Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year
US: Apr 2017
When Gustave Flaubert rails against the stupidity of his fellow French—-then embroiled in political strife—-it’s hard for us not to feel a bit awkward. The savage words of this eminent French novelist, written nearly 150 years ago, strike painfully close to home today:
“The current folly is the result of too much stupidity. And this stupidity came from an excess of jokery. From too much lying we became idiots.”
If there were a way to sum up the faults of the modern world in three sentences, Flaubert hit it on the head.
“Everything was fake; fake realism, fake army, fake credit… And this falsity… applied especially in the realm of judgment.”
Flaubert was exasperated. And with good cause: the world seemed to consistently forget the lessons of history, with the end-result of war, political strife and socio-economic collapse. He had lived through the tumultuous European revolutions of 1848, and the conservative reaction which followed them (and replaced France’s brief-lived republic with an authoritarian monarchy). He didn’t do too poorly; he was well liked by aristocrats and achieved recognition as a writer (he was even acquitted on charges of indecency for his groundbreaking novel Madame Bovary). Politically moderate and elitist with progressive tendencies, he narrated his shifting feelings about the world in detailed correspondence with his close literary friends, who included the likes of George Sand and Ivan Turgenev.
And then everything turned upside down, in what became known as the ‘Terrible Year’ (1870-71). France erupted in a mania of patriotism and militarism, went to war with Prussia, and was soundly defeated. The king was captured and a republic declared by the moderates and conservatives; it sought to negotiate with the Prussians. Negotiations dragged on and the Prussians laid siege to Paris, which suffered and starved through a brutally cold winter. Finally came the surrender; then a fed up and outraged working-class Paris rose up in rebellion against the bourgeois and aristocratic government, drove it out of the city and established the self-governing Paris Commune. (See also “The Sustaining Lure of the Paris Commune” by Hans Rollman, PopMatters, 2 September 2016.)
After a little more than two months of this ground-breaking and haphazard experiment in revolutionary socialism, the Prussians and ousted French government combined forces against this new leftist threat to Europe’s established regimes, and in what came to be known as ‘Bloody Week’ French government troops stormed Paris. Tens of thousands of Communards, as supporters of the Commune came to be known, were slaughtered in the fighting, which also destroyed vast swathes of Paris (savage street battles played out as Prussian-backed French troops retook the city neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood). French troops smashed through houses and buildings to outflank barricades; Communards torched whole city blocks to cover their retreat.
Then came the reaction: summary trials and executions; mass deportations. As Flaubert remarked, the upper class seemed to forget they’d just been at war with Prussia. Where the previous year everyone had despised the Prussians as public enemy number one, in the wake of the Commune everyone despised the poor and the left as public enemy number one; Prussians were now a heroic example of sensible bourgeois society.
Flaubert’s overarching response to all of this was a tremendous sense of disgust. To his mind, it was proof of French stupidity; worse, it suggested the broader stupidity of humankind. That people could fall prey to such stupid notions as patriotic militarism; could march off to war and slaughter each other, seemed to him unforgivable. Moreover, he knew that more was at stake than a single war: sowing hatred and resentment on this scale between French and Germans, he prophesied, would lead to generations of distrust and strife (and two world wars, as it would turn out: he was quite right).
He had hatred, too, for both sides in the ensuing civil war. The proletarian Communards were to his mind fools for rebelling, if only because he sensed almost prophetically that they would incite a tremendous reactionary counter-attack from the right, at a time when French society most needed to unite. Then, as the bourgeois forces of the new republic smashed the Commune and proceeded to wreak horrible vengeance on the left, he was even more disgusted at their savagery.
Flaubert’s outrage and his evolving responses to the Terrible Year are chronicled in literary scholar Peter Brooks’ new study Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year. It’s an enlightening literary study that’s most interesting for what it suggests—a silent implication—about contemporary society, which is just as much at risk of failing to read the lessons of history as Flaubert’s embattled contemporaries were.
Reading the Lessons of History
Flaubert’s fury at the stupidity of his fellow French is amusing to read from the comfort of a century and a half’s distance. Of the future Republican President Adolphe Thiers he wrote: “Can one find a more triumphant imbecile, a more abject postule, a more turdlike bourgeois! No! nothing can give you the idea of the vomiting that this old diplomatic melon inspires in me, rounding off his stupidity on the dungheap of the Bourgeoisie!”
