- Trauma, Addiction, and Temporal Bulimia in Madame Bovary
Lisez, et ne rêvez pas. Plongez-vous dans de longues études. Il n’y a de continuellement bon que l’habitude d’un travail entêté. Il s’en dégage un opium qui engourdit l’âme [Read and do not dream. The only thing that is continually good is the habit of stubborn work. It emits an opium that numbs the soul].—Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet
Madame Bovary I daresay is about bad drugs.—Avital Ronell, Crack Wars
If Flaubert’s Madame Bovary remains so timely, it is because its heroine, Emma, suffers from the quintessential malady of modernity, the inability to incorporate time into experience. Emma’s missed encounter with her own life, her inability to “get a life,” as we say now in America, renders her our contemporary in the strangest sense of the word. She is our contemporary not because we live in the same time but because her failure to live in time has come to define our own. Paradoxically, Emma Bovary has been so well preserved (she is, in some sense, “more alive” now than ever) because she incarnates and inaugurates a modernity that can be defined by the erosion of the possibility of living in time. In Flaubert’s minute and meticulous descriptions of the particular temporal disorders that afflict Emma (as we shall see, she can neither bear witness to an event nor remember one, she can neither live in the present nor project a future, she is incessantly subject to bouts of involuntary forgetting even as she is preoccupied by obsessive rites of recollection, she attempts simultaneously to conjure up time and to stop it), we can read the prophetic traces of a depiction of the temporal structure of the many forms of trauma and addiction that have come to define contemporary American culture.
But before turning to Flaubert’s prescient and powerful analysis of how Emma Bovary suffers from a “temporal disorder,” let us take a brief look at how the notions of trauma and addiction have been described in a contemporary analysis of modern culture. In his recent book On Flirtation, the British child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips redescribes ordinary neurosis as a traumatic response to an inability to live in time. He writes:
People come to psychoanalysis when there is something they cannot forget, something they cannot stop telling themselves, often by their actions, about their lives. And these dismaying repetitions—this unconscious limiting or coercion of the repertoire of life stories—create the illusion of time having stopped (or [End Page 49] rather, people believe—behave as if they have stopped time). In our repetitions we seem to be staying away from the future, keeping it at bay.
Phillips goes on to explain that “[f]or Freud these repetitions are the consequence of a failure to remember. . . . Whatever cannot be transformed, psychically processed, reiterates itself. A trauma is whatever there is in a person’s experience that resists useful redescription. Traumas, like beliefs, are ways of stopping time” [153–54]. Phillips’s argument rings with a seductive simplicity: neurosis is defined as a temporal disorder, and the contemporary psychoanalytic “cure” does nothing less than promise time. It presumably offers the subject the option of accepting the contingencies of living in time over the pleasure and pain that attend the attempt to stop it.
Nonetheless, Phillips’s claim, that contemporary neurosis can be expressed as an attempt to stop time, should perhaps make us pause. Stopping time, in the time of Balzac, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Flaubert, was once conceived of as part of the privileged domain reserved for art and the artist. We might have naively assumed that in the realm of the “real world,” for “real people” time remains an implacable fact of life. The task of falling out of time, after all, would seem to necessitate either an accident of enormous magnitude (a trauma in the traditional sense) or the reliance upon an external substance—hashish, opium, alcohol, or cocaine—one of those mind-altering substances that so preoccupied the nineteenth-century advocates of paradis artificiels. So what is surprising and particularly suggestive...