On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Five: The Barbarism of Ratio

by Joseph Nicolello

Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,
Ach, hätt er sich schon eingefunden.

            Da entkomm ich aller Not,
            Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.

Anonymous, from Bach’s Cantata BWV 82: Ich habe genug

(genung) for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (1727)


So loud the silence – hear it!



Rem vero pro re, quod non est alterius quam poete, posuit in aureo ramo quem discerpendum Sibilla monuit antequam [Aenas] inferos adiret (Salutati, De laboribus Herculis)… Once man has emerged from the “cave of nature”, as Gracian puts it in his Criticon, he must learn to see new relationships and to realize them through his behavior.

Grassi, Rhetoric as Philosophy (vii, 16)


We had also further plans to look at a passage from an unpublished book of mine, a true oddity from when I was over on Avenue B, called Calico Mountains, as well as an unpublished story, “The Woman Who Turned into a Fish”, and then even spend some time with Auden’s anthology of Kierkegaard and my supplement in my work as anthologizer that saw one stringing together another side of Thomas Merton. This week was therefore set to unfold in a manner dissimilar to the procession of others’; and I do not mean that our plan was better, really, but that we would not have really had anything to compare it to. But as you may have inferred by now, there has been a change of plans. I dare say that now that I have subtracted myself from the scenario we are most equipped to trod further along the untrammeled path of narratology and concept-being in literature and philosophy.

Whereas a lesser man would spin a yarn predicated on the mythic dog having consumed one’s homework, in our case the dissection of a living author, in ystruly, I shall tell you the truth rather than go the way of one who owns a dog so hungry that the poor thing has succumbed to eating its master’s paper: as I prepared to prepare these items my attention was stolen by a stack of books beside my reading chair: Werner Jaeger, Ernesto Grassi, E.R. Dodd, Bruno Snell, Pierre Hadot, Heraclitus, and Origen. In spending the holiday revisiting passages from this marvelous collection of minds, I found myself returning in thought and deed to the Flaubertian-monastic origins of a cultivated literary cognition, which is something you have all agreed shall be fruitful in addition to the strictly scholarly analyses.

But I should say that I did, even though I hit that epistemological speed bump, try again to get my unknown works in order; in order to do so I eventually moved from my reading chair one evening to the backyard, and for some reason was reminded of a passage from Heidegger, which in turn brought me to a memory of Holderlin, which reminded me I had to stop by the Strand in the next day to retrieve Constantine’s biography of Holderlin.

Someone – a voice, really, as I never saw the body, and all bodiless voices are the same in memory – approached me in Union Square and would not let go. I suppose for even the most expensive, potent flea repellent or vaccine there is always the chance of fly of sickness; such is my immunity to those ill-fated New York chorus-words, “Excuse me, sir!” Nonetheless, the light was red and the bus was soaring forth, and thus I stopped. And he said to me, “Sir, would you like to save the world?” “No,” I said. “If the world was worth saving there would be no meaning in being.” I cannot recall the last time a man moved from ecstatic plasticity to univocal horror before my eyes, but there it was, the latest. As noted, the original plan was to stop into the Strand to drop off a few copies of one of my copies and retrieve Constantine’s biography of Holderlin; but instead I kept walking, eventually making it down near the emptied seaport, and for awhile there read the letters of St. Jerome, which I have lately been carrying around with me in place of my flip phone, saving the books for later in the evening.


