SARTRE IN SEARCH OF FLAUBERT
By FREDERICK JAMESON; Frederick Jameson is the editor of Social Text; his most recent book is ''The Political Unconscious'
THE FAMILY IDIOT Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857. Volume I. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Carol Cosman. 627 pp. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $25. SARTRE & FLAUBERT By Hazel E. Barnes. 449 pp. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $25.
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, whose first novel, ''Nausea,'' had a biographer as its hero, spent the last 10 years of his working life on a massive psychobiography of a writer he had always detested for his estheticism and his reactionary opinions - Gustave Flaubert. He customarily explained this curious project as an attempt to synthesize what can be understood today about an individual life, given what we have learned from a century of work in psychoanalysis, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology and the symbolic analysis of culture and individual behavior. But for Sartre, understanding always involved the discovery of that point at which all constraints - external accidents, the miseries of psychic determinism and social conditioning - are suddenly transformed into the active gestures and free choices of an individual - what he called ''praxis.'' It is never easy to reach that magical point. ''The Family Idiot'' takes some 3,000 pages to get there.
This vast work is now beginning to appear in a splendid translation by Carol Cosman. There are four more volumes scheduled to appear in the next eight years. Simultaneously with this first volume the University of Chicago Press is publishing a study by Hazel Barnes in which ''The Family Idiot'' is recapitulated in its entirety. Her summary is very useful, for this last work of Sartre's is marked by an exasperating prolixity. Blindness forced him to abandon the final volume, which was to have been an analysis of ''Madame Bovary.'' Miss Barnes's study not only provides a quick preview of the whole work, but it gives for the first time anywhere an account of Sartre's notes for the final, unwritten volume.
Sartre called ''The Family Idiot'' a ''true novel,'' and it does tell a story and eventually reach a shattering climax. The work can be described most simply as a dialectic, which shifts between two seemingly alternative interpretations of Flaubert's destiny: a psychoanalytic one, centered on his family and on his childhood, and a Marxist one, whose guiding themes are the status of the artist in Flaubert's period and the historical and ideological contradictions faced by his social class, the bourgeoisie. But there is no determinism in his approach, for Sartre insisted on seeing contradictions - whether psychic-familial or socio-economic - as so many situations for which we cannot but invent responses: ''Neurosis,'' as he says in an earlier work, ''is an original solution the child invents on the point of stifling to death.''
In his Marxist interpretation of Flaubert's situation as a young bourgeois artist in the middle of the 19th century, Sartre articulates two levels of dilemma: the crisis of the serious middleclass artist in a marketsystem, faced with a disappearing audience; and the ideological crisis of the French bourgeoisie, which during the French Revolution had invented the notion of a universal human nature as a weapon against the aristocracy, only to find itself confronted in the days of the 1848 revolution with a new proletarian underclass it was reluctant to recognize as part of that universal humanity. The bourgeoisie will ''solve'' this new problem by becoming Victorian, by repressing the animal and physical ''nature'' it seemed to share with the proletarians and by transforming its earlier humanism into a misanthropic positivism.
The bourgeois artist faced additional problems. As commoners, Flaubert's generation could no longer enjoy the metaphysical confidence of the earlier aristocratic Romantics like Chateaubriand, whose ''genius'' and ''suffering'' expressed a whole class's repudiation of the new middle-class business world. And the revolutionary vocation of the the great bourgeois writers of the Enlightenment was also denied them, precisely because those writers succeeded in overthrowing the ancien regime. Yet Flaubert's generation was formed by the works of both these preceding literary generations.
Sartre here develops a theory of generational ''misprision'' (or misreading), drawing on the concept of the ''practico-inert,'' which he had developed in his ''Critique of Dialectical Reason.'' Sartre had always seen literary works as responses to concrete situations, responses that become intelligible only when grasped within those situations. He now draws the unexpected consequences: Like tools, literary works outlive the situations for which they were intended, and they are passed down with a new material inertia. ''The tradition of all the dead generations,'' Marx said, ''weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.'' The artists of Flaubert's generation had no way of understanding the practical purposes for which the older generation had invented their now inert themes: critical negativity, misanthropy, the ideal of classlessness, the defense of the autonomy of the intellectual (which will now be ''mistranslated'' as art for art's sake), and a quasi-religious conviction of the nothingness of the world and the emptiness of life. Crippled by the themes of their predecessors, the following generation became artists without inspiration. This was not a subjective matter, a lack of talent or vocation. Rather, Sartre's idea of the practico-inert -the weight of so many dead artistic ideologies from an incomprehensible past - suggests a situation in which it was objectively impossible for them to have something to say.
Flaubert's solution opened a door that had not existed before; ''Madame Bovary'' was not just another novel, but an original and creative act, which in one stroke resolved all the objective contradictions that paralyzed Flaubert's contemporaries. This solution was the discovery of what Sartre calls ''the imaginary'' and its ''derealizing'' operation on the world: ''I would like to write a book about nothing, a book without external links, which would be held together by the internal force of its style ... just as the earth without being suspended moves in the air, a book which would have almost no subject matter or at least whose subject would be almost invisible if that is possible,'' Flaubert declared.
Now the riddle that Sartre set out to solve in ''The Family Idiot'' becomes clear. In Flaubert, the moment met the man, as the old historians liked to put it. But who was Flaubert? What gave this Norman doctor's son his chance with history? To reach the answerto this question Sartre had to return to the subjective moment of his dialectic and patiently work through the formation of Gustave's psyche in childhood. Unavoidably, this emphasis on the subjective moment makes its relationship to the objective social situation of the writer in Flaubert's time problematical. Sartre's solution seems to posit what the philosophers used to call some ''pre-established harmony'' between Gustave's private neurosis and the public dilemmas of 19th-century intellectuals and bourgeoisie (which Sartre, parodying Hegel, terms the ''objective neurosis'' of the age). Today, however, ''pre-established harmony'' has another name: overdetermination. The Flaubert family, within which Gustave elaborated his private solution, his personal neurosis, was itself the result of objective social and historical forces.
