A Metaphysics of Emma: Madame Bovary Today (NB: spoilers near the end)

Frederic Jameson, reviewing Sartre’s The Family Idiot for the NYT in 1981:

Sartre had always seen literary works as responses to concrete situations, responses that become intelligible only when grasped within those situations. He now draws the unexpected consequences: Like tools, literary works outlive the situations for which they were intended, and they are passed down with a new material inertia. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations,’ Marx said, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ The artists of Flaubert’s generation had no way of understanding the practical purposes for which the older generation had invented their now inert themes: critical negativity, misanthropy, the ideal of classlessness, the defense of the autonomy of the intellectual (which will now be ‘mistranslated’ as art for art’s sake), and a quasi-religious conviction of the nothingness of the world and the emptiness of life. Crippled by the themes of their predecessors, the following generation became artists without inspiration. This was not a subjective matter, a lack of talent or vocation. Rather, Sartre’s idea of the practico-inert -the weight of so many dead artistic ideologies from an incomprehensible past – suggests a situation in which it was objectively impossible for them to have something to say.

This nothing-to-say–the trajectory of an incomprehensible past–will be our focus in the beginning. First there is the fact of time. There is its sense. Space becomes subordinated to time in Madame Bovary; space is now the reflection of time’s passage, its here-and-there deposit, its surplus. But there is another mistake of time: the time of Madame Bovary, in contrast with time in Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary is first serialized in 1857. Lydia Davis’s translation–if not a watershed moment then an event, or a watershed of an event of some sort–appears in 2010. Davis wants to reproduce Flaubert’s style, which is his novel’s vocation and substance, in English: his quirks of tense, the intensities of his adverbs, the subtleties of his free indirect style. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Davis’s task is to mirror the French, but faithfulness is indeed a primary concern of hers. How does Madame Bovary change through time? Moreover: how, and with what appurtenances, with what way of reading, do we understand Emma’s caresses, her infidelities and her ennui, in October 2010?

Everything twice, Marx says: first as tragedy, and then as farce. If Ulysses is in our time the most normal story, then Madame Bovary is a story whose telling precedes it: a story told without our having to tell it. The press release for Davis’s translation calls Emma “the first desperate housewife”; the NYT review is titled “Desperate Housewives.” In 1857, Madame Bovary is a dissection of bourgeois morality; Emma, who has become critical of her position in her marriage and therefore in bourgeois society, “must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law […] there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” While it is a story that demands repetition, it is only now–at least to us–occurring for the second time, as farce, as the story that is no longer told–or put differently, as the story that is told all too much. The effects of the waywardness of inwardness in conflict with the objective law which it is predetermined to harmonize with: this is the problem of Madame Bovary‘s vocation as realist novel. But it is instead an avocation, a husk added to it as its condition of publication. Not first as tragedy but second. The bourgeois society which receives Madame Bovary in 1857 can only view it in light of the practical inertia of the artist whom it condemns to critique it. So: second, with the vanity of convention, and finally as farce, as desperate housewife. Let me explain. The only way that the civil society of 1857 can make sense of Madame Bovary is if the novel incarnates and critiques it. Sartre too gestures at this interpretation. Jameson again:

The predestined catastrophe that hangs over ‘Madame Bovary’ – from one perspective the elaboration of Flaubert’s private trauma – will then slowly, in what Sartre calls ‘prophetic anteriority,’ begin to resonate across a whole public world, at length coming to seem a virtual prophecy of the collapse of the Second Empire itself in 1870.

This would be the novel that can step outside of society and, caught up once again in its subjection, revalue and even perturb its principles. With each of its translations and in a sort of linear movement, Madame Bovary then gradually loses its tragic component–we no longer ask, “How is it that I care about this woman who I hate so damn much?”–and its truck with convention turns farcical; instead we ask, “Why the hell am I reading this book when I can just watch Desperate Housewives?”

Which is, after all, a good question. Jameson, echoing and revising Sartre, inextricably links Madame Bovary as an aesthetic and as a social object:

Flaubert’s style ‘derealizes’ things, transforms them into images, in order to draw the whole immense being of the world into nothingness without changing a leaf or a blade of grass in the process. Yet that style is an operation born of resentment; it is meant to demoralize bourgeois readers without their becoming aware that their world has been pulled out from under them.

And later:

Turning things into images, abolishing the real world, grasping the world as little more than a text or sign-system – this is notoriously the very logic of our own consumer society, the society of the image or the media event (the Vietnam War as a television series). Flaubert’s private solution, his invention of a new ‘derealizing’ esthetic strategy, may seem strange and distant, not because it is archaic, but because it has gradually become the logic of our media society, thereby becoming invisible to us.

