his great unpublished novel ‘Novembre,’ to the eve of his death, when he traced the last lines of ‘Bouvard and Pécuchet,’ he developed without pause or modification one changeless system and expressed one changeless conclusion concerning human life. One metaphysical conviction lightens the pages of his youth and those of his approaching age, as the same sun irradiates morning and evening of the same day with universal light. This doctrine, born with Flaubert, as I shall try to show, is the old doctrine of pessimism, but of a verified, studied-out, hopeless pessimism, as atomically established as that of Schopenhauer in Germany and of old Heraclitus in Greece. From the point of view of the novelist, as from that of the two philosophers, the evil of life does not arise from circumstances, but is inherent in the very fact of humanity. Whether barbarian or civilized, whether belonging to the antique world or to modern society, to an age of faith or to an epoch of skepticism, whether artist or artisan, simple or complex, the human being lives to see the failure of his ambition, be it noble or base, narrow or boundless. The mocking hand of Fate seems to have written a negative sign before the colossal sum of human efforts, and the total always shows a loss; the greatness of these efforts augmenting the greatness of the predetermined ruin. Such is the idea permeating from end to end all the books composed by this admirable artist, the thesis he struggled to demonstrate by examples not far-fetched and abstract, but concrete and living, and of such extraordinary intensity that the series of six volumes really constitutes the most absolute, the most uncompromising manual of nihilism ever composed.
  To comprehend the doctrine back of the accident and the theory behind the fact, one must consider the chief characters of these books successively. By a process quite opposed to that of authors who are simply misanthropic, Flaubert does not make the final miseries of his characters result from their faults, but from their qualities. At the same time he is careful to select ordinary and not exceptional types, and to surround them with ordinary circumstances. Thus constituted, they cease to be individual and become representative, and their symbolic failure becomes the failure of their whole class. Take as examples Madame Bovary in the novel of that name, and Frédéric Moreau in ‘L’Éducation Sentimentale.’ Both are results of the legitimate and indeed very noble effort which pushes the lower classes toward culture and refinement. Emma Bovary is the daughter of a farmer who wished her to become a “lady,” and Frédéric is the son of a middle-class father who has resolved that his boy shall have a “liberal” profession. She has been sent to a convent. He has been put in school. In their class of society this is the accepted educational process, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Both pupils respond to the instruction they receive. Ah, well! if the first descends, step by step, the ladder which leads to vice, to crime, to suicide, it is simply because, played upon by the religious and poetical emotions of the convent which was so long her home, she has formed too exquisite, too complex, too sequestered a dream of existence, and has felt too acutely the meagerness of her environment. She is perverted by the noblest characteristics of her nature; and in that experience she resembles the sentimental Frédéric, her brother in delicacy as in weakness. If the man of society, young, rich, intelligent, spoils his hours one by one, as a child who cannot draw, uncleanly and foolishly spoils his sheets of fair white paper, he does so because he has surrendered himself too freely to the charm of the books and dreams which enchanted his youth, and has longed too eagerly for higher emotions, for romantic affections, and glorious adventures.  3
  Again, if the two grotesque protagonists of ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’ make the most imbecile use of their late-coming independence, of their will and energy, it is because the hearts of these bureau clerks suddenly released from servitude beat with the noblest zeal for the Ideal,—in that form, however, “which deceives the least; that is, science”: and do not say that singleness of heart is lacking in these more than in the others.  4
  Again, it is the romantic novelist who wrote the story of ‘Un Cœur Simple,’ the pathetically foolish adventure of an old maid who adores with religious fervor a stuffed paroquet. And again, do not say that the decadence of contemporary society is responsible for these failures. Would it have been better for these men and women to take root in the soil of a world still new, and to share the heroic youth of civilization? The sinister brutality, staining red the landscapes of ‘Salammbô,’ answers the question. Matthô, like Frédéric, like the daughter of Hamilcar, like the child of Farmer Ronault, struggles painfully in the heavy nightmare of existence; the gloomy frenzy of the savage has no more appreciable result than the shrinking trepidation of the civilized man. Nor will it suffice to say that these civilized folk and these barbarians were alike wanting in that great supernatural strength, faith. St. Anthony the hermit of the Thebaid, after years of maceration, cries, like Emma, like Frédéric, “Of old I was not so wretched!” 