Monday, January 18, 2016

Faulkner's Scientific-Poetic Dynamo

When William Faulkner arrived in Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize for literature he supposedly declared his occupation as “farmer.” (Inge p. 122) Which raises a question—what kind of farmer describes a road “heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanised dust … [standing] at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid” (Absalom, Absalom p. 143) ?

A farmer, I guess, who seeds his mind with much reading of literature and modern science and harvests a complex, allusive poetry—in this case informed by engineering, geometry, and paleobiology. The notion of an “oxygenless first principle of liquid” clearly refers to the scientific account of the origin of life, in which all was mineral, dead, and devoid of oxygen until several billion years ago, when the first algae-like organisms commenced photosynthesis, recombining carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. Though the King James Bible gave Faulkner his title Absalom, Absalom!, he called on the wonder of modern science to re-create the Bible’s sense of primeval magic.

For Faulkner, writing meant curiosity into human motives (Inge ed., p. 166). That is, he made a scientific study of human beings. But what is even more unique about Faulkner is that his poetical effects rely surreptitiously on scientific methods and ideas. Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working nights as a supervisor in the power plant of the University of Mississippi, the school where he’d ten years earlier done a brief stint at college. He told a newspaper in 1932, “I think the hum of the dynamo helped me.” (Inge ed., p. 28) Perhaps it was that “sound of science” that compelled Faulkner’s thoughts in a scientific direction.

Throughout As I Lay Dying, Faulkner seems to scrutinize familiar phenomena so minutely that the familiar becomes strange, as though he were looking into the familiar through a quantum microscope at a weird physics that we’d intuited but never fully understood. Inspired perhaps by modern physics, Faulkner re-sees reality and discovers in it new relationships and underlying properties.

Often he describes relativistic perceptual phenomena wherein motion imparts some new quality to a thing, much as motion influences observations according to both Galilean and Einsteinian relativity. Faulkner even words these descriptions a bit like a physicist witnessing some previously unknown influence in the physical universe.

Take this memorable example where Cash saws planks below his mother’s bedroom window to make her coffin:

He saws again, his elbow flashing slowly, a thin thread of fire running along the edge of the saw, lost and recovered at the top and bottom of each stroke in unbroken elongation, so that the saw appears to be six feet long…. As I Lay Dying, pp. 75-76.

By superimposing the saw’s various positions into one image irrespective of time, the saw elongates in the viewer’s imagination. If you’ve ever done any sawing, you may recognize the weird visual distortion Faulkner describes.

Later, Faulkner establishes the unsettling effect of buzzards by charting the uncanny effect of Galilean relativity on the perception of their motion:

Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde. p. 95

From Galilean relativity, he proceeds to an observation of a wagon’s motion that sounds blatantly Einsteinian in its linkage of time and space:

We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and [Jewel’s horse]. pp. 107-108

The Bundrens’ wagon soon passes a turn-off and the slow movement past the sign and the side road transfers motion to both:

a white signboard with faded lettering: New Hope Church. 3 mi. It wheels up like a motionless hand lifted above the profound desolation of the ocean; beyond it the red road lies like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim. It wheels past, empty, unscarred, the white signboard turns away its fading and tranquil assertion. p. 108

All is still outside the wagon, yet through relativity the moving wagon imparts motion to the motionless signboard so that it turns. The wagon imparts motion to the road so that the road becomes a turning spoke in a wheel and is said to wheel past. Faulkner’s like an experimental physicist researching the relativity and associativity of perceptions.

He observes a similar perceptual relativity in the way that objects derive their shape from their surroundings: “Beyond the unlamped wall,” Darl says, “I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours….” (p. 80) Later, Faulkner describes the shape of the wagon according to the air around it, and suggests an influence that absent things exert over the place they previously occupied, a poetic physics: “[I]t begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.” (p. 98)

The two types of Faulknerian relativity—of motion and shape—appear together when Darl and Cash and Jewel try to pilot the wagon across the river. Darl looks at his father, sister, and little brother standing on the riverbank and says:

[it is] as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. Yet they appear dwarfed. It is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us…. [The mules] too are breathing now with a deep groaning sound; looking back once, their gaze sweeps across us with in their eyes a wild, sad, profound and despairing quality as though they had already seen in the thick water the shape of the disaster which they could not speak and we could not see. pp. 146-147

The doomed mules in the river are indisputably real and somehow emblematic of the human condition. As I think of them, I can hear the humming of Faulkner’s dynamo, the scientific-poetic genius apparatus that created them.

