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TWO DISARTICULATING MADAME BOVARY F L A U B E R T A N D T H E M E D I C A L I Z A T I O N O F T H E R E A L O VER THE PAST twenty-odd years, semiotics has established itselfasapowerful,rigorous,andattimeseleganttechnique for the close reading of literary texts. Until recently, however , literary semioticians tended to remain fixated on the text itself, squanderingthepromiseofBarthes’searlyculturalcriticismandleavingtheissueoftherelationbetweenliteratureandsocietytoeitherthe liberal imagination or ideological criticism. In the last several years, however, context has reemerged as a respectable object for semiotic interrogation. Some Marxist academics have appropriated semiotic methods to forge a more formally sophisticated analysis of ideology; FredericJameson’sThePoliticalUnconsciousoffersthemostinteresting and successful example of this tendency. Concurrently, semioticians themselves have tried to come to grips with the social implications of texts by elaborating a concept of “intertextuality.” MichelRiffaterre’srecentworkillustratesthischangeinemphasis.1 Following a line of investigation originally suggested by Jonathan Culler, Riffaterre argues that literary texts can best be understood as specific“actualizations”ofcultural“presuppositions.”2 Culler’sdefinition of presupposition—as “that which must be revealed by another, or by an effort of dédoublement: of thinking from the point of view of the other”—is heavily tinged with a Hegelianism that Riffaterre rejects, substitutingthemoreKantian(orChomskian)formulationofpresuppositions as simply “the implicit conditions of an explicit statement.” The advantage of Riffaterre’s redefinition is that it guides him to look for sets of conditions rather than for Culler’s less easily delimited “point of view.” In any given instance, the conditions governing statements will constitute a system, and it is this system of presuppositions that the Riffaterrean student of intertextuality hopes to be able to disengage from the literary text and locate in the sociolect. Inseekingtoextendthesemioticprojectbeyondthefrontiersofthe textitself intoits context,Riffaterreistobe commended.But because hismethodologyforelucidatingsystemsofstatementswithinthesoci- 16 T WO olectremainsratherundeveloped,herunsintomajorproblemswhen he attempts to realize his theoretical claims in particular interpretations , most tellingly in the reading of Madame Bovary that he offers in support of his approach. The only prerequisite Riffaterre stipulates for declaring a set of statements to be a system of presuppositions is that they derive from a “matrix sentence” supplied by the dictionary or some other anonymous source. For Madame Bovary, the matrix sentenceappears ,accordingtoRiffaterre,inthecliché—foundinapopulardictionaryofFlaubert ’stimeintheentry“Adultery”—that“allevils stem from adultery.” As a system, an “encoded ideology,” adultery entails a number of subordinate consequences, all of which, as it happens , are played out in the course of Flaubert’s narrative. Riffaterre concludes that the adultery system thus “entails the whole fictional text.” Apart from this highly dubious claim to account for total textual production in terms of a single system, Riffaterre’s approach leaves two questions unanswered. The first question is whether it is accurate todescribetheliteraryperformancethattakesplaceinMadameBovary as a straightforward actualization of the system of presuppositions about adultery. Of all writers, Flaubert is probably the most sensitive and resistant to the rehearsal of received ideas; when he does make use of such ideas, it is to struggle against their simplistic actualization. Flaubert’s entire effort, in fact, seems to have been directed toward showing that literariness had nothing to do with a writer’s overt subject , that even the most clichéd subject would do. And as Baudelaire points out in his review of Madame Bovary, “the tritest theme of all, worn out by repetition, by being played over and over like a tired barrel -organ,”isadultery.3 Flaubert’sisarepetitionwithadifference,but that kind of artistic difference from ordinary actualization is only vaguely gestured toward by Riffaterre, who dismisses it as an écart stylistique.4 Between dictionary and text, presupposition and actualization , Flaubert (and, one presumes, other artists as well) must be doingsomethingextraordinary,andthenatureofthisdeviationneeds to be specified. ThisleadsustothesecondquestionaboutRiffaterre’smethod:how does one find one’s way from the text to the dictionary entry containing its most important presuppositions? Riffaterre looks up adultery because it seems to be the subject of the novel, but Baudelaire, in the reviewquotedearlier,arguesexplicitlythatFlaubertisusingnotadultery but hysteria to “serve as the central subject, the true core” of his novel. Unfortunately, instead of going on to interpret Madame Bovary within the context of nineteenth-century France’s presuppositions about hysteria, Baudelaire chooses to guard the artistic value of DISARTICULAT ING MAD AM E BO VARY 17 Flaubert’s text from historical inspection by arguing that “the Academy of Medicine has not as yet been able to explain the mysterious condition ofhysteria”(341). This was not quitetrue. Nineteenth-century medicine did have an explanation for hysteria, as for other diseases . That explanation, however, was...


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