The Purely Literary Distorts the Outlook Upon the World of Phenomena

In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach compares the world of Flaubert and the two Goncourts to the world of Stendhal and Balzac. He finds Flaubert's world wanting --

“we sense... something narrow, something oppressively close in these books. They are full of reality and intellect but poor in humor and inner poise. The purely literary, even on the highest level of artistic acumen and amid the greatest wealth of impressions, limits the power of judgment, reduces the wealth of life, and at times distorts the outlook upon the world of phenomena. And while the writers contemptuously avert their attention from the political and economic bustle, consistently value life only as literary subject matter, and remain arrogantly and bitterly aloof from its great practical problems, in order to achieve aesthetic isolation for their work, often at great and daily expense of effort, the practical world nevertheless bests them in a thousand petty ways. There is vexation with publishers and critics; hatred of the public, which is to be conquered despite the fact that there is no common basis of emotion and thought. Sometimes there are also financial worries, and almost always there are nervous hypertension and a morbid concern with health. But since on the whole they lead the lives of well-to-do bourgeois, since they are comfortably housed, eat exquisitely, and indulge very craving of refined sensuality, since their existence is never threatened by great upheavals and dangers, what finally emerges, despite all their intellectual culture and artistic incorruptibility, is a strangely petty total impression: that of an 'upper bourgeois' egocentrically concerned over his aesthetic comfort, plagued by a thousand small vexations, nervous, obsessed by a mania – only this case the mania is called 'literature.'”

Has Auerbach got it right as to why some readers are irritated by Flaubert?

Pellerin, a character in Flaubert's Sentimental Education, predicts that “the way things are going, art will become some sort of bad joke, less poetic than religion and less interesting than politics. You'll never achieve art's goal – yes, its goal – which is to cause an impersonal exaltation, with minor works, however finely executed.” Reading Auerbach leaves me thinking Pellerin's generation was anomalous in believing art could even in principle be so clearly separated from religion and politics. An impersonal exaltation -- “une exaltation impersonelle” -- doesn't sound like much to write home about... and an art that tries not to trespass at all into the sphere of religion or politics ends up feeling rather insular. Flaubert of course understands this, and "A Simple Heart" trespasses about as far into the sphere of religion as a story can.

But while I've always loved Flaubert, isn't he sometimes guilty of condescending to his characters? I might suggest it as a rule that a writer can be worldy or unworldy... but should not be anti-worldly.

Jeffrey Ethan Lee is onto something in this post: he argues that it's important for writers not to succumb to bullshit, kitsch, received ideas, the official truth etc... but that an even greater danger, for writers, is the danger of simply striking non-writers as irrelevant...

Scroll to Top