Madame Bovary.] After an inebriating waltz with the viscount at the chateau La Vaubyessard, EmmaBovary

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Kitsch and Cliché

I have written about Rodolphe and Léon thus far as two members of a series, as though their common features were more significant than their differences. But their differences are not only significant, they form something like an axis in the novel, an elemental binary opposition that looms so large, finally, it almost excludes other possibilities. Léon is a consumer of kitsch. Rodolphe is the cynic who thinks he is beyond kitsch, who manipulates it as ferociously as the characters in Strindberg'sDance of Death: one thinks immediately of the way he invokes Fate, in his final letter to Emma, as a convenient cliché, to disentangle himself from their affair. In Chapter Three above I cited Hans-Egon Holthusen's definitions of sweet and sour kitsch: the kitsch of sighs at sunset, corresponding to Léon's sensibility; and the kitsch of cynicalIllusionslosigkeit, represented by Rodolphe. Both are equally destructive, as Emma's encounters with each show. The other characters align themselves along these two poles: those who unself-consciously enjoy getting carried away from time to time by little thrills; and those who recognize how easy it is to manipulate others by controlling and dispensing little thrills. Only Emma calls this binary opposition into question by insisting, blindly, thrashingly, on other possibilities.

Emma's first conversation with Léon reveals their common esthetic taste:

--Je ne trouve rien d'admirable comme les soleils couchants, reprit-elle, mais au bord de la mer, surtout.--Oh! j'adore la mer, dit M. Léon.--Et puis, ne vous semble-t-il pas, répliqua Mme Bovary, que l'esprit vogue plus librement sur cette étendue sans limites, dont la contemplation vous élève l'âme et donne des idées d'infini, d'idéal?(116)

Their entire conversation serves not only to exemplify kitsch, but to define it. In what follows, Flaubert implies that the esthetic of sunsets leads directly to certain kinds of literary taste: Léon prefers poetry to prose because it is "plus tendre" and because it makes him weep, while Emma prefers novels, page-turners ("les histoires qui se suivent tout d'une haleine, où l'on a peur" [118]). Both are looking to literature for a thrill, an intense emotion to fill a gap in their emotional lives; for neither does poetry or fiction occasion irony or self-examination. This confirms what we have already been told about Emma:

Il fallait qu'elle pût retirer des choses une sorte de profit personnel; et elle rejetait comme inutile tout ce qui ne contribuait pas à la consommation immédiate de son coeur,--étant de tempérament plus sentimentale qu'artiste, cherchant des émotions et non des paysages.(71)

Her "personal profit" is an "immediate consummation" of feeling; Flaubert makes it clear that this is not an artistic esthetic, but a sentimental one, a distinction he implicitly invokes here. He is defining kitsch as art-for-profit and art-for-thrills--all in one.

Still, Emma is not exactly like Léon in this regard. In the image of her rushing impatiently through novels, we sense a kind of aggressive hunger that Léon lacks. At the same time, she has a capacity for potent cynicism: she tells him, "Je déteste les héros communs et les sentiments tempérés, comme il y en a dans la nature" (118). She recognizes, already, that kitsch bears little relation to reality, except insofar as our fantasies are real. Much later, when her affair with Léon has run its course and both are having to face its failure to satisfy their most urgent desires, we can guess that Léon, in his flabby way, will simply exchange one cliché for another--will settle down and marry, will take pleasure in his little household and la douceur du foyer, and will think of the affair, with some amusement, as having been his wild oats. Emma's drive for greater satisfaction is radically different, finally: she refuses to accept the adequacy of the cliché, and drives herself over the threshold to where there aren't any more. Or, to put it another way, she heads into the vortex whose center is the emptiness of the experience she is seeking. She cannot, like Léon, be satisfied with kitsch. By the end of the novel we feel that Léon has more in common with Homais' middle-class complacency than with Emma's restlessness.