In beginning with ‘work’ assuming negative connotations one does not mean that all work is negative, be it in the deductive sense of wasted time, nor in the sense that the work-itself is negatively severing purpose from the general structure of the given cycle from, let us say, sunrise to sunrise. Rather, in recognizing work as synonymous with the negative, one is working from a place of reconsidering the common rendering of work as the thing one must do but would rather not do, and thus in addition to sleep spends post-work time in an effort to forget about work-time. Digitality and unlimited drugs have made this supplementing of the negative recurrence of work particularly potent: who has not said, or heard one say, “I want/need to escape”, in terms of the post-work dwelling scenario? But if the escape is mental, it is ineffectively mental, and thus delusory; cognizant of this at some level, the being-worker indeed adapts to an oscillating autopilot between the negativity of work, or not-being, or after work, the supplemental not-there. Our purpose is thus, at a glance, not to restructure ‘free time’, as its correlation to the negative seems more impedimental than constructive; and yet it is with the not-work that we in fact must become on the way to work that is no longer alienated from sanctity and smooth streams of metaphysical retrieval, or a wellspring of interior dialogue that is aimed at a cross between poetic structuring of the illuminative and a life-process that unfolds not unlike a prayer. But what is poetry? What is prayer? [remind me to later on bring to the table Gilson’s mystical theology of Bernard] What does this have to do with the negativity inherent in a job that one dislikes? While this shall be a series of lectures all its own, on how the worker might retrieve himself in the process of moving through the threshold of assumption and into the light of a recaptured sanctity in work-being, today we want to look at exemplary figures in the Desert Fathers and Gustave Flaubert, a project that at its most foundational would require the subject have nothing more than a library card and time. In the case of the former being inaccessible due to previously accrued fines grown out of control, one must set aside the money to pay this off. On the other hand, if one is afraid to enter a library, one must begin to get over these fears. But how? St. Anthony did not seem very afraid of what persons said when he left the degenerative splendors of pseudo-Gomorrah to live in a desert. And was not Flaubert, son of a doctor, destined to study law in Paris? We spoke earlier, some weeks back, of a hovering corpse; but who is the poltergeist? And who has thought the poltergeist into being?  

To say that there is no reality is not to indicate that there is no reality, but that a part of reality is preserved for the sighted being who would stand before a mirror and proclaim it is empty. And thus our purpose, if we are to breathe the air of poetics, is to break up the default. There are layers to the default, as there are different types of readings; the ontic default is, in the most basic sense, the opposition to ‘deep conversation’; this is the meekest example. More jarring examples are utopianism lost through violence, or breakdowns brought on by sudden deaths or having witnessed that which one was unprepared for, resulting in the disordering stress of traumatization. The poet wants to see what lies beneath the relatively minimal space that covers the distance between suicide and madness, recovery through spiritual exercise and pharmaceutical acquiescence. We are perpetually jarred, and thus ought to seldom be jarred at all; this is the core of concept-being, or planetary autopilot, which ontological disclosure wants to draw oneself away from, to face extreme, if brief, pain, in order to arrive at the reinserted reference-frame of contemplative precognition. All the while, however, nature is unfazed; the regret of demolition and the demolition of regret are themselves interwoven into its concept-being.

Even the one who sets out to reinsert being simply reinserts the concept of reinserting the impossible, whereby comprehension of the impossible indicates a misunderstanding by way of oversimplification on the topic of the impossible; and subsequently this is the language barrier of language itself, or language as barrier, so long as one sets out on the impossible task of reinserting nonexistent validity into the symbolic black scratching on tree that is the methodology of the possible that has thus far functioned albeit said functionality was essentially an ontological distention that might be illustrated as a chain of opposed magnets hovering in what is called space less out of prerequisite than the locomotive nothingness that is the objective world. Thus concrete thought is always a shadow of allegorical facticity confronting the simultaneous presence of perished incidentals; the concrete, in terms of reception and donation, is in fact always wet cement, envisioned by the seer who has cognized concrete less through empirical unfolding than anticipation of the assumptive. The truth is ontological redemption in the moment that conceptual revelation moves forward into the reconsideration of narrative poetics, furnishing the dispossessed with the ethereality that is the final subjugator, or death, rushing through the ideologies and hallucinations of the age, which are themselves cumulative ventriloquistic barbarisms, and thus must refer to themselves as the opposite in order not to try not to breathe. For if the highest good is itself directly correlative to the scapegoat, the task of being is thus to comprehend the fundamental scapegoat, which is to say the one that covers the ontological and microbiological in one fell swoop, unchanging, as the unfolding consciousness of men moves from [I will email you all Gebser’s chart], and thus to move from Logos is instinctual, and it is to cultivate a hatred for reality [And also email Heraclitus in Greek and English] – everything is in flux, save the synonymity of a hatred of reality with a hatred of the self. And yet there is no triumph in this acknowledgment, but rather the fading ember stream of anxiety and alienation. Bellies, caves, deserts, oceans; anatomical housing developments predicated on the unspoken bondage of gentrification… a gentrification of the heart and soul; a mirror into which one gazes, though a rock has been accurately hurled, albeit for still a moment on the way, and thus the line of sight indicates the presence of the irrefutable. Such is the reinsertion of concept-being into the eternal recurrence of declivity and solar decay, all that is definitive remains in the looming end of that reduplicating thing, in that whatever it is, it ends, and thus books, films, viewings, songs must themselves must end, because the concept-being of concept-being is even itself built for an end that transcends narratives proclaiming the last word on the end, of which there are several, and boredom cannot face itself, but then neither can the shallow pond of public joy, of voices that scream nothing, and bodies that accomplish less.  