1 The depth of his penitence has but intensified his power to feel and suffer. A cataleptic, haunted by visions, terrified at night by the howling of the jackal, by the desert winds, by the shadow of a cross upon the sand, at last he bows down like a slave before the stupid and inert Thing, shapeless and multiform Matter. “I would,” he sighs, “that I were Matter!” Supreme aspiration, containing the drama, at once tragic and farcical, of our poor humanity! An appeal which recalls Goya’s picture of a skeleton straining to lift up the stone of his tomb to write upon it the terrible word Nada,—“Nothing!” There is nothing! “Who knows?” wrote Flaubert himself in one of his letters: “doubtless death has nothing more to tell than life.”  5
  For the source and principle of this pessimism, one must search through the four volumes of correspondence recently published. It is easy to see that this way of feeling and of judging life is not with the author of ‘Madame Bovary,’ as with so many others, an amusement of dilettantism. It is the deep and personal moral of these frank letters that the convincing force of a work of art is always proportionate to its sincerity. If to Flaubert’s readers his creations have this authenticity of authority, it is because they are struck out of his own life and spirit. I mean that they express what was essential in his life, and most personal, least incidental, in his spirit. The whole difference between objective artists, among whom Flaubert enrolled himself, and the subjective school, is that the first exclude all anecdote, all petty individual and local circumstance, from their written confessions. They can give expression to their genius only when they reveal the inmost depths of their nature. From the first, Flaubert’s letters show that his heart, as another great unquiet spirit declared, was “born with a wound.” 2 To-day we know that his mental structure was sustained by an organism prematurely touched at the very center of life. Epilepsy was destroying Flaubert. The ‘Souvenirs’ of Maxime Du Camp contain a very touching account of the first attack of this fatal nervous malady. But long before that attack, a hypersensitiveness, strange alternations of exaltation and repression, of enthusiasm and disgust, indicated that a secret malady was preying upon this robust fellow. From his twentieth year he contended with those humiliating fatalities against which human energy, however ambitious, is doomed to dash itself. Moreover, he was environed by contradictions.
  His prose astonishes the reader by the lyric amplitude of his least sentence. A poet quivers in the prose writer with all the passion, all the ardor, of a Shakespeare or a Byron. Now, this poet was the son of a surgeon. His early life, from 1821 when he was born, to 1839 when he came to Paris to study law, was passed in a hospital. His room overlooked a court where the invalids walked, and an amphitheatre where his father’s pupils dissected bodies. The dreams of his childhood and youth moved side by side with horrible impressions of physical decay. He speaks somewhere of his nature as “drolly bitter.” This sinister humor was doubtless born in that hospital room where by turns he read his favorite authors,—Homer, Æschylus, Virgil, Dante, Victor Hugo,—and saw the rollicking students smoke and jest over the cadavers. The contrast was not less sharp between his precocious taste for imaginative literature and the employment his father wished him to undertake. He has drawn in ‘Madame Bovary’ under the name of Doctor Larivière a slight but vigorous portrait of this father, whom he deeply admired. But it is nevertheless true that the rough practitioner, with his grim professional aspect and his habit of working on living matter, could not comprehend his second son’s vocation for authorship. All the letters of this period bear traces of this cruel misunderstanding. As a mere lad, Flaubert lived in a state of constant rebellion against the paternal ideas and discipline. Nor was he more in harmony with the ideas and discipline of his time. When only fifteen he began to be fascinated by romanticism and its poets, at the very moment when public taste was ready to find fault with that school of 1830, which should rather be called the school of 1820. Finally, as his correspondence clearly shows, this romantic youth, whose ideal was incarnated in the adorable figure of Madame Arnouse,—an only love, never realized, always dreamed,—suffered the precocious disenchantment of a French school. What strange collisions of alien elements! How fate delights to entangle us in those irresistible impulses which set us forever in disharmony with life and with ourselves!  7
