In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, James Wood reviews the new Flaubert biography. It’s a natural call, because Wood sees Flaubert as a hinge figure for the development of ‘self-consciousness’ in literature (more on this below), and because of Wood’s official (i.e. disputed) status as the last true literary critic. Flaubert’s reputation matches up here quite well: the supreme stylist; the dogged aesthete; the urbane man of letters; the tireless reader and writer; the champion of aesthetic autonomy; the first diagnostician of our modern dilemma – Flaubert was born to die, to make way for his own legend. That said, to make an invidious historical comparison, Wood’s style is far more self-consciously literary and concerned to brandish tropes than Flaubert’s ever was: ‘dipped in futility,’ ‘the great pool of death,’ ‘a long siege on his talent.’ Where the air of death surrounds Flaubert at this juncture in the history of reading, Wood’s analyses of literary style in the pages of The New Republic, The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, etc., give off the less powerful aroma of anachronism. As n+1 so cattily remarked, Wood seems to want to be his own grandfather.
In a larger way, a funereal atmosphere seems to hover over the entire present ‘literary world,’ consisting of ten or so literary magazines, the review pages of a few newspapers, the populations of graduate creative writing programs, and that class of rich-in-cultural capital people who find it important to read, say, The Corrections, to remain ‘part of the conversation.’ I think members of that version of literary culture represent themselves wrongly as the sole defenders of the realm, and that the dour pronouncements they make about the state of literature are narrow and misguided. The death certificate can’t quite decide which is the primary cause: the hateful mass market, the decline of reading, the rise of movies, the rise of video games, the loss of some essential seriousness, the inadequate stewardship of ‘our’ culture. (And just whose culture is it over which one feels a sense of ownership?) The stance is one of bemused detachment at this fallen world we live in, combined with an an unspoken assumption that literature and not movies or music is the true culture, and an exaggerated respect for the cultural achievements of the novelists of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Nostalgia for the literary accomplishments of prior eras I understand – what interests and confuses me is the rhetoric of ‘dying literature,’ ‘the last critic,’ etc.
And why Wood? The general trajectory one can extract from his writing is a fairly hoary narrative about how novels achieved self-consiousness in fits and spurts beginning roughly with Austen, truly emerging with Flaubert, and peaking with Henry James and Virginia Woolf. I don’t entirely disagree with his thumbnail, but the exclusivity of this narrative is unwarranted. First of all, self-consicousness, however you define that, is far from unidentifiable in the novels of Sterne, or Fielding, or, for that matter, Cervantes. Second, the progression of literary styles from realism to modernism in the novel is a compelling story, but only one among tens of such narratives in comparatist literary history. Why not erect the development of prose nonfiction in eighteenth-century periodicals as the crucible of modernity, or the egotistical sublime of the Romantic poets, or really go out on a limb and advocate for Shakespeare? The question, then, is not so much with Wood’s particular but unremarkable story of past greatness, as with the enshrinement of that story, and of Wood as a figure, as melancholic touchstones for our dissatisfaction with the state of the world today.
My hypothesis is that the exaggerated mourning for lost cultural greatness is a strangely self-deluded form of wielding authority. That is, the bemoaning of literature’s lack of importance today, of the dearth of ‘serious’ (another keyword) readers, is mostly emitted by people who are, paradoxically, both the most widely read and the most self-abnegating of belle lettrists. What Wood and Franzen and The Believer and even n+1 share is that sense of coming at the fag-end of a period. They are our cultural coroners, except I don’t think culture is dying. As with Harper’s magazine’s shrill doomsaying, their real complaint is of their own insufficient authority. As designated hitters for what counts as literature in U.S. culture, they wield considerable influence and even function as a coterie at times. But the nostalgia for an imagined golden age tells me something else: that they believe that the culture-at-large stubbornly refuses to give them the chance deservedly to impose their quite narrow cultural tastes. Unspoken lies an uneasy feeling that thirty years ago, style that wears itself like a merit badge and world-weary, paternalistic maleness should have been enough to guarantee lionization. We were groomed to rule, but somewhere along the way the kingdom shrunk from Western culture to a sub-principality of Oprah-land. As a counterexample, consider a figure very like Wood but who writes about movies: Anthony Lane, young, prose-stylish, British, retrograde, doesn’t suffer under the weight of literature’s supposed prior dominance. What is delusive about this bunker mentality is that this country’s most widely circulated magazines are far more likely to publish a piece by Rick Moody or Dale Peck than by Fredric Jameson or Franco Moretti.