For ere she reach’d upon the tide

The first house by the water-side,

Singing in her song she died,

The Lady of Shalott.


The other day I was concluding my daily business of outreach to the homeless, those men you see with cups standing along Fordham Road, begging for alms, who have in turn become friends of mine, and whom I strive to take care the best that I can. I longed then to stop by and see the little cats that have made their home in my backyard; but the day was beautiful and thus I took the long way, hypothesizing one of a handful of cafes along the routes and side-streets of Belmont. There I ran into a former pupil, a young woman I had tutored in composition and structural procedures of approaching the host of essays freshmen are assigned. Her flower-adorned dress, white petals with little, nearly invisible bottle-green stems, and golden centers with spots of auburn, was refreshing in its modesty; once one realizes that one is truly disgusted by women in spandex, short shorts, braless tops, in exterior solidarity with the Hasidim, it begins to be a nice type of joy when a woman just starting on her way takes the courage to cover herself up, in an island filled to the brim with half-naked cows who simultaneously claim to detest attention. My old subject had been at church, and heard a most beautiful sermon. Good for thee, saith I; now hast thou still to read Jeremy Taylor? Remember Keats, Keats’s deathbed, and the title of the first part of my Kunstlerroman…

“I realized that what I was being told I saw was different from what I was actually seeing. Then I realized that I did not see or believe in anything the ones telling me Christ did not exist were telling me was the truth of things… in a strange way they actually brought me back to church!”

This, my friends, brings us bright and early to an interesting point: that the contemplative path, or the instrumentation of matter, is the greatest garlic for our vampiric age, hourly demanding all technological-feudal slaves shudderingly face: “Do you believe what you see, or do you believe what you are told that you see?” But I want to say that the matter pertains exclusively to the visible, which is to say fragmentary; for the totality of the oligarchical concept is nothing more than concept-bondage, proven increasingly by our light-hearted justifications for that dual prison that is the digital prison of contemporary being conjoined to the mental prison best evidenced on bright sunny days in the city park, less people watching than turning disconsolately away from the masked women who marching stare at screens. I believe there is a film that I have never seen called The Men Who Stare at Goats; the nightmare of contemporary concept-being has made me juggle about a nonexistent supplement in The Women Who Stare at Screens. That could be a novel for any one of you! All one sees are once-faces with a mask covering most of the face with a rectangular phone perfectly covering the rest of the face; why does no one examine the physiology of all of this? Perhaps because it would entail a bondage so profound that it would annihilate the recurring defaults that make up concept-being in earnest and actually force one to take control of one’s self. Hence digitality incorporates the subjugation of mind, body, and spirit; one must abandon authentic care for the self if one is going to embrace the manufactured politics and ceaseless gadgetry of corporatism. Let us keep these things in mind as we divulge the place of monasticism in the life and work of Gustave Flaubert, and see if anything arises to the surface that might help us better frame, and thence reform, the state of our lives, and how the deliberate incorporation of aesthetic immersion can alone grant one the power to at least begin the thawing process of that ice block that is Dante’s latter half of Satan; we do not want to do this to free up Satan, but rather to free up the ice blocks that have formed in our minds and spirit, the ice in our heart that James Baldwin notes in the beginning of “Sonny’s Blues.” We are after the unfrozen heart; we are going to replace the object-being of outwardness with the interiority of reframed aesthetic cognition in the dialectical process of life-work.