Monday, January 11, 2016


The great modernists did not share postmodernists’ suspicion of science. Leopold Bloom, for example, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, has physics concepts banging around in his head that reflect Joyce’s genuine curiosity about new discoveries in astronomy and other fields. In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, Bloom points out constellations in the night sky, a “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit,” and reflects on the startling revelation, new at the time, that all stars are in motion. He speaks of “the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.” (Ulysses, p. 573) Parallax is a word that appears repeatedly in Bloom’s thoughts throughout the day of June 16, 1904 as he himself wanders like a star around Dublin, and in Joyce’s hands parallax becomes a poetical trope—perhaps theorganizing trope in that novel.

Parallax means a perceived difference in the location or direction of an object depending on your particular vantage point. You can see an example of parallax just by holding up your finger and closing one eye and then the other—the finger appears to move relative to a more distant background. If you hold the finger really close to your face, you actually see different sides of the finger with each eye. Joyce employs a sort of literary parallax when he attempts to see a single event, place, or person through the eyes of one character and then through another; we see Stephen Dedalus’s introspective view of himself and Leopold Bloom’s view of him from without. The effect is a multidimensional kind of seeing, a simultaneous apprehension of multiple facets of one thing that reveals reality in more detail, just as the integration of the different viewpoints of our two eyes allows us to see reality more clearly, in three dimensions.
Since William Faulkner considered James Joyce “the father of modern literature” (Inge ed., p. 79), it seems likely Faulkner was following Joyce’s example in his poetical uses of parallax. But Faulkner goes even farther with it than Joyce. The Sound and the Furyretells the same events from three different perspectives and then from an omniscient authorial perspective. In As I Lay Dying, there are 15 different narrators who reflect on the same principal events and characters from their differing points of view. Furthermore, Faulkner sometimes likes to flip his lenses as quick as an optometrist. For example, Dewey Dell Bundren sees Vernon Tull as she rides by in a wagon:
We turn into Tull’s lane. We pass the barn and go on, the wheels whispering in the mud, passing the green rows of cotton in the wild earth, and Vernon little across the field behind the plow. He lifts his hand as we pass and stands there looking after us for a long while. As I Lay Dying, p. 122
And the next moment, in a literal parallax that comes just three sentences on, we see the wagon in which Dewey Dell sits from inside Vernon: “After they passed I taken the mule out and looped up the trace chains and followed. They was setting in the wagon at the end of the levee.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 123) A quick-fire parallax also occurs on pps. 248-250. In a chapter written from a druggist’s perspective, the druggist asks the young boy Vardaman, “You want something?” Then comes a chapter from Vardaman’s perspective; in it, the boy hears the exact same words: “You want something?” Notice that the effect of the literary parallax is not to call into question what was actually said, but to see different sides of one objective fact.
Vernon Tull never mentions parallax by name, nor ponders the latest astronomy, but like Leopold Bloom he takes a direct interest in the concept of parallax, thinking on it with a seriousness that’s partly obscured by his country speech. When he crosses the river with the Bundrens, leaving his mule on the other side, he imagines his former viewpoint, holding the two parallactic positions in mind together:
I looked back and saw the other bank and saw my mule standing there where I used to be…. When I looked back at my mule it was like he was one of these here spy-glasses and I could look at him standing there and see all the broad land and my house sweated outen it…. p. 138
It’s Darl Bundren, however, who’s the master of imagining other perspectives. He gets more chapters than any other character in As I Lay Dying; like an author, he describes vividly certain scenes at which he wasn’t present; and his interior monologue hews closely to that “labyrinthine-poetic” mode which is the hallmark of Faulkner’s style across all his books. Vernon Tull says that Darl looks at you “like he had got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes.” (p. 125)
Darl and William Faulkner, masters of parallax.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Critique of Pure Ignorance

On AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner
William Faulkner, the colossus of American modernism who often said he wrote “to depict the human heart in conflict with itself,” was not an overtly political writer, but I know what he would have made of our latest national demagogue, Donald Trump. Faulkner knew a redneck when he saw one and Trump is a redneck, even if he’s redder of cheek than neck and hails from Queens. Being a redneck is just a state of mind.