  For Gustave Flaubert, played upon by such discordant influences, life soon became one long suffering. Soon too he perceived that this suffering was caused by no one mitigable chance, but that it grew out of the very fact of existence. In the long correspondence which extends from his precocious childhood to his premature old age, which shows us his student’s cell, his traveler’s tent, his Parisian abode of the famous author, he never varies his complaint. Whether writing to Le Portevin, his schoolfellow; to Du Camp, the comrade of his youth; to Louis Bouilhet, the associate of his maturity; to Louise Colet, the confidante of his critical days of apprenticeship; or to George Sand, the glorious alter ego of his years of achievement, everywhere and always he proclaims the narrowness of human destiny; the misery and sadness of existence; his distaste for his contemporary world; his horror of the future; the weariness of enduring; the woefulness of yielding; the falsehood of desire; and the vanity of hope.  8
  The persistence of these lamentations is the more striking in that this pessimist is never disheartened. His fearless agnosticism has nothing in common with the languid negations of a Werther or an Obermann. No coward soul utters his accusation. His complaint, almost from the beginning, is more intellectual than sentimental. All the sweet poisonous melancholy on which he fed himself may be referred to the understanding rather than to the moral nature; and therein appears the characteristic which distinguishes him absolutely from authors who, like Byron, Chateaubriand, Musset, and Baudelaire, have expressed under very different forms what has been called the malady of the age.  9
  In Flaubert, the contemporary of Taine, Renan, Berthelot, Pasteur, there is a scientific turn of mind. He is like the physiologist who from the symptoms of his own specific malady reasons to the general disease, and who finds in his own personality the opportunity to verify and to register a vaster hypothesis. Here we touch the explanation of the typical character of the work and the man.  10
  Because of this scientific turn of mind, united to a sensibility both complex and passionately sad, Gustave Flaubert stands as one of the newest of the psychological oddities of our age. There is no denying the fact, however we dislike it, that in this nineteenth century science has been the all-powerful controller of human activity. Not only has it modified the material conditions under which this activity works, but still more has it changed our point of view and altered our mental methods. It has accustomed us to an idea which seems at first sight simple, yet which involves an immense revolution,—the contemplation of everything as conditional, including even the most spontaneous creations of the mind. Thus we come to acknowledge, with Taine and Sainte-Beuve, that fixed laws control the production of literary work, and that a tragedy, a novel, a poem, are born under conditions as absolute as those which accompany the blooming of a flower. Laws govern the production of political systems and religious hypotheses,—laws regulate the decadence and prosperity of races, of countries, of families,—laws, finally, dominate our own intellect and our own affections.  11
  It must not be forgotten, however, that this conception leaves room for personal responsibility. Our free will is simply set to choose among these conditions those which will or which will not produce certain effects. But whether the will choose freely or not, these conditions always imply the same result. They share, and we share with them, in that universal and immeasurable order which science declares to exist, and which, fragment by fragment, detail by detail, she aims to discover. Thus considered, our individuality both diminishes and is increased. It diminishes because we see with too implacable clearness the limitations of our power, thus hedged about by laws which are independent of our volition. It increases, because outside our puny selves we catch glimpses of, we grasp at, those imperishable laws which were before we were, which will be when we are not. Beyond our own lives we thus touch and outlive all life; beyond our own joy, all joy; beyond our own suffering, all suffering. Such amplitudes of feeling do we gain with this new attitude of mind! As it was constant with Flaubert, many men of our generation have loved in him that profound accent in which they heard a magnificent echo of the inarticulate speech hidden in their own hearts.  12
  Pessimism, however original and however sincere, yet remains a disease; and had Flaubert brought only this message of despair he would not occupy his high place in our respect. Happily he brings another doctrine, that of heroism, and I had almost said of religion. Flaubert himself employs this word, when speaking in one of his letters of Alfred de Musset:—“He lacked religion,” he says; “and religion is indispensable.” What he meant was that in this life, so wretched in his eyes and so foredoomed to failure, a man perceives nobility, finds comfort, only upon condition of devoting all his powers to something apart from himself and his interests, from his passions and his person. Perhaps this creed of the most exalted renunciation following on the completest pessimism is less contradictory than it appears; for the Christian faith, itself the most luminously hopeful which has ever appeared upon earth, rests also upon a pessimistic vision of man and of fate.