The pain of self-responsibility is an identical reflection of the pain that leads to the authenticity of self-reflection out in the noetic world: the pain of birth; the pain of the addict’s recovery; the pain of confession; the pain of exercise; the pain of hard work; the pain of rejection; all of these pains lead to the not-pain of ontological disclosure. Without self-responsibility, every last act of violence and destruction, in the literature of life and the life of literature, is nothing more than a carnal reveal of the collective or singular lack of self-responsibility; and this, the latter, is the foundation of all misery. See also: Milton’s Eve.

Hence the movement that begins and end with corporate propaganda is slated for nothing more a parade of destruction that accomplishes nothing and is allowed to take place solely for the simultaneous sake of beings in further mental and physical bondage who at the same time become greater consumers. This is the reality that poetry and literature have, from the beginning, successfully set out to destroy; and this destruction of the simulated universe of concept-being is a really a sort of flipping the tables that is despised at first glance and later redeems the afflicted. Our mission is in fact borne of love; one is pained to see clearer than the mob, but there it: not all vision is equal. We want to, with the monks and Flaubert, decimate the assumptive-foundation that is the faulty premise that is the reason that a potpourri of slogans and concepts permanently lead to nothing but more misery: one is mistaking the shadows of skeletal branches for the profundity that is the oaken root(s). Lest we let the shovel sit there and reveal its objectness to us, we follow Marcus Aurelius, and “Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”


Earlier in the series I made note of a monastic intention on part of Walter Benjamin, the sole member worthy of nominal respect to bumble forth from that dated cask of foul calumnies that is today called the “Frankfurt School.” A number of the books containing information on this bag of ejaculatory charlatans and patron saints of pathological victimhood have been banned from our most popular booksellers, which ought to indicate at least in a sense firstly just how deep the grave has been dug (not to mention that the men and women with shovels at the foot of this ideological foundation pit now control all print and digital corporations of ‘approved’ [i.e. fascistic] communications), and secondly how worthy are the gems of Benjamin, considering the incurable psychopathology and degeneracy masquerading as philosophy that surrounded him, perhaps not unlike that most interesting, if neglected man, Jack Kerouac, surrounded too as was, by completely lesser beings. The more that the West comes to despise the reality of the “I” – moving from object to subject, trying for terrible, cloaked metaphysical reasons to deny the most clearest reality of all, variegated cultures across being and time borne of the union that is rudimentary-being before any concept-being can even be cognized, which is to see the encounter between the donator and the receiver. In fact, this idea-world of donators and receivers are in a perpetual orgy of emulating the means of being: the human oral faculties are designed to talk, or donate, between as the mouth is two ears, made for receiving along with the eyes the fruits of literacy and orality.  But this leads us, by way of the tragedy that is a man in the world with at least an occasional yearning for sanctity, into the more selective scope of secular monasticism in the mystical hall of sentences carried out with the delicacy and sublimity of sculpture, fusing as it were – in life and art – the prosaic symphonies of none other than Gustave Flaubert. Everyone has at least heard of Madame Bovary. No, I take that back. One wants to believe that everyone has at least heard of Madame Bovary, but even that, I concede, is doubtful. One certainly does not expect anyone outside of the planetwide French departments to have read any of Flaubert’s work, correspondence in our age of simulation taken to the power of simulation, or simulation-being trapped in the narratological equivalent of an Althusserian linguistic maze of death. But as for me, one would always be lacking in a potentially clear picture of myself if one was unwilling or unable to deeply research the life and letters and Gustave Flaubert; his approach to being and its sculptural teleology of dialogical elegance really, to my knowledge, has no predecessor or antecedent in the world of poetic interiority and the cultivation of the spirit and the letter, which is the world of solitude. A comparative study could be drawn up between Etienne Gilson’s text on Bernard of Clairvaux’s mystical theology and Francis Steegmuller’s book on and translation of Flaubert. I personally cannot revisit Flaubert’s letters as much as my unchecked, or initial, instincts would gravitate towards, as I fear I would retire from the world altogether, into a spacious den that is something like a conjoined library-study and temple, architecturally modeled on that sacred room described in Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master.”

