Are we all trapped in a live-action version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”?
The Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was followed by a torrent of contradictory narratives.
Was Soleimani planning to attack Americans? What about Vice President Mike Pence’s erroneous assertion that Soleimani was involved in 9/11? Or was the plan all along to withdraw troops, as a letter accidentally sent to the Iraqi government suggested?
Was Trump simply trying to distract from his impeachment trial? Was the attack the knee-jerk decision of a malignant narcissist? Or was it a reasonable response following months of Iranian provocations?
Each burst of accusations and justifications has elicited a flood of public responses, expert opinions and efforts to correct a record full of hostilities and absurdities.
Many might feel bewildered and demoralized. But fans of the 19th-century French novel have seen this before.
In a 1852 letter, French author Gustave Flaubert mused, “When will we write the facts from the point of view of a cosmic joke, that is as God sees them from on high?”
He answered his own question in his 1857 novel, “Madame Bovary,” which he published during the regime of Napoleon III – the French president whose autocratic ambitions were aided by a swirl of misinformation and warring political factions.
When language loses all meaning
The main character, Emma Bovary, has devoured romantic novels and is disillusioned by a provincial existence that has proven dull. Her search for excitement and escape leads to adulterous disasters and financial ruin.
That’s a common enough premise, but what makes “Madame Bovary” unique is its insistence on the unreliability of narratives, phrases, descriptions and words. All the characters, from the callow manipulators to the well-meaning dullards, are awash in cliché. Emma and her future lover, Léon, declare that they love sunsets by the seaside, though neither has been to the ocean. The pharmacist Homais counsels prudence to others, though no one listens, and he himself is ruthlessly ambitious; the novel ends with him receiving the cross of the Legion of Honor. Léon tells Emma that he wanted to be buried in a rug she gave him, though the narrator reveals that this is false.
It isn’t even that everyone in the novel lies; some earnest characters really mean what they say. The problem is that language itself has had the meaning drained out of it by a combination of insincerity, repetition and bombast. In a famous scene at an agricultural fair, the audience of attentive townspeople hangs on every word of a mind-numbing, meandering speech about crops: “Here we have the vine, there we have the cider apple, further on we have cheese, and flax!”
When the fireworks planned for the event’s grand finale sputter out, the newspaper nonetheless reports that they went off without a hitch, describing them as a “veritable kaleidoscope, a true stage-setting for an opera.” No one cares that the description is made up.
The ultimate punchline of Flaubert’s cosmic joke is that the narrator himself is a master of subtle confusion. He starts the story in the first person, positioning himself as a schoolmate of Emma’s husband, before changing abruptly to the third person. Some of his accounts are straightforward and dispassionate. Others are entirely confounding. Descriptions of a boy’s cap, a wedding cake and a medical device are so detailed – and yet so baffling – that readers find themselves unable to even imagine what they might look like.
“I want to produce such an impression of utter weariness and ennui,” Flaubert later wrote in the plans for a subsequent literary project, “that my readers will imagine the book could only have been written by a cretin.”
France in political turmoil
Flaubert didn’t write “Madame Bovary” in a vacuum. As he was starting the novel in 1851, elected President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was staging the coup d’état that would transform him from president to emperor.
Roughly 10,000 political opponents were deported to penal colonies. Victor Hugo, a staunch opponent of the coup, fled to Brussels, while Alexis de Tocqueville retired from political life to avoid joining the regime.
French citizens found themselves bewildered and disoriented. Journalist and politician Eugène Ténot, writing an account of the coup in 1868, warned readers that “no truthful narrative of that event has been published in France.” He also remarked that “narratives written in troubled times are always imbued with partiality, exaggeration, injustice, even bad faith.”
In an open letter published in December 1851, Bonaparte announced the dissolution of the National Assembly, which he called a “hotbed of conspiracies.” In January 1852 he put in place a new constitution, all the while accusing “démagogues” of spreading “fausses nouvelles” (“fake news”). In December 1852, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Napoléon III. France’s Second Empire commenced.
Described as “the first modern dictator” and “one of the first modern leaders to rule by propaganda,” Bonaparte went from being France’s first elected president to its last emperor. The Second Empire lasted until 1870, when the emperor, conscious of his declining popularity, declared war on Prussia – and lost.
France’s political upheaval, misinformation wars, sporadic uprisings and public confusion likely left a deep impression on Flaubert.
Americans today might sympathize with his characters, who exist in an endless vortex of repetition, insincerity and stupidity.
Recent technological advances are partially to blame.
Over the past decade, abundant research has emerged on media oversaturation, narrative overload and the deluge of digital images – and what this does to the brain. Incessant stimuli and distractions lead to memory impairment, confusion and troubles with retention.
These conditions are ripe for political warfare.
