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rancière on bovary

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I’ve read just about all the Flaubert criticism there is to read that’s available in English, and lots that’s not. But Jacques Rancière’s “Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed,” published recently in Critical Inquiry, might just be, pound for pound, the best I’ve ever read. (I apologize if you don’t have access to the journal one way or another). I’ve got lots to say about it, but will for tonight mostly just quote a bit to give you a taste. 


The fictional definition of Emma is in keeping with the big concern of the 1850s and 60s that was encapsulated in one word: excitement. At that time in France, the diagnosis could be heard everywhere at every time; society suered from a fatal disease that aected the social order and individ- ual behaviors as well. It had become an unrelenting turmoil of thoughts and desires, appetites and frustrations. In the good old times of monarchy, religion, and aristocracy, there had been a clear, long-standing hierarchy that put every group and every individual in its right place. It gave them a firm footing and limited horizons, which are the conditions of happiness for poor people. Unfortunately that order had been shattered, first by the French Revolution, second by the rise of industrialism, third by the new media—the newspapers, lithographs, and so on, which made words and images, dreams and aspirations, available everywhere to anybody. Society had become a hustle and bustle of free and equal individuals that were dragged together into a ceaseless whirl in search of an excitement that was nothing but the mere internalization of the endless and purposeless agitation of the whole social body.

Such was the discourse of the notables and the learned persons. What must draw our attention is the synonym they gave for that excitement. That synonym was democracy. They had first met democracy in the shape of the government of the people, the government of free and equal citizens, where the rulers and the ruled people are one and the same. Needless to say, they had eciently worked during the French Second Republic (1848–51) to crush the threat of democratic anarchy, at the cost of handing over their own freedom to a new emperor. But it was not enough to crush it by force. They had to annul its political significance, make it a mere sociological phe- nomenon. Therefore a new democratic ghost was substituted for the older; political democracy, they said, had been crushed, but there was a new, far more radical uprising of democracy that no police, no army could tear down: the uprising of the multitude of aspirations and desires, cropping up everywhere in all the pores of modern society. To be sure, the idea was not exactly new; Plato had invented it two millennia before by stating that democracy, in fact, was not a form of government but the way of life of those “free” Athenians who cared for nothing except their individual pleasure. The modern antidemocrats translated it into a more dramatic version, as the uprising of the multitude of unleashed social atoms, greedy to enjoy everything that was enjoyable: gold, indeed, and all the things that gold can buy, but also, what was worse, all that gold cannot buy—passions, values, ideals, art, and literature. Such was the big trouble as they saw it. It would be a lesser evil if poor people only wanted to get rich. Poor people are sup- posed to be “practically minded.” But poor people were now taking a new view of what practical-mindedness meant. They wanted to enjoy all that was enjoyable, including ideal pleasures. But they also wanted those ideal pleasures to be practically enjoyable ideal pleasures. 

For those who come upon Flaubert’s book, Emma Bovary is the frightening incarnation of that desire. She craves ideal romance and physical love. She constantly negotiates between material and ideal sources of excitement. When she has resisted her love for Leon, she thinks that she deserves a reward. She buys a piece of furniture. And not any piece of furniture: a gothic prie-dieu. This is what respectable persons perceive as the law of democracy, the law of universal equivalence: anybody can exchange any desire for any other desire. A critic sums it up as follows: “Madame Bovary, this means the pathological overexcitement of senses and imagination in dissatisfied democracy.” That would be a good reason for sentencing her to death. But respectable persons are not asked to judge Emma; they are only asked to judge her inventor. The first person who has an interest in killing her is Flaubert. Besides the trial of the writer, there is the trial that the writer mounts against his character. Besides the evil that frightens respectable persons, there is the evil done to literature by Emma, which means the evil that he wants her to do, that he embodies in Emma.

Perhaps you can sense where he’s headed with all this… The anxious war of Art vs. the aestheticization of everyday life as the battle between Flaubert and his creation, but it’s even more complex than a reactionary defense of privileged access to the aesthetic, as the aesthetic in question, the aesthetic perhaps proposed by Flaubert in Bovary is one that itself resists hierarchy, the oldest hierarchies that define the shape of art, and not just the shape of art. 

There is one person who could have explained it to Emma. Unfortunately it is the person whom you are not supposed to meet in a convent. It is the Devil. Before writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert had written the first version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony. The devil that tempted Saint Anthony was much cleverer and much more generous than the old nuns in the convent. He gave him the explanation of “mystic languor” as he dragged him on an aerial journey through space. He made him discover what life truly is when our sensations are released from the chains of individuality. With his help, the saint could discover strange forms of preindividual or impersonal life: “inanimate existences, inert things that seem animal, vegetative souls, statues that dream and landscapes that think.”5 In such a world our mind loses all its conventional bearings. It bursts into atoms of thought that come into unity with things that have themselves burst into a dance of atoms. The Devil reminded the saint that he had already felt that experience of fusion between the inside and the outside: “Often, because of anything at all, a drop of water, a shell, a strand of hair, you have stopped short, your eyes fixed and your heart open. The object you were gazing at seemed to encroach upon you, as you bent toward, and new ties were found: you clutched each other, you touched each other by subtle innumerable embraces.”

