Flanked in the picture by red-plumed honor guards while riding triumphantly aboard an army jeep on his inaugural ride down the Champs-Élysées, Emmanuel Macron carried with him the hopes for the both the preservation of the French Republic and its commitment to the endangered European Union.
The ideals forged in the French Revolution and perpetually tested were once again at the foreground just weeks ago, as voters chose the political upstart Macron over the neo-fascist Marie Le Pen.
Nowhere like in France are the principles of the Enlightenment so frequently in battle with humanity’s dark side. France stands at the front line of liberal democracy but its politics is still haunted by ghosts of the collaborationist Vichy government that in World War II dispatched nearly a hundred thousand French people to death camps in Nazi Germany.
Perhaps it is instructive to examine how conflicted were the intellectual underpinnings of the Enlightenment in consideration of the everlasting battle in France—and, indeed, in that step-child of the Enlightenment, the United States.
In a recent article in the The New Yorker Pankaj Mishra argues that Jean-Jacques Rousseau—who has been reviled and revered by both the right and left, and sometimes from the same side—“seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.”
And the rising tide of a right populism in France, not to mention right here in America, pits the rage of those who see themselves as powerless against a seemingly intractable corporate, bureaucratic state (the late media giant Roger Ailes of course exploited this dynamic). What is particularly distinct in France was Le Pen’s appeal to those who felt left behind in a country with nearly ten percent unemployment, coupled with resentment against the Mideastern refugees who have streamed into the country.
After all, Rousseau wrote in Émile, “Every patriot hates foreigners; they are only men, and nothing to him.” This xenophobia has unfortunately been echoed in our country, but Europe faces an exponentially greater intense test of its values and its capacity to accept strangers.
On the eve of the May election, New York Times writer Roger Cohen said, “Absent religion in any official form, absent the monarchy, the state is what the French have to represent the high ideals and aspirations that, as descendants of the Revolution, they must somehow embody.”
Unique to this election is the rarity that the voters have selected a leader from neither the right nor left, but a moderate technocrat that many hope can reboot the economy while preserving the fraternité promised in the national motto.
Gustave Flaubert, who was born in 1821, would inevitably be captivated by the revolution of 1848 that established the French Second Republic and led to the authoritarian reign of the second Napoleon, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, establishing the French Second Empire, which the writer, a bourgeois by birth, came to see as corrupt.
Flaubert didn’t start out as a democrat. Born into to the monied elite class that Rousseau so hated in his Enlightenment rival Voltaire, he believed in a benevolent authoritarianism of the educated elite that could keep order while promoting the common good. His views changed over the years, due in no small part to the influence of his dear friend, the novelist and ardent socialist George Sand.
As the failures of the Second Republic unfolded Flaubert was engaged in writing Madame Bovary, the book that would posthumously elevate him to the pantheon of literature, but nearly landed him in jail when it was published in 1856, for—seemingly absurd now—affronting French morals by creating a protagonist who isn’t sufficiently punished for her sins. The author went to trial and was acquitted in the same year that the poet Charles Baudelaire was tried and fined for the content of Flowers of Evil.
In the late 1860s Flaubert was living in Paris where his friends included Sand, Émile Zola and Ivan Turgenev—all loosely practitioners of a new realism in literature. The biggest book in 1862 was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
While working on what he would consider his greatest work, Sentimental Education, in 1866 Flaubert was made a knight in the French Legion of Honor, while he was growing apart from his own class and increasingly critical of the course of national politics. When his book was published three years later it was panned by critics and treated indifferently by readers.
This was a radically new kind of book for various reasons and was underappreciated for the remarkable novel that it is, but also because—as Flaubert somewhat curiously persisted in believing, for its failing the achieve what he intended for it as a cautionary message against the violent currents fermenting.
Some forty years after its publication, in 1914, the American-Anglo novelist of mannered capitalism, Henry James, would say it was filled “with beautiful passages and general emptiness.” His assessment of the protagonist Frédéric Moreau: “too poor for his part; too scant for his charge.”
Time has proved James wrong.
Education is Flaubert’s greatest and most forward-thinking work—a realization of perhaps the first novel of history with the foregrounding of a character who is not a traditionally heroic figure but almost a 20th Century man—something more like Franz Kafka’s Joseph K or Robert Musil’s Ulrich in A Man Without Qualities, except that Frédéric’s case and in spite of himself he moves through life relatively unscathed.
Frédéric is actually a fully realized character, but what troubles James and other critics of Flaubert’s own time is that he lacks gravitas—the capacity to grow and learn. Readers may hope for heroes to expand into the world they inhabit, but of course life usually doesn’t play out that way. So why should art? Edward Dahlberg said, “we are never able to know ourselves,” and this is so true of Frédéric. At every step as we say, just now, finally, he will come to some self-realization. But he never fails to disappoint.
