Quentin Blake: Arrows of Love @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration just north of King’s Cross station, London, contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and other everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

In the South Gallery (one room, as big as a church hall) is a generous selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

And off the corridor between the two is a small L-shaped room which will, apparently, be devoted in perpetuity to a succession of displays by the moving force behind the House of Illustration, the famous children’s illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake. Hence its title – the Quentin Blake Gallery.

Arrows of Love

To coincide with Valentine’s Day this year, Blake selected 18 pencil drawings from a series he’s been developing off and on, depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow.

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

In the charming wall label, Blake explains that, alongside commissioned work and projects, he always has numerous side works on the go – the results of moments of inspiration, or recurring ideas, which he sketches out and then puts to one side to get on with the paid work.

For example, he mentions a series he’s working on which features women on tightropes, sometimes with birds.

And another has been this series of women reacting in different ways to Cupid’s arrow(s).

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

These kind of offshoots and occasional works had nowhere to be shown – until now, with the arrival of the House of Illustration, and the advent of a small gallery devoted just to his work – the perfect venue for stylish little sets and jeu d’esprits!

Blake himself describes the drawings:

Each of them is an outline, an economical way to depict the shapes and gestures that tell us what they are feeling… And of course the arrows are not real arrows, but little flying graphic equivalents, there are only one or two moments when they even slightly real…

All of the women are nude except for one who is wearing a breastplate which the arrows are bouncing off. She might be the start of a sequence on the theme of ‘incongruous things to wear’…

Installation view of 'Arrows of Love' by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of ‘Arrows of Love’ by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Apart from the obvious charm and whimsy of his light, gawky, one-line style – and the beguiling inventiveness of the drawings, the way they surprise you with new and comic variations on the theme – I’m afraid the thing that struck me most was – the pubic hair!

Blake is of course overwhelmingly known as an illustrator of children’s books, pre-pubescent very innocent children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have two children who both read their way through all the Roald Dahl books with their Blake illustrations, as well as some of the books he both wrote and illustrated, for example one of our family favourites, the wonderful Cockatoos.

Which is why in my mind I think of Blake as a kind of quintessence of innocence, associating him with the utter sexlessness of The BFG or The Twits or Fantastic Mr Fox.

So I could see the fun and whimsy in the working out of all the variations of the theme, and found almost all the pictures delightful and charming – but was just brought up a little short by, well, the unexpected pubes!

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Obviously it’s not worth crossing London just to see 18 or so amusing pencil drawings – but it very much IS worth going out of your way to visit the exhibition of North Korean produce, AND the Lucinda Rogers exhibition, and to top them both off with these Blake frivolities – like the cherry on the top of a knickerbocker glory: all three shows are included in the same admission price of £7.50.


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Post-Soviet Visions @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation was set up about ten years ago to celebrate the culture and creativity of the once-communist nations of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The term they use to cover all these countries is ‘the New East’, meaning the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Calvert 22 is a not-for profit organisation which aims not only to promote art, film, photography, fashion and other cultural activities from the region, but also to stimulate debate and discussion. Hence the busy schedule of screenings, talks and debates (details on their website).

As well as the London headquarters and exhibition space (Calvert 22 Space) they publish the Calvert Journal (an online magazine of New East contemporary culture) and organise the Calvert Forum (a think tank for the New East, focused on research and policy for the creative industries).

Oh, and the name? it comes from the address. It’s located at 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP.

Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe

This is a group show of photography by a young generation of artists from the former USSR and communist countries, namely Russia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Most of them were either born or came to maturity after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and grew up amid the ruins of their grandparents’ communist dreams. Now they were no longer members of the socialist vanguard but teenagers and young people just like anywhere else, except poorer, living amid the crumbling infrastructure of impoverished states, and above all completely disillusioned with their heritage and culture.

Kids in America or Britain or France, for all their complaints, have a history of democracy and high ideals which can certainly be mocked, but do have some basis in fact. We do live in relatively affluent societies which respect human rights, women’s rights, LBGT+ rights (compare and contrast with Putin’s Russia).  And teenagers here have money and jobs and fashion and records to spend it on.

What did the USSR achieve to be proud of, apart from get invaded by Nazi Germany and then fight him back at gigantic cost in lives and treasure? But after the slow declines of the 1960s and 70s, after Brezhnev and Andropov, after the years of stupid war in Afghanistan, after drunk Boris Yeltsin and the sell off of state industry to a new generation of utra-rich oligarchs  – where has all this left its children? Those not fortunate to be born into the nomenklatura or mafia families, have been chucked on the scrapheap.

The result is that the photos of all the young people here, no matter which country they’re from, convey the same sense of aimless futility. It’s all high rise alienation – teenage vodka parties, tacky tattoos, bad attitude, and cheap rip-offs of American music and clothes.

The photographers

Jędrzej Franek (Poland) is the executive editor of Stacja Poznan, a cultural, architectural and design web platform. He is project manager of the Poznan Design Festival. He’s represented by three big colour photos of buildings, the best of which (below) has a strongly romantic vibe, giving his stranded high rise buildings the glamour once associated with mountains in the mist. That said, these high rises could be anywhere – Brooklyn, Gdansk  or Sheffield. It represents an international style of alienation.

Jędrzej Franek

Jędrzej Franek

Dima Komarov (21) Born in 1997 in the Mari El Republic, in Russia, Dima is a self-taught photographer and Post-Soviet Visions is his first major exhibition. He’s represented by eleven roughly A4 size colour pics of his mates, a gallery of poor, pissed-off teenagers. What struck me is how 70s and 80s their clothes were. If the New East is meant to be at the ‘forefront of fashion’ (as the introduction to the show optimistically claims) it’s going to have to try a bit harder than this. I think I had a tartan-lined windcheater like the one below way back in the 70s, and there’s a great shot of a surly skinhead wearing a Ben Sherman shirt straight from the 1980s. These could be early photos of provincial youth by the English photographer Martin Parr.

Dima Komarov

Dima Komarov

David Meshki (39) was born in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. After gaining an academic degree in photography, he worked as a photographer for major Georgian cultural magazines. His first solo show consisted of photographs of skaters and athletes taken in his native country and he went on to co-direct the award-winning documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, based on these photographs. He’s represented here by five photos (2 black and white, three colour) of skater dudes with their trademark long hair and cut off jeans. The photo below – probably the best in the exhibition – which has been blown up to fill an entire wall. Way to go, Georgia dude.

David Meskhi

David Meskhi

Apart from being spectacular photo, it’s also an obvious symbol, showing unstoppable youth with, all energy and fearlessness, transcending the crumbling concrete infrastructure of the junk countries they’ve inherited.

Patrick Bienert and Max von Gumppenberg have been working together since 2007. Travelling between Germany and New York, they ‘explore concepts of culture and identity’ grounded in the heritage of street and documentary photography. The nine black-and-white and five colour photos here, of sullen youths and crappy townscapes, are described as ‘a love letter to the rave scene in Kiev’. The best of them show a really rotted, decaying urban environment.

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Genia Volkov (37) was born in the Crimea (then still part of the Ukraine) back in 1981, and educated at the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. He became a self-taught multimedia artist. He’s represented by three big colour photos, highly stylised, two of them taken at night of hands reaching out or a scattering of star-like fireworks. His use of unnatural lighting effects sets him distinctly apart from the overwhelmingly naturalistic photorealism of all the other snappers.

Genia Volkov

Genia Volkov

Armen Parsadanov (36) Born in Baku in 1982, Armen has lived and worked in Kiev since 2013. He’s represented here by thirteen black and white prints, unframed and taped to the wall so that they look like the results of a photo shoot with fashionably wasted youths and blonde models, taped up to be selected by a magazine editor. Tatts, tacky t-shirt, most importantly heroine-chic skinny, if you goggle ‘alienated youth’ you get articles from the 1990s, 25 years ago. The ‘new’ East is just catching up.