What is the function of the image in Davis’s Flaubert–of the imaginary and its derealizing effect? Is all this old late-Marxist hat? Or is Jameson’s Flaubert, his media event and its reiteration, of a piece with our own? Does history hurt Emma differently in our time?

Yes and no. Yes for the obvious reasons–late capitalism is not much later–and no for reasons I can only sketch. No because we have new weapons. Davis’s magnificent translation gives Madame Bovary back to us as if and again for the very first time. Only now, because we are each one a potential Emma Bovary, can Flaubert’s novel be exposed for what it is: an exercise and a revolution in style. The aesthetic object and its circulation, its “nothingness,” no longer become derealized to the reader as “ideology,” her mediation, the medium which tempts her to mistake her derealized image for an individual: her silence and the noise that hounds her. Madame Bovary‘s derealizing effect, once the exception, has become the norm. If read on realist terms, Madame Bovary then expresses the anti-corporate mire of a 9th grader: “I really like how anti-corporate Nirvana is, but all of these Nirvana t-shirts are made by corporations! Kurt Cobain was full of shit My copy of Nevermind is an internal hemorrhage of being!”–the normal and now continuous bind we find ourselves in, which is not an internal hemorrhage of being, as Sartre and perhaps Jameson would have it, but somehow an external hemorrhage of nothingness. As Heidegger says in the Spigel interview, “Only a god can save us”–from our remand to the law, to the apparatus of its will which we are. This god, a god, would be severed from the circulation of objects realized and derealized, actualized and annihilated: a new invisibility. An awakened something which exists, safe and alien in its moment, not necessarily outside of but before the norm, not above but behind it.

Here we approach the crystallized form of Madame Bovary: a form which is style, also its content the negation of what inevitably falls outside of it. As Flaubert himself says regarding the novel: “I would like to write a book about nothing, a book without external links, which would be held together by the internal force of its style … just as the earth without being suspended moves in the air, a book which would have almost no subject matter or at least whose subject would be almost invisible if that is possible.” We are all potentially Emmas not because we disrupt the real with the derealizing force of pure form, of the empty imaginary which lurks behind things as if the metaphysical an sich; this is the empty irony of lesser translations, the hammy pessimism and self-loathing of Sartre. We are all potentially Emmas because, in the time of Davis’s translation, it is demanded of us that we express the imaginary, invisible as it is, and realize the derealization, but qua derealization; by some twisted new account of reality, yet incipient, there is now the possibility of not realizing the derealized. Now I know all of that sounds like nothing if not nonsense, but let me explain. In 1981, with The Family Idiot, we realized the derealization of objects; we unmasked the “essence” of “things,” but as emptiness, as commodity and endless reproducibility. Now we’ve entered into a period of agonism with that emptiness–but an agonism still dormant, still no more than possible. But necessarily no more than possible.  Now that we’ve drawn everything into a system of capital, of sign and text, it’s not enough to simply say: everything is a text, everything is art. There are, as always, weapons which we’ve been assigned.

Take Facebook. On Facebook, there is a universal form, there are categories (sex, political views, favorite music) under which anyone can be included. But what happens within that form is a care for, a mutability and aesthetics of, the self. The care with which Flaubert once crafted his novels, painstakingly and sentence by sentence, can now be reproduced in turn on the most normal possible level. Given to us is therefore not the actualization of the imaginary, but the possibility of actively maintaining the derealized as the invisible norm, as the background condition of life and the “text” that it’s become or has always been: the norm of the nothing, revealed to be everything. And how does Davis’s translation present this possibility? By giving Emma back, but not as a realist novel, not for society, but as a tractate for the individual stylist who is always ahead of herself in style: a novel not about society and its manifestations, the nothing of its objects, but about the nothing of style itself. Approach the content Madame Bovary with style as such in mind, style as content. That Emma’s inwardness objectified destroys her is at first blush a critique of (among other trammels) both the individual and the state or whatever, how they are hewn apart in contradiction, how either you work with the state or against it but insatiably so. But we can’t maintain this reading, because we quickly see that Emma’s got the right formal idea–at first glance she’s giving herself a style–but precisely the style that Madame Bovary is not. In this way the novel advocates itself. She wants the broad, bold, idealized love of Lagardy, the opera singer, and his character–the regime of aesthetics, of elevated discourse which wants to say: “Here I am! I’m the idea of love and not an opera tenor assigning himself a part! Feel stuff immediately and then reflect on it!” And Emma does reflect, and but this reflection is immediately negated by affect; she embodies love’s idea, its dialectic and unfolding, as it is represented to her by Lagardy. Not that you can take the actor and superpose it on Emma, but there’s an extent to which that’s true, because the part of this actor has become Emma’s everyday life, this regime of the idea, which is why she reflects on it with such a normative attitude. She spends her life consuming people toward this final cause, the idea of love, which contradicts how Charles understands and lives his love. Charles’s love remains opaque for most of the novel, but begins to reveal itself during the opera: he is baffled by it (the opera). He spends his time as spectator simply trying to make sense of it rather than relate himself and his own situation, whatever that may be, to what he’s seeing performed on stage. This bind (the opera), in which what’s invisible–the reproducibility of love, etc.–remains so, absolutely loses Charles, and on my reading it’s because, to borrow from Jacques Ranciere, he’s the whole of Emma’s life which has no part. In this way Charles in a certain way is Emma, but this condition of him as Emma’s invisible condition remains, likewise, invisible. Let me explain.

