Life of Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12th 1821 to Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, a distinguished doctor, and Anne Justine Caroline. He grew up in Rouen in Northern France. In 1841 he was sent against his will to study law in Paris but it was there he began to make influential friends and move in literary circles, which stimulated his writing. He never married and it is likely that his relationship with the poet Louise Colet, which lasted from 1846 to 1854 was his only serious romantic relationship. Flaubert died on May 8th 1880 probably as a result of his syphilis.
Epilepsy or Religious Vision?
One night in 1844 Flaubert was riding in a cabriolet with his brother and another cabriolet was approaching them from down the road. As the other cabriolet passed an inn on the side of the road their bright lights crossed and Flaubert, upon seeing this was overcome by an extreme attack. He described it “like being swept away in a torrent of flames…sudden lightning…an instantaneous irruption of memory…a letting go of its entire contents…it seems like everything in your head is going off at once like a thousand fireworks (Wall 79).” Flaubert’s family hoped this was a one-time scare but over the course of the next two weeks he experienced four further attacks. Considering what we know today it is likely that Flaubert suffered from epilepsy, but medical knowledge of the day could not identify the cause of Flaubert’s attacks. In any case, Flaubert would not have approved of attaching a medical explanation to his malady. He called these instances his “nervous attacks” and once he realized he could survive them he began to experiment with his condition and it prompted in him an affinity for extreme varieties of religious experience and ecstatic visions. He claimed to have experienced genuine mystical experiences at various stages of his life. Concerning these hallucinations he said, “On my great days of sunshine I have sometimes glimpsed a state of the soul superior to life itself and for which glory would be irrelevant and happiness itself of no consequence (Unwin 10).” Given the significance Flaubert lends to religious mystical hallucinations, it is no surprise that this is the premise for The Temptation.
For health reasons, Flaubert retired to his family home in Le Croisset, a suburb of Rouen, and he supposedly lived quietly and devoted himself to writing to the point where he was known as the Hermit of Croisset. But Flaubert was also one of the best-travelled men of his generation and he practiced “sexual tourism.” He documented his travels in the Middle East from 1849-1851 and he described his sexual exploits there in his letters to his friend Louis Bouihlet. The coarseness with which he talks about these intimate experiences is shocking and reflects his grotesque, carnal and physical view of life. It is believed that it was during this time that he contracted syphilis.
The Writing of The Temptation of Saint Anthony
The inspiration for The Temptation most likely comes from a painting Flaubert saw by Breugel depicting the temptations of Saint Anthony. It is said that nothing else in the museum interested him but that painting completely fascinated him. Another more humble inspiration for The Temptation is that as a child Flaubert used to attend a sort of puppet show depicting the life of Saint Anthony.
Flaubert finished the first manuscript of The Temptation in 1849, which he read to his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet who subsequently advised him to throw it into the fire and forget about it. He worked on the second version in 1856 after he finished Madame Bovary. In the second version Flaubert made some changes to the first version, shortened it and made it less romantic but it was virtually the same work. He would have published it then but he was afraid of experiencing the same backlash he had received from Madame Bovary. In 1857, after Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert and his publisher were tried for an “outrage to public morals and religion.” Even though the case was finally acquitted the enmity and misunderstanding Flaubert experienced left him disenchanted. So Flaubert put down The Temptation again and began writing Salammbo. The third version of The Temptation, which he published in 1974 while he was writing Bouvard et Pechuhet, was entirely rewritten and had been reduced to a third of the size of the first work. It was a lot less romantic and emotional and much more intellectual and abstract. Some significant changes include a pig which was Anthony’s companion in the first two versions but was cut out of the third version and the description of a Greek landscape in the beginning of the third version which isn’t in the other two versions.
The Temptation essentially represents Flaubert’s unattainable dream of what he wanted his works to be- silky, supple, delicate, spontaneous, harmoniously revealed through rapturous phrases, but also what they must never be if they were to see the light of day. Although The Temptation was eventually published it is likely that Flaubert really viewed it as a personal work for his own benefit. The Temptation existed before any of Flaubert’s other essential works and it was repeated as a kind of ritual purification exercise, a temptation to overcome before each of his major texts. It is suspended over all his works. It possesses all the excess imagery and somber prose and abundance that he had to repress in his other texts for the sake of clarity. Flaubert said about The Temptation, “I plunged furiously into Saint Anthony and began to enjoy the most terrifying exaltation. I have never been more excited (Bloom 46).”
Flaubert and Religion
Flaubert had a somewhat cruel outlook on human folly and failure but he saw it as a way of better perceiving emotions and states of mind without sentimentality to contaminate it. He maintained the uniqueness of every emotion and sensation and he thought it was his duty to apprehend these things attentively and alertly.
Given the contemplative ascetic dimension to his approach it is not surprising that there is a mystic quality to his writing. He was fascinated with religion and even though he didn’t believe in god he transferred the idea of mystical contemplation to his writing as an alternative. The 19th century saw the general disenchantment with religion but Flaubert’s work is filled with saints, monks and mystics, and the history of religion. For Flaubert, modern life used the quest for eternal transcendent truth to replace the quest for god.
This complicated relationship that Flaubert had with religion can be seen by the way he approaches religion in The Temptation. He cites many biblical inconsistencies that are starting points for the widespread undermining of religious authority but he also shows respect for the religious perspective in general for the way it offers entry into a world that enhances every day reality.
There are also clear similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony. Flaubert gives Saint Anthony many of his own doubts and beliefs and both Saint Antony and Flaubert have the capacity for heightened imaginary experience, which is both glorious and monstrous. Saint Anthony was a man of deep faith who had much to lose. Flaubert had nothing to lose because he had no faith. Flaubert wanted to make Anthony reach the position, which he found himself in, of utter and complete skepticism where he could come to no conclusion, therefore, the final temptation is the longing for ultimate truth.
