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Tuesday, June 09, 2020

The Flaubert-Sand letters: part one

George Sand came in for a pummeling from several of the leading lights of modernism. Proust, for instance, told his friends that he disliked Sand, and that Flaubert, who he revered, must have been “insincere” when he praised her in his letters. Baudelaire was much more venomous. Sand was the perfect opposite of Baudelaire: liberal when he was illiberal, a lover of nature when nature, to him, was irradiated with symbols of its fallen state, and in no way an adherent of his own peculiar Sadian Christianity. In the wake of the controversy raised, in 1862, by her anti-clerical novel, Mademoiselle la Quintinie, he wrote a series of notes comparing her to a latrine (because she fucked who she wanted to and didn’t make any bones about it) and compared her to a concierge and a kept woman. He found her the very type of positivist bourgeois he couldn’t stand: why, in her novel, she even dismissed hell! Hell was as necessary to Baudelaire as it was to Dante. Nietzsche, who read the version of the Flaubert-Sand correspondence edited by Maupassant, attacked her in his usual oblique way in Twilight of the Idols:

George Sand. - I read the first Lettres d’un voyageur: like everything deriving from Rousseau, false, artificial, gassy, exaggerated. I cannot endure this multicolored wallpaper style; as little as I can the plebian-ambition for generous feelings. The worst is the womanly coquettishness with masculinity, with the manners of an undeveloped youth – how cold must she have been by all of this, this insufferable artist! She winds herself up like a clock – and writes. Cold, like Hugo, like Balzac, like all the romantics, as soon as they begin to compose. And how self-pleased she must have been, this fruitful writing-cow, who had something German about her in the worst sense of the word, like Rousseau himself, her master, becoming possible only because of the decline of French taste! – But Renan adores her…”

As always with Nietzsche, there are catches and turns in the vituperation that make it seem unconsciously respectful. One could imagine this inverted. When I first read this, I thought the 'writing – cow' crack was typical Fritz misogyny. But later, reading her letters, I see that Sand uses that phrase about herself, or rather, often compares herself to a cow.

Nietzsche was as well a critic of Flaubert and his theory of impersonality ( behind his visceral dismissal of Sand is that he shares her criticism of that theory - nothing disturbs Nietzsche like the touch of an unwanted ally), and this is why he wants to speak of her coldness, and the coldness of the romantics, whose cult of the self was not, Nietzsche hoped, similar to the beyond-human of his own invention.
Proust, though, admired Flaubert, as did almost all the modernists. This made it puzzling to them that Flaubert clearly thinks of Sand, who from one point of view was the very opposite of the modernists, as a great figure. He even praises her writing and – more than that – has the discernment to mention the novels that, according to today’s Sand-ians, are the height of her art: Consuelo and La Comtesse de Rudolstadt.

I’ve been reading the correspondence with a lot of admiration, and want to say a few things about it. So I’m going to amuse myself this week, taking a break from the protests, by saying them.

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