Madame Bovary: Desire, Grace, God
Even in loquacious, verbose English — elegantly performed in my audio version by Simon Vance, in a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling — the precision of Gustave Flaubert’s French comes through. We are all searchers and Emma Bovary is the distillation of our longing. She marries dull, devoted Charles to escape the routines of her childhood home. Dissatisfied with their small village of Tostes, she occasions their move to nearby Yonville, though the latter is merely the former village reconfigured. From boredom with Charles she takes up an affair with the wealthy roué Rodolphe — hers is a painfully easy seduction. The affair runs its course and Rodolphe dumps her, sending a Dear Jane letter whose composition Flaubert describes in terms that will make anyone squirm who has written or contemplated such an act. In her distress Emma falls ill and turns to religion, last refuge of saints and scoundrels, but with her slow recovery her devotions slack off. She reencounters the young student Léon, her earliest obsession, at whom she throws herself anew.
If Emma were merely flighty we would tire of her more quickly than Rodolphe or Léon, but her caprices evoke a deeper, more profound longing that anyone shares who has been touched by music or fiction or painting or any of our infinite manifestations of the imagination. It is, I think, the longing for God.
In using the word I realize for the first time which, of chicken or egg, came first: Desire preceded God. With its rules of grammar and syntax, human speech must necessarily be the servant of reason, but desire is the enemy of reason; and so every language demands — requires — a placeholder, a word to set limits on our boundless capacity for desire. And so out of our own invention we invented God.
Let us cross-examine the logic here. By definition “infinity” is beyond logic, outside reason, beyond the capacity of human speech to describe or encompass. And yet all mythologies agree that God is infinite. How, then, may we know God, the Infinite, the Unknowable? Surely only through that feature of the human condition that knows no limits: through our desire, or maybe better put, through our longing. In our hypersexed age “desire” inevitably invokes sex, whereas throughout Madame Bovary Flaubert makes clear that sex is only a symptom of Emma’s larger, deeper, infinite, lifelong longing.
Thus only through the infinitude of desire may we understand the infinitude of God.
Sometimes I think that God is desire, and that desire is God.
This idea, which strikes our cynical, jaded, prudish, early 21st century ears as bizarre, was commonplace in the Middle Ages and lay close to the heart of the writings of some of its most famous preachers and mystics — Bernard of Clairvaux, Abélard, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich. Some conceived of angels as pure desire, an idea that has sadly fallen by the wayside (along with the notion that in the hierarchy of being, angels are inferior to human beings, since they are given heaven as a matter of course whereas we have to earn it).
This sanctifying of desire horrifies the institutionalized Church, which like all institutions exists to contain and regulate passion. But when Flaubert famously cried, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” (“Madame Bovary, she is I!”), he was speaking for all of us. In that universality, more than in its scandal, lies the source of the novel’s immediate and enduring popularity.
Emma is dissatisfaction personified and epitomized. Her successive obsessions — with Rodolphe, with God, with Léon — act out a reality that Flaubert grimly summarizes as “the eternal monotony of passion.” All three affairs follow the unvarying pattern: Meeting, obsession, consummation, boredom, recrimination, death.
[Emma] was not happy, and never had been. How was it, then, that there was this emptiness in life? How was it that whatever she leaned against straightway began to crumble into dust? Oh, but if somewhere there breathed a being brave and handsome, a man of power and resolution, one whose nature was wrought of sweetness and strength, a man with the heart of a poet and the form of an angel, a lyre with brazen strings, sounding his bridal songs of triumph and of pain beneath the echoing vault of heaven, why, peradventure, should she not meet him? What a hopeless dream! Wherefore should she seek the undiscoverable? Everything rang false, everything was a lie, every smile concealed a yawn of boredom; every joy, a curse. Nor was there any pleasure but brought satiety in its train, and every kiss, were it never so sweet, never so passionate, would but leave upon the lips a longing for some bliss that should be greater still.
Or, as Buddhists say, with more efficiency but less grace, “Life is dissatisfaction.”
As for me, I side with grace, which is why I believe. For this is the remarkable fact of Madame Bovary: No bleaker portrayal of the human condition exists. Emma’s affairs come to naught, less because she is trapped by marriage — more than once she makes clear her willingness to throw it over — than because she is trapped, as we are all trapped, in longing. Her husband Charles’s one attempt at immortality — he undertakes an operation to correct a boy’s club foot — ends disastrously. Emma eats arsenic in hopes of a swift and painless death; instead she endures prolonged agony that Flaubert, a surgeon’s son, renders in excruciating detail. Her extravagance ruins her husband and consigns their daughter, who has committed no sin other than to be their offspring, to a life of factory labor. Charles mercifully dies sitting in his garden — suggesting that, indeed, life’s only dependable mercy is death. In the novel’s last sentence the cowardly self-promoting fraud Monsieur Homais is awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
And yet the music of the prose contradicts the message. Through this most abstract of media — squiggly black lines on a white page, read, in my case, in translation — Flaubert evokes the pathos and beauty and tragedy of the human condition. In perhaps the novel’s most famous passage, Flaubert deprecates the power of language in any form:
. . . the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings — as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases, since no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, his conceptions or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.
In its beauty and its truth the passage transcends its bleak message. The passion of the prose proves greater than its logic. I finish Madame Bovary not weeping or morose but bowing my head in awe, which as a response to the human condition serves handsomely as an alternative to despair.