96. (Gustave Flaubert)

The late nineteenth century saw the dominance of theories that, founded on empirical principles, nonetheless soon exceeded them: evolution, psychoanalysis, the marxist revision of political economy. The point is not that these are all equally fallible: Marx depends on a theory of value soon to be superseded by German innovations, but it was held to be a viable and empirically established one; Freud did not, like mystics, reject the procedures of scientific enquiry, even if he felt his subject required modifications or innovations in them; and it was not the fault of Darwin’s theory that it attracted and engendered metaphors and implications beyond its scope; in anthropology, theories of kinship grew, soon the backbone of the developing discipline; in sociology, Durkheim sees ritual and classification of the world as the vehicle of social thought; and in philosophy, logic comes to mean something other than it had for Kant and Hegel, becoming, by the early twentieth century, the essential element to which Russell and early Wittgenstein turn in order to dispel the (in their view) monstrous accretions of metaphysics.

What these theories hold in common, aside from their totalizing capacities, their propensity to run beyond the limits of the observations and territories on which they were nurtured, is their coming to mean, for practitioners in their various disciplines, “more than they possibly could mean” (I quote a friend of mine); they become not only foundations for further study, but solutions and explanations for all problems. It is easy to see how psychoanalysis and marxism may have over-reached; most people have rejected (too wholly, probably) their intellectual premises. But the theory of natural selection has, well-beyond the heady late-nineteenth-century disfiguration of Darwin, remained at hand as an explanation for all sorts of cultural phenomenon into the twenty-first century; whether or not the mechanisms of natural selection, on the level of genome now rather than that of the species, can explain culture, cooperation, altruism, and social variations, it remains appealing for its immense explanatory power. So singular and exhausting an explanatory theory risks attenuating the notion of “explanation.” A theory of memes might explain the colonizing capacities of the theories; but the theory of memes is itself one of them; it catches its tail in its mouth.

Whatever the reason for the emergence of these sorts of theories in the late nineteenth century, or whatever the reason for their being asked to do the immense work that they were asked to do, we can see something similar happening to the novel in both the English and French speaking worlds: Henry James fixes on the clearly, subjectively (in the sense that it belongs to his subjects, characters) drawn circumference of attention as the principle of the novel: here is the essential technique for the form. In France, the master was Flaubert, whose discovery was more innovative than James’: Flaubert discovered that the isolated detail, lapidary in solidity, and described with the precision of a jeweler’s cuts, could be put to a range of purposes. The single description of white fingertips, pink fingernails, a sparrow’s flight, the hay scattered in the yard of a peasant…any of these might be oriented to suggest a character’s experience of the world, to register the world’s monotony, the passage of time, an unspoken personal history (the coral and barometer in the sitting room in Madame Bovary beg us to imagine why they are there, what dreams and conforming pressures led to their purchase; we can do so because we know the characters well; doing so, we come to know the characters better still); they can reflect a character’s valuation of the world, or they can gauge the value and status of a character as assigned by the world.

Flaubert is an extremist on behalf of the method of the detail; it will, in his novels, be asked to perform any number of tasks. The realist detail becomes the essential tool of the novelist; without it, the irony of the indirect discourse is not much different from Austen; with it, the judgment implied by narratorial distance intersects with a feature of the world that can sustain any number of judgments and implications independently from it.

But Flaubert makes a second discovery, concurrent to the first, without which the first could not be turned in as many directions as it does: the power and versatility of the detail depends upon an author’s having available the entire range of coordinating possibilities: from versions of asyndeton (abrupt juxtaposition without conjunctions) to polysyndeton (conjunctions piled atop one another). Conjunctions or coordinating punctation orient the detail upon its axis, turning it within the context; they do not always turn it definitively, but they at least limit the range of context to which it pertains.

An example comes in the penultimate chapter of Madame Bovary (trans. Lydia Davis). Emma is dead and her father, having arrived too late to bid his farewell, says goodbye to Charles, his (former) son-in-law:

“No, no. It would cause me too much grief. Only, give her a big kiss for me! Goodbye!…you’re a good fellow! And I shall never forget this,” he said, slapping his thigh. “Don’t worry! you’ll always get your turkey.”

But when he reached the top of the hill, he turned around, as he had turned around once before on the road to Saint-Victor, when he was leaving her. The windows of the village were all on fire beneath the slanting rays of the sun, which was setting in the meadow. He shaded his eyes with his hand; and he saw on the horizon a walled enclosure where trees formed dark clubs, here and there, among the white stones; then he continued on his way home, at a slow trot, for his nag was lame.