This is a bildungsroman for the modern man. If this is a moral education, as the form indicates (and “moral” education is closer to Flaubert’s intention than the English word “sentimental”), its hero is stubbornly incapable of learning from experience.
Frédéric is 18 in 1840, roughly Flaubert’s own age, when he is transformed by an image that will never leave him: He’s taking a boat home from Paris after graduating from school—it’s a reluctant journey back to Nogent-sur-Seine. After tasting the sophistication of Paris he can never again be content with the village where he could have lived comfortably with an inheritance.
There are festivities on board and the center of activity is the clownish Jacques Arnoux. Off the center of the picture seated alone, Frédéric sees a woman “like an apparition.” A woman who “dazzled by her eyes.” He had never before seen a more seductive figure. This was Madame Arnoux—the woman over whom he would obsess for the next thirty years.
So, this is largely a love story, or a story of unfulfilled lust, set against the backdrop of revolutionary turmoil. No segment of society is left out and most are represented by friends or close associations of Frédéric’s: Charles Deslauriers, his parasitic best friend, and a would-be publisher; Jacques Arnoux, the failed entrepreneur and womanizer; Sénécal, the dogmatic Republican; Regimbart, the revolutionary; Monsieur Dambreuse, the aristocrat; Rosanette Bron, a courtesan and Frédéric’s lover.
When Education reached the public first through magazine serialization, then in book form, war was looming, and in 1870 France waged a disastrous battle against Prussia and Napoléon III was taken prisoner. For a time, the Prussians seized Flaubert’s house in Croisset and he fled to Paris.
A peace treaty in 1871 led to the formation of a new government led by Adolphe Thiers—about whom Flaubert described into a letter to Sand as an “abject pustule, a […] turd like bourgeois.” Thiers was unable to prevent the capital from being taken over by the ill-fated Commune de Paris, a socialist collective, which briefly maintained autonomous control of the city. The battle to roust out this separatist regime resulted in the death of 20,000 Parisians.
This is often referred to as “The Terrible Year.”
What’s curious and the question Peter Brooks explores in Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel and a Terrible Year, is that Flaubert would tell his friend Sand and others that had his countrymen only carefully read his novel, disaster could have been avoided. It is rare that a novelist would so pointedly suggest that his work could alter history.
In 1864, while working on the book, he wrote in a letter “I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation—more accurately, the history of their feeling. It’s a book about love, about passion.”
What Brooks, an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Yale, offers here is a valuable background book both about politicial currents and the novel—defining, he says, politics not in “any trivial sense, but rather the making of enormously important historical events.”
In doing so, he tries to sort out Flaubert’s conversion from a mandarin who disdained the masses, to a republican with contempt for the class from which he arose. He also came to believe that only by throwing its lot with the republic could the French avoid the self-slaughter played out in the Terrible Year. And, he thought that his depiction of the previous revolution in Sentimental Education should have been taken for prophecy.
Brooks points out that writing for Flaubert was particularly long and painstaking—it took five years to complete Sentimental Education—because he had to get all the details right, once even writing to a friend for information about the homes of silk weavers in Lyon where only a small part of the action takes place.
He wanted to know the dimensions of the living quarters, if the weavers generally owned their own houses, if their children worked too, if the shaft of the rollers struck the weavers in the stomach during the winding. Flaubert would await letters verifying such facts, or in some cases go on his own pursuit of details.
In one instance, Brooks says that Flaubert had written a scene in which Frédéric takes a train from Fontainebleau to Paris to visit his wounded friend Dussardier, only to read in a guidebook that in 1848 there was no train on that route. He changed the train to a carriage.
Flaubert was ahead of the game in the accretion of details that would become the credo of the modern novel. But, it was the hero of his work that most vexed critics. How could the writer uncritically put forth a leading character who could be so feckless and immune from growth or the wisdom of age? Brooks argues, and I think effectively, that “Flaubert sought to escape from the Romantics,” who, “he believed, inculcated an unsatisfiable longing and falsified reality.”
Brooks devotes the second chapter of his book to the “The Terrible Year” itself. Flaubert, Brooks says, spent the war mainly in Rouen but visited Paris shortly after the fall of the Commune in June of 1871. It was what he saw that led him to proclaim than an understanding of his novel might have precluded the disaster. He writes to Sand on July 22:
I am nauseated, distressed by the stupidity of my compatriots.
The irredeemable barbarity of Humanity fills me with a black sadness.
This enthusiasm that has no idea behind it makes me want to croak
so, I don’t have to witness it…. The frightful butchery that is in
preparation doesn’t even have a pretext. —It’s just the wish to fight,
just in order to fight.
“War was to him the utter negation of civilization, of everything he had lived for,” Brooks says. His friend Sand was more sanguine. “Let’s not despair of France,” she told him. “She is undergoing an expiation of her insanity, she will be reborn, whatever happens.” But Flaubert sees something far more sinister in the events of 1870 and ’71—a savagery that would not be tamed and indeed was marked by the ever more horrific wars between France and Germany in the Twentieth Century.