Rodolphe, at first, seems the polar opposite of Emma. From the moment he first sees her there is no question of sincerity, but only of manipulation. He is perfectly astute about her marriage to Charles and her fantasies for more:

Elle en est fatiguée sans doute. Il porte des ongles sales et une barbe de trois jours. Tandis qu'il trottine à ses malades, elle reste à ravauder des chaussettes. Et on s'ennuie! on voudrait habiter la ville, danser la polka tous les soirs! Pauvre petite femme! Ça baille après l'amour, comme une carpe après l'eau sur une table de cuisine. Avec trois mots de galanterie, cela vous adorerait, j'en suis sûr! ce serait tendre! charmant! ... Oui, mais comment s'en débarrasser ensuite?(162)

Rodolphe drifts here from thinking of her as "elle," to "on" and finally to "ça": she has become increasingly reified as he moves from insight to strategy. This is the consumer who wants to possess things not for the hope that they will give his life meaning, but for the sheer pleasure in the power of possession. If art aims for reality, not to reproduce it necessarily, but to know it, to see it, then Rodolphe is surely closer to art than Léon is. And yet his is the esthetic of sour kitsch, of lost illusions. It has its own vortex of emptiness.

Both Léon and Rodolphe live happily enough with their kitsch--not because its terms satisfy them, but because they are perpetually willing to compromise, even their mediocrity. Unlike them, Emma insists on consistency, on sincerity. And Emma's sincerity counts for something; her willingness to abandon everything for the chance of realizing her hopes is what distinguishes her in our sympathies from her two lovers. Our difficulty in judging her is part of the larger problem that kitsch poses for literature: that of recognizing sincerity and, pushing further, that of original feeling. Emma's feelings may be derivative in the extreme, but no more than those of others in the novel; and she submits herself imaginatively to her perceptions in a way that no other character does. That is her most elevated trait. But in this novel there is no aristocracy of emotion that she can join.

Her submission to her feelings is the experiential equivalent of the vortex, thetourbillon. While it is fatal to Emma it is the matrix of the novel. Albert Cook has remarked in The Meaning of Fiction that Flaubert in Madame Bovary thematizes point of view. One might add that at no time is point of view unrelated to the problem of cliché: who is using it, with what motivation, with how much sincerity or irony or bêtise,and with what audience in mind. The cliché that seems kitsch from one point of view will have an inevitable rightness from another: sincerity, in life as in literature, does not exist in a vacuum, but is a transaction. The writer must create his reader's willingness blindly, on faith. For Flaubert, point of view can be a means to keep us at a distance, encouraging us to become aware of the ways clichés shackle his characters' imaginations. But Flaubert also uses point of view to bring us into the narrative, to enmesh us in its perceptions and make us sympathetic to its necessary clichés.

Emma's waltz with the viscount provides an excellent example of the way Flaubert manipulates point of view to move us in and out of the clichéd understanding that is the scene's paradigm, and that informs Emma's unconscious perceptions as she moves through the ball:

Cependant, un des valseurs qu'on appelait familièrement Vicomte, dont le gilet très ouvert semblait moulé sur la poitrine, vint une seconde fois encore inviter Mme Bovary, l'assurant qu'il la guiderait et qu'elle s'en tirerait bien.Ils commencèrent lentement, puis allèrent plus vite. Ils tournaient: tout tournait autour d'eux, les lampes, les meubles, les lambris, et le parquet, comme un disque sur un pivot. En passant auprès des portes, la robe d'Émma, par le bas, s'ériflait au pantalon; leurs jambes entraient l'une dans l'autre; il baissait ses regards vers elle, elle levait les siens vers lui; une torpeur la prenait, elle s'arrêta. Ils repartirent; et, d'un mouvement plus rapide, le vicomte, l'entraînant, disparut avec elle jusqu'au bout de la galerie, où, haletante, elle faillit tomber, et, un instant, s'appuya la tête sur sa poitrine. Et puis, tournant toujours, mais plus doucement, il la reconduisit à sa place; elle se renversa contre la muraille et mit la main devant ses yeux.(86-87)