Has anyone here seen a film called The Seventh Continent? There are two scenes there I think can further help us understand acuity and precision in the “I” on subjective narrative moving in and through the language of objects: first, the second or two midway through the film when the shot goes black at the market while the sounds of the register clang on; and secondly, the destruction of the Greek vase toward the beginning of the end of the film. The mantelpiece is destroyed first with the vase, breaking through a thin layer of glass that I believe was clothed by lattice, before the vase is swallowed whole by the gutted mahogany; then the vase-breaker picks up what appears to an axe and destroys the rest of the instrument, the earth-ground of its concept-self having opened up and swallowed the fragmented body of the sacred relic. Has ever technological nihilism, its true spirit, ever made itself so felt in a collective four or five cinematic seconds? That scene was the most prescient glimpse into the suicide of the west I had seen all that day, which is saying something, considering I had to walk through Bushwick, Brooklyn on business at one point earlier in the day. The icing on the cake was the mallet-destruction of first the clock, and then the computer, but by then the concept-object of decay had already been perfectly drawn into Hell, or Hades, by the Attic vase. More profane minds can pick up the fragments of the more apocalyptic aspect of the movement in the destruction of the clock and the computer, which requires neither classical nor aesthetic dignity. Now that I ask the question of course we shall all each think of a thousand seconds’ worth of concept-being and eclipse of the object, but when I watched the film lately I could not help but strike down a quick pair of interrelated notes. These moments of the film seem to me a true update on the piano that moves into and through the alleyway of Flaubert into perhaps the greatest literary explosion ever literarily recorded, a preface to the implosion of being at the hands of all-annihilating industrialism on the way to digitality. I mean, of course, the climax of Zola’s Germinal.

But one really has nothing else to say about that chap Zola. It is really the heart of Flaubert that for the moment we are after, and again I cannot recommend highly enough a deep investigation into the life and letters of him; coupled with the unbelievably rich body of monastic texts from all countries and centuries at our disposal, the layman and scholar alike have a real chance to ensure their work returns the aspect of the sacred that is so often lost in the sphere of sacred nihilism, which is a misapprehension of being and time, by way of miscalculating the depths of one’s self in the mix of growing worn out with disaffected industry. Therefore in order to turn our lives into the Imitatio we are commanded by Dasein to raise to sacrament, a real sacrament of being-on-the-streets, we must refurnish not-work in order to reconceptualize technical work. Then one, by reconstructing his ‘free’ time, has reconstructed the soul of his work-time; it is a matter of balance and interior splendor rather than numeric or mental alteration that turns imperceptible sorrow into the action of thought, moving from text to action. Is there not something tragic interwoven into the memory of marble pool within a shopping mall, its floor lined with pennies, nickels, and the occasional quarter?

But never-mind: one turns from the vanished fountain and toward the claw machine and all its stuffed animals, as we shall through the science of Flaubertian prosody see, galloping out the quarter-alms of parental pockets, on the way to salvation.


