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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….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in benjamin, flaubert

9 Responses

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  1. a construct fully consummate with the temporality of life under capitalism

    hmm, explain this further?

    Unfortunately, you’ll none of you see that if I do.

    Mwahahahaha some of us can find you! There’s nowhere for you to hide! Ha!


    June 25, 2009 at 5:22 am

    • Oh, but that’s a long story. I just think that at every level, from macro to micro, the temporality of capitalism runs according to an evental logic – a rhythm of everydayness punctured by the event and then lapsing back into everydayness. Lefebvre in Critique of Everyday Life (vol 2) says that the funny thing about capitalist societies, which market themselves as “pleasure economies” or societies based on the pursuit of pleasure, is that in them happiness only ever seems to arrive by chance. A lucky break, an unexpected turn – and think about how sex works, for christmas’s sake.

      This is going to take more to explain than I can go here – maybe a full post to come when I’m near my books – but the temporal logic that goes like “OMG! I’ve just won the lottery of life, work, sex, unhappiness, happiness, health, sickness” seems to me an endemic form. And fictional contingency, the fiction event, is a lot like this too, no? More than just “like” it…. Thus (long leap – here is where the work goes) modernism’s wrestling with the event, attempt to erode or cancel it, to imagine a literature that works without it.

      Hmmm…. More soon….


      June 25, 2009 at 6:27 am

  2. A few comments that may or may not be of interest or use:

    Maybe it would be worth looking at this from the point of view of Bovary as a turning point in the development of the French novel (and not only the French…)

    On the one hand it is clearly part of the earlier tradition of Balzac and Stendahl and the post-revolutionary novel, where a narrative of seduction and adultery is simultaneously one of social advancement, in which a series of young bourgeois men of varoius political stripe (Legitimist, Orleanist, Bonapartist) compete for the affections of a woman-nation.

    On the other it obviously draws this tradition to a close. Put simply, the nation-woman no longer finds her affections being fought over, but on the contrary finds she must actively search for a lover. It is not so much that Bovary is eventless as that its events never seem to acqure the narrative significance it seems they ought – they never become the key causal events of a wider story, they never amount to more than the mere sum of themselves.

    The correlative of this “narrative collapse” is that style acquires a new and self-conscious importance, and it is an importance that seems oddly incommensurate with narrative, as if you could now have one or the other, but not both.

    After Bovary you get a bifurcation in the novel, between a line of works in which style is subordinate to narrative, and a line in which narrative is subordinate to style. The latter seem at first to be pretty right-wing: think of the “plotless novels” of Huysmans, or the weird, static visions of Lautreamont (whose Chants de Maldoror I’m inclined to think of more as a work of prose than poetry); while the former – let’s call them novelistic melodramas – more generally progressive (think of Zola). But later on the two strands undergo a political realignment: Lautreamont gets rediscovered by Breton and incorporated into Surrealism, while Zola gets taken up by, among others, the Stalinists, and turned into the socialist realist novel.

    What relevance does any of this have to Flaubert as the father of socialist literary modernism? Only that there seems to be a clear genealogy linking the two; what needs explaining is why the right registered the “eventlessness” of capitalist temporality first. It could have something to do with a dawning realisation on the left of the potentialities of “immanent critique”. But I’m probably going beyond myself here.

    Incidentally, an interesting figure in all this, who stands outside mainstream modernism to the extent that some people wonder whether he belongs in it at all is Roussel. – a direct literary descendant of Huysmans, and in my opinion the ne plus ultra of infra-interesting. He isn’t exactly left-wing, but he did later become a major inspiration for that consummate movement of the algebraification of art, the Oulipo.


    June 26, 2009 at 12:07 am

    • Jesus, well, that was a comment, T.M.! These are exactly the issues that I’m trying to think through, rather rapidly, this summer…

      The antithesis that you’ve forged here between style / narrative is quite good, helpful. I’m not sure that GF ever quite got to thinking of it that way, even as he was forging just such a distinction. Interesting in itself.

      what needs explaining is why the right registered the “eventlessness” of capitalist temporality first.

      Exactly right.

      I wish you’d say more about this: It could have something to do with a dawning realisation on the left of the potentialities of “immanent critique”. But I’m probably going beyond myself here.

      Roussel, yes. Good idea….

      Thanks for this. Going to cut and paste it into my notes. Extremely helpful…. Don’t usually do this, but I wonder who you are, actually.


      June 26, 2009 at 10:35 pm

  3. Regarding chance and capitalism: it makes sense then that the craft of the novel should be about making chance look like necessity, even when chance is the theme, as in a Dickens novel.

    Ben Friedlander

    June 26, 2009 at 3:18 am

    • Both ways, isn’t it? To make chance look like necessity, and necessity look like chance…. But that’s very helpful – I agree!