What Flaubert invokes as the antidote to these cataclysms is the Enlightenment ideal of reason above all else, of the application of scientific reasoning to human pursuits. Here Brooks demonstrates the most logical application of Sentimental Education to the unfolding of history. What he tried to demonstrate in the book was that it was the failure of rational thought that led to the earlier disasters. That was the lesson.
Everything for Flaubert, Brooks says, “traces back to stupidity and the immense human capacity for self-deception.” If only the public were smarter, and if they could have read, they would have seen in the debacle of the 1848 revolution how history was repeating itself. Flaubert would maintain that reason, and indeed a scientific approach, would be the only escape from the claws of bloody history. And, until late in life he was skeptical of the ability of the masses to lead themselves.
George Steiner, in an essay titled “The Idea of Europe,” quotes Max Weber, who said, “Democracy should be practiced where it is appropriate. Scientific training, however […] implies the existence of a certain type of intellectual aristocracy.” This is at the core of Enlightenment thought that animated the European project and Flaubert’s own reasoning: an aristocracy of sages.
Brooks says that “Flaubert is right: it is prophetic of the events of 1871 if you view the earlier revolution as a kind of dress rehearsal for the even more violent occurrences of 1871.”
Flaubert’s view of civil strife, Brooks suggests, is most clearly expressed through the narrator’s description of how the victorious government treated fallen insurgents like Sénécal, where “the aristocracy showed the fury of the rabble, and the cotton nightcap proved itself no less hideous than the red bonnet. Public reason was troubled as after great cataclysms. Intelligent men were made idiots for the rest of their lives.”
Here, Brooks says, lies a contradiction the novelist can never square: “How are idiots supposed to profit from the lessons of history?”
Frédéric early in the novel and on his way to half-heartedly pursuing a law degree (Flaubert himself studied law at the insistence of his father but had no taste for the practice and abandoned it to become a writer) dabbles in art and reads popular memoirs and novels of the day. He imagines one day becoming the Walter Scott of France. But he really is nothing more than an idler. While his friend Deslauriers imagines himself growing rich and influencing society, Frédéric, “would have furnished for himself a place in the Moorish fashion, to spend his life reclining on cashmere divans, to the murmur of a fountain, attended by negro pages.” And, in fact, when he unexpectedly comes into a large inheritance from a childless uncle, his first move is to buy an expensive apartment and furnish it extravagantly.
The story of Sentimental Education evolves through the birth and development of photography. By 1871, the new medium was coming of age in France as it had during the American Civil War with the grim visual reportage of Matthew Brady and others. And Brooks devotes an ample portion of his book to views of war carnage that Flaubert himself would have seen and that fueled his anger over the senselessness of his countrymen.
Film emulsions did not yet allow for action photos, but the stills reproduced in The Ruins of Paris are horrific. (Oddly, the prints aren’t displayed in the chapter titled “A Tour of the Ruins: Photography Makes History,” but further back in the book, so a lot of page flipping is required to access references within the chapter.)
A picture entitled “Communards in Their Coffins” by Eugène Disdéri shows a dozen communards lying in their coffins with twisted expressions on their faces as if captured just at the moment of the deaths, some with mouths hanging open, eyes half shut, all with number tags, one holding his hat in his hands. All look to be in their twenties, struck down, in Flaubert’s view, for no better reason than being caught up in his country’s refusal to learn the lessons of history—and the lessons of his own novel.
It is a challenge to examine this because it slams us right into the heart of the humanism we cherish. But the forces of a dark religious fundamentalism in all creeds challenge us in the United States and particularly in Europe. But we struggle to keep that light shining that was lit up roughly in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, and that Flaubert fervently believed should have illuminated his countrymen in the Nineteenth Century.
“In a world now in the grip of murderous fundamentalism,” Steiner says, “Europe may have the imperative of hammering out, of enacting secular humanism. If it can purge itself of its own dark heritage unflinchingly, the Europe of Montaigne and Erasmus, of Voltaire and of Immanuel Kant may, once again give guidance.”
It may be the West’s last best hope.
Sentimental Education is really, despite Flaubert’s insistence that it is prophecy, really a book about friendship—and about the fickleness of human nature. In the bittersweet end when Frédéric and Deslauriers meet late into middle age, they have failed to realize their dreams (Frédéric, to hold on to the love of his life; his friend, to become an influential publisher), but they, and the friendship have survived. It is telling that the memory they share is when thirty years earlier, when Deslauriers has taken Frédéric (always the one with money in his pocket) to a whorehouse for his first taste of sex. Frédéric is embarrassed and the young women laugh at him. He runs away.
This is a book above all about humanity.
(Michael Moreau )
;©Copyright - Website Designs by rdobrien.com, 2015.