Kinsmen of the Flesh:

Flaubertian Prolegomena in the Monastic Prose of Late Antiquity

It is not impossible that Remigio de’ Girolami (as Mrs. Enrico de Negri kindly pointed out to me) had Romans 9:3 in mind: “Optabam enim ego ipse anathema esse a Christo pro fratribus meis.”[1]



Flaubertian prose as a means by which to reassess the literary genesis and structure of monastic texts – this is our subject. In this lecture, in addition to the foregoing meditation, I argue that despite ongoing studies of Gustave Flaubert’s life, letters, and literature as a means by which to develop questions of religion which appear to culminate in Flaubert’s Tentation, a more formalisticapproach is still needed. This formalistic perceptivity is grounded in the means by which Flaubert’s intellectual contributions developed through Antony and late antiquity, and is guided by historiography so as to better understand Flaubert’s own lamentations about existence.[2] Establishing the Flaubertian aspects of monastic writings and vice-versa, I suggest, unpacks fictive methodology across genres, lending itself to novelistic discourse and interpretative, narratological readings of historical texts: the reader brings experience into solitude and engages in a necessarily fictional enterprise that predates even Antony.[3] Flaubert, then, is exceptional in that his method is a direct reflection of this reflection “contemporaneously with Marx, a virtual catalogue of such divine or diabolical commodifications.”[4] By rejecting society and turning to biblical texts, Flaubert and the Desert Fathers overlap; Flaubert’s novelistic Christology is the secular culmination of Athanasius’s project.

Unregulated Existence

For the Desert Fathers the essential combat from which all others flowed was against evil.[5] For Flaubert the single combat is against empty page. But what makes Flaubert different from so many other authors is his physical detachment from the city for a fight found in the concentrated solitude of his mother’s house,[6] where he dipped his pen beyond the inkwell of historiographical rhetoricity and into the canvas of Egyptian monasticism with his back to the city. Therein he was one with the monks. It is, further, “not about self-affirmation or self-transcendence; what is at stake is forsaking the self and the suffering this entails. Flaubert articulated this Triebschicksal through a Christian matrix from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.”[7] Working with a synthesis whereby Flaubert’s literary works are demonstrated as the calculated byproduct of extensive readings in scientific and philological study, Barbara Vinken supplies a monastic rejoinder to this Flaubertian line of vision: “A well-wrought textual body is [like a monastery] all male.”[8]

 Coupled with an intense research regimen and lifelong attachment to Athanasius, this foundation leads to a theoretical procedure: it contends that Flaubert achieved a style that, thanks to incorporating elements of asceticism, is informed by the page alone, rather than – in the Benedictine sense – God alone. For Flaubert was constantly working with and through the Bible, and discreetly did so by moving beyond ideas of religion and into the epistemological fragility of religious research without a binding affiliation for himself. By rendering his religious devotion a quasi-monastic textual matter, Flaubert likewise freed himself up while keeping carnal desires intact[9] in order to explore the mortal elements of myth, typology, linguistics, and a secular asceticism. Therefore, in critically outlining his compositional method, literary construction, and vision of solitude in history and history in solitude one may define and acquire this Flaubertian lens in order to revisit other like-minded solitaries and their texts, as from a place of contemplative erudition Flaubert’s corpus is an indexical engagement with biblical and early monastic thought; his body of work is the result of a monasticism without religion, that renders him an unusual freedom to work for the text alone. This process sheds precise light upon the singular literary construction of the Desert Fathers and what its exilic uniformity stirred in Flaubert. Acute labor given to the processional representation of the past allows Flaubert to make a historical place come alive that is, at the same time, isolated. His historical vision does not seem as though it is part of any chronological narrative that at some point leads to the present moment. Like the early Mothers and Fathers a unified, seemingly timeless zone outside of chronological space, is achieved by inventing things in the present with a vigor matched by reflective, necessarily timeless propaedeutic.[10] This dialectical process of prosaically looking backward while writing forward is heightened by Flaubert’s disinclination to celebrate either contemporary life or the past. His narratology converges poetic intuition with Guidestone, foretelling Ricoeur’s suspicion-without-restraint. As noted, at the same Flaubert is simultaneously a forerunner to the Marxist hermeneutic Jameson observes in the Political Unconscious.[11]

