ads without products

Archive for the ‘flaubert’ Category

impersonality and the individual

with 4 comments

“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.


But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

“personally, i always preferred lipton’s”

with 5 comments

I promised the Voice That Whispers in My Ear at Night (hereafter VinE – I mean for this post and future posts) that I would a) read for two hours then b) write not-blogposts for an hour or two. Ooops! I will make it up by posting something serious and potentially work-facilitating.

I’m the comments to my post on macroeconomic microfictions / fiction in the aggregate, Dave suggests (if I have it right) that I work from individual focus toward panoptic aggregation via a terminal wide-angle shot, one that reveals that the selfsame story is going on for a whole bunch of people at the very same time. I could do this, and will do I’m sure, but let me show you something that I think about, unreconstructed modernist that I am.

Some of you, I know, won’t like this clip, but allow it me it as it shows something relatively quickly and clearly.

(Now: if you have 15 minutes, watch the whole thing. If you have 8 minutes or so, you’ll be ok. Watch the first 8 minutes and you’ll figure out the trick if you’re paying close attention. If you only have 4 minutes, just watch the first 2 and the last 2 minutes, you’ll still get the point…)

So it’s Anthony Minghella’s 2000 version of Beckett’s 1963 Play. I happen to think it’s pretty fantastic. OK, Minghella’s bit is OK, but the play itself is head-slammingly perfect. And I actually really like the performance by the britishy superstars involved.

Let me just say it again. I absolutely love every single thing about this play. If you’re looking for me, where my heart lies aesthetically, this is a fairly good crystallization in 15 minutes. I’ll say why, I hope, in the course of writing this post and answering Dave’s comment.

Just to keep things simple, let’s talk about Minghella’s version, as it is a bit different from the scripted version of the play. And in fact, his variations speak to exactly the question that I’m trying to get at in writing this. (Oof. Right there, all of a sudden, this fell into being something that I should write for real, not for blog. Did you see that? Started sounding like someone who actually writes about drama….)

Now, Beckett / Minghella’s Play drives at the generic from two different angles, in two different ways. The first way is the Minghella addition. Those panning shots that reveal, most strikingly at the end, that we’re in some sort of place where everybody is chattering on in just the same way, perhaps about exactly the same sort of thing, except, we are led to imagine, in their own way. Same yet different. What other sort of story do we expect these other urn-dwellers would tell?

(This runs a bit far from Beckett’s script, which does call for a chorus, but it seems to be a chorus composed of the three characters – the two women and the man – themselves. They are to speak a sort of barely discernable scattershot redux of their previous language. But, no, in Beckett’s version, there are no other urns, no other urn dwellers, there is no whole world or hell of similarity in difference… Minghella’s retraction of the camera to see all these others is his own addition to the work….)

I think Minghella’s tactic actually does work, if cheaply, but works only as an underscoring of what we already should know from what we’ve seen of the three characters themselves and their words. And here is where we find the second, and ultimately more satisfying, mode of rendering the generic available here.

For it is the story itself that we’re bound up in here – this tawdry, ultimately boring story of some sort of utterly predictable love triangle, and the emotional atmospherics that are concomitant with it – that is the first and best vehicle of the genericness of the play. People, Beckett seems to say, get caught up in these things, the things spur endless amounts of chattering solipsism, we cannot stop spitefully talking about them, about ourselves, even if there is no one left to listen, nobody who would possibly stay to listen to what we have to say. The amazing false profundities on display, the cliche takeaway – Adulterers, take heed: never admit! – already tell us all we need to know, before the pan, before the wide shot, about the play’s take on the ostensible subject matter at hand.

The formal devices of the play and the stage-directions work to intensify this effect. First, and most obviously, there’s the fact that the play turns at midpoint only to repeat itself in its entirety, which brings a hellishness to bear that preempts Minghella’s setting of his film version in the place that Clov can see out the windows in Endgame. Whatever individual interest, whatever romantic frisson, is left after the first go-round is decisively killed off when we hear the same damn thing again in full. And the mode of delivery indicated by the directions (and, I think, impeccably followed by Thomas, Stevenson, and Rickman in this version,) only make things worse…. that is to say better.

Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated.

Rapid tempo throughout.

It’s all fast and underbreath – the voice of neurosis, or of prayer said rote in order to finish quickly and get on to something else. Thy kingdomcome, thy willbedone, on earthasitisinheaven. The impassivity of the speakers signals that the words, the words that press up for no interlocutor,  press up to be said because they, situationally, have to be said, the situation requires their saying. So florid, so ostensibly full of emotion and relevance, uttering them (and that’s what they’re doing here – uttering) undercuts them, leaves them as all too human psychopathology, the stuff you say when your mind is out of your control because you’re caught in an altogether familar situation.

