« PreviousContinue »
Flaubert had no intention of showing the results of bad conduct' in Mme. Bovary. Art for art' was his axiom; but like all true artists he was forced, in spite of himself, into 'preaching a moral.' He had lived long enough in the world to know its sorrows, and to know that deepest tragedy of all, unlawful, cruel, sensual love; and therefore he wrote the story of Emma Bovary, with its pitiful ending. He abstains from judging the conduct of his characters, but sees life through a glass darkly, and represents it so to his readers. His theory was that a novel ought to be a philosophical transcript of life, dispassionately and faithfully done, uninfluenced by the sentiment or bias of the author. "If the reader does not without help discover the moral of a book,' he observes, either the reader is a fool, or the book is false and inexact.'
I do not write [he declares to George Sand] “about the misery of the world' for pleasure, believe me ; but I cannot change my eyes! As to my having no convictions '-alas! convictions smother me. I burst with internal rage and indignation. But in the ideal I have of art, I think one ought not to show one's convictions; the artist ought no more to appear in his work than God in nature. Man is nothing ; the work everything. This discipline, which may start from an entirely erroneous basis, is not easy to observe, and, so far as I am concerned, it is a sort of permanent sacrifice that I make to good taste. I would like to say what I think, and to comfort the Sieur Gustave Flaubert by phrases; but what is the importance of said Sieur ?
They both of them in their letters hark back to this vexed question, a vital one between the romantic and the realistic schools, whether the artist's individuality ought to appear in what he writes. • As to giving expression to my personal opinion of the people I put on the stage,' Flaubert declares, No, a thousand times no. ... I have an unconquerable dislike to put anything of my heart on paper.' Her answer, dated Nohant, February 2, 1863, says :
To put nothing of one's heart in one's writing? I do not understand such a statement. It seems to me impossible to put anything else. Can I separate my mind from my heart? Can sensation be limited ? Not to give myself up entirely to my work seems to me as impossible as to cry with anything but my eyes and to think with anything but my brain. What do you really mean? You will tell me when you have time.
Again, speaking of the novels they were going to set to work at in 1875, she says :
What shall we do? You for certain will portray.desolation,' and I'consolation.' I do not know what influences our destinies. You see your characters as they pass, you criticise them; from a literary point of view you abstain from appreciating them, you content yourself with painting them, hiding your personal bias carefully and systematically. Still, it is visible through your work, and you only make people who read you more sad. wish to make them less unbappy. I cannot forget that my personal victory over despair was the work of my will
and of a new method of comprehension which is the complete opposite of that wbich I held formerly.
I know you blame the intervention of the doctrine of personality in literature.
Are you right? Is it not rather a want of conviction than an æsthetic principle ? It is impossible to have a philosophy in the soul without its showing itself. I have no literary counsels to give you. I believe firmly your school have more talent and power of work than I have. Only I think theirs and your great want is a settled and wide view of life. Art is not only portrayal, and real painting must be always full of the soul that rules the brush. Art is not only criticism and satire; criticism and satire only paint one side of truth.
I wish to see man as he is. He is neither good nor evil; he is good and evil; but he is something yet more—a soul! Being good and bad, he has an internal force which leads him to be very bad and a little good, or very good and a little bad.
In this discussion, as in almost all they hold, 'George Sand is right, and Flaubert is not wrong. She allowed her personality to appear to an overweening extent. She never wrote a novel that was not an account of one of her own love affairs or an exposition of some of her social or socialistic ideas, while he was impersonal and impartial to an unsympathetic and depressing degree. His characters submit to circumstances. They never mould them to their will. There is little doubt this is what constitutes the immorality of Mme. Bovary and although never alluded to in the prosecution it is this fatalism, or, as the school call it, 'determinism,' which instinctively filled moralists and ecclesiastics with dread. So you are made, and so you must act. Providence has developed your sensual appetites, therefore it is useless to resist them. If Emma Bovary does not yield to Léon, it is not from a moral effort to save herself, but because she is not ripe for the fall; and afterwards there is no passionate regret for sin, no endeavour to lift herself out of the degradation, no compunction even on account of her child. And when at the end she commits suicide, it is not from remorse for the ruin she has brought on all around her; but because it is the only possible means of escape from her own difficulties. All the exhilaration of human struggle and endeavour is ruthlessly eliminated.
