Sunday, January 18, 2009

Following Flaubert

Flaubert studies draftsmanship. He sits, alone in his room, undertaking a deliberate rewiring of the convoluted, pre-Hausman street map of neurons which configure his brain. In so doing, he expands alleys into avenues. Line, previously a cramped dark path becomes something his eyes flow over like so many phaetons bustling along the Champs-Élysées. At the same time, he habituates his brain to this behavior. Each line he draws on the clean white parchment scratches a groove like a wheel rut into the neural pathways of his brain.

Even as line is reified, the laundry white uniformity of a blank field begins to wriggle in his mind’s eye like laundry in a warm breeze. Laying down shading, becoming aware of depth and shadow, a uniform field becomes rich with detail, infinitely discriminable. An undifferentiated mass of neurons slowly learns to make distinctions, each neuron weighted differently, each vibrating differently, each firing according to its newly distinguishably different weight. Even if, like the line of laundry, the array of neurons all sit along the same channel, the same sloping clothes line, the same mental pathway, each is newly differentiated as a result of Flaubert, day after day, trying to sketch this bowl of fruit or that accommodating prostitute. Slowly, Flaubert learns to see not a wall, but a thousand and one bricks, not a man in blue, but cerulean silk folded and rilled by the rumpled concavity of the slouching man’s chest.

Balzac did much the same, learning to notice, to see the detail, to account for each buckle on the soldier’s shoe, every pine speckling the distant hillside. Unlike Flaubert, though, Balzac does not seem to be aware that his senses are more acute. He sees the change as existing out there, merely sees an abundance of new stuff, not, as Flaubert does, the same old world, but registered through a new kind of mind.

At the same time, throughout France, a generation of young bourgeoisie undertook similar studies. They collectively rewired their brains to register the formal and the phenomenological, to be less aware of objects as things, to register them as sights, but at the same time to reify those sights into a new class of things. It is precisely this population, the bohemian student body of the La Rive Gauche, that is absent as Frederic plays the flâneur, but it is precisely these same young men, now progressed, like Flaubert himself, to middle age, at whom the book is addressed. The image in Frederic’s eyes was an image in theirs, is being summoned again by Flaubert to live before them once more. The leap across the decades is no less abrupt and no less invisible than the saccadic leap. Flaubert manages to recreate the real by striding over [thirty years] in the leap of an eye, as unconscious of the movement as a flâneur, his eyes on the shop windows and fruit carts about him, steps over a puddle in the street, never noticing the water, but adjusting his gate nonetheless. Flaubert manages to recall to life for the now older bourgeoisie their long ago ramblings down the streets and pathways of their own neuronal circuitry, their navigation of the folded-over forms of Paris, through the medieval alleyways of the history of their own minds.