Armen Parsadanov

Armen Parsadanov

Masha Demianova studied journalism and creative writing before turning to photography. She’s represented by two neat rows of three A4-sized black and white photos. Apparently, she is ‘a pioneer of the female gaze photography movement in Russia’, ‘challenging prevailing notions of female sexuality and desire’. So the shots are of naked women in non-sexy poses, standing on a jetty or squatting on a tree.

Masha Demianova

Masha Demianova

The most striking one for me was unrelated to female desire, a shot of multiple car headlights on a motorway in a thick fog, although cars looked at by the female gaze obviously look completely different from cars looked at by the male gaze.

Grigor Devejiev ‘is a photographer with over a decade of experience working in fashion, whose atmospheric, gritty pics have been included in international fashion magazines including i-D and Metal’. He’s represented by three big, A3-sized colour photos of shabby-looking people in threatening poses in really run-down horrible buildings. The full crappiness is brought out by the use of flash which projects cheap shadows behind the dodgy-looking characters. Note the horrible grey plastic macs.

Grigor Derevjiev

Grigor Derevjiev

Hassan Kurbanbaev (36) Born in 1982 in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Hassan was educated at the Tashkent State University of Arts. He began his career as a cinematographer, producing short films focusing on social and youth issues. He’s represented here by a series of colour photos of pissed-off Tashkent teens, part of his Tashkent Youth project. Apparently, Tashkent is one of the youngest cities in the world, with 60% of the population under 25. This young lady doesn’t look too thrilled about it.

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Ieva Raudsepa Born in Latvia, Raudsepa is now based in Los Angeles. Her photographic work has been exhibited and featured internationally, including in i-D, YET, Latvian Photography Yearbook, FK Magazine. She’s represented here by 13 colour and two black-and-white photos, all of different sizes and arranged higgledy-piggledy so that some are overlapping. (I enjoyed the way the photos of each of the different photographers were hung, placed and arranged differently on the walls.)

Raudsepa is the only photographer who takes photos of landscapes. Most of her snaps still feature the same cast of gangly, alienated youths, but they tend to be taken on mossy banks or by lakes. One or two feature no people at all, so I’ve chosen a misty morning landscape for the sake of variety.

Ieva Raudsepa

Ieva Raudsepa

Michal Korta was born in Poland and studied German philology and photography. He has been working in photography for more than 15 years, working with press, advertising agencies and international cultural institutions, and is a lecturer on photography in Poland and Switzerland. He’s represented by four lovely black and white photos of the weird, brutalist, concrete architecture of Skopje in Macedonia, from his Beautiful Monsters series. All four are marvellous. What extraordinary buildings!

Michael Korta

Michael Korta

Paulina Korobkiewicz (25) was born in 1993 in Suwalki, Poland and is now based in London. She gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and has also attended the Warsaw School of Photography. In 2016 Paulina was the winner of Camberwell Book Prize. She doesn’t appear to do people at all. Instead she’s represented by five big colour photos of aspects of buildings – the serried balconies of apartment buildings, the locked door of a nightclub in the grim morning light, fog half hiding some local shops.

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Pavel Milyakov (30) Born in 1988 in Moscow, Pavel attended Moscow State Academy of Art and Industry, working with graphic design and then Moscow Film School. Post-Soviet Visions is his first exhibition. As far as I could see he was represented by one work, an enormous blow-up of a comedy photoshop he’s done of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but with modern apartment blocks added in. Works amazingly well. It’s blown up onto an enormous scale which makes it all the wittier.

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

The videos

I nearly missed the fact that there’s a downstairs space, containing a few more photographers, a display case of photography magazines – but most importantly a projection room in which 11 videos from film-makers of the New East were playing on a loop. These are different from and in addition to the photographers.

Most of the films feature more shots and stories about alienated youths – in one, kids get drunk in a park, smoke fags and share vodka, before going along to a shabby disco where they throw up or snog and fondle each other. In another video, two skater boys skate through the wreckage of their crappy town, lie around in a cemetery, then end up having a fight in a graffiti-covered underpass.

One is a sort of mock documentary with a voiceover in Russian explaining the contemporary rave scene, how and why alienated youths go to big warehouses, deliberately don’t eat much, but smoke and drink to excess in order to encourage a sense of delirium, and dance all night to electronic music.

The standout film for me was Lake, directed by Vita Gareskina, in which several Iranian-looking women (actually from Georgia), dressed in dark robes and then wearing glittering masks, carry out some kind of ritual by a lake which involves torches and – as far as we can tell – the ritual drowning of one of them. This stood out by dint of being one of the few films with any aspiration beyond recording skater board, vodka-drinking, trying-on-trainers, teenage times.

That said, my favourite was this video – Jungle With Fiction by KayaKata. On reflection, maybe because – as a professional music video – it simply had higher production values than all the others and so was more watchable. But also because – although I think they’re taking themselves seriously – I found it hilarious the way these dudes in some crappy post-Soviet town copy the style, movements and attitude of black rappers from South-Central LA.

Like almost all the other kids, youths, skaters, rappers, party goers, drivers and fashion victims captured in this exhibition, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – far from innovating or creating any kind of ‘new’ fashion, music or scene – all these young people trapped in dead-end towns in the former communist countries of the East are hopelessly copying every aspect of the wealthy Western lifestyle they can get their hands on, twenty years after it’s been and gone in the West.

The meaning of ‘post-Soviet’

For according to the exhibition blurb, the term post-Soviet ‘has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film’.

To those of us outside the bubble of fashion and film, ‘post-Soviet’ is also a byword for economic collapse, falling life expectancy, epidemic alcoholism, a tsunami of organised crime, the rise of billionaire oligarchs, and the triumph of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

All fourteen photographers are interesting in different ways – some of their work is striking, all is to a high professional standard – but they all tend to gravitate towards the same central issues, of urban decay and youth alienation.

What is post-Soviet culture? It’s a big subject and one – with a newly re-elected Vladimir Putin continuing to goad and test the West – which requires investigation and understanding.

If the photos and videos focus overwhelmingly on youths with no apparent jobs and little apparent involvement in the social structures around them, if they offer no political or economic insights into the world of ‘the New East’ – they do at least put faces, voices and sounds to the younger part of the populations of this huge region, populations which are coming, in our time, under the control of a new generation of authoritarian and intolerant politicians.


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The exhibition is FREE – but note that Calvert 22 is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesday to Sunday only from 12 noon (until 6pm).

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Made in North Korea @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. It’s a charity, and was set up by a group of illustrators led by Quentin Blake, in 2002.

In July 2014 they opened their permanent home in a converted warehouse just north of King’s Cross train station, an area which has been comprehensively regenerated and filled with shops, boutiques and the new campus of Central St Martin’s Art school – all bisected by the cleaned-up Regent’s Canal.

The House of Illustration’s aim is to explore historic and contemporary illustration and to promote the work of emerging illustrators. It hosts frequent talks and events, and runs a learning programme for children, young people, adults and families, delivered by professional illustrators.

North Korea

As anyone who reads the papers or listens to the news should know by now, North Korea is probably the most secretive and closed society on earth, dominated by the Cult of the Great Leader, tubby Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

A hundred years of Korean history

The exhibition offers a free A3 handout packed with information – among other things explaining the iconography used on North Korean products, miniature reproductions of all the posters and comic book covers featured in the exhibition, And it also includes a handy timeline of the troubled history of North Korea:

1910-45 – The Korean peninsula is occupied by Japan. Various resistance movements.

1945 – Japan, defeated by America, withdraws its troops from Korea leaving a potential power vacuum. Russia and the U.S.A. (still wartime allies) agree to administer the northern half and southern half of the peninsula, respectively. They set the border at the 38th parallel i.e. 38 degrees north of the equator. This decision is the basis for the division of Korea which lasts to this day.