  And if Flaubert were inconsistent in his beliefs, let us applaud the lack of logic which produced his masterpieces. His personal religion was that of literature. He loved it with the most unrestrained, the most untiring love. I do not know in the intellectual order a more pathetic drama than that which fills his letters to the friend of his youth, her whom he called his “Muse.” Housed in his small abode at Croisset near the gates of Rouen, and scarcely going out except to pace his garden on the bank of the Seine, this man of thirty undertook to write a book with which he should be,—not satisfied, for what author worthy the name is ever satisfied? but which should come as near perfection as possible. That book is ‘Madame Bovary.’ The very ideal of the literary artist is here evoked before our inward gaze: the absolute, the irremediable scorn of contemporary success, the contempt for vanity, the complete absence of all desire for gain,—these elementary virtues of the great author are naturally found there, as well as the scrupulous conscience which no difficulty discourages, and the invincible patience which no beginning over again wearies; and especially and everywhere the flame, the sacred fever of creative intellect. In these pages—usually scratched off at morning after the nightly task was finished—there stirs a sublime breath which draws tears. One seems to see, one sees, the genius of one of those immortal works which, like ‘Tartuffe,’ like the ‘Pensées,’ like the ‘Caractères,’ will endure as long as the French language. Never was human brain possessed by more passionate frenzy for art; and in saying that all Flaubert’s great works were composed in the same way, with this prodigious care in detail, this implacable search for truth and beauty, this zeal and tenacity, it is plain why in thirty years of this exhausting work he composed so few volumes, and these of such virile composition, of such sovereign mastery of style, that all other modern works seem slight, cowardly, and incomplete beside them.  14
  It is difficult to explain in what Flaubert’s style—his great title to glory—exactly consists. No term is oftener employed, indeed, than this term “style.” None more easily defies a definition. In saying that an author has style, some writers praise his elegant correctness, while others mean to affirm his original incorrectness. According to the first sense, the masters of style in France would be Fénelon, Buffon, Rousseau. According to the second sense, they would be Rabelais and Saint-Simon. The citation of these names suffices to prove both points of view legitimate. The complexity of things imposes the complexity of points of view. To write is indeed to translate ideas into words. But what must we understand by this formula, ideas? I have the idea of a straight line, I have the idea of the feeling I experience, I have the idea of the room where I am. Are these three kinds of ideas of the same order, and are the trains of accessory impressions which each entails equally diverse?  15
  The phrases which serve as the external form of these three kinds of ideas must then be so different that certain French writers of the seventeenth century considered literature incapable of rendering those of the third group. Again, in our own time, Stendhal and Mérimée absolutely denied that sensations of the eyes are reducible to words. Flaubert was of the contrary opinion. To his mind the thing had been proved, since Chateaubriand; and the men who failed to reproduce an actual contour or color in a phrase seemed to him as incompetent as did they whose prose failed to express an abstract idea or to convey an emotion. He maintained that Mérimée did not understand his profession, and this he would demonstrate book in hand!  16
  In what, then, did his conception of his profession consist? In the first place, in a special development of intellectual sensibility: and here Flaubert was certainly right. An isolated word taken by itself should have its value of tone for the author, as the color on a palette has its value of tone to the painter. Considered in the dictionary, this word has a physical and moral existence perceived by the artist. Take at random one which is typical. Does not the word frêle (frail), which nevertheless comes from the same Latin word (fragilis) as fragile, differ from the latter as a flower differs from an object of human industry? Are there not words of race whose presence at the end of a pen or on the tip of the tongue betrays a patrician manner of feeling and thinking, while others reek of bad company and soil the paper on which the pen traces them? It is not their meaning which gives them this elegant or brutal, this ignoble or aristocratic character. It