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Benjamin IvryMarch 31, 2022
A portrait of Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Pierre Francois Eugene Giraud (Wikimedia Commons)

The bicentenary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert last December was a reminder of the ongoing relevance of the French novelist as a writer engaged with deeply religious themes.

Flaubert created works reflecting an ongoing search for spiritual significance, including the novels Madame Bovary (1857); The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874); and Three Tales (1877), comprising short stories about St. Julien l’Hospitalier, St. John the Baptist and a servant who reveres a pet parrot whom she associates with the Holy Spirit.

His sometimes sardonic portrayals of village clergy, especially in Bovary, troubled readers in earlier generations, like his precision in citing the all-too-real frailties of his characters.Even today, pundits do not agree on the meaning of Flaubert’s constant grappling with Catholic history and paradigms, although the author’s own mind was clear on the matter.

Flaubert saw his Catholicism as a singular form of asceticism, allied to his vocation as a writer.

Flaubert saw his Catholicism as a singular form of asceticism, allied to his vocation as a writer. Full-time devotion to his craft was a calling, as he suggested in a letter to Louise Colet in 1853, a fellow author and former lover: “You yourself love existence! You’re a pagan and a southerner; you respect passions and yearn for happiness.... But I loathe life [of the senses]. I am a Catholic.”

By saying “I am a Catholic” (“Je suis un catholique”), Flaubert was placing himself within a Catholic social community, not just stating a religious affiliation. Readers have compared Flaubert’s devotion to literary work to the dedication of a monk, an anchorite or even a stylite, a type of Christian ascetic who lived on pillars in the early days of the Byzantine Empire, like Simeon Stylites the Elder.

Such comparisons may seem high-flown today, but stringent Catholic critics from Charles Du Bos to François Mauriac regularly invoked him in contexts of sainthood. In 1930, Mauriac compared Flaubert to St. Thérèse of Lisieux; both writers, Mauriac suggested, shared satisfaction in devotions of the kind that, as St. Thérèse wrote, “cause tears of pain to flow that might appear to be caused by some passion.”

The literary historian Albert Thibaudet, writing in 1922, termed Madame Bovary “as Jansenist as Racine’s Phèdre,” referring to the theological movement within French Catholicism that emphasized original sin, the need for divine grace and predestination. Opposed by the Jesuits, the Jansenists, among whom the 17th-century playwright Jean Racine counted himself, claimed to follow St. Augustine’s teachings.

Rather than the apocryphal phrase “Madame Bovary is myself,” Flaubert might have more justifiably asserted, “St. Anthony is myself.”

Rather than identifying himself with the Jansenists, Flaubert found kinship with the martyred St. Polycarp, the Christian bishop of Smyrna. As he battled a multitude of everyday distractions, he also felt affinities with St. Anthony the Great, known as the “father of all monks.” Indeed, rather than the apocryphal phrase “Madame Bovary is myself,” Flaubert might have more justifiably asserted, “St. Anthony is myself.”

Signing letters to friends with St. Polycarp’s name as a prototypical holy person who felt alienated from his time, Flaubert thought of Polycarp as his patron saint. In Flaubert’s dramatic poem in prose, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” inspired by a painting he saw in Genoa, Italy, characters confront the protagonist, trying to distract him from monastic solitude as a form of worship. Just as the saint was lured by promises of fulfilled appetites of lust, greed and other sins, Flaubert considered that he coped with much interference, both lurid and mundane, in his aesthetic quest.

In 1857, Flaubert wrote to a female friend: “I am more attracted to religion than anything else. I mean all religions, not one more than another. I find each specific dogma repugnant, but I consider that they were created by humanity’s most natural and poetic emotions.”

Contrasting critical opinions

Contemporary reviewers did not always understand this distinction. In 1857, L’Univers, a leading Catholic periodical, reviewed Madame Bovary and claimed that Flaubert was among those writers who “make intervention by the police and judiciary more essential” because their influence on the reading public is “necessarily disastrous.”

A civil court case was launched against Madame Bovary as an unsavory tale of an unrepentant adulterous wife. Flaubert won that trial but was less fortunate in 1864, when two of his novels, Bovary and Salammbô, were placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. There they remained until the Index was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966 as contrary to the spirit of freedom of inquiry advanced by the Second Vatican Council.

This censorship might not have occurred but for the pivotal role played by Jacques Baillès, who had previously served as bishop of Luçon, a commune in the Vendée department of western France. To justify the banning of Bovary, Baillès cited one passage in which a town pharmacist, depicted as corrupt and stupid, criticizes local clergy, as if his sentiments were the author’s and intended for universal application.

Baillès concluded that Bovary trampled on “religion and morality, everything that is righteous and good, in the most revolting way.” Baillès himself could be a bit heavy-footed, known in his parishes and the Vatican for his hard-nosed, obdurate zeal. Modeling himself after St. Charles Borromeo, a Counter-Reformation leader noted for persecuting religious dissidents, Baillès frequently clashed with civil authorities. He refused to allow a Protestant to be buried in Luçon’s Catholic cemetery and blocked a high school philosophy teacher’s appointment because he was Jewish.

A civil court case was launched against Madame Bovary as an unsavory tale of an unrepentant adulterous wife.

Wearying of constant Baillès-related conflicts, the Vatican forced him to resign as bishop and relocate to Rome, where he was assigned to the Index of Prohibited Books tribunal. There, it was hoped, he would do less damage “to church interests,” according to one government minister. Indeed, Baillès industriously participated in banning the complete works of Stendhal, Balzac and George Sand, as well as several novels by Victor Hugo.

