Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Imprecise beings

I wonder what thoughts would cross Flaubert's mind were he here today. Gustave Flaubert - the author of Madame Bovary and other novels - was a French writer who was apparently obsessed with finding the perfect words for expressing particular thoughts,situations or descriptions. I can relate on a small level. There are times when the perfect word is used in conversation or writing and I get a giddy burst of excitement. Fortunately, most of my good friends share this little love. It's not uncommon for one of us - in the middle of a conversation - to nod, grin, and say, "Nice...good choice."

Flaubert is a writer that other writers tend to admire. It seems that every great literary figure from his time until now has written about him or expressed their admiration of him.

A good portion of the admiration that he reaps is due to his devotion to the craft of writing. He wrote, and re-wrote, and tore out hair, and re-wrote until a phrase turned just so, or a description finally clicked into sharp focus. And maybe even more important than this dedication, is the fact that it wasn't something that was easy for Flaubert to do. He wasn't a writer who could toss off a handful of pages and head down to the pub for a quick one knowing that those pages were just what he wanted to say.

Flaubert was also - well - a bit of a conceited prig too. He was disgusted by the lack of intelligence, contempt for beauty, and baseness he saw when he looked at his fellow men. The bourgeois were particularly appalling to him. One quote seems to sum up his disdain:

"To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

But this cynicism didn't decrease his ability to clearly see the world around him - and to comment on it - and to see himself. Clues to that come out in quotes like this:
"That man has missed something who has never left a brothel at sunrise feeling like throwing himself into the river out of pure disgust."

Surely, no prude could say something like that. Obviously there was some brothel visiting in Flaubert's life.

Anyway, I was surfing about the internets and one tube led me to some Flaubert quotes. As I read some of them it made me wonder what Flaubert himself would have made of them. There were quite a few from a passage in Madame Bovary. They were all in English - so they were obviously translated from the original French. The irony of the words of a man obsessed with finding "le mot juste" ("the precise word") being translated in so many different ways struck me like a sharp clap on the shoulder. I don't think there's a clearer example of the imprecision of our communication to be found. Not even the the myriad translations of "the sacred, perfect words of God" in the many different publications of The Bible have struck me in the same way.

"...exaggerated turns of speech conceal mediocre affections: as if the fulness of the soul might not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sufferings, and the human word is like a cracked cauldron upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity."

"Language is like a crack'd kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."

"The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars."

"Human speech is a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars."

I think that those words simply brushed onto canvas would make for a great painting. The original French surrounded by the many ways of translating it - nothing fancy, just words - would perhaps be enough to convey the irony.


The Zombieslayer said...

Sounds like I'll have to read Madame Bovary.

I can't rewrite something more than once.

SME said...

I get Flaubert mixed up with Zola, but they're both cool.

The Zombieslayer said...

Shawn - where did you go?

Got $50 on Packers beating the Vikings -6 points. Just wanted to let you know. Yes, I know we'll win, but I just hope we cover the spread.

tshsmom said...

Happy Thanksgiving Shawn!!