So literature, then, or at least a particular idea of it, seems to have become a narrative of decline whose retelling celebrates one’s refinement and sensitivity, one’s belief in what is of true value, and one’s allegiance to the superiority of an imaginary time before theory, before globalization, before now. It’s as comfortable as a wool sweater. One can see why Flaubert excites reviewers such as Wood: here is the one writer whose famously toilsome life of writing was rewarded with immortality. Premature obsolescence becomes posthumous greatness. He is the human allegory of the value of art beyond and in opposition to economic value. (Not for nothing does Bourdieu identify Flaubert as the key figure of the nineteenth-century French aesthetic field.) Praising Flaubert’s style, his adaptation of descriptive prose into a vehicle for a deliciously ambiguous form of seeing the world, allays not Bloom’s anxiety of influence, the need to kill the poetic father, but the anxiety of inheritance, the need to see oneself as the true heir of the revered father. It’s a telling reversal, in that a vital artistic tradition should be much more eager to dethrone than rethrone canonical forbears. It is a form of reading Flaubert’s will, and finding one’s own name as the beneficiary of all that (cultural) capital.
All of which is a shame, because on the matter of literary style, Wood is very good. Like Hugh Kenner before him, he has a talent for the producing something literary out of talking about literature. And he is also illuminating on his authors, in the case of Flaubert identifying the strange contradiction between his constant satirizing of the bourgeois life and his deep immersion in it. (It’s precarious realism, satire perched on the edge of mimesis, and you want to cheer as Flaubert keeps keeping his balance.) But Wood stops there, as though he were the only person still having this conversation, like a jellyroll archivist. The last critic, indeed. But lots of people are talking about Flaubert, only in ways that are also informed by whole schools of thought that swam right past Wood. I saw a lecture on Flaubert only two months ago by Sara Danius, the Swedish translator of Jameson, which treated many of the same issues as Wood, only it attempted to connect Flaubert’s aesthetic practice not only to a geneaology of novelists, but to his historical period itself. D.A. Miller, the author of Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style, likewise makes the study of style into more than an anachronistic internal affair.
It’s on the relation of style to history that I think Flaubert continues to fascinate. Sentimental Education (which is the true masterpiece, not Bovary) is the story of how a life is shaped by historical events of the grandest variety, but which can only be dimly sensed by the protagonists, absorbed as they are by the petty and familiar dramas of their own lives. Even those characters who are politically and intellectually engaged are shown to have at best a limited purview on the conditions of their existence, while much action is taken for completely quixotic reasons that have nothing to do with their outcomes. The novel is a tour-de-force of contingency, starting with the famous first scene, in which our hero Frederic first glimpses his great obsession, Madame Arnoux. That Flaubert’s own life was marked by such a obsession fascinates, but Frederic’s cowardly and utterly sympathetic disappearance during the most epic moments of 1848 shapes the novel as much negatively as the pursuit of Madame Arnoux does positively. In a novel saturated by looking at things, Flaubert is at pains to show the difficulty of seeing anything for what it is, and at many moments suggests the pointlessness of trying. But conscripting Flaubert into playing the absent father in our own anxiety dreams about the death of literature and the marginality of writers ignores another drift of his work, not the one toward the autonomy of style, but toward seeing past the sentimental towards a world that is only ever represented but no less real for that fact. A longed-for wholeness and a fallen world are by no means the special burden of recently disenfranchised social elites; they are, to paraphrase another nineteenth-century French novelist, illusions to be lost.