The pivot is the word “but”: more than a pivot, since it demands that the reader discern an argument, a process of thought and decision, where there seems to be only a discrete scene between father and (former) son-in-law, followed by a memory, and then a description of what he sees as he looks back at the town. “But” tells us that these details are not only filtered through his perspective, but are themselves a part of his decision: perhaps not to send the turkey; perhaps to drop the facade of hearty acceptance of her death and to allow himself to grieve; perhaps something else. Whichever it is, the coordinating word choreographs the details. With more abrupt coordination, where there are no conjunctions, the invitation to follow the logic of details is no less apparent, though the trail might be more difficult to see.

That, then, is the essence of Flaubert’s discovery; not a theory perhaps, but a principle of deep force, a mechanism perhaps, that can be said to have to do more, mean more, for Flaubert than it really does mean or could mean. It is very much like the theories in other disciplines springing around at the time.

And Flaubert, in promoting and demonstrating his aesthetic mechanism, in the novels he writes, is doing something else similar to those other theorists; he is giving an account of the world that has fostered his mechanism’s discovery, and giving an account, by way of the mechanism, of the world in which the mechanism will be received.

The account is bleakly pessimistic: that world can have no appreciation for the full power, the “theoretical” reach of the isolated detail; and it is by way of a novel constructed on the basis of the theory of the isolated detail that the world’s limitation will be revealed.


The most famous moment of the novel, especially among adolescent readers, comes where Rodolphe fails to appreciate the depth and life of Emma’s feelings, which she can only express through withered cliche:

Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is liked a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.

Flaubert shares too much with Rodolphe for him not to resort to so uninhibited and undisguised an authorial intervention: his skepticism of life is not to be mistaken, he warns us here, for Rodolphe’s cynicism.

But he also sets him apart from the world he portrays: although he too must fail at times, must beat out tunes on the cracked kettle of speech, Flaubert has found a technique that does not rely on the emptiest of metaphors; that can capture not only feeling but a whole range of experiences; and from that technique, he can develop an entirely new novel.


But for the technique to work, the isolated detail needs to be given more theoretical heft and dimension than it normally possesses, and it needs to be given that on its own, without the author telling us explicitly, what the detail is all about; its power lies in its detachment from the empty metaphors that such explanations would entail. Flaubert theorizes what the detail can do, but only other theoreticians of the novel will appreciate his theory—and he risks always asking too much from the detail, leaning too heavily on his theory of it.

I turn now to the image of stars in the famous passage: a romantic image, a self-consciously romantic image, but one that also suggests that Flaubert is aware of himself as dancing with one eye on the heavens; gazing at the stars.

I wonder though whether it does not contain another echo: of the tale of Thales, the earliest theoretical thinker, tumbling into a well when his eyes were focused on the stars, and incurring the laughter of Thracian women. Hans Blumenberg has written on the reception of the tale through European intellectual history; on the tension between theory and practice. It would be a faint echo. But it would be fitting: at a moment of the novel when Flaubert’s aesthetic discovery, and his theory of the novel, in its promise of renewing communication, of doing away with so much that is stale or dead, most needed, and yet also when the relevance of that discovery for the life of most readers, and perhaps for life at all, outside of a novel, is most doubtful. When the theory of language in a novel is at odds with the reality of language in the exchanges and expressions in life in other realms of experience. To mix tales, the theory of the stars might be accurate, and it might even lead to the truth at the bottom of the well; and the bottom of the well is a ways off from life.

But Flaubert, at one with the intellectual tradition of inverting and undoing the polarity between Thales and the Thracian women who look at him, does not find his theory in the stars; it is in the details of the common, everyday world that is immediately, empirically before the bourgeois and provincial citizens that Flaubert discovers a mechanism of immense theoretical significance for the novel. Perhaps Flaubert would rather see himself as a Thracian woman, laughing at the dreamers who would look to the stars to find lofty expression for the feelings, when the empirical world at their feet offers all they really need, if they would be focus on it closely enough.

Blumbenberg writes, on the Copernican inheritance of the fable of Thales: The theoretical breakthrough, here for the first time as so often afterwards in the history of science, is a shift in the direction of attention: drawing notice to the unnoticed. Here for the first time an element of reflection is exposed in the moralizing words of the anonymous passerby in the Aesopian fable as in the derisive speech of the Thracian maid: not only preferring what lies nearby to the farthest and nobles, but making the nearby into the essential condition for distant objects to appear as they do.


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