One looking back at the Desert Fathers through a Flaubertian lens is tempted to consult a formalistic approach in order to reconsider Flaubertian style, its compulsory solitude, and thereby reassess monastic works with a renewed literary perception: “The subsidiary devices turn out to be the motivation of those essential devices which permit renewed perception in the first place.”[12] For the idea of a formalism-qua-formalism indicates the isolation of the intrinsic; that if the thing-in-itself cannot function in the case of being sealed off from itself, it cannot function period.[13] It nonetheless seems that this is a mode of perceptivity rather than a rule; that it is logically impossible to formalistically apprehend texts whose histories and autobiographies are already familiar, resulting in a theoretical shoddiness borne of faulty premises: “there are no preexisting laws that govern the elaboration of the novel as a form: each one is different, a leap in the void, an invention of content simultaneous with the invention of the form.”[14] Likewise, Flaubert’s inventorial exactitude works in the first place by granting the reader a tapestry of picture-memories in prose.

But this inverted sola scriptura, despite its claims, is working on a level that takes the apparent “way” of novelistic discourse and reinvents it through elasticised vignettes of monastic history. The resulting precision is both linguistic and philosophical. Flaubert’s intellectual process also corresponds to Jameson’s observations on formalism and the subject: “The need for each successive generation to react against its own masters, the Formalists saw this perpetual change, this artistic permanent revolution, as being inherent in the nature of artistic form itself, which, once striking and fresh, grows stale and must be replaced by the new in unforeseen and unforeseeable manners.”[15] It was thus inevitable that Flaubert would go to trial (like, say, Christ before him and Joyce after). Such is the price of particular wisdom. But I would like to suggest that it was neither flipped tables, false witness, nor the prospect of sexual reality that incensed the government. Instead, Flaubert’s case spoke to the fact that power is dependent upon conceptual device rather than concrete forms; and in this regard Flaubertian methodology mirrors that of the Desert Fathers, whose abandonment of city and secular rule was more perilous an example than whatever their specificities of doctrine. For both the Desert Fathers and Flaubert the specificities are surface-level, and what is imperative is the authorial awakening to call into question society as it stands on the part of the reader. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry Medwall dealt with such mental furnishings in centuries prior to Flaubert, and it is further evidenced in the codexical plates of Matthew Paris’s Life of St. Alban. There, eucharistic frames entail space and freedom of choice while secular authority is crowded, deranged, and speaks to the futility of men engaged in the temporality of political religion.

The Desert Fathers and Flaubert drop hollow ornamentation for the sake of a laborious, dialectical process whereby identity and difference are deconstructed through short and long alike, and with regard to formalistic structure and authorial artificiality, I less have Shklovsky in mind than Flaubert himself: “The most beautiful thing would be a book about nothing.”[16] Like “the Muses”, we know precisely what is meant although we cannot quite see it. As Jonathan Culler observes,[17] Flaubert’s insight is revolutionary: he eclipses categorisation amongst who can be a hero, subject, villain, or what a plot “can” be, as the Desert Fathers turned the desert into a wellspring of religious, imaginative freedom.

Returning to Flaubert’s statement on the novel about nothing I would like to suggest that there is a strange lure here, and that it is a monastic rather than a proto-existentialist observation. It is a rejection of mirrored life – Plot – worth conceptualising in both its subtraction from the commonplace and what this process, textually and obliquely, looks like. Both the monks and Flaubert are united in their methods of social loss for the sake of a flourishing interiority.[18] But what does “a text about nothing” look like? The fact that this cannot be answered is in fact the answer. For in the monastery one comes to see the other – exterior – in a threefold way: first, there is the aspect of what drove one to the four walls of freedom in the first place: perhaps that society is a hole held together by some demented, invisible wings, forever fanning the flames of Hell; secondly, obedience to the Abbot, from which community life centered in Imitatio Christi is structured on both temporal and eternal grounds; thirdly, there is the circulation of fragmented memory (of outside life), dissolved by prayer, comradely work, and the incensed universe of prose. Solitude is accessed at a level that cannot be obtained by the mainstream, becoming the explorer’s analogical difference between a round-trip and one-way ticket. For Flaubert this transformative awakening is conveyed into the text by way of late antique historiographical immersion.

