By way of widening the frame on the Flaubert quotation that appeared in the 19 May 2003 daybook, I've typed in (below) the portion of the letter reproduced by Francis Steegmuller in the English edition, along with a few notations on the original French.
I trust the reader to know what in this excerpt they care to take and what they care to leave behind. For myself, I was intrigued by the sting that Flaubert's words of 150-years ago were able to inflict on my own web-authoring ego, and I was interested to register his resistance to the temptationor is it an incitement? or is it a direct order?to slacken one's own intellectual habits, and to pander to those of one's readers, that all forms of more-or-less "instant" publication offer up.
The blog is in some ways an easy form, but it is at the same time an unforgiving one: as Stephanie Young notes, the duration of an average visit makes a tv commercial seem dilatory and a pop song positively Proustian. The problem becomes: how to keep things "interesting," without become so complex that people link out?
In four or five months of fairly diligent blog reading, I've seen a surprising variety of solutions to this form-dictated dilemma and I've come to learn a lot about the lives and tastes of individual bloggers and the scenes they call home. When a blog goes missing, I miss it. When Stephanie, Jordan, Kasey, Tim, Jim, or Davidhere standing in (five of six of them guys) for many othersupdate their blogs, I'm delighted to see what they'll next say.
At the same time, I think it's fair to say that critiquenot pick-a-fight polemic, but fair-minded and well-argued critiqueis not the form's strong suit so far. Nor for that matter is that humbler thing (excoriated by Flaubert below), criticism. Basic, patient, time-consuming examples of "making-the-case" for or against a poet's work are nearly nonexistent. Ron Silliman is almost alone in consistently trying to do soand even his disciplined routine succeeds only sporadically at the self-set aim of having something interesting to say about poetry every morning.
But perhaps the demand is misplaced. It could be that blogs are a party and "serious" talk is best left to soberer venues. Drop the pretense, a good number of them seem to say, and let the lives poetry and the Bush Administration allow us to eke outmessy, hurried, unpremeditated, poorly remunerated, affable, and doomedshine and sound through. In the networked scramble, perhaps a non-academic vernacular with which to speak about what's most valuable in contemporary poetry will again be hit upon: something contagiously smart and supple and capacious; something seductive enough to make people think hard without noticing and resenting the demand; something that raises the quality of public discourse about poetry without sanctioning elitism or rewarding smugness.
I like the way that sounds, but I'm certain Flaubert would have remained unconvinced. His emphasis on concentrated effort, which is his reverse homage to the invincibility and ubiquity of human stupidity (including his own), strikes me as a usefully dialectical note to sound in the context of the "virtuous" ideals that make the denizens of blogdom (including me) feel better about the use of their finite and nonrefundable time.
Steve Evans, 24 May 2003
From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857. Selected, edited, and translated by Francis Steegmuller. Cambridge, MA: Belknap / Harvard UP, 1980.
Flaubert to Louise Colet [Croisset,] Thursday, half past four [March 31, 1853]
I am just back from Rouen, where I went to have a tooth pulled. It was not pulled: my dentist urged me to wait. However, I think that very soon I shall indeed have to part with one of my dominoes. I am aging: there go the teeth, and soon I shall be quite hairless. [Flaubert is about 32 when he writes this.] Well, provided one keeps one's brain: that's the main thing. How annihilation stalks us! No sooner are we born than putrefaction sets in, and life is nothing but a long battle it wages against us, ever more triumphantly until the enddeathwhen its reign becomes absolute. There were only two or three years in my life (approximately from seventeen to nineteen) when I was entire. I was splendidI can say it now: sufficiently so to attract the attention of an entire theatre audienceit was in Rouen, the first night of Ruy Blas. But since then I have deteriorated shockingly. There are mornings when I am afraid of myself, I am so wrinkled and worn. Ah! It was then that you should have come into my life, poor Muse. But such a love would have driven me mad; or worseit would have made me vain to the point of idiocy. If I still have a warm heart, it is because for many years I conserved my fire: what I have not spent, I can put to use. There is enough heat in me to feed all my books. No, I regret none of my youth. I was hideously depressed; I contemplated suicide; I was prey to every possible kind of melancholy. My nervous sickness was beneficial, in that it converted all those feelings into physical symptoms, leaving me with a cooler head; and furthermore it made me acquainted with peculiar psychological phenomena that no one has any idea of, or rather that no one has ever experienced. Some day I will have my revenge, in a book (that metaphysical novel with ghosts I spoke to you about). But that subject frightens me, speaking from a medical point of view. I must wait until I'm sufficiently distant from such impressions to be capable of using them factitiously, as symbols, ideal projects, without danger to myself or the book.