1948 – Separate governments are formed in each half of partitioned Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, the Republic of Korea in the south. The Workers’ Party becomes the ruling party of North Korea, led by Kim il Sung.

1949 Communists finally seize control of China at the end of a prolonged civil war with nationalists. Naturally, they form supportive relations with communist Korea on their border.

1950 North Korea launches a surprise attack on South Korea and succeeds in pushing the South Korean Army and American troops deep into the south. At which point General MacArthur launches a surprise amphibious invasion at Incheon, half way up the peninsula, threatening to cut North Korean supply lines. The North Koreans are pushed right back up to the border with China, at which point China intervenes, sending 200,000 troops to support the North Koreans. They push the allies, by now fighting under the flag of the United Nations, back towards the original border, and fighting then continues around the 38th parallel for a further grisly two years, until an armistice is signed in 1953. Technically, the war has never ended.

1953 to 1994 Kim Il Sung rules North Korea as a communist dictator.

1994 Kim Il Sung dies and his son, Kim Jong Il takes leadership of the DPRK.

2011 Kim Jong Il dies and his son Kim Jong-un takes leadership of the DPRK.

Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK

This is the UK’s first ever exhibition of graphic design from North Korea. It brings together a fascinating cross-section of commercial products and ephemera from this most secretive of societies – over 100 common objects including food packaging, ticket stubs and stamps together with stunning hand-painted posters and comics.

This wealth of objects is all part of the collection of Nicholas Bonner, who has been visiting North Korea and leading tours of the country for over 20 years. Bonner has also been involved in three documentaries and a feature film about the country.

The Main Gallery of the House of Illustration is made up of three rooms of the size you might expect to find in an average house, and a fourth much smaller one, a sort of annex.

Room 1 – Posters

Room one is covered with about 30 wonderfully bright, clear propaganda posters showing happy, healthy, smiling North Korean men and women promoting their country’s fabulously successful economy and wealth of goods and products. Look! Look how rich we are!

Hand-painted poster saying 'More consumer goods for the people' - collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘More consumer goods for the people’ – collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Since there is no private enterprise in this communist country, all posters – indeed all objects whatsoever – are state-designed and state-approved. These posters are made in state-run collective studios. The largest is the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs over 1,000 artists.

It’s surprising to learn that almost all of these posters are hand painted. Difficult to believe, but the proof is there – if you look close enough, you can see brushstrokes and flaking paint.

I learned one big thing: In the West we make posters to promote consumption; in communist countries public art is designed to promote production. Hence almost all the posters in this room show a smiling Korean worker gesturing towards huge piles of cotton, medicines, fish, food, straw, coal, milk, meat – you name it, North Korea is overflowing with it!

Hand-painted poster saying 'Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People's economic plan'. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s economic plan’. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Key features of the posters include:

– Outstretched arms and open hands are a vital part of the image’s dynamic impact. Reaching, stretching, showing, betokening optimism and energy.

– So is the Korean script. This is itself pretty geometric and so lends itself to being incorporated into images which are basically naturalistic, but stylised, hyped-up, super-realistic, and which often feature straight lines and idealised shapes. In the poster, above, the converging lines of the coal conveyor, the rails, the quayside and the ship have an almost Art Deco quality.

– And, of course, there is the actual contents of the messages – these are mostly abstract design elements to us, but to Koreans they blare encouragements and exhortations. Here are some of the texts from the 30 or so posters on display:

  • Let’s do more sheltered-water aqua cultivation!
  • Let’s build more factories to produce more consumer goods!
  • Let’s innovate the fish industry!
  • Let’s fully carry out the Party’s foreign trade policy!

and my favourite:

  • Let’s all rear more goats!

– And, my goodness, all these happy people have perfect teeth, as stylised as blocks of dazzling white marble! There’s a chair in this first room which I needed to sit in to soak up all the bright colours, the wealth of consumer products – and the dazzling dental perfection!

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Room 2 – consumer goods and movie

This is a fairly small space, which contains a display case holding 22 small consumer products and a screen showing a short time-lapse movie about Pyongyang.

Kind of makes you want to go, doesn’t it? After all the scare stories you hear, the people look remarkably like us and their underground, roads and buildings pretty similar. Only much, much cleaner.

The products in the display case are things like fizzy drinks cans, water bottles, packets of boiled sweets or noodles, packs of chewing gum, a biscuit tin. The commentary says that all these common or garden products feature the ‘flat block colour and smooth vector graphics’ seen in other Asian countries, and it’s true that I associate these violent acidic colours with products in India, which I’ve visited a few times.

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

To really understand  the uniqueness of the coloration and design of the objects on display, I imagine you’d have to be a graphic designer. Clearly the posters in particular are a combination of:

  • Russian Socialist Realism as filtered through Chinese Socialist Realism
  • with added Korean motifs
  • and a distinctive Korean colour palette

Room 3 – Public performances

Colour is explored a bit more in the next room where there’s a all label explaining the existence of a distinctive Korean colour palette. Apparently the main colours are white, black, yellow and red, with secondary colours green, turquoise, light pink, sulphur yellow and violet.

I think it’s these secondary colours which make all these products look so distinctive. Not blue, turquoise. Not just green, but a bright acid green. And pink, lots of pink.

The main subject of this room is public entertainments, namely the state-run cinema, theatre, circus and gymnastic – lots of gymnastics. Large-scale, state-sponsored gymnastics. Apparently the 2007 ‘Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance’ was the biggest gymnastic display every held anywhere in the world.

There’s also a display case explaining North Korean opera. Apparently there are five major revolutionary operas, which were written during the Japanese invasion and then the Korean War. Korean opera incorporates traditional folk dance and an entire wall of the room has been covered with a blown-up image of a chorus of women folk dancers.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Next to it (visible in the photo above, on the left) is a display case showing no fewer than 82 lenticular postcards. New word to me, ‘lenticular’ is the term to describe that kind of postcard which looks oddly pixilated and when you turn it, you get a slight three dimensional effect, as bits of background emerge from behind foreground objects, as some of the objects appear to ‘move’.

A little tacky to our taste, these are apparently very popular in the Democratic People’s Republic. Subjects included dancers, both folk and ballet, horses realistic or leaping into the sky, landscapes and notable buildings in Pyongyang, flowers and birds – all done with the bright-to-garish coloration which the note on palette had made me appreciate more. Only one was remotely warlike, a poster-like cartoon figure of a wounded Korean soldier heroically attacking an American tank armed only with a grenade.

Room 4 – Comic books and ephemera

Room four makes a bigger impact than all the others because all four walls are covered in wallpaper made up of repeated iterations of some of the ephemera on display, namely the gaudy wrappers of canned food, bottles of water, packets of all sorts of consumer products.

'Installation view of room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the House of Illustration

Installation view of room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

This room is really a car boot sale of all kinds of bric-a-brac from North Korean everyday life, a veritable ‘cabinet of Korean curiosities’. There are display cases devoted to:

  • tourist maps, tickets and souvenirs
  • labels of food products
  • New Year cards
  • pin badges
  • stationery and stamps
  • cigarette packs
  • sweet boxes
  • beer, water and fizzy pop bottles and cans

In among lots of North Korean trivia I learned that Juche is the Korean word for ‘Self Reliance’, which has been official state policy since the communist party came to power, i.e. having little or no contact or trade with the outside world. Official propaganda at every level drums home the idea that they don’t need it because North Korea is, quite simply, the most perfect, happiest society on earth. Hence all the dazzling smiles!

The New Year’s cards are a traditional Korean tradition, but given a communist twist ever since the state introduced the notion of redating the entire calendar from the birth of the first Great Leader, Kim Il Sung in 1912 – or Juche 1.