      June 26, 2009 at 10:36 pm

  4. Yes, you’re right: both ways.

    Ben Friedlander

    June 27, 2009 at 4:33 pm

  5. Sorry to be late getting back.

    “Immanent critique” was probably the wrong term for me to use. What I was really talking about were Adorno’s “autonomous” works of art, whose method, I suppose, is what immanent critique reveals. Here, though, is a definition of it from Gebhardt and Arato’s Frankfurt School Reader (p. 203):
    “… in an epoch that threatens all realms of consciousness with subsumption and one-dimensional reduction, immanent criticism, immersion in the internal form and structure of cultural objects plays a redeeming, protective function.”

    The idea, as I guess you know, is that autonomous works expose the reified nature of the social world by revealing the “truth” of its forms of consciousness – what Zizek calls the “fantasy at work in the midst of the social reality itself”. So, with Kafka’s Trial, this could be the nightmare world of bureaucracy; with Beckett’s Trilogy, the obsessive-compulsive narrator’s paranoid fear (the corollary of the Cartesian cogito) that “if I stop thinking I’ll cease to exist”.

    So maybe it would be useful to see Bovary as an early instance of autonomous art. And if so, the truth it reveals might be – among other things – the empty, monotonous, homogenous time of what Flaubert attributes to the “socialists’… materialistic preachings”. I think of this as a time of the eternal same, into which nothing miraculous, whether divine (the Messiah) or secular (revolution) can ever again enter, and before which human longings and desires for something else are rendered futile, impotent and absurd. It’s probably no coincidence that there’s a parallel to be drawn here with the historical victors’ time, the time of “human progress”, described in Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History.

    Now, if we try to give a name to this kind of time, or rather a provenance (which would inevitably be bound up with an emerging “dominant ideology” of late nineteenth century capitalist society), then I think a good contender would be “positivism” (and interestingly enough, Comte’s Systeme de politique positive came out just a few years before Bovary). I also think there’s an argument to be made – although it would admittedly take an awful lot of work – that modernism as an artistic movement was a critique (or rather, a whole variety of critiques, many of them contradictory of each other) of positivism. Again, this might be a useful way of seeing Flaubert as the father of literary modernism.

    As for the father of socialist literary modernism… I can see that may be a bit harder to argue. I suppose you can always say that all autonomous works are “left-wing” in so far as they implicitly critique their conditions of production, even when their authors are decidedly reactionary. Maybe it would be more useful to come back to the specific question of why the right was quicker to react against the new temporality than the left, and find an answer to that. Here, for what it’s worth, is mine.

    Basically , I think it was lot easier for the right of later nineteenth century to formulate critiques of positivism than the left. Positivism was, after all, part of the Enlightenment tradition (it privileged reason and science, it opposed the mystifications of religion), and many of the left had a great deal of ideological investment in it. You might say that they rejected industrial capitalism but accepted much of what was, in effect, the philosophical expression of its ideology. The reformism of the Second International is generally seen as a positivistic reading of Marx’s economic theories, and Zola, for example, described himself as a positivist. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Flaubert would have seen socialism as a form of positivism.

    The right, by contrast, had no ideological investment in the philosophy, and consequently few difficulties in identifying it as a political enemy from the start. I suspect the eventlessness of capitalist temporality was easier to perceive if you believed in a transcendent realm outside it where things could go on happening. It might also have been easier to make art about it. To take an example: the central – arguably the only – event of Huysmans’ A Rebords is a religious conversion, that is, a recognition of world beyond time. But without this, its “plotless” narrative – the thing, that it, that makes the work so “modernist” for us – wouldn’t have been possible. The left wasn’t really able to do anything like this in the novel (I think poetry and visual art are different stories) until it had formed a proper critique of positivism, which didn’t really come until after the First World War.


    July 1, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    • Ah that’s clearer in re “immanent critique.” Actually if you’re interested and haven’t read it, Bourdieu’s Rules of Art, which I’m looking at again right now, is very helpful on this line. He sort of has to contradict himself in order to praise Flaubert on this front… interesting all the same, perhaps more interesting for it!

      I think my project – and this is a VERY long story, that can’t be told in a comment box – is and has been in a sense a contra-Adornian one. Huge amount of respect for him, of course – once taught a graduate seminar, a really intense one, in which we read a few chapters of AT a week in addition to the primary texts. But I’m trying to get at modernism from a direction other than autonomy… As I find it a rather weak way to stake the claim, a sort of negative theology. I’m more interested in modernism as a series of, um, ads… Suggestions about alternative ways of seeing things like time and change, rather than simply indirect assertions of what’s left of autonomy / autonomy as it fades away / heroic, impossible autonomy / autonomy ridden with symptoms, poxy from modernity.

      I’ll most definitely say more about this as the summer progresses.

      The (perverse) history that you trace in the last paragraph is right and very good. Helpful… And I’m definitely going to think more about the relationship of positivism to all this – that’s very helpful too!


      July 7, 2009 at 10:41 pm

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