Here is my opinion about your idea of a review:
All the Reviews in the world began with the intention of being virtuous: none has been. The Revue de Paris itself (when a project) had the ideas you express, and was very determined to follow them. One swears to be chaste; one is, for a day, two days; and then...then...Nature! Secondary considerations! Friends! Enemies! Don't you have to boost some, bury others? Admitting that for a time you do stick to the program: the public gets bored, subscriptions don't come in. Then people give you advice outside the lines you set for yourself, you follow it as an experiment, and it becomes a habit. In fact, there is nothing more pernicious than being able to say everything and having a convenient outlet. And there you are, fallen into the trap out of pure naiveté. [Enfin, il n'y a rien de pernicieux comme de pouvoir tout dire et d'avoir un déversoir commode: on devient fort indulgent pour soi-même, et les amis, afin que vous le soyez pour eux, le sont pour vous, et voilà comme on s'enfonce dans le trou, avec les plus grand naïveté du monde.] A model Review would be a splendid thing, and would require nothing less than the full time of a man of genius. The directorship of a Review should be a post for a patriarch; he should be dictator, with great moral authority acquired through his own writings. The authority cannot possibly be shared, for then immediate muddle is unavoidable. You talk a lot and spend all your talent skimming pennies on the river, whereas with greater economy you could in time buy fine farms and excellent châteaux.
What you say, DuCamp used to say: and see what he and his friends have done! Let's not think ourselves stronger than they; for they failed, as we would fail, from being carried away, and because of the slippery slope of the thing itself. After all, a magazine is a shop, ... sooner or later the question of pleasing the customers comes to dominate all others. I well know that it is impossible to publish anything these days, and that all existing reviews are squalid whores acting like coquettes [toutes les revues existantes sont d'infâmes putains, qui font les coquettes]. Rotten to the marrow of their bones with the pox, they grimace with distaste at the thought of opening their thighs to healthy creations which badly need to get in. So, do as you've been doing: publish your work in book formit's more intrepid; and be on your own. Who needs to hitch himself up as one of a team dragging an omnibus when he can still be a cheval de tilbury? As for me, I should be very glad if your ideas could be realized. But as to actually participating in anything at all in this world, no! no! a thousand times no! I no more want to be associated with a review, or to be a member of a society, a club, or academy, than to be a city councillor or an officer in the national gaurd.
[...Steegmuller's translation omits roughly half of the material in the seven-page letter, including a sharp critique of "critics" at the conclusion of the foregoing paragraph: et puis il faudrait juger, être critique; or je trouve cela ignoble en soi et une besogne qu'il faut laisser faire à ceux qui n'en ont past d'autre. Roughly: "And then, one would have to judge, be a critic; and I find that ignoble in itself and a trouble best left to those who can do nothing else." Steegmuller resumes with the following paragraph, then cuts Gustave off: ]
We marvel at the men of the age of Louis XIV, and yet they were not men of enormous genius. Reading them we experience none of that awe which makes us feel that Homer, Rabelais, and above all Shakespeare were more than human; certainly not. But what conscientious workmen! How they strained to find the exact expression for their thoughts! Such labor! Such tireless revision! How they sought one another's advice! How well they knew Latin! How attentively they read! That is why we have their thought in its entirety, why their form is so full, charged with substance to the bursting-point. Well, there are no degrees: all good things are of equal value. LaFontaine will live as long as Dante, and Boileau as long as Bossuet or even Hugo.
back to ensemble back to index