After prestigious Catholic writers like Mauriac and Du Bos lauded Flaubert, the continued presence on the Index of Bovary became somewhat irksome, as M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J., implied in November 1960:

The motives for the condemnation may be found in the story itself: Emma Bovary, the “heroine” of the tale, is promiscuous and she finally settles her personal problems by taking arsenic. In a society where divorce was extremely uncommon, the flagrant carryings-on of Emma and her paramours must have been disconcerting. On the other hand, this much can be said for the book: Flaubert certainly does not give the impression that he condones the actions of his leading character; the various adulteries are described with tact and without significant details, at least by modern standards; and there is a good moral to the whole: adultery can be just as banal as married bliss—love without honor can lead only to disillusion and despair. This is a book which would not disturb the average adult of the twentieth century in the United States, and it is one which might well be removed from the Index, when, and if, it is revised.

Contrasting with this grudging praise is the ardent admiration of George A. Willenbrink, C.F.X., who in 1976 published a study of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Brother Willenbrink’s analysis rejected latter-day critical interpretation that the housemaid Félicité’s deathbed confusion of a stuffed parrot and the Holy Spirit was intended to be sardonic:

It is quite clear that [Flaubert] was serious about Félicité, about her virtues, about her vision—and did not mean them to be understood in any ironic sense.... I find it difficult to understand how anyone can read Un Coeur Simple to the end and still maintain that the parrot is an ironic symbol. There is irony in the story, but not against religion or the church—primarily because Félicité’s faith is free of dogma.... To be sure, it is a religious statement.

Flaubert was intrigued by the all-too-human admissions of church officials.

A final, incomplete declaration

Such was also abundantly clear in Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s posthumously published novel, in which two Parisian copy clerks stumble through many branches of human endeavor, including religion.

Analysts of modernism, like the critic and Catholic convert Hugh Kenner in his Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (1962), relished the dry wit with which Flaubert describes the title duo of Bouvard and Pécuchet. Yet earlier, in 1930, François Mauriac had expressed dismay that Flaubert’s final message was conveyed through “two imbeciles made immortal by [Flaubert’s] genius.”

Not only genius was at work in Bouvard, but also diligence; the author’s usual reliance on research and background reading became even more assiduous. To write an in-depth chapter on religion, Flaubert studied and annotated several dozen works of Catholic devotion, seeking colorful descriptions from religious manuals while shunning mystical effusions. He sought what he called received ideas, or observations so banal as to be fascinating, and to some extent he found them.

As he informed the Russian author Ivan Turgenev in November 1879, “I am gorged on pious readings!” One month earlier, he confessed to another friend that he was busy “reading stupid, or rather stupidifying [stupidifiantes] things.”

Flaubert noted with approval such novelistic details as one author’s description of Julian the Apostate, emperor of Rome, as being “proud” of the lice in his beard. He also jotted down waspish comments by religious authorities like the French bishop Louis Gaston de Ségur, who organized the first formal eucharistic congress in Lille, approved by Pope Leo XIII. Bishop de Ségur wrote that “virtues of Protestants exist, despite their Protestantism” because “in reality, [Protestants] are Catholics; they belong to the Church.”

José Martí said that Flaubert wielded a pen “which cuts, scourges, and wounds in order the better to cure.”

Only once in his marginalia does Flaubert appear blatantly unjust, when he accuses Bishop Louis Gaston de Ségur of lying about the spirit of Jesus separating from his body and descending into the heart of the earth. The bishop was surely only paraphrasing the prediction in Mt 12:40 that “for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Flaubert was intrigued by the all-too-human admissions of church officials, as when Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus, in a memoir of St. Francis de Sales, admitted that he would spy on his pious houseguest whenever St. Francis stayed at his home. Flaubert added a marginal note to this account: “Ecclesiastical beauties.”

Another authority whose words were eagerly glossed was the missionary Camille Daux of Toulouse, who recounted a story doubly categorized by Flaubert as one of the “beauties of religion” as well as “heaven’s punishment of the impious”: According to legend, a freethinker near Reims in northeastern France named his dog God, and the dog touched the trigger of the man’s rifle with his paw, killing its owner.

An uncompromising literary master

Flaubert’s ardently detailed, intransigent evaluation of theological treatises earned the respect of generations of Catholic writers. Among them was José Martí, the 19th-century Cuban revolutionary, poet and journalist praised by Pope Francis in a message to an international conference on world balance in Havana in January 2019. The pope reminded the attendees that during a 1998 visit to Cuba, St. John Paul II had described Martí as “a man of light.”

In July 1880 in The New York Sun, Martí was among the first to review Bouvard and Pécuchet, even before its publication date. Martí incorrectly claimed that Flaubert completed his final, unfinished novel just before he died at his desk: “Seated like a Turk, [Flaubert] examined his phrases, turning, analyzing, and pruning them. There was no obscurity.”

In addition to this absolute clarity, Martí attributed to Flaubert a paternal rapport with his writings, so when Flaubert revised and polished his writing, Martí observed, “It is a good father who is correcting his son.” In doing so, the late Flaubert had used a pen as an instrument “which cuts, scourges, and wounds in order the better to cure.”

With these highly allusive metaphors, Martí echoed Mauriac’s concern decades later that Flaubert may have supplanted God with his artistry. For Mauriac, this “grave fault” meant that although Flaubert displayed Christian virtues, including a taste for solitude and detachment, he lacked the essential quality of a sense of charity.

This virtue—evident in novels by George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Mauriac’s view—was ultimately lacking in Flaubert’s pitiless depictions. But decades later, Mauriac would revise these opinions. In the 1963 preface to a book by Henri Guillemin, he admitted that instead of usurping religion in the name of art, Flaubert’s lifelong devotion to beautiful writing coincided with a quest for God “with no more contradiction than there is between light and its reflection.”

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