So Emma’s life is this empty, impossible desire for an abstract idea. What do you have to do to realize an abstract idea? Well, in Emma’s case, you–and I’m sorry that I have to go and spoil a perfectly good ending–swallow arsenic. So we’ve got two background conditions: Emma and Charles. Emma’s is Sartre’s or Jameson’s–the invisible condition is the empty sign system. And of course Charles is the invisible condition of that sign system: the imaginary force which is not made visible to anyone. There is no irony, no distancing oneself or exposing to oneself the nothingness of one’s life: there is no internal hemorrhage. So Charles is therefore not the imaginary force, nor the derealizing weapon which Jameson/Sartre consider Flaubert to be; he’s the secret condition of the empty idea of love vis-a-vis Emma. There’s a whole network, obviously, of hidden mechanisms that enable Charles, but this is a novel, need I remind myself, of the bourgeoisie; in this sense, Charles is the proletariat of Emma. Because let’s not forget that Charles’s bourgeois status is empty, merely formal, and Emma’s suicide indeed makes that visible to him, but only as his disappearance. It could be said that because of the narrowness of his class he has to die–his life is given to him as impossible after Emma’s suicide, since his entire “I” was her as possession, their daughter–who is, significantly enough, taken from him by the end–as his only way to possess her without her turning away from him, and by extension all that Emma has that is in turn seized; Charles is seized from himself, and the self which he’s left with has absolutely no ground, no for-itself outside of Emma. But that’s not the reading I’m doing. That’s not our Charles, the Charles of invisible aesthesis. In a word, Charles’s function is a type of aesthetic production whose suppression and double invisibility is the real tragedy of the novel–it’s the norm before the norm, the norm which conditions the norm. I know, how many times am I going to say “conditions”? I mean, Charles is literally forced to give up everything that constitutes his life, and now we can turn back to Emma’s suicide–her suicide is Charles’s guilt turned in on his own life and is therefore his suicide, too. Or perhaps his murder. Which is what happens when the imaginary gets realized, foregrounded–we produce guilt out of what we’ve produced, in other words out of nothing. Out of, in Jameson’s words, even a leaf or a blade of grass. We turn our product against us as if it’s turned against us. To paraphrase Marx again, the producing factor is postulated as the product of its product. Enter the guilt of 2010–why we lambast the internet and its effects and continue to use it in spite of all that, why we want to return to a previous more essential state that–and pardon me if this is banal–was never even there, instead of asking ourselves, “How can we make a force for good of this being-together, this web or network or whatever?” But let’s hold off on these grand gestures, perhaps for good, and be finished with Emma’s suicide.

So there’s the somewhat christological aspect of Emma’s suicide: in realizing her impossible goal, which is also the goal of Lagardy, she makes her life impossible. She unfolds the idea of love to its completion–which is incidentally ingesting the “Man-God” of the sacrament, given to her by the clergyman at her deathbed–and it destroys her, hence the apparent necessity of her suicide. The final negation of love: the negation of life. In realizing the emptiness of her life she empties herself of life. She’s now a corpse, which Charles of course tries his best to reanimate; he adorns her body with the vision of his invisibility, which is still for-her and invisible to him, and obviously it goes unrecognized by her because, well, she’s dead. There’s the elaborate dressing of the corpse, and the coffins which are contiguous with it, and which eventually melt into it. So Charles has driven her to suicide insofar as he has been the background condition of her internal/external dialectic: of the narrative in which she realizes the emptiness of her goal. She wants to embody the–frankly silly–tragedy of economy vs. love, when actually she’s produced that contradiction herself by spending beyond her (empty) conditions, i.e. extravagantly–which conditions again are invisible to her–for the sake of a love which she has produced in advance for the sake of its consummation, which is really her death and the impossibility of her and of what founds her, namely Charles. In this sense the realization of derealization, the imaginary force which assaults and eviscerates “being,” is a destructive nihilism which stops at the unmasking of the invisible–the death of the subject–without asking the question: what is its principle? That is, the principle of this death. The subject’s death as such precludes that very question–it invites play, but a dogmatic and defeated play with almost nothing, with a corpse. This is often what so-called postmodern literature imagines that it is doing.