I liked the lapel badges or pins, with a variety of logos symbolising North Korea’s sporting prowess in – well, you name it, they’re the best at it – football, gymnastics, even cricket. All adults wear two lapel pins showing the two Kims (as you can see Kim Jong-Un doing, in the photo at the top of this review).

I particularly liked the way the food labels of meat products show not just the finished food product, but the animal it came from. Just to be clear.

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

And note the use of English in this, as in many, labels. Apparently, this implies class and quality.

Being a boy, I also enjoyed the massive display of pocket comic books, mostly war and spy stories, the North Korean equivalent of the Commando war comics which I grew up with 40 years ago.

That free A3 handout I mentioned earlier, includes thumbnails of all 97 of these comic book covers. Some have generic titles which could come from any culture, such as ‘The Star of Glory’ or ‘No Turning Back’. Others are more comically communist like ‘Taking up the torch of our comrade’s will’ and ‘The heart of a member of the young communist league’ and, my favourite: ‘He was very intelligent and courageous in every battle’.

I was struck by the number of covers which featured snow, and heroes wearing winter uniforms, reminding me that Korea has bitter winters, something which features in many memoirs of the Korean War.

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the house of Illustration

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Images and society

One of the wall labels in this room makes the simple but profound point that all of these artefacts, objects, products and ephemera, superficially bright and varied though they seem, in fact use a relatively limited set of images and icons.

This iconography of agricultural and industrial plenty, accompanied by stylised bodily gestures (the outstretched arm and hand demonstrating the bounty of communism) and smiling faces, is obvious in the big posters.

Less obvious, until it’s pointed out to you, is the use of a standardised set of official icons. That A3 handout I keep mentioning also includes a guide to 32 of these icons, which range from symbols of the party (red star, red flag, hammer and sickle) to images of Pyongyang’s enormous, iconic buildings (the May Stadium, Arc de Triomphe, Koryo Hotel, Juche Tower and so on) to sanitised versions of Korean national icons (the pine tree representing longevity, the white tiger a symbol of Korean history, the crane representing good fortune, and so on).

The point is the sheer repetition of this finite set of symbols on everything. Seeing images of the Grand People’s Study House or the Worker’s Party emblem on fag packets, tin cans, fizzy drinks, water bottles, stamps and postcards, is designed to ram home the fact that North Korea is the whole world – its buildings and food and technology and athletes and sports, its national symbols and, above all, the communist party which rules over it, is the best in the world, is all the country needs; reinforcing the fundamental idea of North Korea’s glorious self-sufficiency or Juche.

Living in Western societies which are super-saturated with a bewildering array of constantly changing imagery, it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a society where there is a very limited amount of visual imagery, and what there is, is tightly controlled by the state.

Who knows what the North Korean graphic designers who made all these posters and designed all the other objects in the show think about their own society or the wider world. But the exhibition makes you come to admire the inventiveness and sheer skill of artists forced to work within an extremely tight set of parameters, who still manage to infuse their work with colour and life.

Peace

If we want to stop killing each other we have to realise the other side are people just like us. Shame we can’t make Donald Trump visit this exhibition. We mustn’t underestimate our differences and think the population of Syria or Burma can be changed into Hampstead liberals overnight by a free election or a handful of tweets – but you have to start somewhere.

This exhibition provides the immense public service of taking us out of our Western comfort zones, away from Western media and art – and introducing us to a completely different visual, political and cultural world. It’s also great fun. Go see it.


Related links

Related reviews

David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.

Experiments

On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.

Magical.

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Conclusion

This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.

Videos

One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

How happy they felt when they awoke next morning! Bouvard smoked a pipe, and Pécuchet took a pinch of snuff, which they declared to be the best they had ever had in their whole lives. Then they went to the window to observe the landscape. (Chapter 2)

Bouvard and Pécuchet was Flaubert’s last work, left unfinished at his death in 1880. However, the first ten chapters seemed complete enough to be published one year after his death, in 1881, and subsequent editions have included the notes found with the manuscript which indicate how the book was intended to be concluded.

These completed ten chapters make up some 260 pages in my Penguin paperback edition and the notes suggest there would only have been one or two further chapters i.e. we have almost all the intended text, and certainly enough material to form a judgement.

The plot

Briefly, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two humble copy-clerks, aged 47, who work in offices in different parts of Paris. One hot summer day in 1838 they happen to sit at the same public bench and notice that they’ve both written their names in the rims of their hats. They quickly find out they have other things in common, lots of other things, the kind of work they do, the things they like, the subjects they like discussing, everything. They take to meeting once a week for dinner and then more often. They fantasise about putting their schemes and ideas into practice, travelling the world, exploring, discovering.

Then Bouvard’s uncle dies – except his ‘uncle’ is in fact his natural father who sired him out of wedlock and ignored him most of his adult life. To make amends for his neglect, his uncle/dad leaves him a fortune. Bouvard and Pécuchet decide to pack in their jobs and go to Live in the Country, Close to the Land, Working the Soil, getting Back to Nature.

So they buy a farm in Normandy, and chapter two is a long, encyclopedic and deeply researched account of how they fail at absolutely everything they turn their hands to. For the book is meant to be a comedy – admittedly a rather dry comedy – and its subject is the irremediable stupidity of the two protagonists, and the blundering obtuseness of the world they live in. Flaubert wrote to one correspondent, as he laboured long and slowly over what he hoped would be his masterpiece, that he intended its sub-title to be: ‘The Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity.’

In many ways Bouvard and Pécuchet is more of a fable than a novel, in the lack of real plot or progression and the laboured making of a fairly straightforward ‘moral’ or point.

It certainly shows the triumph of the schematic, diagram-making Flaubert over the story-teller. Writing it became an obsession with Flaubert, who claimed to have read over 1,500 books in his research for it.

Having now read all of Flaubert’s works I am a bit bored by the repeated claims that he read x number of books to research each of them. Flaubert is famous for the crafting of his style, but pretty much all of that disappears in translation. What you are left with, especially in the historical works, is great sheets of facts and names, like the almost flat surfaces of a carved frieze, as carefully and intricately designed and, often, as lifeless.

In this final book Flaubert’s obsession with facts and research reached new peaks. He first created an overall schema of human knowledge for his incompetent duo to investigate, and then set about filling in each ‘section’ with a pulverising wealth of pedantic detail. As is shown by a summary of the chapters:

Structure (with dates)

Chapter 1. First meeting and birth of their friendship. Bouvard’s inheritance (1838–41)

Chapter 2. Travel to the Normandy village of Chavignolles. Agriculture – landscape gardening, market gardening, crops (March 1841 – autumn 1842)

Chapter 3. Study of chemistry, anatomy, medicine, biology, geology.

Chapter 4. Archaeology, architecture, history (they attempt to write a biography of the Duc d’Angoulême). They set up their own ‘museum of curiosities’, and invite locals to come and visit -uniformly unimpressed.

Chapter 5. Literature, drama, grammar and aesthetics. At one point they take to declaiming great plays in front of their servants and puzzled locals.

Chapter 6. Politics – The events in this chapter coincide with the ‘revolution’ of 1848, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe, the establishment of the Second Republic, the reaction against it, and election of Louis Napoleon, first as president, and then his military coup in 1851. Different from preceding chapters, it shows the psychological impact of these events on the diverse cast of villagers, educated or peasant.

Chapter 7. Love – the hapless duo fall in love – Pécuchet with the local widow, Madame Bordin, and Bouvard with their serving girl, Mélie -and are both bitterly disappointed: Madame Bourdin turns out to be after Pécuchet’s property, and Mélie gives Bouvard the clap.