Those “subtle innumerable embraces,” those shells, strands of hair, and drops of water, together with sunrays, breaths of air, and grains of sand or dust whipped up by the wind make up the sensory framework of Madame Bovary. They are the real events of the novel. Every time that something happens in the fiction—notably the birth of a love—they are the real content of the event, the real cause of the emotion. Let us remember what happens when Charles first falls for Emma: “The draught beneath the door blew a little dust over the flagstones, and he watched it creep along” (B, p.35). 

When Emma falls for Rodolphe, she perceives little gleams of gold about his pupils, smells a perfume of lemon and vanilla, and looks at the long plume of dust raised by the stagecoach. And when she first falls for Leon, “weeds streamed out in the limpid water like green wigs tossed away. Now and then some fine-legged insects alighted on the tip of a reed or crawled over a water-lily leaf. The sunshine darted its rays through the little blue bubbles on the wavelets that kept forming and breaking” (B, p.107).

This is what happens: “little blue bubbles” on wavelets in the sunshine, or swirls of dust raised by the wind. This is what the characters feel and what makes them happy: a pure flood of sensations. Much later, the Proustian narrator will evoke the message addressed by the sensation to the person that it strikes, a message that he will sum up as follows: “Try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.”7 But the Flaubertian characters don’t solve the riddle. They don’t even understand what kind of happiness can be enclosed in swirls of dust and bubbles on wavelets. They want those microevents to be linked together in a real plot. They want the swirls and bubbles to be turned into properties of real things that can be desired and possessed, into features of individuals that they can love and who can love them. From the point of view of the writer, they don’t mistake art for life. They mistake one art for another and one life for another. They mistake one art for another; this means that they are still trapped in the old poetics with its combinations of actions, its characters envisioning great ends, its feelings related to the qualities of persons, its noble passions opposed to everyday experience, and so on. They are out of step with the new poetics that has shattered the hierarchical poetics of action in favor of an “egaliarian” poetics of life. This also means that they mistake one life for another. They still perceive a world of subjects and predicates, things and qualities, wills, ends and means. They think that things and persons have qualities that individualize them and make them desirable and enjoyable. In short, they think that life is defined by aims and purposes. They have not listened to the lesson of the Devil: life has no purpose. It is an eternal flood of atoms that keeps doing and undoing in new configurations. 

This is brilliant stuff, but there’s one thing perhaps that I’d tweak or add or augment. These micro-events that Rancière so persuasively describes are also a matter of time – they are time images, visual manifestations of the passage of time. The blowing of the dust, the movements of the insects – these events are a matter of a new, secular temporality that, like the aesthetic involved in their encapsulation in the novel, is incompatible with standard narrative forms. (Sometimes I call these temporality the anti-ephiphanic, other times simply the everyday. I comes to the same thing, in the end…) Novels can light on these moments, but novels cannot stay – and a novel made entirely of them (of course this happened, in a sense, later, with Woolf and others) simply does not work as a novel, does not do what a novel is supposed to do.

More to be said, of course…  


Written by adswithoutproducts

April 23, 2008 at 9:54 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting! So when does “the everyday” begin? When is the everyday invented?

    This attention to the embodied experience of the fleeting everyday moment reminds me of modern lyric poetry, except that these short poems usually _are_ epiphanic. Elizabeth Bishop would be the paradigmatic example, but also see James Wright. (sorry, that link has stupid ad pop-ups.)


    April 24, 2008 at 12:07 am

  2. Sisyphus: ick! Or, maybe, ich! Well, I think you get at the problem in conceding that the poems you mention are indeed epiphanic — one might see this as the problem of the conventional poem in which the character and author are assimilated into a single position. This makes impossible Flaubert’s ruthless (if ambivalent) distance from Emma’s experience.

    You’re right that this “embodied experience of the fleeting everyday moment” is both a cliché in, and about, modern lyric poetry — but I wouldn’t give in to the cliché so easily. It’s not true of such widely various poets as Pound, Stein, O’Hara, H.D., Duncan, Ginsberg, Baraka, Hejinian, Zukofsky, Ashbery, Stevens, MacDiarmid, Niedecker, Spicer, Palmer, Olson…and it would be interesting to debate Creeley, Auden, Williams, Eliot. These and more, all of them great. Indeed, one of the things that all these disparate poets have in common is their fashioning their poetics exactly against the poetry you describe; one might even argue that the “epiphanic lyric” is the very negative of something truly indicative and extraordinary about the poetry of the age…


    April 25, 2008 at 2:45 am

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