Tag Archives: Gustave Flaubert

Marginalia, no.175

In 1617, the Maréchal d’Ancre, much hated by the people, was assassinated. The day after the assassination, his body was exhumed and cut in pieces by a savage crowd, which the day before had not been able to vent its hatred thoroughly. One of these “posthumous executioners” tore the heart out of the Maréchal’s chest, intending to devour it in front of everyone. But before he brought it to his mouth he had it cooked a point over a charcoal fire, and sprinkled it with aromatic vinegar.

~ Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies

In Midnight Oil, the young V.S. Pritchett (then an ex-pat in Paris) is warned by a strict-minded old crone that the French “are mesmerized by sensuality” and that “their food is the cause of it – cooking in butter, the sauces, aperitifs,” etc. There’s a passage in Sentimental Education to back her up. Moreau is at a party, enjoying himself immensely, when Flaubert informs us with a wink that “the political verbiage and the good food began to dull his sense of morality.” No doubt the Maréchal’s cannibal was similarly inspired. It would make a nice dissertation topic: the shared history of political violence and barbecue.

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Three Paragraphs of Holiday Weekend

My wife’s cousin has a big house at the lake, a glass eye, a Great Dane, a tortoise, a pig, two hens, and a fainting goat tied to a post in the yard, the last miraculously spared (so far) by the mountain lions that come down from the hills. All patriotic food groups were duly represented: roast turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – and we did our duty. Home again, we tucked in the children and put up our heels before the simulated fireplace looping on the television screen, brooding over mugs of smoky Russian tea.

The boy announced tonight that he was afraid of the Snark. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, I told him.  But then, on reflection, I’m not sure that people are really any more afraid of terrorists (or snarks) than they used to be; or of radiation, or being groped by strangers. If fear is gaining these days it’s primarily in two varieties: 1) the fear of litigation, and 2) the mongered sort of fear, traded like sturgeon or Persian rugs for cash or ‘political capital.’ It’s always an ‘adroit demonology’ (in Mencken’s phrase) that wins customers and votes.

With a surfeit of free time due to the holiday, I’m mastering ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the ukelele, not trimming my beard, and reading J.G. Farrell’s Troubles. Before bed I set the Farrell aside to read snippets of Vico instead, which is just dry and disorienting enough (‘…the Assyrian kingdom was born overnight, like frogs after a summer storm…’) to transport me direct to Surrealist dreamland. My wife, meanwhile, is in love with Flaubert and halfway through Bouvard and Pecuchet, which I’d been saving for a special occasion. She’s ruining it for me by reading so much of it aloud. You and your ‘Flobby,’ I say. I’m not sure which of you to be jealous of.

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Slaughter of the Innocents

Ushering children through hordes of ghouls and zombies last night to beg candy from strangers, we finished our circuit and came at last to the home of my brother-in-law’s neighbor.  It was a cabin-like single-story house with a few fancifully carved pumpkins set on the porch and a warm glow seeping from high windows.  We had stopped here the year before and I remembered that the paterfamilias of the place was a sport hunter.  He had decorated the wide, high-ceilinged entryway with mounted heads of antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and more exotic fauna from other continents.

We rang the bell.  The door opened and a pale teenaged girl doled out chocolate bars to our miniature Chaplins and their cousins.  The recollected menagerie still kept congress on the walls around her.  The great white hunter himself stepped forward then and asked, with a leftward jab of his thumb, whether we’d met his newest ‘pet.’  We peered round the corner and were astonished to see a taxidermied giraffe – or at least it’s chest, neck, and head.  It must have been nine feet tall: the leopard-spotted hide, the knobby tufted horns, the impossible girlish eyelashes.  Bwana had gone to some game farm in Africa and killed it himself, then paid what must have been thousands for its stuffing and transport back to the United States.

