LETTER FROM GEORGE SAND TO GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, 12th January, 1876
My cherished Cruchard [note: a term of endearment],
I want to write to you every day; but time is lacking absolutely. At last here is a free moment; we are buried under the snow; it is the sort of weather that I adore: this whiteness is like general purification, and the amusements of the house seem more intimate and sweeter. Can anyone hate winter in the country? Snow is one of the most beautiful sights of the year!
It appears that I am not clear in my sermons; I have that much in common with the orthodox, but I am not of them; neither in my idea of equality, nor of authority, have I any fixed plan. You seem to think that I want to convert you to a doctrine. Not at all, I don’t think of such a thing. Everyone sets off from a point of view, the free choice of which I respect. In a few words, I can give a resume of mine: not to place oneself behind an opaque glass through which one can see only the reflection of one’s own nose. To see as far as possible the good, the bad, about, around, yonder, everywhere; to perceive the continual gravitation of all tangible and intangible things towards the necessity of the decent, the good, the true, the beautiful.
I don’t say that humanity is on its way to the heights. I believe it in spite of everything; but I do not argue about it, it is useless because each one judges according to his own personal vision, and the general aspect is for the moment poor and ugly. Besides, I do not need to be sure of the safety of the planet and its inhabitants in order to believe in the necessity of the good and the beautiful; if the planet departs from that law it will perish; if the inhabitants discard it they will be destroyed. Other stars, other souls will pass over their bodies, so much the worse! But, as for me, I want to gravitate up to my last breath, not without the certitude nor the need of finding elsewhere a GOOD PLACE, but because my sole joy is in keeping myself with my family on an upward road.
In other words, I am fleeing the sewer, and I am seeking the dry and the clean, certain that it is the law of my existence. Being human amounts to little; we are still near the monkey from which they say we proceed. Very well! a further reason for separating ourselves still more from it and for being at least at the height of the relative truth that our race has been admitted to comprehend; a very poor truth, very limited, very humble! well, let us possess it as much as we can and not permit anyone to take it from us. We are, I think, quite agreed; but I practice this simple religion and you do not practice it, since you let yourself become discouraged; your heart has not been penetrated with it, since you curse life and desire death like a Catholic who yearns for compensation, be it only the rest eternal. You are no surer than another of this compensation. Life is perhaps eternal, and therefore work is eternal. If this is so, let us do our day’s work bravely. If it is otherwise, if the self perishes entirely, let us have the honor of having done our stated task, it is our duty; for we have evident duties only toward ourselves and our equals. What we destroy in ourselves, we destroy in them. Our abasement lowers them, our falls drag them down; we owe it to them to remain upright so that they shall not fall. The desire for an early death, as that for a long life, is therefore a weakness, and I do not want you to admit any longer that it is a right. I too thought that once; I believed, however, what I believe today; but I lacked strength, and like you I said: “I cannot help it.” I lied to myself. One can help everything. One has the strength that one thinks one does not have, when one desires ardently to GRAVITATE, to mount a step each day, to say to oneself: “The
Flaubert of tomorrow must be superior to the one of yesterday, and the one of a day after tomorrow more steady and more lucid still.”
When you feel you are on the ladder, you will mount very quickly. You are about to enter gradually upon the happiest and most favorable time of life: old age. It is then that art reveals itself in its full sweetness; as long as one is young, it manifests itself with anguish. You prefer a well-turned phrase to all metaphysics. I also, I love to see condensed into a few words what elsewhere fills volumes; but these volumes, one must have understood them completely (either to admit them or to reject them) in order to find the sublime activity which becomes literary art in its fullest expression; that is why one should not scorn the efforts of the human mind to arrive at truth.
I tell you that, because you have excessive prejudices AS TO WORDS. In truth, you read, you dig, you work much more than I and a crowd of others do. You have acquired learning that I shall never attain.Therefore you are a hundred times richer than all of us; you are a rich man, and you complain like a poor man. Be charitable to a beggar who has his mattress full of gold, but who wants to be nourished only on well-turned phrases and choice words. But dear brute, ransack your own mattress and eat your gold. Nourish yourself with the ideas and feelings accumulated in your head and your heart; the words and the phrases. THE FORM to which you attach so much importance, will issue by itself from your inner digestion. You consider it as an end, it is only an effect. Happy manifestations proceed only from an emotion, and an emotion proceeds only from a conviction. One is not moved at all by the things that one does not believe with all one’s heart.
I do not say that you do not believe: on the contrary, all your life of affection, of protection, and of charming and simple goodness, proves that you are the most convinced individual in the world. But, as soon as you handle literature, you want, I don’t know why, to be another man, one who should disappear, one who destroys himself, who does not exist! What an absurd mania! what a false rule of GOOD TASTE! Our work is worth only what we are worth.