In his 2014 book “The Contradictions of Media Power,” media studies professor Das Freedman wrote that, in times of political instability, “existing narratives are under stress and audiences themselves are actively seeking out new perspectives.” Information wars and fake news seem to be endemic during times of political upheaval.
In many ways, we’re living out an extreme version of the cosmic joke Flaubert envisioned.
A continual stream of tedious lies, meaningless clichés and empty grandstanding has disillusioned Americans just as much as it confounded Emma Bovary. Lieuvain’s boring, bizarre address at the agricultural fair has its modern equivalents – think of Trump’s meandering rally speeches, or his complaints about toilet flushing and cancer-causing windmills. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes is currently suing a fictitious cow for defamation, while the president’s supporters applauded the statement that there was a war on “Thanksgiving.”
With the assassination of Soleimani, disregard for truth and reality – and examples of Madame Bovary-esque word salad – remains as blatant as ever. Mike Pence’s reference to Soleimani’s involvement in 9/11 is as detached from reality as Emma’s vision of Roman ruins bordering a forest of tigers, camels, swans, sultans and English ladies.
The flood of narrative confusion continues unabated. Only time will tell if Iran becomes the Prussia of 21st-century America.
Last winter, at the Studio Theatre at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, Canadian actor Antoine Yared played Caliban in The Tempest. He stood, centre stage, looking out over the audience as he reassured his companions that the magic music of the island should not frighten them. He said:
“The isle is full of noises … that give delight and hurt not.”
But his face told the audience a different story — the story of a man heartbroken for what had been taken from him.
The Tempest tells the story of the Duke of Milan, Prospero, who many years before had come to the island with his infant daughter. Upon arriving, Prospero enslaved two of its inhabitants, Caliban and the spirit Ariel. The play follows three interconnecting plotlines: Prospero’s revenge plan against his enemies; how his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with the son of his chief enemy; and how Caliban plans to destroy Prospero and take back the island.
The Tempest has also been interpreted as an allegory of liberation. The 20th-century writer Roberto Fernández Retamar declared that the insurgent Caliban spoke for the colonized peoples of the Americas. In 1993, a production by Robert Lepage in Montréal portrayed Caliban as a working-class punk-rocker in open rebellion against the elite Prospero.
The Tempest and religious conversion
In our workshop, we wanted to blend theatre and scholarship to understand how The Tempest could have been used by both European colonialists and also by advocates of resistance. We also wanted to understand how the play might still be relevant.
The workshop brought together four Stratford Festival actors, three student actors from the Ryerson Performance Program and Renaissance scholars from an international initiative dedicated to understanding how Shakespeare’s work helped create the world we live in now.
The artists and scholars worked for a day and a half toward the performance. We talked about the history of slavery and freedom, primarily by thinking about how Christian conversion had served colonization. Indeed conversion has been an instrument of domination in the Americas from 1492 and onwards into recent times.
Forced conversion haunts the play. But there is another kind of conversion in the play where characters achieve the freedom to be true to themselves.
Caliban: Searching for the Other
Prospero attempts to strip away Caliban’s dignity. Prospero forces him to remain “stied” in a hard rock. In the Ryerson performance, Antoine Yared playing Caliban chose his first moments on stage carefully. Rather than obeying Prospero’s commands to “come,” he walked past Prospero, his back turned in a sign of his rebellion. For Caliban, even the act of walking around the Island, his home, was now charged with submission or defiance.
When Caliban encountered the shipwrecked servants he would recruit as co-conspirators against Prospero and when one of them fed him liquor, Caliban thought he had at last come face to face with God. He said to the drunken servant:
“Hath thou not dropped from heaven? … I prithee be my god.”
The drunk Caliban began singing and shouting:
“Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom! Freedom!, high-day, freedom!”
But when the invisible Ariel began to make her magical music, the two servants quaked in terror. They knelt at Caliban’s feet. Caliban rose up — straight and fine like a young tree. He stood triumphantly over the two trembling servants. The music was something he knew well. It was nothing to be afraid of.
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
That was in rehearsal. But when Yared played Caliban in front of the audience, he changed the way he did the speech. His lines about the music of the island were no longer triumphant. They were something that could break your heart.
Yared’s Caliban was a man who had once been at one with the natural world, but who had been cast out and could only recapture some sense of the beauty of nature by dreaming. When he said, “I cried to dream again,” it was as if he were a man turning and turning, trying to find the beloved he had lost.
The workshop taught the actors, the scholars and the members of the audience how the play The Tempest, with its depiction of slavery, resistance and love might have challenged people of the past to see Caliban’s humanity and might also speak to audiences in the 21st century.
Yared’s Caliban left us with this urgent question. It was as if he were echoing Ariel and asking the audience:
“If you have eyes to see this suffering one, if you are human, your affections would become tender.”
