High and low

Gustave Flaubert, tr Margarate Mauldon

Oxford UP 2008

In scene 2 of THE ROBBERS (1781) by Schiller, the hero Charles says this:

CHARLES VON M. The glowing spark of Prometheus is burnt out, and now they substitute it for the flash of lycopodium, a stage-fire that will not so much as light a pipe. The present generation may be compared to rats crawling about the club of Hercules.

There’s a Romanticist yearning for the lost heroism of the past. Lycopodium was a species of moss they used for pyrotechnics: Prometheus of the old age has devolved into mass spectacle, of which theater is the emblem.

It’s an impossible dream to be Charles Dickens — or maybe Thomas Pynchon — to write best sellers that are also of artistic merit. Can a narrative work be worth the money you spend on a book or admission ticket, as well has bear that elusive value of art, or beauty? Was Shakespeare the last instance? Balzac?

It’s one thing to signal the rise of mass culture and of the masses themselves in modernity, as Schiller’s play does, and another to view literary texts as various seizures of this high and low split at different moments. There was Balzac, but then there is a fork in the road, between Flaubert/Zola and Dumas.

MADAME BOVARY of course has high and low baked right into the texture. On one hand it’s a, or the 19th century adultery novel, along with SCARLET LETTER and ANNA KARENINA. On the other it is an autonomous work of sentence production. For the first time maybe the idea of the artistic writer is posed, and that what the writer does is not principally tell a gripping story, but offer good sentences. Those conspicuous details, young Charles’s cap being the most infamous example, seem to get lifted by the narrator into a realm of greater agency. So too with the thoughts of otherwise philistine characters, everything you’d hate about the bourgeois mentality. As Emma and Rodolphe carry on their affair, she offers, we’re told, all manner of protestations of love “You’re my king, I’m your concubine, etc.” And Rodolphe?

He had heard these things said to him so many times, that they no longer held any surprises for him. Emma was just like all his mistresses, and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, which never varies in its forms and its expression. He could not see — this man of such broad experience — the difference of feeling, beneath the similarity of expression.

And here, mid paragraph, the free indirect discourse breaks in, I take it.

Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings:

After the colon comes a beautiful sentence that works like a supplementary step in this argument, which has already excelled the expressive powers of Rodolphe, that bore, and now pushes back.

as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no one can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain, and human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity. (170)

What if stale language indicated not lack of feeling but the opposite? And the closing images focus on the high and low metaphor where I least expected it. The dancing bears are the mass spectacle (the kind that took place right outside the Globe theater), and the music for the stars that aspiration for aesthetic greatness. The latter, Flaubert suggests here, now entails a choice. Demotic or heiratic culture. Reach the masses, or an elite circle of asthetes.

I still agree with the part of my postmodernist rant that this split has transformed itself into expensive and cheap. I still don’t know what keeping the faith with radical modernism today actually entails.

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