Who is talking about putting yourself on the social stage? That, in truth, is of no use, unless it is done frankly by way of a chronicle. But to withdraw one’s soul from what one does, what is that unhealthy fancy? To hide one’s own opinion about the characters that one puts on the stage, to leave the reader therefore uncertain about the opinion that he should have of them, that is to desire not to be understood, and from that moment, the reader leaves you; for if he wants to understand the story that you are telling him, it is on the condition that you should show him plainly that this one is a strong character and that one weak.
L’Education Sentimentale has been a misunderstood book, as I have told you repeatedly, but you have not listened to me. There should have been a short preface, or, at least, a good opportunity, an expression of blame, even if only a happy epithet to condemn the evil, to characterize the defect, to signalize the effort. All the characters in that book are feeble and come to nothing, except those with bad instincts; that is what you are reproached with, because people did not understand that you wanted precisely to depict the deplorable state of a society that encourages these bad instincts and ruins noble efforts; when people do not understand us it is always our fault. What the reader wants, first of all, is to penetrate into our thoughts, and that is what you deny him, arrogantly. He thinks that you scorn him and that you want to ridicule him. For my part, I understood you, for I knew you. If anyone had brought me your book without its being signed, I should have thought it beautiful, but strange, and I should have asked myself if you were immoral, skeptical, indifferent or heart-broken. You say that it ought to be like that, and that M. Flaubert will violate the rules of good taste if he reveals his own thoughts and the aim of his literary enterprise. This is false in the highest degree. When M. Flaubert writes well and seriously, one attaches oneself to his personality. One wants to sink or swim with him. If he leaves you in doubt, you lose interest in his work, you neglect it, or you give it up.
I have already been in combat with your favorite heresy, which is that one writes for twenty intelligent people and does not care a fig for the rest. It is not true, since the lack of success irritates you and troubles you. Besides, there have not been twenty critics favorable to this book which was so well written and so important. So one must not write for twenty persons any more than for three, or for a hundred thousand.
One must write for all those who have a thirst to read and who can profit by good reading. Then one must go straight to the most elevated conceptions within oneself, and not make a mystery of the moral and profitable meaning of one’s book. People found that with Madame Bovary. If one part of the public cried scandal, the healthiest and the broadest part saw in it a severe and striking lesson given to a woman without conscience and without faith, to vanity, to ambition, to irrationality. They pitied her; art required that, but the lesson was clear, and it would have been more so, it would have been so for everybody, if you had wished it, if you had shown more clearly the opinion that you had, and that the public ought to have had, about the heroine, her husband, and her lovers.
That desire to depict things as they are, the adventures of life as they present themselves to the eye, is not well thought out, in my opinion. Depict inert things as a realist, as a poet, it’s all the same to me, but, when one touches on the emotions of the human heart, it is another thing. You cannot abstract yourself from this contemplation; for man, that is yourself, and men, that is the reader. Whatever you do achieve this, your tale is a conversation between you and the reader. If you show him the evil coldly, without ever showing him the good, he is angry. He wonders if it is he that is bad, or if it is you. You work, however, is to rouse him and to interest him; you will never succeed if you are not roused yourself, or if you hide it so well that he thinks you indifferent. He is right: supreme impartiality is an anti-human thing, and a novel ought to be human above everything. If it is not, the public is not pleased in its being well written, well composed and conscientious in every detail.
The essential quality is not there: interest. The reader breaks away likewise from a book where all the characters are good without distinctions and without weaknesses; he sees clearly that that is not human either. I believe that art, this special art of narration, is only worth while through the opposition of characters; but, in their struggle, I prefer to see the right prevail. Let events overwhelm the honest men, I agree to that, but let him not be soiled or belittled by them, and let him go to the stake feeling that he is happier than his executioners….
Note: George Sand died later this same year, before she could read Flaubert’s last completed book, Three Tales, one of which, ‘A Simple Heart’, was specifically written to please her and take some of the above advice to heart. Their friendship spanned many decades, producing what is generally conceded to be the greatest of all literary correspondences (which now exists in a far better translation than the one quoted above). ******************
It would be remiss of me not to throw in a word on politics here.
“The history of the human mind is a history of stupidity.” Voltaire
The proposed bill in Ottawa effectively to ban prostitution proves Flaubert’s maxim that “people get stupider by the hour”. Has anyone in the House of Idiots ever read a history book? No government has ever succeeded in banning prostitution, just as no nation has ever managed to drag Afghanistan out of the twelfth century. The bill, if anyone is dumb enough to pass it, would simply further endanger the lives of sex-trade workers by outlawing the safe haven of the brothel and making street work somewhat impossible (since is there a street anywhere where one can be certain not to encounter someone under 18?). I suggest a lie-detector test for members of the kindergarten on the hill asking, “Have you ever paid for sex or thought of doing so?” Those who pass clean can vote, the rest must abstain. I imagine, human nature being what it is, that the mere threat of such a test would leave this bill dead in the water. Hypocrites all of them, not to mention inveterate and pathological liars. We’ll leave the Ukraine hypocrisy for another time, but bear this in mind: Democracy does not work, and for reasons stated succinctly by Plato, but still more succinctly by Voltaire above. With tender good wishes, Paul William Roberts.