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the formless tragedy of emma bovary

She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.

The elegant and subtle style of Gustave Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary' has been praised and studied ever since the novel appeared in 1856. The short sentence quoted offers a great example, symbolizing the "formless tragedy" of Emma Bovary and illustrating Flaubert's complex attitude towards his character.

Most obvious in the statement is the striking irony of the contradiction in her wishes. The sentence occurs as the culmination of a paragraph of daydreaming, and of mutually exclusive longings to escape her dull life as a housewife in a small country town. As Flaubert often does, he will build such a theme and then conclude with an epigrammic summary, a kind of coda on a microlevel.

She had bought herself a blotter, a writing case, a penholder, and some envelopes, although she had no one to write to; she would dust her shelves, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, and then, as daydreams replaced the lines of print, let it fall on to her lap. She longed to travel; she longed to go back to her convent to live. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.

Note the rhythm of the prose, and how it slowly shifts from resolute fact to something more subjective and close to erlebte Rede. There is a particularly subtle shift from "she had bought" to "she would dust", that is, from a single instance of fact to a more general sketch of her situation, and from there it drifts off into daydreaming.

At the same time, the sentence reveals much about Emma Bovary's character, whose romantic notion of "living in Paris" is as absolute as dying, and whose provincial boredom is nothing like the sophisticated Parisian ennui of, say, Baudelaire (whose 'Les Fleur du mal' was published a year later).

However, while it might seem that Flaubert is making fun of his heroine, 'Madame Bovary' was considered groundbreaking for making such mundane, small drama the subject of a serious novel. For all his irony, the fact that he is describing Emma's vague longings at all, realistically and in all their inarticulateness, shows the compassion he has for his character.

In his seminal study of literary criticism, 'Mimesis', Erich Auerbach analyses the novel and its particular style at length. He has this to say about Flaubert's literary innovation:

Certainly [Emma] has many wishes, but they are entirely vague - elegance, love, a varied life; there must always have been such unconcrete despair, but no one ever thought of taking it seriously in literary works before; such formless tragedy, if it may be called tragedy, which is set in motion by the general situation itself, was first made conceivable as literature by romanticism; probably Flaubert was the first to have represented it in people of slight intellectual culture and fairly low station; certainly he is the first who directly captures the chronic character of this psychological situation. Nothing happens, but that nothing has become a heavy, oppressive, threatening something.

As Auerbach recognizes, Flaubert also pointed the way for modernist writers like Proust and Virginia Woolf, who would create literature out of the detailed treatment of the smallest daily events, and the same kind of "formless tragedy".

Meanwhile, what makes 'Madame Bovary' still a fascinating read is exactly the tension between Flaubert's distancing irony and close, affectionate observation. At times he achieves both at the same time, resulting in a uniquely layered form of realism.

modern craftsmanship

Craftsmanship is a term most often applied to manual laborers and denotes the pursuit of quality in making a violin, watch, or pot. This is too narrow a view. Mental craftsmanship also exists, as in the effort to write clearly; social craftsmanship might lie in forging a viable marriage. An embracing definition of craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself.


Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. The problem lies in the last part of our definition, doing something for its own sake. The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth.


An organization in which the contents are constantly shifting requires the mobile capacity to solve problems; getting deeply involved in any one problem would be dysfunctional, since projects end as abruptly as they begin. The problem analyzer who can move on, whose product is possibility, seems more attuned to the instabilities which rule the global marketplace.


...craftsmanship has a cardinal virtue missing in the new culture's idealized worker, student, or citizen. It is commitment. It's not simply that the obsessed, competitive craftsman may be committed to doing something well, but more that he or she believes in its objective value. A person can use the words correct and right in describing how well something is done only if he or she believes in an objective standard outside his or her own desires, indeed outside the sphere of rewards from others. Getting something right, even though it may get you nothing, is the spirit of true craftsmanship. And only that kind of disinterested commitment - or so I believe - can lift people up emotionally; otherwise, they succumb in the struggle to survive.

- Richard Sennett, from 'The Culture of the New Capitalism' (2006).

Sociologist Sennett has become a kind of 21st century Max Weber, specializing in the sociology of labor and the workplace. In the context of global capitalism and what Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid modernity, craftsmanship has all but become "dysfunctional". Instead it is the opposite type, the "problem analyzer", aka the consultant, who thrives in this kind of workplace.

His next book, 'The Craftsman' (2008), built on this idea further. In an interesting review, Lewis Hyde summed up the know-how of craftspeople:

They know how to negotiate between autonomy and authority (as one must in any workshop); how to work not against resistant forces but with them (as did the engineers who first drilled tunnels beneath the Thames); how to complete their tasks using "minimum force" (as do all chefs who must chop vegetables); how to meet people and things with sympathetic imagination (as does the glassblower whose "corporeal anticipation" lets her stay one step ahead of the molten glass); and above all they know how to play, for it is in play that we find "the origin of the dialogue the craftsman conducts with materials like clay and glass."

For an inspiring freestyle elaboration of this theme - based on his experience as a musician - see Sennett's Premsela Lecture 2011, titled 'Out of Touch' (PDF).

Compare also this more lyrical but otherwise very similar description of craftsmanship from Ivo Andrić.

insel hombroich

In the rolling Rhineland fields near Neuss lies the Museum Insel Hombroich, a spacious park that's also a museum, with both open air sculpture and graphic work housed in pavilions scattered in the landscape. The combination pleasantly blends two activities, adding an element of adventurous exploration to museum visiting, and mixing an eclectic range of artistic visions into a stroll around a park...