Chapter 8. Gymnastics and keeping fit, occultism (table turning), using magnetism as a cure (till the local doctor bans them from seeing his patients), spiritualism, Swedenborgism, magic, divination, theology. A lengthy investigation of philosophy leads them to despise all systems and eventually to contemplate suicide. They’re hanging nooses from the ceiling when the bell rings for the Christmas service. They attend and feel a great surge of redemption.

Chapter 9. Religion – lengthy chapter recapitulating all the arguments for and against, in conversation with the abbé, and local notables. After exploring, discussing and experiencing every type of Christian belief from rationalist to mystical, they emerge (as usual) disillusioned. At first they repel the locals for the eccentric fervour of their sudden piety, and then alienate everyone as their questioning of Christianity becomes more subversive. The local aristocrat’s sister has taken in two orphans – Victor and Victorine – who, however, have proved to be tearaways. Accompanying the servant tasked with taking them off to the local orphanage, our heroes are moved by the orphans’ plight and decide to take them in and raise them themselves.

Chapter 10. Education. Bouvard and Pécuchet apply all known theories of pedagogy to the two troublesome teenagers, who prove completely resistant. Victor becomes violent, Victorine develops a penchant for kissing boys. The pair try to dun into the children everything they have learned about physiology, chemistry, astrology, grammar and so on but, because they never understood these subjects themselves, they make a hash of trying to teach the kids, who keep asking awkward questions which expose our pair’s ignorance. Fail.

Right up to the end Bouvard and Pécuchet continue to practice their mad enthusiasms on the locals, trying out phrenology and irritating the barber whose shop they ask to use; telling the farmers how to apply chemistry to their land; angering the old farmer Gouy who has returned to make a success of their farm; criticising the gamekeeper, Sorel, for his brutality; terminally alienating the abbé for their apostasy from Catholicism; and so on.

Eventually Bouvard and Pécuchet’s oddness, immorality and irreligion have alienated pretty much the entire local community. The completed portion of the text ends as the pair are taken to court and tried for insulting the gamekeeper, who had caught a poacher. Bouvard and Pécuchet try to defend the poacher with a motley of half-cocked philosophical and political theory.

From Flaubert’s notes we can work out that in the final chapters the desperate duo narrowly escape being sent to prison by their exasperated neighbours, before eventually abandoning their Quest for Knowledge altogether. They decide to return to being simple copyests, copying out into a vast super-encyclopedia the contents of all the books they’ve gathered in the course of their adventures.

Apparently, Part Two of the book was intended to consist of this vast Copy of World Knowledge which the bumbling pair had cobbled together – of which the Dictionary of Received Opinion was to form a small part.

As they’re such good friends, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s final act was intended to be ordering a special desk-for-two, designed so that they can do their work sitting next to each other.

Satire or schema?

Flaubert’s aim is obviously to satirise 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. The trouble is that this aim coincides all-too-well to his own habits as an omnivorous reader-and-regurgitator. On every page of Bouvard and Pécuchet you have the feeling that you’re reading a the fleshing out of a static schema rather than a fictional text – what one of Flaubert’s most famous fans, Julian Barnes, describes as ‘a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.’

His procedure is to list in pedantic detail all the learning about a particular subject, and then painstakingly show his hapless duo misunderstanding it and (if it has any practical application) screwing it up.

Here’s an extended example of the pair following all the best technical advice and then making a mess of market gardening – an excerpt which gives a good flavour of the book’s relentless approach.

Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:

‘We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture – not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.’

It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks, which he wanted to get rid of. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.

The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.

When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the ‘duchesses’ out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.

Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.

At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.

They talked incessantly about ‘sap’ and ‘cambium’, ‘paling up’, ‘breaking down’, and ‘blinding of an eye’. In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.

Sometimes Pécuchet took his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.

Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come and help him.

At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the scarecrow. They made a second, and even a third scarecrow, varying the dress, but none of them worked.

But they still hoped for plenty of fruit. Pécuchet had just mentioned it to Bouvard, when there was a crack of thunder and rain started to fall – a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, swaying under the storm, smashed their pears against one another.

Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives on the sea-shore ten leagues away, gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.

What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. Of the apples, there were barely left even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled round in the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots. (Chapter two)

The whole book follows this pattern. The dim duo get excited by a new topic – anatomy, chemistry, philosophy – order up as many textbooks as possible (which Flaubert names and summarises with loving care) – and then proceed to misunderstand, misapply and misuse everything they’ve read, failing at everything they turn their hands to, again and again.

So, for example, the chapter on science refers to textbooks by Regnault, Girardin, Alexandre Lauth, the Dictionary of Medical Sciences, the treatises of Richerand and Adelon, the Manual of Health by Francois Raspail, the Manual of Hygiene by Dr Morin, Becquerel’s treatise, Bégin and Lévy on diet. That’s 11 textbooks quoted and summarised in 15 pages, about one every page and a half; elsewhere the ratio is much denser. Hundreds of them.

Futility

Again and again, they generalise from their own inability to really understand a subject that it must the subject which is at fault:

History

To judge impartially they would have to read all the histories, all the memoirs, all the newspapers, and all the manuscript documents, for the least omission might cause an error, which might lead to others and so on ad infinitum. They abandoned the subject.

Grammar

They concluded that syntax is a fantasy and grammar an illusion.

Aesthetics

‘All these people who compose books of rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics seem complete idiots to me.’ (Bouvard)

Politics

‘Progress – what a farce! Politics – what a filthy mess!’ (Bouvard)

Divination

Their search never revealed anything, and each time they were extremely crestfallen.

Philosophy

They both confessed that they were tired of philosophers. So many systems only confuse you. Metaphysics is useless.

As you can see, the ‘novel’ can easily be read as an opportunity for Flaubert to express his own pessimism and universal disgust via the mouths of his dumb duo.

Epistemology

Epistemology is ‘the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope’. For intellectual critics the book amounts to a sustained critique of humans’ ability to know anything. Although they buy all the books on whichever is their latest fad, although they study them carefully and make copious notes, when Bouvard and Pécuchet come to apply this ‘knowledge’ it relentlessly ends in failure. Which suggests that people don’t – and can’t – learn.

1. The tradition of learned wit This scorn for knowledge places the book firmly in the long line of fictions of ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. the tradition of satires on the university-based, book learning of their times which attacked the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote), the new 18th century fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) or blind belief in Optimist (Candide).

Like this tradition, Flaubert ridicules knowledge and science, but the great difference is that he does it in a naturalistic style. Whereas the tradition of ‘learnèd wit’ from the later Middle Ages to the 18th century rejoiced in arcane language, out-of-the-way literary references and so on, Flaubert replaces the paraphernalia of quotes from the Bible, classical myths and abstruse theology with modern-day textbooks, guides and pamphlets, presenting the great wealth of current knowledge in a completely deadpan, serious way. (Except for the chapters about philosophy or religion which, by definition, deal with abstruse theology and Biblical quotes).

But such a crudely dismissive attitude to current scientific and cultural knowledge raises an elementary problem which is that a lot of it isn’t risible.

2. People do learn Because in agriculture, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even in the arts, there have been huge, enormous, world-changing strides since Flaubert was doing his slavish research in the 1870s. Sure, in every age lots of people are dim and/or uneducated; but in the last 140 years amazing advances have taken place on all the fronts of human enquiry and knowledge.

Thus the fundamental aim of the book – to imply that human knowledge is useless and the quest for it pointless – is wrong. There have been huge strides in, for example, agriculture. Today we can feed populations undreamed of in Flaubert’s time. In other words, his dismissal of all human knowledge seems glib and superficial, itself wilful and ignorant.

Thus I found it difficult to accept, to buy into, the book’s fundamental premise, and this made it hard to read or enjoy. Instead of someone saying something sharp and insightful about the world or human nature, it feels like an ungainly selection of very out-of-date information, assembled in the name of an untenable premise.