Faulkner’s friend Phil Stone encouraged him to address the troubling “rise of the redneck” in Mississippi in his fiction (Minter p. 27) and he eventually did, in his own refined way. Robert Cantwell, who interviewed Faulkner for Time magazine in 1938, commented on the historic opposition between the rednecks and the educated class in Mississippi, to which the Faulkners belonged:
The Faulkners moved to Oxford about 1900, at the beginning of the fight of the great demagogues, James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, against the old Bourbon aristocracy that had controlled Mississippi since Reconstruction days. The target of their attack was the traditional code and the standards of taste and intelligence that held the governing class together, and consequently they centered their fire on the institution that tried to sustain these standards, the University [of Mississippi]…. Inge ed. p. 37.
William and his brothers, meanwhile, attended Ole Miss. He, his father, and at least one brother held various jobs at the University. Those affiliations were enough to make them enemies of Vardaman and Bilbo, whose tactics, Cantwell says, “were such as to make one believe that their primary target was human reason” (Inge p. 38). To his point, Vardaman said lunatic things like this: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi in 1903 and U.S. Senator in 1911, when William Faulkner was 14.
Vardaman and the illiterate rednecks made a definite impression on Faulkner. In 1947, Faulkner told undergrads at the University that “he was certain about what was going to happen in his make-believe county, Yoknapatawpha: the Snopeses [fictional rednecks] would drive out the aristocracy.” (Inge ed. p. 77) Faulkner’s odyssey As I Lay Dying refers even more directly to the Vardaman uprising. The redneck farmer Anse Bundren’s youngest son in that novel is named … Vardaman.
The young Vardaman Bundren of As I Lay Dying is no villain, however. Faulkner writes every character with compassion and delicate realism. The subtle element of outrage inAs I Lay Dying trains itself not against a group of people but against a troubling failure in a universal struggle within the human heart, just as Faulkner promised. As Cash Bundren says, “Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 233)
The human heart in conflict with itself: a rational part versus a part whose emotions distort the perception of reality and corrupt the thinking—a fearful, angry, and bigoted Trumpish part. Faulkner maps this intrapsychic conflict onto the Bundren family as they journey across rural Yoknapatawpha County to bury the family matriarch Addie Bundren. On one hand are the magical thinkers, like feckless widower Anse (who, after a case of heat stroke, believes he’ll die if he ever sweats) and his young child Vardaman Bundren (who is so ill-equipped to make rational sense of his mother’s death, he thinks she turned into a fish). On the other hand are two older, honorable Bundren sons: Darl, the poetic seer who looks deeply into the nature of things like Faulkner himself, and Cash, the “good carpenter” who possesses only one modest but progressive dream—to own a “graphophone” so he might listen to a little music.
Cash is as complex as any real person, but “the balance” of him is on the side of reason. A chapter from Cash’s point of view that justifies his use of beveling in the construction of his mother’s coffin is numbered like a scientific proof. Another brother, Jewel, is often described as having eyes like wood; his woodenness next to his brother’s carpentry (carpentry : wood :: thought : thing) seems to reinforce the dichotomy of a rational versus a concrete style of being. Cash tries to protect the family from Anse’s irrationality, but ultimately Anse’s cracked vision of the world drags them under like the flooded river drags under the Bundren family wagon.
There’s a sort of twisted slapstick comedy about Anse’s fumbling with Addie’s corpse, an almost Weekend at Bernie’s gallows humor to the injuries he inflicts on Cash and Darl on the journey to bury their mother. Anse is so determined to beat the buzzards to Jefferson with his wife’s rotting corpse that he rushes the family across a flooded river, drowns his mules, causes Cash to break his leg, then sets the broken leg in concrete instead of consulting a doctor (speaking of concrete thought). When Dr. Peabody finally treats the leg, which has been dangerously strangulated by the concrete splint, he’s furious at Anse and at Cash for listening to Anse:
“Concrete,” I said. “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to a sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…….” p. 240
Dr. Peabody arrives from the world of science and reason to a scene of utter Mississippi redneck madness, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, too late to set things completely right, but not too late to give the madness a fine epitaph. If rednecks blamed their woes on the educated class, Faulkner associated the rednecks with the decay of the Old South, specifically a self-destructive decay in the faculties of reason and a backsliding against modernity and knowledge. It was his own capacity for close attention to reality that made Faulkner one of the great masters of modernist literature.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ruined Cottage Cheese

