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Hazel E. Barnes FLAUBERT AND SARTRE ON MADNESS IN KING LEAR T'oward the end of the second volume of The Family Idiot (L'Idiot de la famille), in a section called "Exercises and Reading," Sartre discusses Flaubert's reading of Shakespeare.1 In the context Sartre describes how Flaubert spent his time during one of the rare periods when he was not even attempting to write anything; more than two years elapsed between the completion of the first Sentimental Education in January 1845 and die beginning of his collaboration widi Maxime Du Camp on La Bretagne. Along with doing desultory background reading for "an oriental tale," and analyzing the plays ofVoltaire, Flaubert claimed to be studying the Greek and Roman authors and a selected few of the later "great immortals." Sartre shows that Flaubert's way of reading them was entirely different from the critical analysis which he directed on the work of his contemporaries . Essentially it was a series of"rereadings," and its purpose was not to gain knowledge or even a fuller understanding of the text. In a letter to Mlle de Chantepie, Flaubert counsels her to take one of the great writers and "study him in depth," reading from beginning to end and then starting over again: "But do not read, as children read, to amuse yourself, nor as the ambitious read, to instruct yourself. No, read so as to live. Create in your soul an intellectual atmosphere which will be compounded from the emanation of all the great minds."2 How can Flaubert both counsel his correspondent to study in depdi and not to seek instruction? The kind ofstudy he has in mind, Sartre claims, is comparable to the way in which an amateur pianist might "study" Chopin, where die aim is not to understand analytically but to perfect a particular interpretation and to evoke a certain aesdietic reaction. Flaubert resists instruction because new knowledge risks forcing change. What he wants is 211 2 1 2 Philosophy and Literature to rediscover the same eternal truths and emotions.3 It is also to find inspiration for his own dreams, an oneiric reading. In this connection Sartre makes two important points. First, in striving to cultivate for the soul "an intellectual atmosphere . . . compounded from the emanation of all the great minds," the artist is adding so many strings to his lyre — the laugh of Rabelais, the cosmic passions of Shakespeare, the skepticism of Montaigne. This is whyJules at the end of die first Sentimental Education plans to study die great writers, beginning with Homer — not to learn dieir technique but to enlarge the artist's sensibility . Sartre's second point is made apropos of Flaubert's rereading of Shakespeare. Flaubert fluctuates between two responses. Sometimes he is depressed at the thought of his own lack of genius in comparison with Shakespeare. "That good man will drive me mad. ... All odiers seem to me children beside him."* At odier times he experiences what Sartre calls a "glorifying identification." It is as though in imagination he becomes Shakespeare. In part this is because, as he writes in this same letter, we artists "breathe in our existence by means of die sentence." Sartre notes that for Flaubert the existence in question is a literary reality, not that of die everyday world; we may breathe it in either dirough writing or through reading. At this particular moment in his life, Sartre argues, Flaubert's program of study was in bad faith. He allowed die imaginary identification to suffice. Sartre goes so far as to say, "He reads in order not to write; in diis masturbatory substitute for the act, he makes himself an aumor all at once, under anodier name, in order not to work at becoming the writer of genius he wants to be." This comment makes sense if we recall Flaubert's situation in 1845-47. After the nervous crisis at Pont-L'Evêque he knew that either he would be a writer or he would remain a feeble invalid, an object of pity, the "family idiot." "There he is, dien, paralyzed by two opposing forces: hope and die fear of being disappointed " (p. 2021). No wonder he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 211-221
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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