Ack. I need to get to sleep! But for now, let’s just put it this way. The panning move on Minghella’s part would be worthless, a false suggestion of true genericity, if not for all the steps that Beckett’s already taken to make sure that the foregrounded stuff is what it is, is generic. The pan, the wide shot, forces the point – but one should only force (right, VinE?) what’s ready and appropriate to be forced. This is the capacity that I’m looking to develop – the widening out works, but only when there’s generic ready there for the widening. Or in fact, as with Minghella’s version, the widening shot works mostly – only – when it’s there to reindicate, to underscore, to clarify, to intensify. We can see all the other cars in the parking lot, in other words, but that only does what I want it to do once it’s clear that the foreground story is, in a sense, the story of behind all the other cars in the parking lot. I have no problem tipping my hand, but I want to be sure first that I have a hand worthy of being tipped.

Anyway, a post that is not likely to come – as it’s a part of my book that I will dutifully revise MTWTF this summer, has to do with the initial and literal announcement of the generic as the principal issue of what will become modernism at the start of Madame Bovary. This bit, and sorry for the French, but it’s untranslatable, sets it out in writing:

Nous avions l’habitude, en entrant en classe, de jeter nos casquettes par terre, afin d’avoir ensuite nos mains plus libres; il fallait, dès le seuil de la porte, les lancer sous le banc, de façon à frapper contre la muraille en faisant beaucoup de poussière; c’était là le genre.

Now remember, the word genre has a triple meaning in French. Here it’s “the way things are done,” but of course it also means literary genre. Further, it also means gender. But that’s another story altogether, he whispers to the VinE, whom he hopes is pleased that he didn’t totally fuck his night, even if he didn’t quite do what he had promised her he would….

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 17, 2009 at 1:42 am

Posted in beckett, flaubert, generic, genre

rate cut!

leave a comment »

From Bovary:

Ses expansions étaient devenues régulières; il l’embrassait à de certaines heures. C’était une habitude parmi les autres, et comme un dessert prévu d’avance, après la monotonie du dîner.

Futures down 289 after the Rate Cut of Global Unity! Everything that happens makes sense if you’ve read your Flaubert! I should write a business book!

Do you remember the beginning of the end of Bovary? There are a few endings, but do you remember what makes her start the process of killing herself? “Dans vingt-quatre heures pour tout délai.” – Quoi donc? “Payer la somme totale de…” And so on. The bursting of a shock-market bubble, her own personal little credit crisis, it is.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 8, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Posted in crisis, flaubert, markets

rancière on bovary

with 2 comments

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

marx’s translation of bovary

with 2 comments

Was just answering a question about my favorite novel for a grad student who’s writing on it, and had to check something in the text, and noticed something a little bit amazing.

The English edition of Madame Bovary hosted by Gutenberg was translated by none other than Eleanor Marx… Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. I had no idea. I probably should have known, but I didn’t…

Here’s an interesting bit by E.P. Thompson on her.

And here’s Beatrice Potter (later, Beatrice Webb) on a meeting with her in 1883.

Went in the afternoon to British Museum and met Miss Marx in the refreshment rooms. Daughter of Karl Marx, socialist writer and refugee. Gains her livelihood by teaching literature, and writing for socialist newspapers. In person she is comely, dressed in a slovenly picturesque way with curly hair flying about in all directions. Fine eyes full of life and sympathy, otherwise ugly features and expression with complexion showing the signs of an unhealthy excited life, kept up with stimulants and tempered by narcotics. Lives alone, is much connected with Bradlaugh set, evidently peculiar views on love, etc., and I should think has somewhat ‘Natural’ relations with men! Should fear that the chances were against her remaining long within the pale of “respectable” society.


An excellent collection of her writings, including the Flaubert and some Ibsen plays…

Nice! Barnes and Noble gave me a coupon for a free book from their in-house line of “classics” – apparently, I’m an “educator” and they think I could be switched from my beloved Penguins. It’s been sitting in my wallet for months. Finally have something to spend it on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 10, 2006 at 12:53 am

Posted in flaubert, socialism


leave a comment »

From Flaubert’s letters, of course:

The illusion (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the impersonality of the work. It is a principle of mine that a writer must not be his own theme. The artist in his work must be like God in his creation — invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.

It is not simply a matter of taking on a pseudonym, even if that pseudonym happens to be God. Rather, as it turns out, it is letting the form speak itself, letting the novel novel.

What would it mean to let the blog blog?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 8, 2006 at 2:46 am

Posted in flaubert, impersonality