When I was in medical school, a GI surgeon opened a lecture with a statement I’m sure has never been uttered before or since. “I have a confession to make,” he said with a weird grin. “I love infected pancreatic necrosis.” This surgeon, who so enjoyed the debridement of dead pancreas, had an infamous temper and was rumored once to have thrown a chunk of human liver at somebody in the O.R. A visceral reaction, you might say. I don’t know why I’m telling you this except that I have a confession to make that’s equally unseemly and visceral, but not towards any viscera so literal as liver, or even pancreas. My confession is: I hate Wordsworth’s poems.

When you consider that Wordsworth’s contemporaries ranked him next to Milton and Shak-Daddy, and many critics still do, my dislike of his poetry looks almost as sick as love of infected pancreatic necrosis. Wordsworth was brilliant and totally sincere, and he had a hard life; he was an orphan. He’s written lines that other poets will forever envy, lines that sound as old as the Lake District hills. For example: “The Child is father of the Man.” The famed literary critic William Hazlitt regarded Wordsworth as “the most original poet now living.”

I can see why Hazlitt says so; WW is so passionate, so cerebral, so revolutionary for his time. He would never throw a liver at anyone. Not even if they deserved it. His poetry, written in the afterglow of the French Revolution, imported to English lit the progressive philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, WW champions individuality, a deist sense of God in Nature and of harmony between Nature and humanity, and a belief in universal human dignity that extends across ethnicities and class divisions. WW’s suspicion of civilization, of nationalism and primitive religion, his attempt to de-repress emotion, his validation of introspection, and his interest in the personal sphere carried modernity a long way downfield. First down, Wordsworth.

On the other hand, WW’s advocate William Hazlitt seems himself to acknowledge the difficult qualities of stillness and abstraction in WW’s poetry. To his praise of Wordsworth, Hazlitt adds this fairly unambiguous criticism: “He is totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry.” Hmmm. That is a problem. Then Hazlitt goes on to cite the example of The Excursion, the first Book of which, informally called “The Ruined Cottage,” is regarded as “one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems” by Encyclopedia Britannica. Here is the rest of the passage from Hazlitt:
His Excursion, taken as a whole, notwithstanding the noble materials thrown away in it, is a proof of this [i.e. that he is “totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry”]. The line labours, the sentiment moves slow, but the poem stands stock-still. The reader makes no way from the first line to the last. It is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe’s boat, which would have been an excellent good boat, and would have carried him to the other side of the globe, but that he could not get it out of the sand where it stuck fast. English Romantic Writers, David Perkins, ed., p. 639
I have tried many times to like WW’s pastoral poems, much as I’ve tried to like religion. Neither matzah nor “Tintern Abbey” go down easy. Yeast is matzah’s problem. Wordsworth’s may be his consistent disregard for two of Strunk and White’s cardinal principles: omit needless words, and write with specificity. Strunk says particulars power the work of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare because they call up pictures in the mind. By contrast, Hazlitt says of WW, “his descriptions of natural scenery are not brought home distinctly to the naked eye…. The image is lost in the sentiment….” (Perkins, p. 614).

Sometimes WW makes keen, specific observations—as when at twilight “hills / Grow larger in the darkness” (“The Ruined Cottage,” ll. 127-128)—but more often he favors archetype and abstraction—as when a herdsman leaves his wife with some “soldiers, going to a distant land” (l. 677). What soldiers? Which distant land? WW doesn’t care. Fables may successfully employ such abstractions, but fables are usually spare in language and rich in incident, and “The Ruined Cottage” is the opposite: long, wordy, philosophical, and almost without human motives or dramatic conflict.