Flaubert and his Critics
Critics focus on Flaubert’s misanthropy, and they say that his fascination with stupidity and grotesqueness contaminates his art. Flaubert has a pretty cruel outlook on human folly compared to the optimistic prose of the time. Nineteenth century French literature is a period of great epics, which on a whole describe the ascent of mankind and were inspired by a fundamentally positive attitude towards humanity, but Flaubert wished to denigrate man and reveal his weaknesses. He wanted to show how man has always been ignorant and blinded by his vanity when in actually there was nothing stable and therefore man was doomed to fail. The Temptation of Saint Anthony might have been a response to the quest for totalitarianism that was an obsession in France at the time and through The Temptation Flaubert demonstrated the absurdity of this view and also the degree to which writing was a personal enterprise for him. Not surprisingly, this made people uncomfortable and Flaubert was described by Henry James as “almost insanely excessive (Unwin 16).”
Other critics thought Flaubert’s writing was a boring and monotonous succession of grotesques. Maxime Du Camp said ““We listened to the words of the sphinx, the chimera, the queen of Sheba, of Simon the magician…A bewildered, somewhat simpleminded, and, I would even say, foolish Saint Anthony sees, parading before him, different forms of temptation (Bloom 46).” But Flaubert’s friends were enthralled by the book citing its “richness of his visions” (François Coppee), its forests of shadows and light” (Victor Hugo) and its “hallucinatory mechanism” (Hippolyte Taine) (Bloom 46).
Flaubert held art at supreme value, yet he mused that art might be no more than a joke or a harmless obsession without meaning. His writings put into question the novelist’s apparent judgments on the world and he writes in such a way as to challenge the very novelistic authority upon which his narrative depends.
The paradoxical nature of Flaubert’s writings can be found in his uncompromising attempt to raise creativity to a higher plane but also the ambivalence that was the defining characteristic of his stance as a writer.
Flaubert’s cult of impersonality ran counter to contemporary expectation that works of literature should reveal its author’s opinions and personality. His writing was a strategic activity designed to accommodate the ambiguity of his position.
1. “It was by my order that this multitude of holy retreats was constructed…I have cured the sick from far off; I have cast out demons; I have passed the river in the midst of crocodiles; the Emperor Constantine wrote me three letters….But what works have I not accomplished! For thirty years and more I have been dwelling and groaning unceasingly in the desert! Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery! (Flaubert, 18)”
How does Flaubert view Saint Anthony? Does he see Saint Anthony as admirable or pathetic? There are many similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony so does Flaubert see himself in Saint Anthony or is he mocking him?
2. “He extends his hand to seize the loaf. Other loaves immediately present themselves to his grasp. For me!…all these! But… Anthony suddenly draws back. Instead of one which was there, lo! There are many!…It must be a miracle, then, the same as our lord wrought!…Yet for what purpose? Ah! All the rest of these things are equally incomprehensible! Demon, begone from me! Depart! Begone! He kicks the table from him. It disappears. (Flaubert, 25)
How is Anthony so sure at this point that these visions are from the devil who is out to get him? Why can’t the appearance of fresh bread be perceived as a miracle for someone who has shown devotion to god? As opposed to some of the temptations Saint Anthony sees later, there is nothing wrong with eating loaves of bread. Anthony is a holy man yet he rejects the idea that a miracle would be bestowed upon him. What does this say about his mindset and his relationship with religion that he is so sure the bread is a trick and not a miracle?
3. “He rushes into his cabin and seizes a bunch of things with metallic hooks attached to their ends, strips himself to the waist, and, lifting his eyes to heaven, exclaims:
Accept my penance, O my God: disdain it not for its feebleness. Render it sharp, prolonged, excessive! It is time, indeed!—to the work!
He gives himself a vigorous lash—and shrieks.
No! no!—without mercy it must be.
He recommences (Flaubert, 35).”
What is the purpose of Flaubert’s writing style, of Saint Anthony’s narration spliced by third person narration? Why does Flaubert use the structure of a play, utilizing divisions into dialogues and scenes, scene descriptions and blocking directions, if there was never any indication that he intended it to be performed? What does he gain from using this style and how does this style effect our perception or understanding of The Temptation?
4. “Anthony, from afar off, reads all these thoughts upon his brow. They penetrate his brain, and he becomes Nebuchadnezzar…He feels a sudden pain in his hand—a pebble has accidentally wounded him—and he finds himself once more in front of his cabin (Flaubert, 34)”
“He flings down the torch in order to embrace the glittering heap, and falls flat upon the ground. He rises to his feet. The place is wholly empty (Flaubert, 27).”
What causes Saint Anthony to snap out of his hallucinations? When he becomes Nebuchadnezzar and subsequently turns into a beast it is a pebble that pierces his hand that causes him to awake from the reverie and he finds himself back in front of his cabin. When the gold and jewels start pouring out of the cup he is brought back to reality when he falls. Is it just by accident that these hallucinations end or is there significance to the points at which he returns back to reality? Is there a common theme to the seemingly incidental occurrences that jolt him out of his hallucinations?
5. “Hypocrite! Burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires…Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! (Flaubert, 48)”
How does Flaubert’s approach to religion compare to the Huysmans’ or Wilde’s? Huysmans and Wilde seem to consider religion as a path to decadence but Flaubert seems to see religion and decadence in irreconcilable tension, their ideals being completely opposing.
Bloom, Harold. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave, Lafcadio Hearn, Michel Foucault, and Marshall C. Olds. The Temptation of St. Anthony. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Master; a Critical and Biographical Study (1856-1880). New York: Atheneum, 1971. Print.
Unwin, Timothy A. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.
Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert. Barcelona: Paidós, 2003. Print.