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MLN 122.4 (2007) 830-847

Flaubert's Legende de Saint Julien l'hospitalier and the Crux of Literature
Barbara Vinken
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

It has always been viewed with surprise that Flaubert of all people, the most sophisticated of realists, left with the Trois contes three stories of saints—queer saints, but still saints—as a kind of literary testament.1 The three tales begin in modernity, with Felicité, a simple-minded, illiterate and celibate servant who, after a miserable life in which her heart was educated to true love, dies in enraptured felicity, mistaking a stuffed parrot for the Holy Ghost: Un coeur simple. Going back in time, the last tale ends in antiquity with the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, interpreted as the promise of Christ's kingdom to come: Hérodias. For the Middle Ages we have St. Julian, a saint who massacres animals, murders his parents, does penitence and ascends with Our Lord to heaven: La Légende de St. Julien l'hospitalier.

Although the three tales are set in three different epochs, they are linked by a certain unity of place and of time: Un coeur simple takes place in Pont l'Évêque, which means "the bridge of the bishop," a city in Normandy; the story of Salomé and of St. Julian can be found in the cathedral of Rouen—the legend of the saint on a stained glass window, the dancing Salomé on a tympanum on the North facade. The last sentence of Saint Julien reads: "Et voilà l'histoire de saint Julien [End Page 830] l'Hospitalier telle à peu près qu'on la trouve, sur un vitrail d'église, dans mon pays."2 The three stories do take place in Flaubert's part of the world, in Normandy, his native province where he was to spend most of his life. But this real space is translated into the space of the church, the cathedral. Is has to be read in the sensus anagogicus.

To this unity of space corresponds a unity of time: all three tales end out of time, in a time beyond history, eternity, as the cathedral is a space outside of mundane space. "Phanuel [. . .] eut un ravissement."3 Félicité, enraptured, "crut voir, dans lex cieux entr'ouverts, un perroquet gigantesque, planant au-dessus de sa tête." As for Julian, "une joie surhumaine descendait comme une inondation dans l'âme de Julien pâmé [. . .] et Julien monta vers les espaces bleus, face à face avec Notre-Seigneur Jésus." Julian and Félicité already bear this happy blessedness in their names. As for Flaubert, with his "edifying stories," as he ironically remarked, he saw himself in one of his letters turning into a pillar of the church—that is, he becomes something equivalent to a father of the Church.4 But what church? And founded on what Scripture?

All three tales, although written very late in his life, had preoccupied or rather obsessed Flaubert all his life. They are the summa of his œuvre. He had ruminated on them, as he himself would call it. The term "rumination" here is important: in its original usage, it refers to the extraction of the spiritual sense from the letter of the Scriptures. The best way to understand how St. Julien should be read is to think, for example, of the Meditation on the Passion by Carpaccio: it is the same kind of complicated, over-layered, allegorical painting. Or, if this is easier to imagine, think of reading it in the manner Freud read dreams, as the condensation and displacement of biblical and patristic texts and their Romantic reception. [End Page 831]

The literary testament of Flaubert articulates the power of fiction in dialogue with the potency of the Scriptures and the tradition of their patristic interpretation. Since this is so unexpected, the criticism, which has always been vexed in its dealings with these tales, falls back on the tried and tested enlightened gesture of defense...


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