But his outrage also strikes close to home. He becomes convinced the French—quite possibly the world—are doomed because they’ve lost the ability to read; that is to say, to learn the lessons of history and see themselves reflected in the literature of their day, or at least to take it seriously.
Flaubert tried very hard to warn them of the route they were heading, and to get them to take it seriously. His novel Sentimental Education was published just before the Terrible Year, and was not favourably received. But Flaubert asserted to his colleagues and friends that if the French had truly read and understood his novel, they would never have enacted the rapid succession of horrors that followed: war, revolution, reaction. “If more Parisians had known their history, we would never have had the war or the Commune,” is how Brooks sums up his attitude. In Sentimental Education he tried to present this history to them, but it only perplexed them, or irritated them.
Flaubert’s rage, and the circumstances under which it arose, bears important lessons for us. The shift from a peaceable, prosperous modern society to gleeful warmongering, followed by military defeat, bloodthirsty rebellions and savage reactionary repression seemed to him “a betrayal of civilization… an undoing of his whole world… Amid the stench of corpses and extinguished fires in Paris in June 1871, he could only lay a curse on his countrymen for having given up on intelligence, on reading in a profound sense,” explains Brooks.
As Brooks observes, noted writer Henry James expressed the same feelings about the outbreak of the First World War several decades later, as “a seismic shock to thinkers and writers who had believed that European civilization had settled into a narrative of progress.” And no doubt those who witnessed the rise of fascism and ensuing Second World War felt similarly.
There’s a silent, implied message here: it’s just as easy for us today to forget how to read the lessons of history as well. The moment we start to think ourselves beyond history, and to think that our world has settled into a nice steady continuum of progress which cannot descend into slaughter and devastation (in the space of barely a year, as both the Terrible Year and First World War demonstrate), is the moment we are perhaps most at risk of it happening.
Today’s fraught world—a world in which it is possible for anti-intellectual reactionaries like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin to plausibly be treated as leaders; in which protagonists on both the left and the right engage in such unintelligent posturing and fakery; in which we tolerate militarism because we think it cannot be turned against us—is a world deeply at risk of revisiting Flaubert’s Terrible Year. All of the things that happened to France that year—war, defeat, revolution, reaction, repression—happened in the space of a year.
A grim message then, but an important one, and it bookends Brooks’ book. It is by far the most interesting aspect of his book, along with his exposition of Flaubert’s correspondence and friendship with Sand during this tumultuous period. There’s also a fascinating detour exploring the rise of tours and published tour guides to the ruins of Paris, which occurred immediately following the savage destruction of war and revolution in the capital. The smoke was barely settled and corpses still littered the streets when guides began presenting themselves for tourists, commodifying France’s recent and ongoing existential crisis.
The rest of the book contains an equally interesting discussion on the nature of the historical novel, its apparent thesis being that Flaubert’s work was ground-breaking in seeking to present historical events from the perspective of the generation that experienced them; a “radically non-normative participant view of event”, without authorial or narrative attempt to impose some master meaning via a heroic protagonist. Hence the revolutions which form the key plot for other historical novelists of the period, are for Flaubert merely things that happen in the background of characters living otherwise mediocre lives, missing the central action of history, whose failed romantic affairs are more central to their interests than the epic struggles for democracy being waged on the street.
The study also chronicles Flaubert’s gradual drift to the left; he had little patience for extremes of either left or right, but seems to have gradually judged the right to be more cruel and savage, and his sympathies inch incrementally leftward. This part of the book is much less accessible and straightforward, couched in deeper literary analysis. It presents a lesser-known side of Flaubert though, and is rewarding for those who persevere.
But it is the broader lesson of humanity’s stupidity, and repeated stupidity, which bears greatest importance for us today. Many political and cultural pundits wrote, at the end of the past year, that 2016 was a terrible year they were happy to be rid of. Yet Flaubert’s work (and Brooks’ fine exposition of it) demonstrates that there are far more Terrible Years which could lie ahead if we, too, fail to critically and honestly read the lessons of our own history.
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