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Flaubert, A "Literary Monk" (by Emile Faguet)

Dernière mise à jour : 8 mai 2023

Extract from :

Emile Faguet




"(...) His pride, his timidity and sensitiveness made of Flaubert a shy, lonely, grumpy misanthrope. He shut himself up in his hermitage at Croisset, professing for humanity a contempt which was not quite disdain, and which was far from being indifference. He confined himself in a sort of sullen sorrow, allowing but very few friends to come to share it with him and never allowing a woman to disturb his solitude, however earnestly he might be implored to do so, and perhaps because of the very indiscretion of the request. His whole attitude meant Noli me tangere, and his speech or his pen expressed it occasionally :

'I shrink within myself so deeply as to disappear completely, and any attempt to draw me out hurts me. On our way to La Roche Guyon, I was feeling like that, and your voice as you called me every moment, and especially your touch on my shoulder to solicit my attention, caused me real pain. It was through sheer self-restraint that I did not snub you in the most brutal fashion !’

He was already thus in his youth, or rather, and this is a characteristic trait, he already foresaw in his youth that he would be thus all his life. At eighteen he wrote :

‘Do not believe me to be undecided in my choice of a profession ; I shall certainly choose none, for I despise men too much to wish to do them either good or harm.’

And at twenty-five:

‘The weather is grey, the river is yellow, and the grass is green ; the trees hardly show any leaves ; they are just beginning ; it is the spring, the season of joy and of love. But there is no spring in my heart any more than on the high-road where the glare wearies the eyes Do you remember where that is ? It is in Novembre. I was nineteen when I wrote it. It will soon be six years ago. It is strange that I should have been bom with so little faith in happiness. When quite young I had a complete presentiment of life. It was like a nauseous kitchen smell coming up through a grating ; before you have touched the food you realise that it will make you sick. . . .’

Again at thirty two he wrote :

‘From day to day I feel an increasing distaste towards my fellow-creatures developing in my heart, and I am glad of it. . . .’

And again :

‘Why does the discovery of some misdeed always provoke mirth on my part ? I like to see humanity and everything that men respect belittled, mocked, hated and hissed, and that is why I have some respect for ascetics. . . .’

The sequence of his sentiments is obvious. Sensitiveness begets temper, temper sorrow, sorrow misanthropy, and misanthropy maliciousness. Hence the last touch which became with him a monomania : a simultaneous hatred and love of stupidity and a simultaneous hatred and love of the bourgeois. His hatred of stupidity led him into a passionate search for it in order to loathe it, and into an amorous contemplation of it in order to abhor it the more. His hatred of the bourgeois became an infinite pleasure in observing him, studying him, penetrating him to the core in order to taste the wicked pleasure of appreciating his stupidity.

At the early age of seventeen, in the Pyrenees, in the inn by the lake of Gaube, he noted in his pocket-book the silly remarks written by other travellers. ‘Stupidity gets into my pores,’ he said. And he wrote :

'The sad grotesque has infinite charm for me ; it responds to the hidden desires of my nature, which is that of a bitter buffoon. It does not make me laugh, but sets me dreaming. I see it wherever it is to be found, and I find it in myself. That is why I love analysing ; it is a study which pleases me. . . .’

No one better understood Gresset’s saying : ‘Fools are here on earth for our amusement.’

But it is obvious that he would have modified that saying. He would have said : ‘Fools are here on earth for our deepest and most intense pleasure. They are venerable and worthy of eternal gratitude because they so complacently give us cause to despise them royally. They are the candid and spontaneous buffoons of the kings of wit and of misanthropical philosophers. They are here below for the sombre delight of melancholy hearts.’

Thus Flaubert became a sort of literary monk (note above his remark about ascetics) — a confined, morose, solitary monk, looking upon humanity with horror, disgust, irony and sarcasm, mocking it with a bitter laugh sadder than any tears, and regarding it with what is called pity, but is really a merciless glance.

In that and in his whole character he very much resembled Stendhal. There is in fact no difference between them, save that Stendhal was more superficial. But, without mentioning the same absence in both of critical sense, a subject outside that which concerns us for the moment, we find the same timidity, the same pride, the same contempt, real and affected, for men in general and for contemporary literature ; the same habit of sarcasm, the same horror of the bourgeois, that is of ‘the being who has a low manner of feeling,’ or rather of the man who neither thinks nor feels in an eccentric fashion ; also the same affectation of libertine tastes, stronger and more constant in the elder than in the younger, and the same disagreeable, contradictory disposition.

Stendhal, however, being less serious, was more sociable. What in him was merely an often repeated sally became in the other a deep feeling, which he pondered over in solitude and which became an essential part of his being. For a long time, Stendhal, a misanthropist, loved to display his misanthropy in society, and often expressed it in witty sayings.

Flaubert, a greater misanthropist, sat alone with his misanthropy, and enjoyed interminable tête-à-têtes with it. A literary monk, a lonely recluse, he spent almost the whole of a fairly long life repeating to himself that Man is little and Art great, just as a religious hermit would say to himself that God is great and Man is little, despising the one and serving the other with an equal fervour and an equally intractable devotion."

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Source :

Flaubert, by Emile Faguet
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