In the literary court of omnivorous slaughter, Flaubert’s Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller warms the throne.  Flint-hearted young Julian sets out one day from his family’s castle on horseback and in short order dispatches a family of rabbits, a woodcock, some mountain goats and cranes, a beaver, a deer, a badger, a stag, a peacock…

…and after he had slain them all, other deer, other stags, other badgers, other peacocks, and jays, blackbirds, foxes, porcupines, polecats, and lynxes, appeared; in fact, a host of beasts that grew more and more numerous with every step he took.  Trembling and with a look of appeal in their eyes, they gathered around Julian, but he did not stop slaying them, and so intent was he on stretching his bow, drawing his sword and whipping out his knife, that he had little thought for aught else.

I was recently reminded of Flaubert’s story while reading John Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, which centers on a mind-numbing slaughter of buffalo in 1870s Colorado.  With Flaubert, however, the slaughter is more varied (extending even to non-native species), and goes on and on for pages.  It’s comically absurd at first but the long index of the dead begins to sound sinister.  “Sometimes, in his dreams,” Flaubert says of Julian, “he fancied himself like Adam in the midst of Paradise, surrounded by all the beasts; by merely extending his arm, he was able to kill them.”

Being a devoted carnivore myself and willing to admit that meat requires the death of some unfortunate creature, I’m not personally unsympathetic to the appeal of hunting, whether for elk or deer or fowl, at least when the game is close at hand and the intent is to put meat on the table.  But what drives a man to travel ten thousand miles to sight and stalk and kill a giraffe of all things?  It’s like murdering Big Bird or Mr Snuffleupagus.  Certainly, given the size of the target, it’s no special testament to one’s marksmanship.

I wonder if Bwana or his poor pale daughter are ever haunted by nightmares of the dead animals that watch over the door of their home.  I wonder if he ever finds himself at night before his court of trophies, encircled by their disembodied heads, accused by their glassy eyes, cursed at from their bristly, stuffed lips.  I imagine him like Flaubert’s Julian when his prowess fails and he’s surrounded alone in the woods by hosts of mocking animals:

He began to run; the brutes followed him.  The serpent hissed, the malodorous beasts frothed at the mouth, the wild boar rubbed his tusks against his heels, and the wolf scratched the palms of his hands with the hairs of his snout.  The monkeys pinched him and made faces, the weasel rolled over his feet.  A bear knocked his cap off with its huge paw, and the panther disdainfully dropped an arrow it was about to put in its mouth.

Irony seemed to incite their sly actions.  As they watched him out of the corners of their eyes, they seemed to meditate a plan of revenge, and Julian, who was deafened by the buzzing of the insects, bruised by the wings and tails of the birds, choked by the stench of animal breaths, walked with outstretched arms and closed lids, like a blind man, without even the strength to beg for mercy.

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Marginalia, no.33

Pellerin used to read every available book on aesthetics in the hope of discovering the true theory of Beauty, for he was convinced that once he had found it he would be able to paint masterpieces.  He surrounded himself with every conceivable accessory – drawings, plaster casts, models, engravings – hunted around fretfully, blaming the weather, his nerves or his studio, going out into the street to seek inspiration, thrilling with joy when he had found it, but then abandoning the work he had begun, to dream of another which would be even finer.  Tortured by a longing for fame, wasting his days in argument, believing in countless ridiculous ideas, in systems, in critics, in the importance of the codification or the reform of art, he had reached the age of fifty without producing anything but sketches.

~ Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education

A study in poseurism.  I used to be one of those young fellows who grow a beard and go unwashed, who buy an old electric typewriter and the full oeuvres of Kerouac, Brautigan, and Camus, and try to get into the habit of smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka at midday in order take themselves more seriously.  But life in one’s thirties has its mercies.  Pre-adolescence did too:  At ten years old I walked every Thursday to my art teacher’s home after school carrying a tackle box full of pencils and brushes without the least thought for what these things said about me.  God save us from artistic accessories.

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Marginalia, no.29

It seemed to her that certain portions of the earth must produce happiness – as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere.

~ Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

The heart is a nomad.  Emma’s curse was to be forever bewitched by the mirage – to imagine she might finally attain it.  But such happiness, once gained, is only sifted through the fingers like sand.  It appears to be a universal law of human nature that, in Montaigne’s words, “we are never in our true abiding-place; we are always somewhere else.”

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