Museum Insel Hombroich - 1

Museum Insel Hombroich - 2

Besides the extensive range of modern and ancient sculpture, the collection includes paintings by such artists as Lovis Corinth, Jean Fautrier and Francis Picabia, to name a few highlights, as well as a great series of Rembrandt drawings. Also, the works are exhibited without descriptions, which keeps things refreshingly simple.

Museum Insel Hombroich - 3

Museum Insel Hombroich - 4

In the 1990s the area was extended to include a former NATO base (Raketenstation Hombroich), which has also been redeveloped as exhibition and workshop space. An eyecatching new addition here is the Langen Foundation, designed by Tadao Ando. Along the same lines as his museum designs in Japan, like Chichu and 21 21, the building of glass and pale gray concrete slabs, partly below ground level, is itself a formal sculpture, carving out a trajectory of large interior spaces and exterior vistas stripped back to their bare, essential function.

Langen Foundation - 1

Langen Foundation - 2

Langen Foundation - 3

The Langen Foundation currently has works on display from their impressive Japanese collection of folding screens and scrolls.

All in all, worth a detour.


I lay a while looking into the darkness, a thick massive darkness without end that I wasn't able to fathom. My thoughts couldn't grasp it. It struck me as excessively dark and I felt its presence as oppressive. I closed my eyes, began to sing in an undertone, and tossed back and forth in the bunk to distract myself, but it was no use. The darkness had taken possession of my thoughts and didn't leave me alone for a moment. What if I myself were to be dissolved into darkness, made one with it? I sit up in bed and flail my arms.


Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn't exist in the language, I have invented it - Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word - Christ, man, you have invented a word... Kuboaa... of great grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn't have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said it should mean cattle show? I clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? All things considered, it wasn't even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn't difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile I would sleep on it.

- Knut Hamsun, from 'Hunger' (1890, in the translation by Sverre Lyngstad).

This is only the beginning of the narrator's long sleepless night trying to fend off the darkness and figure out what his newly invented word should and shouldn't mean. And this in turn is only a small episode in the ongoing, disturbing delirium of hunger that leads him through euphorically lucid highs and desperate, paranoid lows in the space of minutes.

Make no mistake though, this is not a Dickensian poverty victim or even a Dostoevskyan penitent, but a modern, 20th century hero on a perverse hunger trip that he brings upon himself willfully, defiantly. As Paul Auster puts it in his introduction, 'The Art of Hunger', his irrational behavior seems to come "from some inner compulsion, as if to wage a hunger strike against himself".

Mind and body have been weakened; the hero has lost control over both his thought and actions. And yet he persists in trying to control his destiny. This is the paradox, the game of circular logic that is played out through the pages of the book. It is an impossible situation for the hero. For he has willfully brought himself to the brink of danger. To give up starving would not mean victory, it would simply mean that the game was over. He wants to survive, but only on his own terms: survival that will bring him face to face with death.

And in the same impossibly proud way he will use language - and invent secret words like kuboaa - strictly on his own terms.

ecclesiastical plumbing

The current issue of Cabinet Magazine, devoted to infrastructure, contains a fascinating article on an architectural detail of Catholic churches called the piscina. The author, Yara Flores, describes it like this:

Often set apart under an ornate lid and sealed under lock and key, the piscina has the air of a tabernacle but the appearance of a hooded washbasin. Indeed, its cover opened, the modern piscina tends to look like a very ordinary little sink. The deep difference lies not in its exposed hardware (an enamel basin, common chrome or brass fittings, etc.) but rather in its hidden plumbing, since the drainpipe of a piscina, rather than running into the sewer system, instead passes in pristine segregation down through the floor and foundation of the church and there vents into a small, sepulchral cave sunk in consecrated ground. The piscina is a sink that eads to a grave. What we have here is less a drainpipe than a burial chute.

As Flores goes on to explain, the purpose of the piscina can be traced back to the Christian dogma of transubstantiation. After a centuries-long debate, this rather mindbending theological doctrine was formulated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 to mean that during the Eucharist the consecrated bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Jesus. (At which point, it is bread and body, wine and blood simultaneously. To understand this fully, be prepared for some very subtle Aristotelian philosophy on substance.)

This mystically paradoxical dogma - or contradiction, depending on where you stand theologically - provided the central ritual in Christian mass, and also embodied (excuse the pun) that other mystical paradox of Christianity, the socalled hypostatic union of Jesus being both fully God and fully man.

However, all this theological subtlety aside (a couple of centuries later the protestants would start the debate afresh), the dogma of transubstantiation created an interesting practical problem, which led to the construction of the piscina (the basin) and the sacrarium (the drain) in churches.

If the priest was handling the body of Christ - which was, of course, the "body" of God Himself - extraordinary precautions were called for. He needed to wash his hands, certainly, both before and after. Before, fine, he could just give them a ritual rinse. But after? What about the crumbs? He was presumably here washing away tiny bits of the Almighty, and it clearly would not do to have such fragments, however minute, sloughed to the strawstrewn flagstones, or carried out by charwomen in the bilge. One was here disposing of sacred remains, indeed the most sacred remains possible to conceive.

The full article is online, titled 'Drain Pipes, Dream Pipes, Pipe Dreams' (PDF).