It would be hard to find a passage that thematizes point of view more carefully; Flaubert uses more than his standard density of strategies here to play with shifting perspectives. Here as always he uses the imperfect--Proust called it, admiringly, "cet éternel imparfait"--in an ambiguous voice hovering on the boundary between indirect discourse and third person narrative. The viscount is "un de ces valseurs qu'on appelait familièrement Vicomte": the narrator's phrasing, albeit with Emma's implied point of view. But what about: "Ils tournaient: tout tournait autour d'eux"? We cannot quite assume Emma is thinking these words, although with their rhythmic repetition of the tou phoneme they both depict her impressions and bring the reader into them, and into the center of her experiential vortex (Tanner 257 ff.). In the next sentence we are within Emma's voice; "s'ériflait," Bopp points out (95), is a normandism, and we may assume the awkward grammar of "les jambes entraient l'une dans l'autre" (which Bopp calls "insupportable") reflects Emma's phrasing and perceptions. But Emma is sensing and feeling a great deal which the narrator does not convey to us. In the phrase, "une torpeur la prenait," the dance reaches a climax where the significant details (for example, the aroma of the viscount's pomade, of which we learn much later) are silenced. We are meant to guess the intensity of excitement but to retain some distance from it.

The passé simple which ends that sentence--"elle s'arrêta"--removes us from Emma's point of view. As if to insist on the issue, the narrator removes the couple bodily from our sight: "le vicomte ... disparut avec elle. ..." For an instant we may wonder where we are: with Charles, perhaps, watching them silently? But the narrative stays in thepassé simple, its neutral tense, and recounts briefly the rest of the couple's movements. When Emma puts her hand before her eyes, we see her do it, watching from the outside.

Why, at the moment of Emma's greatest excitement, does she drop suddenly out of sight? (And why are we so utterly excluded from the carriage in which Léon finally overcomes her scruples?) Why does the narrator say so little about her impressions during these moments that are so decisive for her? One simple reason may be that we are meant to feel Emma's perceptions are so confused and intense as to be indistinguishable; during the rest of the ball she has time to observe and savor minute details, from the cold champagne to, later, the humid breeze outside her window. The nature of the waltz, as a dance described here mimetically, is to take one's breath away and confuse one's equilibrium and perceptions.

Its nature is also, however, to be an image which Emma imagines herself realizing. That is, part of Emma's excitement is the internalizing of an observer's--or a reader's--point of view as she enacts unreflectingly what she has read or narrated to herself.

When Emma puts her hand before her eyes she removes herself from us. She seeks her balance; she may be trying to retain or to picture what has just happened; no matter, the motivation is the same: her intense and disturbing desire to live the story she imagines, modeled on clichés she does not consciously recognize. Opening her eyes, then, her first sight is the woman choosing among three partners, and Emma is again on the outside looking in. Both states of mind are essential to Emma's dance of death: the confused ecstasy of the tourbillon; and the linear desire, the sense of being different from what she wants to be, that drives her through her narrative. Most important, the narrator himself seems drawn to the fusion of voices and sensations that accompanies Emma's most intense experiences, while at the same time conveying the dangers of unexamined desire--the desire that unveils itself as a manipulative idée reçue, as kitsch.

Clearly it is not only Emma who performs a bricolage with her world, building a rich half-conscious memory. To trace the paradigmatic dance of death embedded by Flaubert in Madame Bovary back to Langlois or to contemporary popular sources is not to discover its origin, but to interrupt a chain at one possible point. Flaubert writes, reminiscing about Langlois, "pendant toute notre vie nous sentons de la nourrice": but the nourrice, we have seen, may also be, for Flaubert, La Mort. As he writes this sentence Flaubert is also struggling to launch a novel and to choose his subject. It seems that he both chooses it and conceals it; or that, to return to Freud's phrase, choice stands in the place of necessity. Kitsch is an unavoidable and seductive part of art; it has nursed us, and will spread our shroud.