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
Many young children have flirted with the notion of escaping, once and for all, those stifling rules and obligations invoked at dinnertime: eat your greens, finish everything on your plate…
The meal in question is indeed stomach-turning: snail soup followed by a main course of snails.
But when, one momentous day in 1767, the 12-year-old Cosimo pushes away his plate and refuses to touch his food, no admonitions from his appalled parents will change the boy’s mind. He runs from the family home and climbs a large holm oak on their estate, never again to come down to earth.
Calvino wrote the novel in 1957, and it remains one of his most loved. The story of Cosimo’s astonishing existence among the trees, where he lives through to adulthood and old age, during times of great turmoil, combines the bizarre imaginative flair of a folktale with a profound meditation on questions of isolation and human interaction.
The man behind the novel
Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents who were working there as scientists, but the family moved back to Italy just two years later. His childhood was spent in the small coastal city of Sanremo (Liguria) on the Italian Riviera, very close to the French border.
The landscape of Liguria – in an imagined and idealised form that has since been lost to development – forms the luxuriant setting for Cosimo’s arboreal adventures.
The baron’s (fictional) village of Ombrosa is rich in vegetation, and trees of every kind – oaks and mulberry trees, magnolias and Indian chestnuts, pines and olives – become Cosimo’s kingdom.
The important link to the environment
Life in the treetops is not without its challenges. Part of the charm of the novel lies in the way Calvino is able to use allegory to explore the human condition, without sidestepping a depiction of how Cosimo manages the practicalities of his peculiar existence.
Many of the funniest moments lie in Cosimo’s ingenuity and determination as he makes himself a permanent, and surprisingly comfortable, home in the trees. Hunting polecats and badgers affords him the fur jacket, hat and leather shoes required for spending cold winters out in the elements, while also lending him an eccentric appearance that little befits a baron.
Yet his life is nothing if not civilised. He comes up with strategies for washing, cooking and toileting; he can access drinking water, and even trains a goat to climb a short way up an olive tree so he can reach down to milk it.
But Cosimo’s day-to-day existence is not focused solely on surviving in his new habitat. He engages in many intellectual pursuits, becoming an avid reader of literature and philosophy. When he befriends the brigand Gian dei Brughi, on the run from the law, the two share this passion for books and soon, procuring reading material for the fugitive is almost a full-time job for Cosimo.
This love of the written word ultimately proves to be Gian dei Brughi’s undoing. He begins to neglect his brigandage and loses all fascination in the eyes of the local people.
When the once-elusive dei Brughi is finally captured, it is because he is too desperate to get back to his novel (Richardson’s Clarissa) to successfully carry out a burglary, and his erstwhile accomplices hand him over to the authorities.
Cosimo, by contrast, has a greater capacity for balance. His extreme rebellion against the strictures of his noble upbringing is never an outright rejection of society or community. He is an eccentric and a free spirit, a true nonconformist, but not an individualist.
Indeed, from his position high in the leaves, Cosimo is often the one to bring the community together. He is a born leader, and is able to organise the villagers into firefighting squads during a time of drought.
Because, for all its fantastical setting and implausible adventures, The Baron in the Trees is still a novel with a political edge, or what in Italian literature is called impegno (political commitment).
The baron’s life embodies the struggle of the intellectual to contribute meaningfully to society, albeit from a position of isolation and distance. This was a struggle Calvino himself had to contend with. He entered adulthood towards the end of World War II, having spent well over a year in the Resistance.
His early work was strongly marked by political themes, but by the 1950s he had begun to see the nexus between politics and literature somewhat differently.
Baron in the Trees, as well as the novels immediately preceding and following it (The Cloven Viscount and The Non-Existent Knight), with which it is now often published as a trilogy of sorts under the title, Our Ancestors) mark the beginning of a move from realism towards a more allegorical and, later, experimental kind of writing.
All three books are deeply philosophical, yet at the same time easy to read and entertaining.
Lightness was a key literary value for Calvino, specifically “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living”, as he put it in Six Memos for the New Millennium.
Cosimo is the very embodiment of this search. Even the baron’s final moments are both poetic and principled as, despite old age and infirmity, he manages to find a way never to return to earth, not even in death.
The Baron in the Trees appeared in English translation (by Archibald Colquhoun) just two years after its original publication in Italy. Fifty years on, a new translation, by Ann Goldstein, has appeared, testament to the novel’s enduring popularity. For despite its historical-fantastical setting, there is a message for our times in this novel, which asks us to question our anthropocentric view of our environment.
The longer Cosimo spends in the trees, the greater his identification with the natural world. His eyes are said to have become like a cat’s or an owl’s, and he begins making speeches and distributing pamphlets advocating greater communion between humans and birds.
Some townspeople view this as a sign of madness but Cosimo is a deeply rational man who believes that “anyone who wishes to look closely at the earth must keep at a necessary distance”.
We, too, have something to learn from Cosimo and the natural world.