Flaubert and the Temptation of the Subject

Flaubert's obsession with sameness, resemblance, and the déjà dit betrays his concern for the nature and function of the literary subject. Modern criticism, seizing on this concern that affects Flaubert's views on referentiality, the production of meaning, and the possibility of symbolic interpretation, has been tempted to enlist him in the cause of modernity that stresses the bad conscience of the traditional novel, the tendency toward the ultimate disappearance of the personage, and the intransitive nature of the literary work. Yet while it is true that Flaubert's anti-representational and anti-mimetic bias would seem to establish a fundamental gap between literarity and subject matter, it cannot be denied that Flaubert's concern for "representation" and "reproduction" indicate shifting attitudes toward the priorities of art and experience. Repeatedly, Flaubert proclaims the centrality of the subject, maintaining that there exists an original bond between subject matter and an individual literary temperament. The belief in the subject's matricial virtue thus reaffirms its pre-eminence. Three key images-the eye, the mirror, the mime preside over Flaubert's doctrine of "reproduction." His views are thus more nuanced and self-contradictory than critics determined to enlist him in the cause of literary self-referentiality are willing to grant. Never a dupe of the mimetic fallacy, Flaubert is convinced that no matter how omnipresent the specter of eternal redundance, there is a worthwhile something-to-be-written, that the subject exists, and that it can be communicated-though perhaps only in an enigmatic, or as he puts it, "incomprehensible" manner. (VB)

Brombert, Victor
Volume 1984 Spring; 12(3): 280-96.