is the trace, visible or not, of their Latin origin, their tonic accent, their sonority, and still other elements which cannot be analyzed and which the artist discerns through practice. For Flaubert, the profession of authorship consisted in developing in himself this sense of the physiognomy of words to the point of always finding the exact, and as he maintained, the only, term to express a truth, a form, a feeling. “For there is only one,” he said to his favorite pupil Maupassant; and as to himself, his rigor was unsparing. Another of his friends, and his fervent admirer, M. Taine, told me that he had seen him spend three weeks hunting for a single word, and that was the word secouer, to shake. He was very proud of finishing his story of ‘Hérodias’ with the adverb alternativement, “alternately.” This word, whose two accents on ter and ti give it a loose swing, seemed to him to render concrete and almost perceptible the march of the two slaves who in turn carried the head of St. John the Baptist.  17
  The choice of words resembles the choice of colors in painting. The value of a tone changes with the value of the tone placed next it. Therefore the second step in authorship consists, once the words are chosen, in putting them together and in constructing sentences. Flaubert’s theories on sentence structure have become legendary. All his biographers have told us how he passed nights declaiming his own prose, crying his sentences with all his might, trying them, as he said in his common but expressive phrase, “with his own muzzle.” There was something of mania and something of paradox in this method. There was also a theory. He set it forth himself in his very curious preface to the ‘Dernières Chansons’ of Louis Bouilhet. Flaubert thought that a well-constructed phrase adapts itself to the rhythm of the respiration. He reasoned a little like this: In presence of such or such an idea we experience such or such an impression. This impression has its rebound in our organism. It leaves it colder or warmer; our blood beats quicker or slower; our breath is hurried or stopped. The phrase which translates this idea should accord with this state of our organs; and how better ascertain this than by trying it with the register of our chest? “Badly constructed sentences,” said he, “never resist this test.” Now follow the consequences of this principle. They are infinite, and the art of writing, thus conceived, becomes difficult enough to terrify the most patient. If sentences are made to be read aloud, harmony is their ruling quality; and from that spring these two laws: constant renewal of forms, and suppression of all rhyme, of all hiatus, and of all repetitions. Goncourt recounts in his journal that he saw Flaubert unhappy because he had left the following expression in Madame Bovary: “d’une couronne de fleurs d’orange” (with a wreath of orange-blossoms). The three d’s, governed each by the other, made him despair. He strove furiously to reduce the words which serve as setting to the others: the conjunctions, the prepositions, the auxiliary verbs. He fought for hours and days against que, de, faire, avoir, être. Dumas, who scarcely liked him, mocked this formidable labor, so disproportioned to the result: “He is a giant,” said he, “who strikes down a forest in order to make a box.” This witty epigram only proves that the author of the ‘Demi-Monde’ was a moralist, a mind preoccupied from the beginning with the service rendered; while Flaubert was an artist, the most careful and uncompromising of artists. Somewhere in his correspondence he speaks of a bit of wall on the Acropolis, the memory of which exalted him like a vision of perfect beauty. This comparison completely illustrates his ideal of style: a prose holding itself erect by virtue of essential words, and so finely and strongly constructed that these essential words—correct, exact, and precise, resting upon each other without parasitic attachments—are beautiful both in themselves and for their mathematical relation,—a prose which is such an integral substitute for the object that it becomes the object itself. “The author in his work,” he said with curious eloquence, “should be like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible. Art being only second to nature, its creator should exercise analogous methods, so that one feels in every atom, every aspect, a hidden, a limitless insusceptibility of injury from external things.” Was I wrong to speak of religion as influencing a man who found these solemn accents to define his dream of art?  18
Note 1. ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony.’ [back]
Note 2. Lamennais of himself. [back]

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