Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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I Love a Good Surprise: Catullus Carmen 107

If anything ever happens to someone who is desirous and eager yet not anticipating a surprise,

then the unexpected is especially pleasing to person in such a state of mind.

Therefore, it is particularly dear to me because you have restored yourself

to me, my desire; you restored yourself to an eager and unsuspecting man, and you

did it all yourself. Oh light, more favorable than a lucky day!

What man could possibly live a luckier life than me, or what man could

possibly want to lead a better existence?

(Translation is my own.)

It seems fitting this week that as I begin teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students that I am also reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Catullus and Frederic both receive quite the “sentimental education” at the hands of an older woman. The anticipation of seeing the beloved is palpable in Catullus’s poems and Flaubert’s text.

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Everlasting Mannish Explanations: Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

It seemed fitting this week that I was reading a book called Deadlock since both the U.S. and the U.K. are involved in awful, political stalemates. The deadlock, however, to which Dorothy Richardson is referring in her sixth chapter of Pilgrimage, is one that involves gender. Miriam is living on her own in a boarding house in London and fully supporting herself. She does not follow any of the expected norms for a female at the beginning of the 20th century—she is not dependent on any man, via marriage or other means, has no children and does not rely on extended family to assist her. Her life is completely her own and, as such, she makes some important observations about men and how they treat her.

Many of Miriam’s conversations in this book take place between her and a young, Russian Jew that is also staying at Mrs. Bailey’s boarding house in London. Mr. Shatov is an intellectual man who is very curious about English culture and their friendship grows through mutual interests in philosophy, language and literature. In a discussion about the different ways that men and women approach debate and arguments Miriam says to him, “That’s why arguments are so maddening; even small discussions; people go rushing on, getting angrier and angrier, talking about quite different things, especially men, because they never want to get at the truth, only to score a point.” In a different discussion with Mr. Shatov she uses Darwin to make her point about how men argue: “Someone will discover some day that Darwin’s conclusions were wrong, that he left out some little near obvious thing with big results, and his theory, which has worried thousands of people nearly to death, will turn out to be one of those everlasting mannish explanations of everything that explain nothing.” I think nowadays we have coined the phrase “mansplaining” for this sort of things. And when Miriam does speak up for herself against men, she runs into quite a bit of trouble so we can hardly blame her for having such opinions.

Another guest at the boarding house, Mr. Lahitte, a French gentlemen who is an expert of Spanish literature, asks Miriam to read his manuscript for a lecture that he would be delivering to an English audience. Mr. Lahitte’s delivery of his argument is bombastic, overwrought and superficial. Miriam gently tries to suggest that he make his speech appear more natural but she runs into his stubborn male ego. He insists that he is “master” of the subject and that “a certain bravura is imperative.” He pays her for her time and her help but it is unclear whether or not he actually takes any of her suggestions. She appears to be at a deadlock with this rather insistent, pompous, academic.

Miriam also dares to take up an argument with her employer, Dr. Hancock, whom she feels treats his female employees unfairly. She does many extra tasks around the office for the doctors, such looking after their library book lists, for which she receives no acknowledgement. When the doctor chides her for not carrying out one of these extra, non-work related tasks Miriam speaks up for herself and is frank with the doctor in a way that he would never expect from a woman:

I told him that in the future I would have nothing to do with his Mudie books. It was outside my sphere. I also said all sorts of things that came into my head in the train, a whole long speech. About unfairness. And to prove my point to him individually, I told him of things that were unfair to me and their other employees in the practice about the awfulness of having to be there first thing in the morning from the country after a weekend-end. They don’t. They sail off to their expensive week-ends without even saying good-bye, and without even thinking whether we can manage to have any sort of recreation at all on our salaries. I said that, and also that I objected to spend a large part of a busy Monday morning arranging the huge bunches of flowers he brought back from the country.

There has been a lot of debate recently about what has been termed “emotional labor”—the idea that women often take on extra, thankless and unnoticed tasks in the workplace and at home. It’s not surprising that Richardson’s observations about the division of tasks along the lines of gender at home and at work are still relevant in the 21st century. Unfortunately for Miriam, the doctors are so shocked by her blunt speech that they decide to sack her. There is an implication in the text, through her conversations with Mr. Shatov, that English men, in particular, do not appreciate a forward or unreserved woman who speaks her mind. Miriam has to apologize to save her job; she ends up in a deadlock with her employers, and no better off than she was before.

