20 September 2007
HJ on Flaubert
Henry James Jr., my intellectual mentor's bright kid brother, wrote a review of
"The Temptation of Saint Anthony," in 1874. Although he began with that book, he quickly turned his attention to the whole arc of Flaubert's literary career.
Although he acknowledged that Madame Bovary was a great work, HJ expressed disappointment with the rest of the curve, and especially with the work before him as its culmination.
"M. Flaubert and his contemporaries have pushed so far the education of the sense and the cultivation of the grotesque in literature and the arts that it has left them morally stranded and helpless. In the perception of the materially curious, in fantastic refinement of taste and marked ingenuity of expression, they seem to us now to have reached the limits of the possible."
Who is that "us" in the final clause? Henry was simply employing the privilege of reviewers to speak in the first person plural, "we, the arbiters of taste who understand these things...."
The review interests me precisely because this isn't "just" a critic. This isn't Pauline Kael writing about Alfred Hitchcock. This is the 19th century literary equivalent of John Ford writing about Hitchcock.
Tolstoy's screed against Shakespeare is analogous, except that Tolstoy was past the peak of his own powers at the time, a former artist turned eccentric sage.
Was there justice in James' complaint that Flaubert had cultivated the grotesque to an extent that left him "morally stranded and helpless"?
I end as I began -- I have no idea. I'd be happy to hear from those who know about Flaubert's post-Bovary writings though.
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.