Abstraction is a means of avoiding reality that shows up particularly in WW’s tendency to cloying idealizations of peasant men and women. Margaret, the last tenant of the eponymous ruined cottage, is “One whose stock / Of virtues bloomed beneath this lowly roof” (ll. 511-512). The Wanderer who narrates Margaret’s story “lived a long and innocent life” (l. 396). One of Margaret’s children seems to remain an “infant in her arms” (l. 843) and a “little babe” (l. 856) for as long as ten years.

“The Ruined Cottage” develops profound thoughts and a sophisticated, intricate extended meshadow and light, dream and waking, but its phony idealizations rebuff the reader. It does not take much account of the difficult realities that have stimulated twee reaction formations inside him, but rather just keeps selling the dream to himself.

Did Wordsworth beatify peasants in order to deny their vulnerability, much as he devoted so many lines to denying death? Did he idealize peasants in order to defend them from aristocratic bigotry of Hazlitt’s variety? Either way, his poems certify the aesthetic risks of taking too little account of reality and of mixing art and well-meaning politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paysannes: Madame Bovary Part III

What’s the difference between a work of art and a dream? Legendary literary critic Jacques Barzun gives a concise and convincing answer: “the difference between a work of art and a dream is precisely this, that the work of art leads us back to the outer reality by taking account of it.” (Quoted by Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, pp. 190-191.)

Lionel Trilling, also legendary and literary, observes that Romanticism “despite its avowals, was itself scientific, for it was passionately devoted to a research into the self.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 182) Literary fantasies are in other words composed by conscious minds, which apprehend dreamlike subject matter from the vantage point of reality and within the context of reality.

But it’s also true that Romantic writers sometimes rebel against reality so fiercely as to misrepresent it without acknowledging the lie—without being aware of it, maybe. There is no more blatant case of such distortion among the English Romantic poets than Wordsworth’s saccharine depictions of peasants. Take, for example, WW’s poem “The Solitary Reaper” about a peasant woman working a Scottish field, cutting and binding grain, and singing while she works. Here is the last stanza:

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Trilling says the Romantics were preoccupied “with children, women, peasants, savages, because their mental life, it is felt, is less overlaid than that of the educated adult male by the proprieties of social habit.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 184) That is well-meaning, I guess, if patronizing. Wordsworth was terribly well-meaning, socially progressive, and had a revolutionary and salutary effect on English literature. He didn’t have a particularly easy life either, being orphaned by age 13. But he misrepresents and sentimentalizes the hard work of reaping grain in a way that rings particularly false. He is selling himself the fantasy that peasant girls sing because they live simple lives, free of modern problems. But even a horse has been known to object to manual labor, and I’ve never seen a bucket list with the line item, before I die, I must reap some grain.

What is unfortunately irritating about Wordsworth’s poem is that it’s an extreme sort of fantasy that does not seem to take hardly any account of reality. I will speculate that his mother’s death when he was 7 caused him to wish to idealize suffering women in his poetry and to want to make their suffering disappear in visions of imperturbable beauty and unstained, unstainable virtue. If we could see the ground of real suffering out of which this keening hallucination sprang—that is, if the fantasy poem took some slight account of the difficult realities underpinning it, it would be more artistically successful. As such, it’s too insubstantial for me to swallow.

The irony is that the associations and etymology of the very word peasant completely undermine the airy, patronizing, Wordsworthian fantasy of the carefree singing Solitary Reaper. Peasant comes from paysanne in French, which comes from pays, meaning land. WW has tried to fill his peasant girl with helium and untether her from the hard material ground that gave peasants their earthy name. Gustave Flaubert, who effected a rebellion against the excesses of literary romance, by contrast weighs his peasants down with crude, unflattering reality. To juxtapose “The Solitary Reaper” and this passage from Madame Bovary about a naïve peasant woman being honored at the Yonville Agricultural Show is to puncture the Wordsworthian fantasy in a comic way:

