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Nervous History: Irony and the Sublime in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale

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Abstract

In this second of my close readings, I set forth in greater detail my understanding of irony and the sublime, the two principal rhetorical figures whose structural and modal affinities with historical pains and violences my book attempts to situate within an interdisciplinary framework. Similar in structure yet different in mood, irony and the sublime emerge in the following analysis as two sides of what Linda Orr has called a “headless” hermeneutic—a literary, historical, and critical narrative in which “two mutually exclusive figures of history occupy the same terrain and must be ‘thought’ together.”1 Orr’s critical corpus is those massive romantic histories of the French Revolution that, in the wake of the repeated betrayal (in 1830, 1848, and 1851) of the democratic ideals of 1789, had come to sound merely quaint to a world-weary Flaubert. But it is precisely Flaubert’s mistrust of the expressive medium bequeathed to him (of, that is, the referential and transformative powers of language) that makes his novel about the Second Republic particularly resonant for readers today. As an exploration of the ways in which an overfamiliar historical symbolic can be made to regain something of its former vividness, relevance, or sense of urgency, L’Education sentimentale serves not only as a rich mirror of the political and historical tensions afflicting France after mid-century but also as an uncanny presage of the “waning of affect” that increasingly characterizes our “postmodern” culture.2

Keywords

Political Violence Compassion Fatigue Ideological Center Political Upheaval Expressive Medium 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Linda Orr, Headless History: Nineteenth-Century French Historiography of the Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 160.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53–92.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Marjorie Garber, “Compassion,” in Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, ed. Lauren Berlant (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See E. Anne Kaplan, Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005): “What I call ‘empty’ empathy is empathy elicited by images of suffering provided without any context or background knowledge” (93). In American television and newspaper coverage of the Iraq War, for example, “empty empathy” was derived in part from “the focus on individuals rather than on the larger issues to do with the reason for war on Iraq, its global impact, its effect on Americas political alliances worldwide, and especially its devastating impact on Iraqi women, children, and innocent civilians” (94–95).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Michael Taussig, The Nervous System (New York: Routledge, 1992), 1.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    On genesis amnesia as “history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such,” see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 78–79: “The ‘unconscious’ is never anything other than the forgetting of history which history itself produces by incorporating the objective structures it produces in the second natures of habitus.” For an examination of the cultural and historical transformations giving rise to genesis amnesia in the nineteenth century,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. see Richard Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 3–32.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    A few examples, notable for the range of texts they treat and for their critical sophistication, are Ross Chambers, The Writing of Melancholy: Modes of Opposition in Early French Modernism, trans. Mary Seidman Trouille (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993),Google Scholar
  9. Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985),Google Scholar
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    Rodolphe Gasché, “‘Setzung’ and ‘Übersetzung’: Notes on Paul de Man,” Diacritics 11, no. 4 (1981): 36–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 13.
    I think of modes as semantic-emotive effects that may coincide with other categories, such as figure, theme, or genre. For a discussion of mode, see Lionel Duisit, Satire, parodie, calembour: Esquisse d’une théorie des modes dévalués (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1978), 2–3, 8–13. Instead of focusing on rhetorical modes, studies of L’Education sentimentale have tended to map concurrent movements of plot and theme.Google Scholar
  13. See, for example, Victor Brombert, “L’Education sentimentale: Profanation and the Permanence of Dreams,” in his The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 125–185;Google Scholar
  14. Victor Brombert, “Flaubert and the Articulations of Polyvalence,” in his The Hidden Reader: Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 136–147; Victor Brombert, “Idyll and Upheaval in L’Education sentimentale” The Hidden Reader, 130–135;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Peter Brooks, “Retrospective Lust, or Flaubert’s Perversities,” in his Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Random, 1984), 171–215;Google Scholar
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  18. and Hayden White, “The Problem of Style in Realistic Representation: Marx and Flaubert,” in The Concept of Style, ed. Berel Lang (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), 213–229.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Idiot de la famille, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1971–1972), 1: 33.Google Scholar
  20. 15.
    Flaubert’s quest for individual self-expression included his uncomfortable awareness that he was working in a medium whose industrial iteration and mass distribution deprived the work of art of its uniqueness. And that awareness reflected developments in the cultural imagination; indeed, the association between linguistic dispossession, the loss of aesthetic “aura” (Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 223), and (mechanical) reproducibility is implicit in the very etymology of the word cliché, whose figurative sense emerged from certain processes belonging to the modern printing industry. See Ruth Amossy and Elisheva Rosen, Les Discours du cliché (Paris: CDU et SEDES, 1982), 5–6;Google Scholar
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  22. and Ann Jefferson, Reading Realism in Stendhal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 25–33. Although figurative use of the term cliché did not become widespread until the second half of the nineteenth century, the concept itself arose with the French Revolution. For 1789 marks symbolically the loss of a universally sanctified principle of authority, the diversification and relativization of discourses in the public domain, and the birth of the cult of individualism—all events contributing to a social context where unchecked circulation and repetition could depersonalize and devalue any figure of speech (see Amossy and Rosen, Discours du cliché, 5–9).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 18.