Flaubert was above all an artist, nothing but an artist, and one of those artists in whom two or three predominant faculties absorbed and ended literally in annihilating the others. The result was that he understood nothing of the world, or of life, but that which could help to the completion of his own artistic individuality,' sa consommation personnelle.' He recognised nothing else. He was the head of the school of art designated • L'art pour l'art. He did not admit that any æsthetic creation should have any object but itself and its own completion. He had too great a contempt for his fellow-men to endeavour to improve them. His pessimism would have deterred him from any utilitarian tendency.
Art,' he wrote, “must be self-sufficing, and must not be looked on as a means.'
The end and aim of art for me is beauty. I remember my heart beating, with acute delight, as I looked at a wall of the Acropolis, a perfectly plain wall (the one on the left on the ascent to the Propylea). I wonder if a book independently of what it says can produce the same effect ? In the precision of arrangement, the rarity of material, the polish of its surface, the harmony of the completed work, is there not intrinsic merit ?-a sort of divine force, something eternal, like a great principle ?
The one thing that seemed to him enduring and absolute in bis life made up of delusions and disappointments was form and beauty of expression. A well-proportioned sentence presented an indestructible and complete force to his senses that was as concrete and exact as the resolution of a problem to a mathematician.
When one knows how to attract the whole interest of a page on one line, bring one idea into prominence among a 'hundred others, solely by the choice and position of the terms that express it; when one knows how to hit with a word, one only word, placed in a certain position ; when one knows how to move a soul, how to fill it suddenly with joy, or fear, or enthusiasm, or grief, or rage, by putting an adjective under the reader's eye, then one is really the greatest of artists, a real writer of prose.
There is something pathetically comic in the way he struggles with his composition
I pass weeks without exchanging a word with a living being, and at the end of the week I cannot recall a single day or a single event. I see my mother and my niece on Sundays, that is all. My only society consists of a band of rats who make an infernal row in the garret above my head, when the water does not gurgle and groan and the wind blow. The nights are as black as ink, and a silence like that of the desert reigns around me. Such an existence reacts on the nerves. My heart beats at the least thing.
All this is the result of our intellectual occupations. This is what comes of torturing body and soul; but that torture is the only thing worth having in the world.
You astound me [George Sand replies] with the difficulty you find in your work. Is it coquetry? You show it so little! My great difficulty is to choose between the thousand and one scenic combinations, which can vary ad infinitum the simple situation. As to style, I treat it much more cavalierly than you. The wind plays on my old harp as it pleases : high or low, loud or soft. It is all the same to me, so long as the emotion is there. Yet I cannot evolve anything out of myself. It is the other' who sings as he lists, well or ill. And when I try to think about it, I get frightened, and tell myself that I am nothing, nothing at all.
A certain amount of philosophy saves us from despondency. Suppose we are really nothing but instruments, it is a delightful state, and a sensation unlike anything else to let yourself vibrate.
Let the wind rush through your chords. I think you take too much trouble, and that you ought to let the other' influence you oftener. The instrument might sound weak at times, but the breath of inspiration continuing would increase in strength. Then you could do afterwards what I don't do, but what I ought to do-you would raise the tone of colour of your picture, putting in more light or shade.
He had the faults as well as the merits of an artist. Towards the end of his life his exclusiveness and impatience with commonplace
humanity became predominant, often to the deterioration of his good heart and liberality of mind. It is not without a pained feeling of surprise, for instance, that we see a Frenchman writing in 1867,
At the last Magny dinner the conversation was so “ boorish ” that I swore internally never to go again. They talked of nothing but “M. de Bismarck and the Luxembourg.” I was sick of it. This ebullition was perfectly sincere. He did not understand that among literary people and artists a conversation could turn on politics. Politics, as he thought, were outside of, and almost antagonistic to art. Man is made for art, and not art for man; “La sacro-sainte littérature' is the only thing of any importance in life; everything else is but unmeaning and vulgar. Such is his estimate of men and things.