Then to the platform came a frightened-looking little old lady who seemed shrunken in her shabby garments. On her feet were heavy wooden clogs and around her hips a large blue apron. Her scrawny face, framed by a borderless cap, was more wrinkled than a shriveled apple, and bony knuckles dangled from the sleeves of her red bodice. They were so encrusted, roughened, and gnarled from barn dust, soapsuds and grease from sheep’s wool that they seemed dirty even though they had been washed in clean water. They remained half bent from having worked so long, humble witnesses of so much suffering. The expression on her face was of an almost nunlike inflexibility. Having lived in the company of animals, she had acquired their muteness and placidity. This was the first time that she found herself in the midst of such a numerous group, and inwardly frightened by the flags and drums, by the gentlemen in frock coats, and by the counselor’s Cross of Honor, she remained stock-still, not knowing whether to move forward or run off, nor why the people were pushing her and the examiners smiling. There, before these expansive townspeople, stood this half-century of servitude.
“Come forth, venerable Catherine-Nicaise-Elizabeth Leroux!” said the counselor, who had taken the list of winners from the president’s hands. “Come up, come up,” he repeated in a paternal tone, alternately looking at the sheet of paper and the old woman.
“Are you deaf?” said Tuvache, hopping up from his chair.
He began to shout in her ear: “Fifty-four years of service! A silver medal. Twenty-five francs. For you.”
Madame Bovary, Signet Classics trans., pp. 153-154

Flaubert’s hilarious description of the peasant lady crushed and compacted by a lifetime of menial labor is a far cry from the fairy-creature singing in that Scottish field with her magic sickle. The counselor figure in the above passage seems to satirize Wordsworth in his unseeing fantasy. It’s funny; but in the pairing you can also see a tectonic movement in literary history. There is Romanticism—and in particular Wordsworth’s denial of death mixed with Rousseau’s rebellion against the starched aristocratic order—giving way to a later generation’s rebellion in the form of a radical modern realism.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Allagash Rule of Perpetual Motion and Brouillard dans la tête: Madame Bovary Part II

Flaubert shows the reader early on that Madame Bovary’s flight from one place to another brings her no relief, for her complaint is with no particular place but the universe itself. She runs like a rat in a maze, finding each new place as damned and disappointingly real as the one before. She can’t stop looking to the next horizon, however, in a way I find touching despite her famously off-putting egoism and ruthless vanity. Again and again Flaubert writes stuff like this: “She was filled with temptations to run off with Léon, somewhere, far away, to try a new destiny” p. 119. Emma continues to dream of moving away to a foreign land or to Paris—as if there were no problems in Paris!

When she actually does leave home for other places and other men like Rodolphe and Léon, she never seems to arrive at her intended destination. Rather she looks to new fantasies, new lovers, or new romantic settings for her present affair. Her despair causes her to seek escape in a mirage of happiness that’s always a moving target. During one scene that dramatically equates romance with travel, she has sex on an interminable carriage ride through Paris, displaying a “rage for locomotion” (fureur de la locomotion p. 234). It calls to mind the opening pages of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, in which the narrator cites “the Allagash rule of perpetual motion.” His shallow friend Tad Allagash never has more than one drink per bar because “Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are.”

Place, as in the opening of Bright Lights, Big City—as in every case of despair, maybe—is in Madame Bovary a method of escaping reality and a crucial substrate of dreams. As such, Flaubert’s many beautiful landscape descriptions tend to involve naturalistic symbols of dream: fog (brouillard), haze (brume) and mist (vapeur). Flaubert’s landscapes are like old movie stars photographed with Vaseline on the lens in order to create a candle-like glow that obscures imperfections and welcomes the imagination to fill in the obscure blanks as it pleases.* The fog, like the Vaseline, clearly serves and represents the mind’s will to distort and obscure what it really sees. It’s there because Madame Bovary has unwittingly put it there. Her mind is a romantic fog.

Flaubert makes this link explicit when the housemaid Félicité observes that Madame Bovary suffers from a brouillard dans la tête—“a fog in the head” p. 119. But Madame Bovary doesn’t understand that her head is befogged with corrupt “unrealistic dreams” (rêves trop haut p. 118) that prevent her from accommodating herself to reality. She imagines that the mélancholies de la passion stem from her accursed inability to satisfy those passions and to realize her fantasies. She never guesses that it’s in fact the other way around—that melancholy attaching to the difficulties of civilized life in the real world could cause her to seek relief in a fog of childish fantasies. But that is exactly the nature of her brouillard dans la tête and the nature of all those dreamy, adulterous affairs Woody Allen writes about so incessantly.