Mr. Shatov, however, is a counterexample to these other men; he is eager to debate with her and encourages her to speak her mind. He takes her to lectures and to his favorite German restaurant where he introduces her to beer. He also encourages her to start work as a translator and to sell her work to a publisher. It is not surprising that they fall in love. But their relationship ends up at an impasse not because of their different cultures or religions, but due to a personal revelation that Mr. Shatov makes to Miriam about his past. Whatever this indiscretion was—it is only hinted at in the text—-Miriam cannot get past it. Her final deadlock in the book is the most heartbreaking of all: “If only she could convey to him all that was in her mind, going back again and again endlessly to some central unanswerable assertion, the truth would be out. Stated. At last one man brought to book, arrested and illuminated. But what was it? That men are not worthy of women? He would agree, and remain pleading. That men never have, never can understand the least thing about even the worst woman in the world?” I did feel deeply sorry for Mr. Shatov who was attempting to be genuinely honest with Miriam and felt that he was doing the right thing by telling her about embarrassing details of his past. Her own prejudices and expectations, I think, turn out to be unrealistic and she loses a good man as a result.

On a final note, I’ve read this week that the death of the book blog has been announced by the Powers that Be. Once again, it seems fitting that I (who study two dead languages) am writing about a largely neglected, dead author, on what has been declared a dead medium.

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Meaningless Impermanence: Dorothy Richardson on the Symbolism of Walls

The timing of my reading Dorothy’ Richardson’s paragraph in Deadlock on the symbolism of walls could not have been more perfect:

“For so long the walls had ceased to be the thrilled companions of her freedom, they had seen her endless evening hours of waiting for the next day to entangle her in its odious revolution.  They had watched her, in bleak daylight, listening to life going on obliviously all round her, and scornfully sped her desperate excursions into other lives, greeting her empty glad return with the remainder that relief would fade, leaving her alone again with her unanswered challenge.  They knew the recurring picture of a form, drifting, grey face upwards, under a featureless grey sky, in shallows, ‘unreached by the human tide,’ and had seen its realization in her vain prayer that life should not pass her by; mocking the echoes of her cry, and waiting indifferent, serene with they years they knew before she came, for those that would follow her meaningless impermanence.  When she lost the sense of herself in moments of gladness, or in the long intervals of thought that encircled her intermittent reading, they were all round her, waiting, ready to remind her, undeceived by her daily busy passing in and out, relentlessly noting its secret accumulating shame.”

During a long, sleepless night I kept mulling over Richardson’s words about walls and how perfectly relevant they are to the sad and useless debate about walls currently unfolding in my country.  Apparently we have learned nothing from antiquity, the ruined walls of which old nations are scattered around the world and now merely serve as tourist attractions.  The Trojans were absolutely convinced that their walls were impenetrable.  But I have a feeling that they would tell us now that there is no such thing.  Scholars are often amazed at the lack of walls in the archaeological record at the Minoan, Bronze Age site at Knossos.  Since they lived on an island, did the sea serve as their “wall”?  The Bronze Age site at Mycenae, by contrast, had massive, thick walls built with stones that are weighed by the ton.  Did the Mycenaeans feel more secure, safer, more free because of their walls?  I doubt it.

And, of course, we can’t forget about Hadrian’s wall in Roman Britain which, many have argued, was intended to keep the barbarian tribes to the north out of Roman territory.   Was this massive structure successful?  Scholars can’t even agree on the purpose of the wall, let alone its efficacy—was it merely for defense or was it simply a boundary marker?  Was Roman Britain safer, more secure, more free because of this wall?  I doubt it.  But at least now Hadrian’s famous wall serves as an archaeological treasure trove of information about the Roman military.

Miriam Henderson, too, initially views the walls of the room in her boarding house as symbols of her freedom—they represent her independence from her family and the need to get married.  But these walls quickly become oppressive and suffocating.  Mariam learns that a wall as a symbol of freedom is an absurd idea.  If only our current leadership would follow that advice.

 

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He Kept his Spirits Down on Purpose: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back. When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

My original plan was to read Powys’s Autobiography and his Glastonbury Romance but his writing is so rich that I need to take a bit of a break from it and continue to digest this first novel I’ve read.

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