Sex Education: Obscenity, Romanticism, and Creativity in Flaubert’s letters from the Voyage en Égypte and L’Éducation sentimentale

This article re-examines the significance of the Orient in two texts by Flaubert, his letters from the Voyage en Égypte and the novel L’Éducation sentimentale. It argues that Flaubert’s confrontation with the Orient in his letters is structured by two intertwined preoccupations: sexual excess and creative failure. For Flaubert, the symbolic power that the Orient acquires over the course of his voyage lies in the pairing of these two preoccupations as they represent two possible principles of artistic production: obscenity and Romanticism. The Orient in turn becomes a privileged metaphorical space in L’Éducation sentimentale because the novel attempts to mediate the same tension between the creative potential of pornographic sexuality and the artistic disappointments of Romanticized sentiment, re-written on the historical scale of the Romantic generation. Reconsidered as an aesthetic principle in this way, the Orient offers us a new perspective on how Flaubert grappled with the nature of artistic inspiration and the artist’s relationship to society.