Books: Cultural Amnesia — Gustave Flaubert |
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Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) was adopted by twentieth-century modernists as a precursor, especially if the modernists wrote in English. Among his fellow French writers, Flaubert’s first fame was for his bad grammar. But his untiring quest for factual accuracy and the right word (the untranslated French expression le mot juste got into English mainly because of his influence) eventually, and justifiably, formed the basis of an international reputation, mainly because Madame Bovary can be seen to be charged with meaning in every sentence even when translated into Japanese. The reputation was buttressed by the lengths he would go to in order to keep his art uncorrupted by the allegedly sentimental expectations of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert himself looked on the bourgeoisie as the sworn foe of art, even though he and most of his readers were of bourgeois origin. In the following century his hatred of cliché was eagerly taken up by right-wing critics—principally Ezra Pound—disdainful of democracy’s supposedly weakening influence on language, and his view of the bourgeoisie as the class enemy of art was equally eagerly taken up by left-wing critics with an anti-capitalist programme. The most conspicuous among the latter was Jean-Paul Sartre, who devoted much of the later part of his career to a mountainous critical biography of Flaubert which should certainly be sampled by any student of ideology on the rampage, but not before that same student has read Madame Bovary and at least one of Sartre’s own novels, which prove, although not quite as thoroughly as Flaubert’s do, that a living work of fiction is a vision of what the world is, and not just of what the author thinks society should be.

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No cries, no convulsions, nothing more than a face fixed in thought. The gods no longer existed, Christ didn’t exist yet, and there was, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, a unique moment in which man was alone.


THIS PASSAGE IN one of Flaubert’s letters has fascinated two great essayists, Miguel de Unamuno and Gore Vidal. For Unamuno, the apostate Catholic in a permanent spiritual crisis about his repudiated faith, it was one of the great texts of his life. In interviews, Vidal has said several times that Flaubert’s godless hiatus was the historical period in which a sane man would have been glad to live. Obviously the idea appealed to Unamuno in the same way. It never appealed much to me, which is probably why I didn’t underline it in Francis Steegmuller’s magnificently edited translation of Flaubert’s letters. (A well-edited translation of such an archive is often more useful than the original, because the editor is more likely to supply copious annotation: witness our privileged access, in English, to Mozart’s letters and Cosima Wagner’s diaries.) But because it appealed to Unamuno, suddenly it appeared striking, so I underlined it there. Unamuno preceded Vidal in his distrust of the religious impulse, and Flaubert preceded both of them. Those of us who came easily to our paganism will find it hard not to think all three of them correct.

But really the idea that mankind would do better if atheism were universal is only an idea. Some of us would now like to think that Islam will destroy itself, and possibly us along with it, unless it develops a secular culture strong enough to offset the comforting strictness of fundamentalism: but we had better be right. There is also the question of whether Flaubert was factually correct. The two questions are linked. In his preferred interregnum between polytheism and monotheism, it is more likely that people believed everything than that they believed nothing. Flaubert has pinpointed a brief age in which superstition, far from being absent, was almost certainly paramount. In those circumstances, the last thing you could say, whether in French, English or Spanish, is that man was alone. Even theoretically, man had no refuge from the judgement of his fellow men. You can’t be less alone than that. A society in which all the pressures are social is the one dreamed of by totalitarians. In Julius Caesar, one of them pricked Cicero’s name on a list. Shakespeare, with typical sensitivity to an historic turning point, recorded the sub-zero temperature of the unique moment, although he did not show us how Marc Antony made the proscription: he only showed us how Cassius heard about it, rather put out that Brutus already knew. If Shakespeare took such a roundabout course to make the point, it could have been because of his irrepressible awareness that he was living at a totalitiarian period in history, all the more insidious for being apparently exuberant. In the time of Good Queen Bess, it meant death to be Catholic.

Eventually, in the West, we emerged from the age in which people paid with their lives for a religious allegiance. We emerged into another age in which they were murdered by the million for other reasons, but not for that one. Though the religious might hate to hear it said, the West graduated from its nightmare only because religion ceased to matter in any way except privately. At the time of writing, we are in the uncomfortable position of hoping that the same thing can come true for Islam, and do so in a briefer time than the span of centuries it took to come true for us. While we are waiting, it might be of some help, although of little comfort, to realize that an Islamic fundamentalist doesn’t have to share the psychotic certitudes of Torquemada in order to be dangerous: it is enough for him to share the civilized attitudes of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted every invading priest tortured as soon as caught, and gruesomely executed soon after that. It’s the general view prevailing within a religious culture—the general view usually described as being “moderate”—that matters most. When she was growing up in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was taught that Salman Rushdie deserved death because he had blasphemed against the holy book. She was taught it, and she believed it, as did everyone she knew. It was the moderate view. Now, as a member of parliament in Holland, and after her Dutch friend Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by an Islamic extremist, she believes differently. But how extreme was the extremist? Until the whole of the Islamic world repudiates him, we will be forced to believe that its moderate views are dangerous in themselves, if only for what they condone. We will be forced to believe that there is something crazy about all those people actually believing all that stuff; and wish that their belief could become more unbelieving, like ours; and not a few centuries from now, but right now. Such a quick transformation doesn’t seem very likely. Perhaps it would be better to wish that their religion could be reinforced, in that area where, so we are told, Islam means peace and tolerance. Certainly there were times in history when Islam meant that, much more than Christianity did. But our understandable hope that every Muslim male of fighting age, if exposed to a sufficiency of Western culture, might transform himself into Flaubert sounds very like wishful thinking; and it is quite likely that Flaubert was thinking wishfully in the first place, when he posited a wonderful ancient time in which nobody had any Gods to worship. He searched the far past, and lo! He found a new dawn.