Violence and Civilization in Flaubert's Salammbo

By Toumayan, Alain | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Violence and Civilization in Flaubert's Salammbo


Toumayan, Alain, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


In considering Flaubert's Salammbo, it is common to evoke the numerous and formidable interpretative challenges that it presents. Identified, indicated, or suggested from its 1862 publication, by such critics as Sainte-Beuve, the novel's intrinsic difficulties have oriented relatively harsh assessments of the work in terms of such questions as: Parnassian (and proto-Decadent) sterility, narrative stasis, psychological remoteness, cultural inaccessibility, recondite literary statuary, historical representation (emphasizing both Salammbo's remoteness from and faithful reproduction of the political and social realities of nineteenth-century France), and, finally, the issue of archeological accuracy. However, several more recent studies suggest that assessments of the novel in terms of remoteness, reconditeness, alienation, unknowability, and inaccessibility are very appropriate and criticism of the novel on this score is strangely off the mark to the extent that Flaubert's very purpose in this work is to present characters, geographical settings, historical situations, and actions that are not only foreign but depicted scrupulously in their essential foreignness, in other words, which are represented in a manner such that the fact and manner of their representation do not diminish but maintain, even accentuate, their foreignness, distance, and inaccessibility. In Lawrence Schehr's astute formulation, Salammbo is a "novel of alterity" in which Flaubert has pursued a "radical inscription of alterity" (Salammbo 329; Figures 100). In a similar vein, Francoise Gaillard has emphasized the essential "unknowability" and incomprehensibility of the historical actions represented by Flaubert to the point that for her, the novel manifests his loss of faith, after 1848, in "le caractere rationnel et prometteur de l'histoire" (47; qtd by Lorinsky 195). Peter Wetherill has emphasized how Flaubert effects 'Talienation totale" and has detailed some of its "effets d'etrangete" or its "efforts d'alienation"(102-03). Gisele Seginger has effectively synthesized such insights and advanced a provocative thesis concerning Flaubert's dismantling, deconstruction, "demotivation," distancing, and decentering of coherent historical modes of thought (149-94).

It is within this perspective of the problem of otherness as an integral element and essential feature of Flaubert's narrative purpose rather than as a flaw in execution or method, that I propose to examine the novel. I will look in particular at the manner in which the conflict of the Carthaginians and the mercenaries is conceptualized by Flaubert according to an opposition of civilized and uncivilized human groups that is based on each one's particular and distinct practices of violence. I will argue that the conceptualization of the conflict in this way affords a coherent distinction between the opposing camps and effectively broadens--and theorizes--this opposition such that the conflict figures more generally these two orders of human society, in both qualitative and historical terms. The interpretive potential of this model and the coherence with which Flaubert applies it will, as shall be noted below, have far-reaching consequences in the elaborate construction of an epistemological impasse or stalemate which invalidates judgments or conclusions of a cultural, moral, or historical nature. It is in this manner that the basic alterity of the represented events, their inherent resistance to epistemological and ideological appropriation, is posited and maintained by Flaubert. In other words, the conflict between Carthage and its mercenary army, so dramatically enacted in the narrative of Salammbo, is thematized according to a coherent cultural model whose stalling is also enacted. Thus, the reading here proposed will seek both to bridge and synthesize analyses of the novel in terms of the basic opposition of barbarism and civilization and more recent analyses that have focused on the theme of otherness as a basic and integral feature of Flaubert's narrative architecture. …

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