Le Calvez on Vinken (2015)


Vinken, Barbara. Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out. Trans. Aarnoud Rommens and Susan L. Solomon. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. 455. ISBN: 978-0-8047-8065-0

Éric Le Calvez, Georgia State University

In this English translation of Flaubert: Durchkreuzte Moderne, a volume first published in Germany in 2009, Barbara Vinken shows how intertextual practice was central to Flaubert’s modernity and emphasizes his rewriting and displacement of religious and classical topoi. Vinken considers Flaubert’s work “a testament against the Gospels and their patristic interpretation” (2) while arguing that it subverts the currents of important issues of the nineteenth century (history, science, the republic, the Church): Flaubert was against “contemporary orthodoxy” (3).  

The first chapter, “Crossed out” (1–22), introduces a metaphor stemming from Christian kenosis used to explain why Flaubert avoids love through his writing. It insists on the importance of crosses in Flaubert’s texts, a theme that recurs throughout the book. In the second chapter, dealing with monsters, Vinken briefly (23–32) focuses on one of Flaubert’s early works, Quidquid volueris, and demonstrates that the “freak of nature,” Djalioh, is another image of his creator: the ape-man is a “passionate romantic” (24) who cannot fulfill his love for Adèle and will finally rape her, and then kill her and her son. Here, “Flaubert transfers his Oedipal aggression against the father to his symbolic fathers. He gives birth to himself as author through an aggressive tearing apart of his ‘fathers,’ against whom he sets up another ‘aping’” (31): that civilization is the real monster.

The third chapter is on Madame Bovary (33–88), a novel centered on three motifs: food, love, and reading. Here, Vinken sees intertextuality at work (Saint Augustine’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Racine’s Phèdre and Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris), commenting on Flaubert’s use of irony and on Emma’s character. According to Vinken, Flaubert’s writing is defined by a metaphor that is more correct than the usually accepted one, the metaphor of the scalpel: “light comes from the East” (53), and in this respect the author provides luminous analyses of figurative uses of apricots, Cybele, and the clubfoot (58, 61, 78–81). In conclusion, through Emma, the novel “makes legible the stain of original sin, which no amount of blood has washed away—not even that of the Son of God” (88).

Chapter four is on Salammbô (89–156). The Carthaginian sacrifices are read “as perversions of Christ’s sacrifice out of love, of Holy Communion, and of their figurations in the Old Testament,” Flaubert distorting “Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, as well as the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (90). The Passion and the Eucharist are the “persistent subtexts” of the novel. Vinken argues that “Flaubert rarely creates characters who have pity on those who suffer” (97) while those who inflict pain are not condemned. She discusses Sainte-Beuve’s critique (103–05), the influence of Vergil’s Aeneid, of Augustine again, of Michelet’s Histoire romaine (110), and explains how Salammbô is “a counterproject to Chateaubriand’s Martyrs” (114–16).

Intertextuality is found again in the next chapter on L’Éducation sentimentale (157–255): Flaubert depicts Paris as ancient Rome at the end of its civil wars through Lucan’s Pharsalia which, according to the author, is particularly visible in the Fontainebleau episode (168). But Paris also becomes Babel with Augustinian intertexts. Love, politics, and money are interwoven and “the context of prostitution is omnipresent” (192). Even if, unlike Rome, Babel is not mentioned in the text, Vinken sees an allusion to it in Frédéric’s fantasies, filling his life with luxury (after his inheritance) and, after the Fontainebleau episode, when he returns to Paris, as shown by a description at the end of the June Days. There are good analyses on the oriental motif (214–15), on the protagonists, on the “Madonnas and Whores” (231–50), and on fetishism, so important in the character of Frédéric Moreau (238).

The final chapter deals with Trois contes (256–379) and its primary theological motif as “the revelation of the divine” (266). In Un cœur simple, Félicité’s life, inspired by Lamartine’s Geneviève, “is a displacement and condensation of the Passion of Christ” (285) and of the Annunciation. Vinken then discusses how Julian’s legend differs from other versions of the legend in La Légende de saint Julien l’Hospitalier (314), and this is “perhaps the text where Flaubert plays most clearly on the Augustinian frame of reference” (315), The City of God, Hugo’s “La Fin de Satan” being another intertext (322–23). Vinken returns to the importance of the stag (324–25), to the scenes of the hunts and that of the parricide (325–28), and interprets Julian’s ascension as a metamorphosis (334). In Hérodias, which is “a deconstruction of Christianity” (378), intertextuality is omnipresent: Augustine again, but moreover “He deliberately makes up historical facts and rewrites their mythical underpinnings” (376), such as the cult of Cybele in the scene of Salome’s dance (374) leading to the decapitation of John, which is “a displaced castration” (375).

Flaubert Postsecular is at once fascinating, difficult, and utterly idiosyncratic. Vinken does not take her reader for granted: the writing is dense and the meaning becomes at times opaque (“Fetishism and sexualization are the poetological-hermeneutic reversals of the Annunciation, reversals occurring through the replacement of the dove by the parrot,” 298). There are also disputable passages as, for example, a misreading of “brodait” for “bordait” (“brodait” is correct) in Madame Bovary, which leads to an unjustified critique of Jacques Neefs’s reading, or the interpretation of Emma and Léon’s “fouteries” as Emma being “maculated to the tips of her hair” in semen. There are also inconsistencies and errors of fact in the translation (8, 385, 339), and the absence of the original French text can be frustrating.

In sum, this is a very personal approach to Flaubert, which at times may not convince its audience. Nevertheless, Flaubert Postsecular is a fine addition to Flaubert studies that will prove useful, in particular to readers interested in the Classics, myths, and religions; Vinken excels on these topics.