If Emma Bovary is Flaubert, then she is his proxy in the waltz. Perhaps her drive through memory to her cavalier is analogous to Flaubert's drive through his memory to his nourrice, and the reader stands before the text as before an infinitely regressing mirror. If the tourbillon, the instant of gratified desire, fuses the fragments of the image, then it does so at the cost of self-conscious reflection. The dance of death, with its inherently contradictory logic of horror and desire, makes us the spectators as we watch others face the forces of necessity. But the spectator must also be inward-turning.


1. Bruneau (494-99) outlines the similar patterns in several balls in Flaubert's opus, suggesting they have a common biographical source. Hardt says that the ball at La Vaubyessard "durchbricht ... den öden Alltag" (156). Such a movement of breaking through quotidian time underscores my reading of the ball as an extraordinary event that imports, abruptly, another dimension into Emma's linear narrative.

2. The image recalls, curiously, a popular ballad published in Paris in 1832, as described by Douce (188):

A girl named Lise is admonished by her mother not to dance on a Saturday, the day on which Satan calls the dead to the infernal Sabbat. She promises obedience, but whilst her mother is napping, escapes to the ball. She forgets the midnight hour, when a company of damned souls, led by Satan, enter the ball-room hand-in-hand, exclaiming, "Make way for Death." All the party escape, except Lise, who suddenly finds herself encircled by skeletons, who continue dancing round her. From that time, on every Saturday at midnight, there is heard underground, in the churchyard, the lamentation of a soul forcibly detained, and exclaiming, "Girls, beware of dancing Satan!"

3. Tanner makes a related point as he discusses this scene: "[T]he aristocrats can dominate the bodies of their horses ... ; it is just such a mastery over Emma's body and its movement that the Viscount exhibits in the waltz" (300). In this and other points, especially in his discussion of the tourbillon and its variations, Tanner's astute reading of Madame Bovary has influenced my own.

4. Just before going to press, I have come across one study that mentions Langlois' influence and also argues for the subtle presence of the dance of death in MadameBovary: Margaret Lowe, Towards the Real Flaubert (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1984), Chapter Six, passim. Lowe's study centers on mythic patterns in the novel, and she is primarily interested in the death-figure in relation to Greco-Roman myths.

5. Flaubert is known to have read Goethe widely and with enthusiasm as an adolescent, although it is difficult to ascertain exactly what works he read. See Bruneau 17-31 and 49n.

6. Oddly, Flaubert also named two separate, minor characters in Madame BovaryLanglois.

7. And a recurrent one. Compare Flaubert's letter to Louise Colet, March 3, 1852: "Mes voyages, mes souvenirs d'enfant, tout se colore l'un de l'autre, se met bout à bout, danse avec de prodigieux flamboiements et monte en spirale" (Bollème Extraits66).

8. Poulet also sees the spiral form as an expansion of the circle in Flaubert; he points to numerous direct references to spirals in the works and correspondence (385). In a recent article John O'Connor enlarges upon Poulet's observations, arguing that a form he calls a "double cone" serves as a "motive form" in Flaubert's narrative, and especially in the Trois contes. Tanner also includes some discussion of the vortex as an important narrative form in Madame Bovary.

9. The most salient examples are Grandville's "Voyage pour l'éternité" and Bürger's "Lenore."

10. For a similar approach to Madame Bovary that appeared recently, see Riffaterre, who uses the word presuppositions rather than cliché, but with much the same sense.

11. Writing in 1852, Kastner describes Michaut's work in some detail, claiming that it had "presque autant d'éditions que la danse macabre" (19). And in what may simply be a curious coincidence, Langlois notes that in Michaut's "Dance" Death is mounted not on a horse, but on a cow. Roy (278-79) has proposed that Michaut chose the cow rather than a horse for its methodical, ineluctably slow movement, a complement to the frenzy of the danse macabre. I need hardly point to the similar connotations of theBovary name.

12. Commentaries which are exemplary exceptions include Tanner and Ahearn. See Ahearn (73n) for bibliography.

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