Academic journal article Style

History with Style: The Impassible Writing of Flaubert

Academic journal article Style

History with Style: The Impassible Writing of Flaubert

Article excerpt


Despite the massive outpouring of historical and historiographical writings during the nineteenth century, few writers question the possibilities for writing history more than Flaubert. The paradoxical double movement of his work is evidence that for him the relation between writing and history remained a vigorous literary problem. On the one hand, he selects overtly historical material and combines it with rigorous research, meticulous documentation, and a drive to amass "what is known" about the subjects he treats. On the other hand, his books never commit blindly to archival empiricism, and all of his texts have complex and studied stylistic features that make it impossible to reduce them to historiography.

Do Flaubert's texts reflect the possibility of being scientific at any level of reading or writing the past? Can we find in Flaubert's works a concept of history as hypotactic - that is, does he see discrete unities, events, or facts attached together at any level by necessary or visible links and an epistemological certitude, however far removed or complex, lurking among those bonds? Or is history for him profoundly paratactic? Does he see question marks linking together those singular fragments, those unstable units of measurement that have assumed the form of historical facts?

Anne Green is the most recent representative of a critical tradition that - from the aesthetic-minded Ste.-Beuve to the Marxist historian Lukacs to the psycho-biographico-engage Sartre to the thematist Victor Brombert - has given many different explanations for the Flaubertian paradox of writing.(1) In Flaubert and the Historical Novel, Green uses Chateaubriand's distinctions between "histoire descriptive" and "histoire fataliste" to assess Flaubert's ideas on history writing. Descriptive history, in brief, is sweeping, aiming to depict and narrate vividly the complex and the widespread in their generality; authors who write in this manner (for example, Barante, Michelet) understand their own implication in the process of writing, seeing always the past as a product of the present. Fatalist history, on the other hand, is a writing (usually of French history) that aims not to narrate but to explain, and its authors (for example, Thiers, Guizot) hold themselves to standards of objectivity, determinism, scientificity, and impartiality. Green concludes that Flaubert's ideas about historical writing and its relation to fiction were more the product of a deep knowledge of historiography and less a concern for historical novels, most of which, after a youthful infatuation with Scott, he execrated.(2) Thus she decides that it is only in historiographical terms that one can understand what she names Flaubert's "historical writing":

Through his reading of such a wide variety of history Flaubert's own historical sense developed and his tastes became evident. Hating the dispassionate complacency, the lack of rigour, and the deterministic approach of the "fatalists," his greatest admiration was for the historians of the "descriptive" school. In them he found two important qualities: on the one hand, a vivid and imaginative evocation of the past; on the other, a thorough and accurate presentation of carefully documented facts. Theirs was the manner he was to adopt for his historical writing. (27)

In this way Green makes of Flaubert a card-carrying historian of the descriptive stripe.(3) Although ultimately reductive and misleading, hers is in many ways a natural position to take, for while the stakes are sometimes different, much of Flaubert's work seems to follow in the tradition of the historical novel. The difficulty, however, is that by reading Flaubert's texts as illustrations or examples of historiographical theory, one fails to do justice to the way in which his writing obviously differs from all other methods of historical writing. Reading Flaubert's works historiographically may ultimately have an important impact on the question of how we read and understand history, but the works themselves are extremely difficult to assimilate to, or exhaust by, that reading. …

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