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Archive for June 23rd, 2009

flaubert vs. socialism

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A passage from one of Flaubert’s letters written during the composition of Madame Bovary, transcribed in Francis Steegmuller’s (quite wonderful, if a bit wacky) Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism…. When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of such mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sicknesses – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of a Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (prose especially, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. Books like the Satyricon and the Golden Ass will be written once more, containing on the intellectual plane all the lush excesses which those books have on the sensual. That is what all the socialists in the world have not been willing to see, with their eternal materialistic preachings. They have denied pain, they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that quickens within us. If the feeling of human insufficiency, of the nothingness of life, were to perish (the logical consequence of their hypothesis), we should be more stupid than the birds… Perhaps beauty will become a feeling useless to humanity, and art something half-way between algebra and music.

Steegmuller doesn’t indicate (part of the wackiness of the book…), but I think this is from 1852 or so. Since part of the subtext (and, really, it will remain only subtext, samizdat) of my book is to transform Flaubert into the father of a (subtextually – my my I’m careful!) socialist literary modernism in a slightly roundabout but perhaps longrun fruitful way, passages like these are, um, problematic to say the least.

But despite Flaubert’s anti-humanism, that is to say real misanthropy (he’s not kidding with the stuff at the top of the quote), there’s a way that this passage from a letter self-deconstructs in the long run and in view of the novel that he was writing at the same time. No one is more preoccupied and convinced by the already present stupidity that comes of modernity than Flaubert. And the Satyricon and Golden Ass‘s intellectualization of sensual pleasure is just what he’s in the process of purging in his narrative work, work that is getting him over the hubristic collapse of Saint Antoine. And most importantly the algebraicifcation of art is something that other letters from the period suggest he believes that he himself is up to: “When literature achieves the accuracy of an exact science, that’s something!”

This isn’t the heart of my argument; this is only the dressing. The heart of the argument perhaps goes something like this: that modernism (and proto-modernism such as Flaubert’s) attempted to write (or even just think) a literature that wasn’t dependent upon the event, and that in attempting to write or to think such a thing, these modernists  (inadvertently, unconsciously, or not…) implicitly criticized the revolutionary event as itself a construct fully consummate with the temporality of life under capitalism. Even more complicated than how this happen is why this happened, and that is what I am tapping away, coffeehouse by coffeehouse, at now.

Ooooof. Poor W. Benjamin, caught in the messianically-inflected anxiety of influence trap vis a vis Flaubert. (Check the indicies… There’s the plagiarized passage from Lukács in “The Storyteller,” but look out for other references in the Collected Works. But do you really think he wasn’t worried about Flaubert, given his other interests?)

I may, in the course of everything else to do and under the influence of fast-typers, queue up a quick thing on Flaubert and socialism in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, you’ll none of you see that if I do. Fucking pseudoblog!

(Special to Pollian: did you see the bit about “half-way between algebra and music”? That’s not bad for you and your thing, eh? There’s a lot for you in Flaubert’s letters, I think. Was praising somewhat enviously your thing, btw, to a friend today….)

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June 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in benjamin, flaubert