Woody Allen generally writes about brouillard dans la tête as though it were inevitable, and Flaubert might agree, though Sigmund Freud’s oeuvre is based on the opposite idea—that human beings not only can see clearly if they dispel their defensive illusions but must dispel those illusions if they want to be free of the vicious cycle of despair. For that is what brouillard dans la tête really is: depression, and all the mind’s most inadequate and infantile romantic remedies for it.

With the possible exception of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Madame Bovary in fact lays bare the intricacies of depression better than any other novel. Because Madame Bovary’s melancholy arises from within and follows her wherever she goes, because it’s psychological in nature and not geographical, her efforts to erase it through fantasy escapes and affairs are all doomed to fail. Each one must be followed by another in endless pursuit of mirages of happiness that lie just there on the horizon. This leads to “her flighty airs” (ses airs évaporés p. 132) and “her continually youthful illusions” (ses illusions toujours jeunes p. 191). She cannot address her problems in the real world because she can’t look at the real world long enough to see herself naked of her vain dreams. Such is the “invasion of reverie” in her life (l’envahissement de leur rêveries, as is said of Emma and her lover Rodolphe, p. 194) that she remains always a child, dreaming, running, unconsciously fleeing and thinking all the while that she’s going to make the melancholy go away once and for all. Madame Bovary is cruel, yes, but she’s also suffering in earnest. She is overcome by guilt, self-hatred, and melancholy, “by an immense regret that stimulated passion, instead of suppressing it” p. 277. The roaring passion to escape leads to more damage and more self-loathing in a death spiral from which Flaubert won’t allow us to avert our eyes.

Emma Bovary is like many people, maybe, as she sits in the opera in a fog, dreaming of another more perfect, more romantic, more glamorous life. “She bemoaned love, and yearned to have wings. Emma, too, would have wanted to escape from life and fly off in an embrace” p. 215.

In the end Madame Bovary, who is often described as having her eyes only half-open, is like Flaubert’s blind beggar, who cannot see even with his eyes open wide. It’s a perfect novel and a perfect cautionary tragedy that draws inspiration from those tales of blindness by the ancient Greek dramatists. It whispers to us what the Delphic oracle did: know thyself….

*When master portrait photographer Philippe Halsman began his career in Paris in the 1930s, the prevailing style of portrait involved this sort of romantic distortion using filters and manipulation of the images. Halsman was one of a new generation who would make realistic photographs, only manipulating the images through lighting and exposure.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lieuvain: Madame Bovary Part I

In 2006 David Foster Wallace wrote in the New York Times Magazine that you can appreciate tennis great Roger Federer even more “if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” I feel that way about Gustave Flaubert. It’s possible that you have to have worked as a fiction writer yourself to fully appreciate the finesse with which Flaubert shifts viewpoints and narrative speeds. That’s partly because he would prefer the reader didn’t detect his artistry. In accordance with his famous credo (quoted below), he intends that his characters and events appear to have been found in nature, not created by an author, and Madame Bovary pulls it off like no other book. In an almost supernatural way, it lives up to Flaubert’s principle of artistic invisibility, a principle that deeply inspired the young James Joyce:
L’artiste doit être dans son oeuvre comme Dieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant, qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’on ne le voit pas.

The artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and almighty, felt everywhere but seen nowhere. –Flaubert, letter to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie, 18 March 1857
There is a hardcore realist devotion to Platonic Truth in this aesthetic (to which Flaubert directly attests in his correspondence) and that devotion carries over into Madame Bovary’s themes, which circumscribe a tight circle around Truth’s foremost enemy—human vanity.

Like Cervantes, Flaubert objects to romantic, idealistic lies in the service of human vanity and depicts a protagonist, Emma Bovary, whose temptation to indulge such self-deceits leads to her ruin. But where Don Quixote satirizes vain romances, the reality-fueled engine of Flaubert’s novel leaves no air for fantasy at all. There are elements of satire in Madame Bovary, to be sure, but mainly Flaubert applies an assiduously realist scalpel to his characters to depict and dissect the vanity afflicting them just as though vanity were a disease to be understood and resected.