As for the plot of ''The Family Idiot,'' however, nothing was apparently less dramatic than the private life of Gustave Flaubert. Second son of a well-known Rouen physician, Gustave finds his elder brother, Achille, is heir in advance to the profession of his father. Meanwhile the correct but unloving attention of his mother (who scrupulously bathes the infant Gustave ''as though it were a corpse'') blocks the development of any healthy narcissism and encourages a self-loathing that will later be reinforced by Gustave's repugnance for the bourgeoisie, which, inasmuch as he is bourgeois, turns back on Gustave himself.
One thinks of the parable in Sartre's autobiography, ''Words'': Life is a train, but all the compartments are already filled up, and there is no seat left for the newcomer. When the conductor asks for your ticket -your justification for existing -your pockets are empty (just like everybody else's, but of course you're not aware of that). Meanwhile Gustave is growing up; ticket or no, he has to do something in the world; the family sends him to Paris to study law and become a real bourgeois.
Now, after 2,000 pages, the climax of ''The Family Idiot'': Gustave is 21; on vacation at home, he has a mysterious seizure and collapses (the ''crisis'' of Pont-l'Eveque). There are no particular crippling aftereffects, but Dr. Flaubert concludes that his second son will never be able to live an active life and should remain in the care of his family. The father's own death shortly afterward leaves Gustave materially secure; the ''hermit of Croisset'' is born, and the novels of ''Flaubert'' can now be written.
Gustave's convulsion has been variously diagnosed (on the flimsiest evidence), most often as an epileptic fit; biographers have considered it a minor episode, at most an obstacle to Gustave's later career. For Sartre, however, it was the central event in Flaubert's life and of a piece with his literary vocation. The philosopher of freedom reinterprets this seemingly physical trauma as an intentional act whose intelligibility greatly transcends the ''psychosomatic.'' Faced with the intolerable prospect of ''real life'' in a business society, Gustave used his body to invent the ultimate solution to an unresolvable dilemma, committing suicide without dying. After that he was able to live a posthumous life - to die to the world, to bourgeois ambition, to money and profession, as well as to the hated self.
Only one problem remained: what to do with himself for the rest of his suspended earthly existence. Art, ''the imaginary'' and ''Madame Bovary'' provided the final turn of the screw; and it begins to become clear how, in the last, unwritten volume of ''The Family Idiot,'' the two great circuits of the subject-object dialectic would at last have coincided in the ''symbolic act'' of the work of art - both private expression and public ideology. The predestined catastrophe that hangs over ''Madame Bovary'' -from one perspective the elaboration of Flaubert's private trauma - will then slowly, in what Sartre calls ''prophetic anteriority,'' begin to resonate across a whole public world, at length coming to seem a virtual prophecy of the collapse of the Second Empire itself in 1870.
For Sartre, the meaning and dynamic of the ''imaginary'' is most clear in Flaubert's style, which he sees as the correlative of Gustave's lifelong suicide: It is a way of killing off the outside world without changing a thing, of transforming human instruments and activities into the suspended objects of esthetic contemplation. The point of the ''imaginary'' - for Sartre a veritable passion, demonic and inhuman - is not to turn away from the world in religious or other worldly fashion, but to keep your eyes filled with the richness of things and relationships while secretly emptying them of their density in an ''internal hemorrhage of being.'' Flaubert's style ''derealizes'' things, transforms them into images, in order to draw the whole immense being of the world into nothingness without changing a leaf or a blade of grass in the process. Yet that style is an operation born of resentment; it is meant to demoralize bourgeois readers without their becoming aware that their world has been pulled out from under them. ''Words'' was Sartre's guilty confession of this passion for the imaginary in himself as a young man, and his attempt to exorcise it. ''The Family Idiot'' is its epic.
When one thinks of the 10 years during which Sartre shackled himself to this immense project - a period of unparalleled political militancy in his life, punctuated by the uprising of May 1968 and culminating in a rich series of experiments in all kinds of new political action - ''The Family Idiot'' sometimes looks like a form of self-imposed penance, a private duty jealously guarded against the reproaches of his Maoist friends (they wanted him to write a proletarian novel). If, however, one sees the theme of the imaginary in inseparable dialectical tension with that other lifelong theme of Sartre's work, which is praxis, then Sartre's stubborn devotion to his Flaubert project becomes more comprehensible; the study of the ''imaginary'' can then be taken as a self-diagnosis of bourgeois ''objective neurosis,'' while praxis - deliberate action in the real world - stands as the projection of a radically different mode of activity, identified with the proletariat.
For it should not be thought that the nihilism of the imaginary, as it is elaborately anatomized in ''The Family Idiot,'' is a mere 19th-century curiosity or a local feature of some specifically French middle-class culture; nor is it a private obsession of Jean-Paul Sartre himself. Turning things into images, abolishing the real world, grasping the world as little more than a text or sign-system - this is notoriously the very logic of our own consumer society, the society of the image or the media event (the Vietnam War as a television series). Flaubert's private solution, his invention of a new ''derealizing'' esthetic strategy, may seem strange and distant, not because it is archaic, but because it has gradually become the logic of our media society, thereby becoming invisible to us. This is the sense in which ''The Family Idiot'' - at first glance so cumbersome and forbidding a project - may well speak with terrifying immediacy to Americans in the 1980's.