Here is our reply.

Its principle is the nothing which is everything, a god who could save us if only we looked its way–behind us and with an impossible turn. Charles’s story is so tragic because, like an inverted Orpheus, as soon as Emma turns to face him in his invisibility–which is always the case–he disappears, becomes invisible even to himself and therefore doubly invisible. There is no longer any rescuing him. Flaubert certainly makes no attempt. Charles can only rescue himself by turning back to face himself, and wanting himself as he will never be. This is degenerate and obscure Nietzsche but it is also something else. Because I am wasting too much of your time, however, we will have to make due with obscure. The producer must posit itself and its product not as what it is or is not at the moment–not as the “me” renounced or affirmed at this time–but as an experiment, what it appears as for the next incarnation. Potential discarded already for an impotential one to-come, nameless, the name in that time abolished and derealized. This is the Facebook page or whatever you want to call it–an aesthetics of the self. Any naming of my self is only a mask; I am only that Emma whom I don to cover the impossible that therefore I am: not irony but an ethics of possession, or–what is the same–an aesthetics of the possessed.

Here is where we go beyond Facebook or whatever social network, and transition from aesthetics to its politics. Each iteration, each mask, is only made visible as its invisible, as the secret condition, as the nothing which undergirds it: as its principle and in fact as it, the visible, itself. I’m not sure how far this goes beyond Jameson but I believe it is at least a modification. Davis’s translation stages this practice in its literary form by translating Madame Bovary in its own style: the mask that the Bovarys wear in any language, the mask of the universal–style as form and content–which is its only possible incarnation. So we are not therefore all potential Emmas, but Charles-as-Emma: a Charles who is not abandoned by Emma as by another, but by himself, though it is a Charles who is absolutely not his own. An external hemorrhage, not of nothingness, but of the nothing. Madame Bovary does not only express this aesthetic wound, but realizes it.

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  1. miafan

      Do you intend to publish an English translation of this review?

  2. sean k

      Seems like some big thoughts here. Was planning on finally getting around to reading M. Bovary with this translation, and this review makes it sound like just the book I need to read right now. I didn’t finish this because of the spoilers, but I really like what you’re trying to get at here and will have to return and finish once I track down a copy of the book.

  3. Alec Niedenthal

      Yeah, sorry Sean about the spoilers–I’ve marked the title with a warning now. But yeah, it’s such a captivating translation, really. Feel free to email you your thoughts once you’ve read it or something.

  4. deadgod

      Many die too late, and a few die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”

      Die at the right time – thus teaches Zarathustra. Of course, how could those who never live at the right time die at the right time? Would that they had never been born! Thus I counsel the superfluous. But even the superfluous still make a fuss about their dying; and even the hollowest nut still wants to be cracked. Everybody considers dying important; but as yet death is no festival. As yet men have not learned how one hallows the most beautiful festivals.

      I show you the death that consummates – a spur and a promise to the survivors. He that consummates his life dies his death victoriously, surrounded by those who hope and promise. thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival where one dying thus does not hallow the oaths of the living.

      –Nietzsche, “On Free Death”

  5. jackie wang

      my friend and i used to always gush about lydia davis and the precision of her language…he translating skills even shine through in her english fiction

  6. Alec Niedenthal

      Exactly–and no one in Madame Bovary dies with children, with the presence of those who are permitted to promise.

  7. deadgod

      I think what Nietzsche means by “superfluous” is not the vulgar medical-engineering pseudo-problem of ‘extra’ people, crowds who want herding into the cheeseburger machine. What he means by ‘superfluity’ is one, unhappily common, path of will.

      Nietzsche speaks directly to us bourgeois winners of abundant resources and ‘free’ time – to us country doctors and opera singers and us M.s and Mme.s Bovary – when Zarathustra says:

      You call yourself free? Your dominant thought I want to hear, and not that you have escaped from a yoke. Are you one of those who had the right to escape from a yoke? There are some who threw away their last value when they threw away their servitude.

      Free from what? As if that mattered to Zarathustra! But your eyes should tell me brightly: free for what?

  8. deadgod

      I think what Nietzsche means by “superfluous” is not the vulgar medical-engineering pseudo-problem of ‘extra’ people, crowds who want herding into the cheeseburger machine. What he means by ‘superfluity’ is one, unhappily common, path of will.

      Nietzsche speaks directly to us bourgeois winners of abundant resources and ‘free’ time – to us country doctors and opera singers and us M.s and Mme.s Bovary – when Zarathustra says:

      You call yourself free? Your dominant thought I want to hear, and not that you have escaped from a yoke. Are you one of those who had the right to escape from a yoke? There are some who threw away their last value when they threw away their servitude.

      Free from what? As if that mattered to Zarathustra! But your eyes should tell me brightly: free for what?