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On 'Sentimental Education'

L-R: Flaubert, Monet, Manet, Pissarro

I’m reading Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” for at least the third time, at the same time as I’m reading a book called “The Private Lives of the Impressionists”, which is a very readable and well-researched account of the relationships between Manet, Monet, Pissaro, et al. So my head is filled with the people and the material reality of Paris from the 1840s to the 1870s. Both books are so vivid in their recreation of a specific time and place that it has the effect of making mid-nineteenth century Paris seem at times more real than the time in which I actually live. The second book is a mild antidote to the first, too. Flaubert’s book is a mercilessly ironic dissection of a bourgeois society obsessed with accumulation, pleasure and power, the exaltation of the personal whim above altruism, and a restless desire for sensation which renders everything sour and dissatisfying as soon as it is achieved. The education of the emotions (“sentiments” in French) received by Frederic Moreau is the cynical realization that all of a young man’s hopes for love, success and fulfillment can end in bitterness, regret, and disappointment.

This pessimism is partly why I like it. The central relationship between Frederic and Madame Arnoux, in which a young man falls in love with an older married woman and longs for a relationship with her which is never quite fulfilled—this is something that I relate to personally (that’s all I’ll say on that). But we can all recognize something of ourselves and even our own world in the Paris of Flaubert’s early manhood. More, the tone of the novel reveals a discomforting version of how all lives might be lived: as a succession of vivid events that, upon reflection, don’t amount to much.

Flaubert hated the bourgeois culture that had produced him, and “Sentimental Education” teems with all the matter, the things, the stuff produced by that society, and the shallow obsessions and trivializing of feelings that accompanies them. There’s hardly a character in the novel who isn’t diminished in some way. There’s Frederic, whose life consists of veering from one contradictory extreme to another, one day trying to be a painter, the next a law student, later a minister of state; falling in love with Madame Arnoux, then the courtesan Rosanette, then Madame Dambreuse, each of whom is cast in a light that shows their limitations, too; the political firebrand Senecal and his friends, whose plotting and philosophizing is shown to be so much posturing; Arnoux and Dambreuse, representatives of a merchant class that turns everything into a commodity, including people and relationships. The cruelest strokes are reserved for those who demean art in this way—art, Flaubert’s refuge from the relentless tide of materialism. There’s the hack artist Pellerin, who ends as a photographer to the rich, and there’s Arnoux again, who moves from being a patron of the arts to a bankrupt manufacturer of china, and who only ever uses the arts as a means to enrich himself or wield influence over other men. From a purely social point of view, Flaubert was one of the first great writers to satirize the effect of industrialism on the life of a city in a way that resounds today. After all, most of the things that I’ve just talked about could apply to our own world.

Was there no hope, then, and is there no hope? Well, that’s why it’s pleasant to think of Manet and friends, just a few decades later. Despite the derision of the public, and their inability to find a stable income from their work until well into the 1870s, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas and Cezanne (who wasn’t an Impressionist but who was in their circle until he went to the south) 
 managed to go on making work and pursuing their visual discoveries without falling into despair. And if we think that our political problems are uniquely terrible, consider the world in which Monet grew up. From Monet’s birth in the 1840s until the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, Paris was swept by several waves of civil unrest, invasion, and revolution: from the upheavals of 1848, invasion by the Prussians in 1870, and the devastation in the wake of the Paris Commune in 1871, when many of the great buildings of central Paris such as the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, and the Louvre, were severely damaged, and when some 40,000 communards were either executed or deported.

Through all of this political upheaval, Monet et al struggled to make a living, but they survived. It’s remarkable how unstable were their fortunes for the rest of the 1870s, with really only Manet and Renoir having had dependable sources of income. Monet was forever in debt, forever moving nearer to Paris, then away from Paris, going on a good run with some series of paintings, only to see his income dry up again, always aware of the need to make money to support his family. The so-called Impressionists only started to make decent money from their work after it became popular outside France, particularly in the United States. The same thing happened, incidentally, to the Cubists, whose fortunes depended on a few German and Russian collectors until after World War I. Despite the dangerous politics and the uncertain finances of their lives, they pursued their craft—a lesson to those of us who suffer similar Flaubertian moments of doubt as to the worth of art in a world consumed by market values.


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