Its strengths

1. Narrative energy Well, there isn’t much, since in each chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet do much the same thing, namely research a topic and fail to understand or apply it. There is a sort of energy created by the narrative scaffold whereby Flaubert manoeuvres them towards each a new subject – the involvement of other characters, in particular – and the events which supposedly spark interest in each new subject though I for one found a lot of them flimsy and contrived. And then there is a sort of interest in finding out what new humiliations the author has in store for his chumps, though many times the disquisition on a particular subject ends with no particular pay-off before they set off on a new subject.

2. Episodic Because Bouvard and Pécuchet are continually abandoning each of their projects, each chapter does open with a sense of novelty (and mild hope for something new) – a bit like watching the latest episode of a long-running sitcom in which you can be confident a set of well-known characters will get themselves into a new pickle within a familiar set of conventions.

But on the down side, each of the chapters is not only long, but exhaustively long and often quite draining to read. Oscar Wilde said that a man who sets out to exhaust his subject invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners, and I think this is more true of Flaubert than any other major writer.

Cast and comedy

It would be incorrect to say the book only features the odd couple. Other characters weave in and out and by the end we’ve probably been introduced to thirty or so characters.

When they decide to buy some land in Normandy (near the village of Chavignolles) it comes with a house and a farm. The farmer, Old Gouy, has been farming it for years, along with his wife. Bouvard and Pécuchet criticise old Gouy so much that he quits, and that’s the start of the several years they spend putting into practice their book learning with such disastrous results. In the manor house they inherit an old housekeeper, Madame Germaine, whose main role is to complain about every request. Later on they acquire a wandering carpenter and his teenage help, Mélie. Late in the book Germaine quits and is replaced by a useless hunchback, Marcel.

Chavignolles supplies a surprisingly varied cast of rural characters, including:

  • Madame Bordin, a middle aged lady who very gently flirts with Bouvard
  • the Abbé Jeufroy, who they exhaust with their enquiries about theology
  • the lawyer, Monsieur Marescot
  • Monsiruer Girbal, superintendent of taxes
  • Captain Heurtaux, a local landowner
  • Beljambe, the innkeeper
  • Langlois, the grocer
  • Monsieur Foureau, the mayor
  • the local landowner, to whom everyone defers, the Comte de Faverges
  • Larsonneur, a local antiquary they write to about their discoveries

There are experts they correspond with, the gamekeeper, Sorel, who brings in a little burst of other characters in the final chapter. This cast turns out to be quite large enough to supply some quite comic scenes, a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, but in French.

With the result that there are quite a few ‘crowd’ scenes: Take the scene in chapter three where the couple accost the abbé in the road and start quizzing him about the Creation, enumerating all the arguments against the Biblical story which they have just read in their latest book. The abbé is joined by his assistant, then the mayor passing by, and then the Comte, so that by the time our duo exclaim that man is descended from apes there is enough of a crowd to respond with exclamations of horror and outrage, reported with deadpan irony by Flaubert.

Or when the couple hold a dinner party for all the worthies of the village to show off their home-grown food (which proves to be inedible) and then proudly display their garden, landscaped according to the latest principles (which the guest find ugly and disturbing).

Or the scene where our couple proudly show invited guests round their ‘museum of curiosities’, filled with interesting historical and geological curios – which is in fact an emporium of broken rubbish and random rocks, the locals treating our heroes with politeness and behind their backs muttering that they’re mad.

So there are scenes of group comedy as well as quite a few moments of out and out absurdity.

On the principle that inflammation can be prevented by lowering temperatures, they treated a woman suffering from meningitis by hanging her from the ceiling in her chair and pushing her to and fro – until her husband arrived and threw them out. (Chapter three)

If at some moments, the relentlessness of their obtuseness, and the inevitability of their failure in every enterprise they undertake, can be rather depressing; at other moments, when they pat each other on the back, take a pull on their pipes, order up a new set of textbooks, and so on, you can’t help liking them.

Details

All the above criticisms see the text at a distance, extracting generalisations about themes and character.

There’s a separate strand or level where Flaubert scores, and that is in the precision of his imagination. Flaubert became famous for the painstaking care he took with his style, agonising for a day about where to place a comma in a sentence etc but, alas, most of this painstaking work is lost in translation.

What is not lost is the clarity of the details he imagines. His ability to zero in and include just the right amount of, particularly visual, detail, is displayed throughout the book.

In the kitchen, bundles of hemp hung from the ceiling. Three old guns stood in a row over the upper part of the chimney-piece. A dresser loaded with flowered crockery occupied the space in the middle of the wall, and the window-panes with their green bottle-glass cast a pallid light over the tin and copper utensils. (Chapter two)

There are many moments like this, scattered among the more turgid reams of technical knowledge, moments when Flaubert conceives a scene and paints it in very visual terms.

The harvest was just over, and the dark masses of the stacks in the middle of the fields rose up against the tender blue of the night sky. Nothing was astir about the farms. Even the crickets were quiet. The fields were all wrapped in sleep.

The pair digested while they inhaled the breeze which blew refreshingly against their cheeks.

Above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in clusters, others in a row or alone, at great distances from each other. A zone of luminous dust, extending from north to south, parted above their heads. Between these bright patches were vast empty spaces, and the firmament looked like an azure sea dotted with archipelagos and islets. (Chapter three)

Although, to be honest, having struggled through to the end, there are far fewer scenes of acute visual precision than in, say, Madame Bovary. Reviewing all his novels I think Bovary has more of these painted scenes than any of the others, which is one reason why it remains his best book.

Failed purpose

In fact, there is a glaring central issue with the book. Flaubert wrote to numerous friends that he hoped the book would shame the human race, amounted to a great roar of disgust and so on and so forth, but in this respect it is a complete failure. The twentieth century came along and dwarfed anything Flaubert could have imagined. Now when we look back at the tradition of Books Disgusted by Human Existence it might include Kafka, Celine, Camus, Sartre – the existentialist tradition, as well as countless twentieth century novels made ‘scandalous’ by their sexual explicitness or violence.

Seen in the light of these traditions, Bouvard and Pécuchet barely registers. Nobody reads his book in order to be ‘disgusted with humanity’. In fact, Bouvard and Pécuchet has ended up having exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. A modern reader finds it a sweet and gentle novel of rural France and its quaint characters. If you skim over the tedious expositions of mid-nineteenth century phrenology or geology or aesthetics, you are left with a series of comic scenes:

  • Pécuchet hiding in a ditch overhearing the colloquy between the local tough Gorjou and his married mistress
  • the villagers peeking through holes in the fence to watch the couple ludicrously act out scenes from French classical plays
  • the lofty condescension of the local aristocrat, as the pair show him round their ramshackle collection of local curios
  • the irritation of the barber who gives them a corner of his shop to practice ‘phrenology’ in, only for it to become packed out with credulous peasants
  • the ridiculousness of the pair trying to argue the gamekeeper out of shooting animals by invoking the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza

In fact, if Bouvard and Pécuchet has any value, it is as precisely the opposite of a searing, devastating, world-shaking monster of bourgeois-bating satire – and instead as a gentle, humorous portrait of rural French life and its cast of harmless buffoons.

Brief summary

Its complete lack of psychological development or anything resembling a conventional ‘plot’ – the monotonous effect of the pair’s relentless failures – and the long passages of dusty book learning which are transcribed purely to bring out their contradictions and futility – make Bouvard and Pécuchet in many ways a difficult book to read.

The (occasional) precision of Flaubert’s visual imagination, the (occasional) comic scenes – especially involving exasperated members of the local community – and the warmth of the relationship between the hapless pair – just about make it worth reading.

