Frédéric Moreau, at “Madame Dambreuse’s house for one of her regular evening receptions” falls into conversation with a typical group of men of substance:
“Most of the men there had served at least four governments; and they would have sold France or the whole human race to safeguard their fortunes, to spare themselves the least twinge of discomfort or embarrassment, or simply out of mere servility and an instinctive worship of power.”
This last quote has stood out for me as perhaps the finest gem in Gustave Flaubert’s 1869 novel, ’Sentimental Education,’ a novel that is filled with literary gems. This characterization of self-interest by men of substance, members of the bourgeoisie, strikes me as timeless and absolutely true of such a large portion of the people of my time — male and female — in my American society, and across the entire political spectrum. That one phrase, about people being led, “simply out of mere servility and an instinctive worship of power” says it all about self-interest as pursued by moral cowards of shallow intellectual depth. And doesn’t our society reflect just that?
’Sentimental Education’ was, supposedly, Franz Kafka’s favorite novel. If so I can easily see why. Thinking about it always draws me deep in contemplation about my own emotional — “sentimental” — course through life.
Who am I? I cycle through each character in ‘Sentimental Education,’ though never quite fully in each case, vaguer, more tentative, more naïvely pathetic at times. Maybe that is good, and maybe unimportant.
I was an Arnoux, but never with sufficient confidence to be so flamboyantly foolish, my joys in beauty quieter and not philandering, my affections while Arnoux more guarded. But like Arnoux, I love my children with that same fatherly abundance of affection, which was also true of Dick Diver, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ’Tender is the Night.’
I was a Frédéric, but not so inconsistent, alternating between childish sentimentality and self-pity, and cynicism of hollow bravado, between fear of lack of acceptance locking him in lonely isolation, and fear of exposure to ridicule when displaying for public attention. I accept that one must make emotional commitments and maintain them if one is to have any hope of securing some personal stability, some personal peace. But one cannot expect too much from others, as all are overwhelmed by the dramas and trivialities of their own lives.
And for some years I was a Deslauriers, absolutely certain of his political acumen and of the ignorant injustice of the world to that amorphous anonymity of social clay called “the people,” and with intent to himself, though this is also so much envy railing out of frustration at the personal failure to stumble onto the good luck conveying one into the ranks of the perpetually rewarded and exclusively immunized.
I lack the stubbornness to entrench myself in bitter unawareness, so I will always fail to be an ideologue, as Sénécal was, that ultra-leftist extreme of Deslauriers’s mushy self-centered liberalism. Sénécals I know of: people of iron certainty, which they imagine — if even they do that — that such purity of conviction gives them a soul, but are absolutely devoid of human-heartedness. Though none of the Sénécals I know, or have ever known, have any physical courage to be little Stalins, all their iron is in words, all their actions less vaporous than electronic noise. The self-defense of an irrelevant ego’s self-righteousness can be so pathetic. I leave to all today’s Sénécals their clamor of competitive hungers for acclaim by the vacuous herds they aspire to lead.
And to have a Madame Arnoux, why conceive such an impossible dream?, of a barely older woman of compassionate maturity to mother over all your little boy insecurities, and elevate your self-respect by your possession of her exclusive devotion.
Much easier to find a girl as light-minded and youthfully gay as Rosanette, to grow into a reliably steady partner in a mundane joint life of pedestrian conformity — assuming she does not later deteriorate into borderline personality disorder as a luxury indulgence to compensate for aging, for out of such conventional joint lives are children most easily — and kindly — raised. And of such children it is the odd ones — not many — who can break free of the dullness they incubated in, to take flight in their own independence.
Love is pure tragedy for those who only want it to be pure sunshine.
“The trouble with ‘Sentimental Education’,” said Massingill, “is that you have to know so damn much in order to enjoy it.”
“Do you think that novels should be devoid of historical facts, and cast off references?”
“Absolutely!,” he replied, “a successful novelist knows how to write entertainment for completely empty minds. Anything else is a profitless pretension, that you would probably call art, in what is always a purely commercial enterprise: the selling of bound paper smudged with printed words.”
I could see why Massingill was such a successful book publisher. I did not submit my manuscript.
In many ways I see similarities between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’ and Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Sentimental Education.’ Both are about inner conflicts and inconsistencies about “love,” and both have richly detailed prose while also being “realistic.” For me, both are affecting and both are timeless.
Look into that lovely face, and imagine being Frédéric Moreau or Richard “Dick” Diver.