    Neil Hertz, “A Reading of Longinus,” in his The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 6, 7, 14.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 4.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International, 1972), 15. Deborah Jenson has argued that romantic literature demonstrates an anxiety of belatedness with respect to the “great” or “original” revolution, yet at the same time reinscribes as social wound that revolution’s traumatic failure to reconcile its political ideals of liberty and equality.Google Scholar
  26. See Deborah Jenson, Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    What I call polemical irony also commonly travels under the name stable irony (Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961]) or verbal irony (Muecke, The Compass of Irony). In its canonical form, polemical irony relies on the implied author’s latent, intended meaning. This meaning always affirms the moral or intellectual superiority of implied author and implied reader over the victim(s) of the irony. In this regard, polemical irony is theoretically distinct from romantic irony, which suggests that ironist and audience are both victims of profound and inescapable epistemological uncertainties. On the potential for slippage, however, between polemical irony, romantic irony, and poststructuralist notions of difference,Google Scholar
  28. see Vaheed Ramazani “Lacan/Flaubert: Towards a Psychopoetics of Irony,” Romanic Review 80 (1989): 548–559 and Ramazani, The Free Indirect Mode, chapters 3 and 4.Google Scholar
  29. 25.
    Compare Hayden White’s definition of irony as the recognition of (1) the eternal return of the same human folly in different guises and (2) the impossibility of establishing objective historical truths (Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973], 37–42).Google Scholar
  30. A connection between historical irony and historical sublimity is implicit in Hayden White, “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-sublimation,” in his The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 58–82.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    Gustave Flaubert, L’Education sentimentale, in his Oeuvres completes, 2 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1964), 2: 8–163. Subsequent references to the second volume of this edition appear in parentheses in my text. The Gallimard edition of Flaubert’s correspondence, which currently includes letters written from 1830 through December 1875, will also be cited parenthetically in my text.Google Scholar
  32. See Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, ed. Jean Bruneau, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1973–1998).Google Scholar
  33. 27.
    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and The Rights of Man (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 21–22.Google Scholar
  34. 28.
    Friedrich Schlegel, Literary Notebooks, 1797–1801, ed. Hans Eichner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), 114.Google Scholar
  35. 30.
    This statement relies of course on the two senses of history (event and chronicle). Compare the dichotomy “events”/“calendar” in Marx’s comment, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, on the unrepresentable confusion of interests that brought Louis Napoleon to power: “history without events; development, whose sole driving force seems to be the calendar, wearying with constant repetition of the same tensions and relaxations” (43). But whereas Marx sees this nondialectical negation of historical meaning as an aberration to be corrected by socially responsible praxis (see Sandy Petrey, “Representing Revolution,” Diacritics 9.2 (1979): 2–16), Flaubert, in L’Education, posits the terrifying void in and of history as the norm.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 32.
    Jonathan Culler, Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 103.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Revising the Freudian theory of the death instincts, Derrida and Lacan often invoke death in defining the structure of signification: the “presence” of the sign marks only the death (the absence) of other signs and of the referent. See, for example, Jacques Derrida, “Différance” in his Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 18–19;Google Scholar
  38. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena in his Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 1–104;Google Scholar
  39. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), part 2, chapters 2 and 3;Google Scholar
  40. and Jacques Lacan, “Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir dans l’inconscient freudien,” in his Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 802–803. Since these formulations assume that language is primary in the constitution of the self, they are not merely metaphorical ways of speaking about the arbitrariness of the sign. If meaning and being are consubstantial, then both may be regarded as provisional substitutes for what they at once desire and defer.Google Scholar
  41. 39.
    Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), 146.Google Scholar
  42. 40.
    Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in his Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd rev. ed., Theory and History of Literature, vol. 7 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 222.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Victor Brombert points out the double meaning of étreindre in this context (“Idyll,” 133–134). Longinus brings together violent passion and the sublime in his comments on Sappho’s ode (On the Sublime, 10.1–3). Precedents for the attribution of sublimity to war or to the representation of war include Longinus’s description of Hector’s murderous descent on the Greeks (On the Sublime, 10.5–6); Bernard Lamy’s allusion to the “sublime Character” of the “Combats, sieges, Wars,” in Vergil’s Aenead (quoted in Theodore E.B. Wood, The Word “Sublime” and Its Context, 1650–1760 [The Hague: Mouton, 1972], 75); and Kant’s suggestion that war, by commanding the courage and vigor of a people, “has something sublime in it” (Critique of Judgment, 102).Google Scholar
  44. 51.
    For a synopsis of the relevant issues, see Jahan Ramazani, Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 128–133. Ramazani acknowledges the structural aggressivity of the sublime but argues against the assumption that the mode must therefore be intrinsically suited to any one political perspective.Google Scholar
  45. 52.
    Rejecting socialism, universal suffrage, and conservative royalism, Flaubert embraced the idea of an intellectual (but also natural and financial) aristocracy that would make of politics a positive science. Flaubert’s personal ideology and its similarities with the political theories of Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine are examined in Antoine Compagnon, La Troisième République des lettres, de Flaubert à Proust (Paris: Seuil, 1983), 253–314.Google Scholar
  46. 53.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 5.Google Scholar
  47. 54.
    Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Theory and History of Literature 10 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 81.Google Scholar

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© Vaheed Ramazani 2007

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