I am tempted to turn to the original French text in order to investigate Flaubert’s complex idea of vanity. I say that not because I’ve read Madame Bovary in the original French but because I want to make it look like I have. You see? “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

But the translation of at least one character’s name from French into English does, I think, help to explicate the nature of vanity in Madame Bovary in a quick and capsular way. The character, named “Lieuvain,” is a minor state official who comes to the muddy provincial town of Yonville to speak at Yonville’s ridiculous “Agricultural Show.” Town officials use the show to tout Yonville’s distinction and modernity, though it doesn’t have much. Flaubert emphasizes the contrast between the attendees’ pretentions and their earthbound vocations in cows and fertilizer.

Lieuvain’s appearance in the context of the pompous fertilizer trade show is no accident but rather derives from Flaubert’s “name game,” as North Texas State University prof Lloyd Parks put it in 1971. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that you haven’t read the 1971 winter bulletin of the South Central Modern Languages Association. In it, Parks notes that character names are one facet of Madame Bovary where Flaubert loosens his orthodox naturalism to make a subtle point:
Names and place names are used throughout Madame Bovary to extend its dimension and support its theme. To this end Flaubert exercised the greatest care in his choice of names … but so ingeniously that their meaning becomes apparent only after the closest examination.
Parks quotes, for instance, Flaubert’s explanation of how he settled on the name Monsieur Homais for his pharmacist, possibly the most pretentious character of all in Madame Bovary: “Homais comes from homo = homme.” Homo and homme of course mean “man.” If Monsieur Homais represents humanity, then Flaubert suggests our species is defined not by wisdom but by bullshit—Carolus Linnaeus, meet homo vanitatis. Flaubert gives other strivers names that suggest a lowly, bovine materiality in direct contradiction of their vain aspirations—Yonville’s mayor, for example, is named Tuvache, which literally means “you cow.” Parks also points out that the name of the chateau where Madame Bovary sees her first mirage of ‘the beautiful people,’ Vaubyessard, is a phonetic anagram of Bovary, the family name of her bovine husband Charles.

But Lieuvain is perhaps the most interesting name of all, and Parks notices the lieu part, but curiously ignores the vain part. Lieuvain looks like a sort of hieroglyph composed of two root words, lieu and vain, meaning “place” and “vain.” The insignificant Lieuvain speaks pompously (and inaudibly) through the lowing of the cows at the Agricultural Show, unaware that Flaubert has put a hieroglyph over his head saying PLACE-VAIN. He has come as the inadequate substitute for, that is in lieu of, a more important personage, but PLACE-VAIN means more than that to Madame Bovary when one considers the strength of the connection in the novel between geography and vanity.

From her days as a schoolgirl, Madame Bovary despises her own world and she daydreams of living the glamorous lives she’s glimpsed in her excessive reading of romantic novels. As the novel progresses, Emma Bovary’s catastrophic daydreams continue to unfold in connection with faraway, romantic places free from the angst of her real life:
She felt that certain places on the earth must produce happiness, just as a plant that languishes everywhere else thrives only in special soil. Why couldn’t she be leaning her elbow on the balcony of a Swiss chalet or indulging her moods in a Scottish cottage with a husband dressed in a black velvet suit with long coattails, soft boots, a pointed hat, and elegant cuffs! Madame Bovary, Signet Classic edition, Mildred Marmur trans., p. 60
Her pedestrian husband Charles, whose “conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, with everyone’s ideas walking through it in ordinary dress, arousing neither emotion, nor laughter, nor dreams” p. 60, cannot transport Emma to such idyllic realms as the ones she’s read about in books. Charles in turn does not understand his wife’s unhappiness. He too thinks that a change of venue will cure her depression and, with his typical imperceptiveness, moves his depressed wife from one provincial town to another that’s just the same. His mother bans Madame Bovary from reading any more romance novels!

It’s as though none of the Bovarys have heard of psychology! The problem with Madame Bovary lies not in her reading habits, not in a book or a place, but within. And her tragedy develops from her inability to look within, and to see what she’s looking at.

More on blindness, Madame Bovary’s “fog in the head,” and the invasion of dreams in Part II.