If I was recommending Flaubert’s books to a friend who hadn’t read them I think I would order them thus:

  • Madame Bovary – the best written, most sensual and pictorial, and the most compelling plot
  • Sentimental Education – for all the flaws of the central character, portrays the social and political life of Paris through an important period in its history
  • Three Tales – short and very readable products of his mature style
  • Salammbô – a richly atmospheric and grisly, though dry and often melodramatic historical novel
  • Bouvard and Pécuchet – difficult, often deadly boring
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony – very hard to read

The movie

The French made a movie of it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

A Modern Dictionary of Received Ideas (2018)

Reading Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas – a hilarious collection of the conversational clichés of his day – prompted the idea of making an updated list of the social and political commonplaces of our own time, the dinner party platitudes which people parrot without a second thought.

Just to emphasise: I don’t necessarily believe any of the points of view listed below. I’m just trying to record the commonplace thoughts and ideas of our time. (Flaubert sometimes put directly contradictory opinions next to each other to bring out the fatuousness of both positions. I’ve done the same here.)

Can you think of any I’ve missed?

A Dictionary of Contemporary Clichés

AGE OF CHIVALRY – Dead.

ANGER – purifying and empowering if you’re a feminist. Sign of bullying patriarchy in anyone else.

ANGRY FEMINIST – And proud of it.

AUSTERITY – Vital to tackle the huge debt left by the Labour government. Shameless excuse to cut government spending and adversely affect the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Do you realise that women are hardest hit by austerity?

AWARENESS – Always needs to be raised. About everything.

BABY BOOMERS – It’s all their fault.

BLACK LIVES MATTER – Totally approve. Point out that many of the cops who shoot black people are themselves black. Unless there are black people present. Don’t say ‘black’, say ‘people of colour’.

BDSM – Smile knowingly.

BOOMERANG KIDS. ‘Yes after university he’s going to come back and stay with us. It’s only for a while, though, till he finds a place of his own.’

BOX – Think outside it.

BREXIT – Strongly in favour: at last we’ll be free of EU red tape. Thunder against it: unprecedented disaster for the country.

BUCKET LIST – Whenever anyone mentions doing anything interesting, say it’s on your bucket list.

CHILDREN – ‘Until I had children I didn’t know what real love was.’

CITY OF LONDON – Nest of spivs and gamblers. Vital to the economy.

COMMUNITY – Government-speak for groups of people lumped together by a crude common denominator, who often have very little in common (the black community, the Muslim community, the gay community).

CRICKET – The sport needs a major shake-up. The women’s national team always does us proud.

CYCLING – I was so shocked to hear about Lance Armstrong / Bradley Wiggins [whoever the latest doping cheat is]. The sport needs a major shake-up.

DEPTHS – Must be ‘unfathomable’.

DR WHO – About time she was a woman.

DIETS – Never work. Start a new one each January.

DISADVANTAGED FAMILIES – Government-speak for families where the parents aren’t middle-class university graduates.

DONALD TRUMP – Have you read his latest tweet? You know he actually polled fewer votes than Hillary. How can a buffoon like that end up president of the United States?

DRIVERLESS CARS – Madness.

DRUGS – Legalise them all. It’s an epidemic, something needs to be done. Declare a war on drugs.

THE ECONOMY – Don’t worry, nobody else understands economics either.

EDUCATION SYSTEM – Always needs major reform.

ELECTORAL REFORM – We need to completely change the system. We must have proportional representation to allow greater diversity of voices in British politics. Proportional representation would be a disaster leading to weak coalition governments in hock to tiny extremist parties.

EMPOWERING – What girls, women and people of colour need.

ENVELOPE – Always ‘pushing the envelope’.

EU – Undemocratic monolith. Bastion of neo-liberal corporations. Can’t wait till we’re rid of its red tape. Vital trading partner. Repository of democratic values.

EVERYDAY SEXISM – Need to call men out on it. It’s all around us. Women need to make their voices heard.

FACEBOOK – Only used by parents these days.

FEMINISM – Totally in favour of. This is what a feminist looks like. Sisters are doing it for themselves. She’s a strong, independent woman.

FIRST-TIME BUYERS – Pity them. (See property ladder)

FOOTBALL – The game needs a major shake-up. The women’s national team always does us proud.

GAME OF THRONES – Not as good as it used to be. Too predictable.

GAY MARRIAGE – All in favour of it. About time.

GENDER PAY GAP – I’m beyond angry about it.

GENERATION SNOWFLAKE – Kids these days don’t know they’re born. Undeserved insult to our hard-working children.

GENTLEMEN – Are there any left?

GIG ECONOMY – Isn’t it awful for those young people.

GLASS CEILING – Holding women back. What prevented Theresa May (Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party), Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland), Arlene Foster (leader of the DUP), Leanne Wood (leader of Plaid Cymru), Mary Lou McDonald (President of Sinn Féin) and Caroline Lucas (leader of the Green Party) from attaining positions of power.

GLOBAL WARMING – Greatest challenge facing the human race. Pack of lies promoted by scientists with a vested interest in research funding. It will all be sorted out by new technology. We need to make sweeping changes to our lifestyles. (Go on to discuss the new 4 by 4 you’ve bought, and where you’re going skiing next year.)

HARD BREXIT – No idea what it means. To be avoided at all costs.

HARD WORKING FAMILIES – Must be mentioned in any speech or media appearance by a Conservative politician.

HARASSMENT – Apparently, looking at a woman’s breasts is a form of harassment – it’s political correctness gone mad. You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman and subjected to constant leering, rude comments and unwanted touching.

HEALTH AND SAFETY – Always ‘gone mad’.

HOLIDAY HOME – Of course French paperwork is a nightmare; but when you’re sitting on the terrace as the sun sets over the Dordogne, with a glass of local wine in your hand, you realise it was definitely worth all the hassle.

HOUSE PRICES – Can’t believe prices in [insert any location in the UK] have shot up so fast. Secretly pleased your house is worth three times what you paid for it.

HOUSING SHORTAGE – Blame the government. Blame local councils. Blame developers. Don’t mention your second home in Cornwall.

IMMIGRATION – Vital for the economy. Placing an impossible burden on local services.

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – Women need to make their voices heard / be taken seriously / be given more respect.

THE INTERNET – Marvel of the age. Has its drawbacks, though. Pornography is the most popular search term.

INTERNET GIANTS – Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, they’ve all gotten too big for their own good. They’re killing off the high street. Isn’t it shocking how little tax they pay.

JAMES BOND – About time she was a woman / he was black. Idris Elba would make an excellent James Bond.

JEREMY CORBYN – Biggest threat to the country since Hitler. Has single-handedly revived British politics. Did you know the Labour Party has its highest membership ever under Corbyn?

KARDASHIAN, KIM – Role model for young women today. Shameless exhibitionist.

LBGT+ – Pretend to know what this stands for. Strongly approve (whatever it is).

LIBERAL ELITE – It’s all their fault.

LONDON – Filthy, polluted, overpriced toilet. Most exciting city in the world.

MANSPLAINING – A man explaining anything to a woman. Terrible in others. You’ve never done it yourself.

MASS SHOOTINGS – I don’t know what the world’s coming to. Americans have a toxic relationship with guns.

#ME TOO – Women need to have their voices heard / be taken seriously / be given more respect.

MEGHAN MARKLE – Breath of fresh air. Just what the Royal Family needs. Just goes to show how things have changed.

MENTAL HEALTH – So brave to talk about it. There’s no stigma attached to it nowadays. (See Meghan Markle)

MILLENNIALS – Sigh. Feel sorry for them.

MOBILE PHONE – I can’t live without my phone. Teenagers are addicted to them.

MOVING OUT OF LONDON – Now we’re living in the country, I can’t imagine how we ever put up with London. So dirty and polluted. Don’t regret moving to the country for a minute.

THE NHS – National treasure. Makes us proud. Needs major reform. The Tories are privatising it by stealth.

NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE – Crying shame. Social injustice. Secretly rejoice that you live in the South.

