Flaubert - Invisible Totems of the Modern World

Flaubert embodies the disappointed state of our modern sensibility. Both A Sentimental Education and Memoirs of a Madman depict characters who, despite our best wishes, we can't help but associate with the author. No matter how many times writers insist that they are not their characters, I guarantee that the greatest number of readers will insist upon their semblance as a rule. The obsessive way in which Flaubert worked at perfecting his prose will not be distinguished in their minds from the obsessive passions which drove his characters. ‘Madame Bovary, C'est Moi,' indicates, at once, how much of himself Flaubert expended on his readers and how little is required of them in kind. Embedded into the very moral configurations of his work are their very conclusions-I dare not say ‘solutions,' for he frees us from the burden of having to assume that morality is tied at its core to some benefit. A moral configuration can simply have, as its skeleton, something impenetrable and impossible. We feel sorrier for a Madam Bovary than we ever do for an Anna Karenina, no matter how much more eventful and entertaining the latter may be in her exploits.

Flaubert is, for us, the extreme limit of sentiment. His moral dilemmas are almost entirely ones of feeling, and he is all the better for knowing this even as he refrains from saying it outright. A popular novelist, he accomplishes what writers of paperback best-sellers today only dream of accomplishing in the emotional domain. When Flaubert pulls on our heartstrings, they are tied to the end of his. Dostoyevsky is often thought of as a shameless writer. Only Dostoyevsky's characters are shameless; he himself is merely relentless. It is Flaubert who is shameless. The precision with which he carries out his style only attests to this. Its fluidity is rigid; ossified. We notice precisely when we are not noticing anything, when nothing is being said. Likewise, when something is being said outright, we can't help but suspect that there is as little being said as there would be if these characters were standing before us, offering their empty opinions about things they don't quite understand. His novels are not laboratories for ideas, like the great Russian novels, but places where ideas, still in anachronistic circulation, have come to die with whatever immanent grace or violence is courted by the paucity of their fabric. He doesn't require mystery. He doesn't stop short of an answer in order to manipulate his reader into feeling the uncertain weight of all their desires. Rather, he gives us certainty and this certainty is all the weight we need to weigh against desire. He leaves no stone unturned and, yet, still somehow manages to offer us the aftermath of dilemma itself. While it is correct to call him a writer of parables, he goes a bit further in offering us the sequel to even the implications wrapped up in one's duty to one's word and breeding. He sometimes starts where other writers would wish to end. The demolition job he enacts upon the foundations of his characters' stability turns us into extra-moral voyeurs. The reader comes to understand duty's assault on one's inner tones. Popular novels, dishonest as most of them are, rely on the tired formula that puts them together, but not one at the expense of the other. Flaubert does even the harshest immoralist one better, not by denying morality altogether, but by remaining within the realm of morality whilst nourishing his characters' inner tones at the expense of a morality they can't help but accept in practice and deny in spirit.