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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Madame Bovary, "dissimilarities of feeling beneath similarities of expression", disdain, pity

1 of my favourite passages from Madame Bovary:
... “It’s because I love you!” she said. “I love you so much I can’t do without you. Do you really know that? Sometimes I suddenly feel I have to see you, and my love makes me furious. ‘Where is he?’ I wonder. ‘Maybe he’s talking to some other woman. She’s smiling at him, he’s moving closer to her…’ Oh, it’s not true, is it? You’re not interested in anyone else, are you? Some women are prettier than I am, but none of them could love you the way I do! I’m your servant and your concubine! You’re my king, my idol! You’re so good! So handsome! So intelligent! So strong!”
He had heard such things said to him so many times before that they no longer held any interest for him. Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty gradually fell away like a garment, revealing in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always has the same form and speaks the same language. He, this man of great experience, could not distinguish dissimilarities of feeling beneath similarities of expression. Because lascivious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he now had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them from Emma; they should be taken with a grain of salt, he thought, because the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings- as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases, since no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, his conceptions or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.
But, with the shrewdness of those who hold themselves aloof in any relationship, Rodolphe saw other pleasures to be developed in his affair with Emma. He came to feel that all modesty was merely tiresome. He began to treat her coarsely, without consideration. He made her into something compliant and corrupt. She remained under the influence of a kind of idiotic infatuation, full of admiration for him and sensuality for herself, a blissful torpor; a her soul, sinking into that intoxication, shriveled and drowned like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey... 
(translated by Lowell Bair)




A reader's dilemma: discovery of other writers, greater understanding of writers one has read (through reading more of their works) and deeper understanding of books one has read.
My short TBR list ("urgent", as opposed to the long list) already has so many names in it that I have to make a note in my phone, and yet at the same time I feel a strong urge to reread both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.
Look at the passage above. Cruel, is he? Contemptuous? Flaubert's often accused of misanthropy and misogyny (and nihilism). Is it true, though? He cuts open his characters and puts them on display, hiding from view, making no comments, showing little sympathy. His objectivity has irritability and contempt in it- he clearly despises Emma as well as most characters in this novel. The man who avoids clichés, makes himself a martyr of style and writes "Dictionary of Received Ideas" openly disdains and constantly attacks philistines, "whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature" and "whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of [their] group and time"(Nabokov's definition). Genteel, bourgeois.
I remember feeling annoyed and angry at Emma, reading this passage. Idiot. Later in Madame Bovary there is another scene, also gold, in which Rodolphe, after Emma suggests going away, goes home and takes out all of his love letters from Emma and other women from the past and reads them- all the platitudinous phrases, all the empty declarations of love flow around him and get mixed up together and become indistinguishable and he no longer knows who writes what and even their faces become blurred in his memory and get mixed up together.
Last time, I focused on this part: "revealing in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always has the same form and speaks the same language".
But now: "they should be taken with a grain of salt, he thought, because the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings- as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases".
No, not disdainful there. The full sentence (especially the part about bears and stars) is full of sadness, a kind of sad resignation. And there's sympathy, because that's how human beings are, the fullness of the soul can sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases. Emma's still empty, still sentimental, still self-deluded, but the narrator isn't so harsh now. He has pity.

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