OBESITY – It’s an epidemic. Blame junk food. Lament the fact that people don’t have time to cook from fresh ingredients, like in the good old days.

THE PATRIARCHY – Rule of men. Anything which prevents any woman getting her way. Responsible for all oppression, anywhere, ever, e.g. ‘war was invented by men’. Being dismantled by Hollywood actresses.

POLITICS, BRITISH – Need a major shake-up.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS – Always ‘gone mad’.

THE POOREST AND MOST VULNERABLE MEMBERS OF OUR SOCIETY – Must be included in any speech or media appearance by a Labour politician. (See hard working families)

POP MUSIC – Not as good as it was back in my day.

POPULISM – It’s a backlash against the liberal elite and political correctness. Did you see the results of the Italian election? (See Trump)

PROSTITUTE – Gently correct anyone using this word – the acceptable phrase is now ‘sex worker’. Unless you’re talking to a woman, in which case remain silent to avoid the risk of ‘mansplaining’.

RACISM – Together we can smash it.

RACIST – I don’t think I’m a racist. I always thought he was a racist. Any institution you can think of is ‘institutionally racist’.

REFUGEES – Isn’t it terrible? Did you see the pictures of those poor children on TV / the internet?

POSITIVE ROLE MODELS – What girls and women need.

ROYAL FAMILY – Respect the work the young generation of royals is doing to raise awareness of important issues (see Meghan Markle).

SEX – Every aspect of ‘the media’ – films, TV, magazines, billboards – are saturated in sexualised images of women. Don’t confuse this with real life, where any mention of women as sexual beings is now forbidden. Never touch, make a pass at, or try and kiss a woman without written permission.

SEXISM – Together we can smash it.

SEXIST – I don’t think I’m sexist, do you darling?

SHADES OF GREY – It’s so badly written, I gave up after a couple of pages. (Don’t reveal you read all three books and made notes.)

SOCIAL CARE – Always ‘in crisis’. Needs a major shake-up.

SOCIALISM – Will destroy the country.

SOFT BREXIT – No idea what it means. Be strongly in favour of it.

STEM – We need to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects. (See Meghan Markle)

STRONG AND STABLE – Means the opposite.

STRONGER – Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

SUFFERING – Always ‘unimaginable’.

THE SUFFRAGETTES – So heroic. It’s because of them that we can vote today.

SUMMER – Always ‘the hottest since records began’. (See global warming)

TAX EVASION – Anyone avoiding tax should be named and shamed. Big American corporations must be forced to pay their fair share of taxes. Don’t mention the shell company you get paid via as a consultant.

TIME’S UP – Women need to have their voices heard / be taken seriously / be given more respect.

TRAFFIC – Always ‘appalling’.

TRUMP, DONALD – Have you read his latest tweet? You know he actually polled fewer votes than Hillary? The man’s a sexist, racist bigot. The White House is in chaos. He won’t last a year. (See populism)

VITAMIN D – Wonder drug miracle cure for all ailments.

WINTER – Always ‘the coldest since records began’.

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Women need to make their voices heard / be taken seriously / be given more respect.


Handy list of contemporary issues

Related links

Flaubert’s books

A Dictionary of Received Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard et Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880 while still working on his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. This tells the adventures of two petit bourgeois dunces, born and raised in Paris, where they work as respectable clerks, who meet and realise they share the same, second-hand, trite and clichéd ideas, and the same dim-witted insatiable curiosity, about everything.

Deciding they are The Best of Friends, they set off on a series of adventures designed to highlight not only their own stupidity, but the stupidity of much so-called ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’. So Bouvard and Pécuchet is less a novel than a fable, standing in a long line of books which satirise book learning, which includes Rabelais, Don Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy.

Except that whereas those books were dominated by what’s been called ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. satires on the university-based, book learning of their times, with a great deal of effort spent ridiculing the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), or the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote) or the new fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) – Bouvard and Pécuchet is determinedly modern and realistic in style.

In a letter Flaubert wrote that the novel is:

‘a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce… I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me…’

One element of the book is the way its two hopeless protagonists interpret everything in a relentlessly middle-brow way, failing to understand the finer points of every intellectual or practical effort they turn their hands to, but rewriting them, as it were, into their own personal language of clichés and stereotypes. And all the while they cheer themselves up with the irritatingly vacuous catch phrases and platitudes beloved of their type and class.

A Dictionary of Stupidity

This explains why, alongside researching and writing the novel, Flaubert also had a project to collect together all the most clichéd, stupid, vapid truisms, the most wretched commonplaces and inanities, the most hackneyed, trite and pitiful platitudes of his age.

He used some of these in the novel, attributing them to his earnestly second-rate characters. But over the course of decades, he built up quite a collection in its own right. He began sorting them into alphabetical order and found himself creating what he initially called a Dictionary of Stupidity and then toned down into ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’.

It is a list of the unthinking slogans and clichés which people prattle out in conversation, the same old opinions you read in the press, the empty formulas politicians make in speeches, the dreary subjects you endure at awful dinner parties. Received opinion, fashionable platitudes, accepted ideas.

As it grew, Flaubert seems to have planned to make the Dictionary of Stupidity form volume two of the completed Bouvard and Pécuchet but died before his plans could be finalised. It was only published in French in 1913, and had to wait till 1954 to be translated into English.

The Dictionary is usually published as an appendix to the larger novel, but Penguin had the bright idea back in the 1990s of publishing it as a stand-alone booklet which I picked up at the time (it seems to be out of print now).

Funny

What’s surprising is how funny it is. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Much funnier that Bouvard and Pécuchet (which is occasionally touching but isn’t, frankly, very funny at all).

This is partly because it is so compressed and pithy. Given half a chance Flaubert will write you a whole page about agricultural techniques or medieval siege machinery or Biblical ointments or whatever pedantic facts he’s come across in his immense background reading and which can be squeezed into one of his long narratives.

But all this verbiage is absent in the Dictionary. Its prose is incredibly compressed. It gives just the most commonplace interpretations of each subject in all their glorious banality. Frequently Flaubert places next to each other two completely contradictory views, both of which are in common circulation, to highlight how unthinkingly stupid we so often are.

I found it helps to imagine some of the phrases being spoken out loud by either a bluff colonel or a delicate maiden aunt (as appropriate).

Examples

ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything foreign, sign of progressive thinking. Contempt for everything un-French, sign of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

AGE, THE PRESENT AGE – Always denounce vigorously.

AMBITION – Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

ANIMALS – If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

ANTIQUES – All forgeries.

ARCHITECTS – All imbeciles.

ARISTOCRACY – Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

AUTHOR – Advisable to know a few authors. No need to remember their names.

And so on. In its way, The Dictionary is as much a portrait of the age as Sentimental Education. Sure a lot of it is dated. But the real eye-opener is how many of these clichés of the bourgeois mind, circa 1880, are still clichés of the bourgeois mind in 2018.

BEETHOVEN – Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

TOYS – Should always be educational.

TRAVELLER – Always ‘intrepid’.

WALLS – Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls…’

WATCH – The only decent ones are made in Switzerland.

WIT – Always ‘sparkling’. Brevity the soul of.

WORKER – Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting.

Flaubert wrote that ‘after reading the book, the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it’ and realising what a mug he is – a splendid ambition. We could do with more silence.

SEALED – Always ‘hermetically’.

PIKESTAFF – Plain as a.

KORAN – Book by Mohammed. Exclusively about repressing women.

INTERVAL – Always too long.

ILLEGIBLE – A doctor’s signature ought to be illegible. So should any official signature. Shows that you are overwhelmingly busy.

GREEK – Anything you don’t understand. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’

A perfect book to dip into for a few minutes and find yourself chortling, then laughing out loud.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

**********

Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Hérodias

Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.

Christianity

And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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