As a natural consequence of this extreme literary fastidiousness Flaubert declared that the artist ought only to work for a chosen few, and that the crowd for him did not exist. We can imagine how antagonistic this was to all George Sand's views of work and life. We novelists must write for all the world, for all who need to be initiated. When we are not understood, we are resigned to the inevitable and begin again. When one is understood, one rejoices and goes on.' And then she says, later on, You can hardly be accurate in saying that you write to please a dozen people, for failure irritates and affects you.'
She knew that, like many others, when Flaubert succeeded, he did not find humanity so stupid, nor the public so dense; but also, that when he did not succeed, instead of trying to find out the reason, he declared it was a cabal, or prejudice, or jealousy. This incapacity of submitting to the mildest criticism did not arise so much from wounded vanity as from his incapacity to see that his work could have been conceived or executed in any other method than that in which he had conceived and executed it.
This exclusiveness, as far as the outside public was concerned, did not extend to his own circle of intimates. Guy de Maupassant has given us an interesting glimpse of his Sunday receptions in Paris in his bachelor apartments on the fifth floor. His intimate friend, Ivan Tourguénieff, • le Muscove,' was often the first to arrive. He would sink into a chair and begin speaking slowly and softly, but with an intonation that gave the greatest charm to all he said. He was generally laden with foreign books, and would translate the poems of Goethe, Pouschkine, or Swinburne as he read. He and Flaubert had many sympathies and ideas in common. Others soon followed : Taine, his eyes shining behind his spectacles, full of information and talk; then Alphonse Daudet, bringing the life, the vigour, the brightness of Paris, making jokes and telling stories with the singsong voice and quick gestures of a southerner, shaking his black hair from his handsome, finely cut face, and stroking his long silky beard. George Sand, when in Paris, would sometimes join the circle. In her coarse, black serge gown, made perfectly plain without crinoline or trimming, her hair cut short, looking as like the
troisième sexe,' to which Flaubert compared her, as possible, with a nod for all and a shake of the hand for a favoured few who crowded round, she also would sit down, and after the cigars were handed round, of which she partook, the talk began. Not a conversation, perhaps, which M. Taine would have recommended his imaginary Evangelical lady to listen to, or a society he would have recommended her to mix in; but interesting as all societies are interesting in which the yeast of speculative thought is working. Such was the moment, his biographer says, to see Flaubert. With grand gestures, moving from one to the other of his guests, his long dressing-gown blown out behind him like the dark sail of a fishingboat, full of excitement, indignation, vehement expression of opinion, of overflowing eloquence, his voice like a trumpet, his good-natured laugh; amusing in his indignation, charming in his good-nature, astounding in his erudition and surprising memory, he would terminate a discussion with a profound and pertinent remark, rushing through the centuries with a bound to compare two facts of the same genus, two men of the same race, two religions of the same order, from which, like flints struck together, he kindled a light.
Since, as Flaubert says, the public will have a moral,' what conclusion do we come to between these two great artists? Is idealism, or realism to be the issue of true art? Is the primitive, often discordant and painful tune evolved by the human instrument to be transcribed by the hand of the artist without comment or addition? Or is it the mission of great art, by the aid of counterpoint and modulation, to give us a symphony which, from gradation to gradation, through unison and dissonance will lead us up to wider planes of sensation and knowledge? Either side argues, as we have seen, from its own standpoint. But after all the best test of art must be its results. And what are the results of Flaubert's tenet of art for art'?
Zola, who has formulated the axioms of his school more boldly than any, says, alluding to some coarse stories that had been made in Gil Blas, a low Parisian paper :
Not that I blame the inspiration of them, for did I do so I should but blame Rabelais, La Fontaine, and many others I think highly of; but in truth these stories are too badly written. That is my only reason for condemning them. An author is guilty if his style is bad. In literature this is the one unpardonable crime. I do not see any other question of immorality. A well-turned phrase is a good action.
The pathological or scientific method of romance-writing, has brought us to the present school of French realistic novel, of which one would be sorry even to write down the name of one of the productions. We are surprised indeed that so artistic and analytic a