Between Antony and Flaubert lies the canvas of medieval solitude as a linguistic mode of representational picture-thinking that connotates an increasing immersion into the construction of memory, recitation, preservation, and texts developed with proto-novelistic aspects. While this is both literally and figuratively true for the religious, we see in Flaubert a life no less dedicated; only his consecration seems to have come in the court room. William of Malmesbury has something of his literary, novelistic flare as well. But Flaubert’s achievement is a textual moment wherein we see for both the monks and Flaubert a rejection of established custom that turns to a living of the text. This has been seen in other cases, both literary and exegetical, i.e. Gregory the Great. However, Flaubert’s is the final phase: literarily surgical precision borne of historiographical solitude and brought to life through a secular monasticism.

Confining Freedom: Literary Method as Historiographical Solitude

As with his depiction of Carthage in Salaambo, Flaubert’s instrumentation allows him to part ways with for instance Polybius, while retaining concrete text as pertains to identical subject matter.[19] The lesser historian’s more general problem of melding facts into prose is handed over; Flaubert’s stylistic alchemy turns such base metals into gold. Attention-to-detail on the one hand is synthesised with the poet’s creative intuition, allowing Flaubert to recreate historical narrative by a methodology beyond mapped attention-to-detail; and on the other hand is his gelding process of localised precision and imaginative exactitude. In this regard Flaubert is less ahistorical than painstaking.[20]

Flaubert’s historical figures lack historical consciousness. He has good, if dense reasoning: the author’s variation on the historical present has nothing in common with that which has already passed, as concerns the subject’s then-intuition of the instant.[21] By doing away with narrative genealogy Flaubert allows his characters to – presumably and prosaically – live as they did, with nothing more than an abstract idea of what their future – our distant past – held. The characters scattered throughout the Desert Fathers are portrayed in a similar way.[22] For Flaubert it is nonsensical to write exclusively about antiquity or the present day; the malaise of contemporaneous France[23] is thus reconsidered in light of the real and imagined violence and sex of the East, which Flaubert has colonially seen and recorded. His narrative therefore justifies imperialism through means of an incomparable critical interpretation. Through reading the Desert Fathers and Flaubert’s narratives in tandem the reader can no longer pretend that we are surprised as to how such subjugation transpired and transpires.[24]

Self-identification in Flaubert’s historical resources comes into stylistic fruition through a comparative reading concerned with mythic substance rather than distorted reinterpretation by way of paraphrased recourse in the Bible and Josephus, a textual pair whose Flaubertian correlation lies between the meaning of the real and its presentation.[25] For instance, Salome’s name is not mentioned once in the synoptic texts; but it is mentioned by Flavius Josephus. Likewise, the synoptic texts mention Salome’s dance, whereas Josephus’s does not.[26] Proximity to the eyewitness is thus transformed into sensory data and communicated through mnemonic centers for fictional processing, selecting narratological moments that work in union with a literary scaffolding. Here authorial vision of the fictive real contains a symbolic identity that is the measure of its faithfulness; and this very faithfulness is the measure of mimesis.[27] As Flaubert’s novelistic chronology moved from Emma to Felicite, “pigments of a brighter hope soften any subsisting ironic tinge.”[28] For the Desert Fathers the Holy Spirit became the phenomenological validation that neither Rome nor even statehoods in their prime could or did offer. Augustine’s immutability[29] is forecasted in “sayings” and letters; their philosophical flourish prefigures Kierkegaardian unchangeability[30] particularly when taken in light of the latter’s Christological parables:[31] “Flaubert stylised himself as a secluded monk who had retreated to his Carthusian cloister in order to renounce all worldly pleasure and devote his life ascetically to his work alone; he signed texts with the name Saint Carpe, a stylite of late antiquity who had turned away from the world in disgust.”[32]

The allegorical bread of redemption translates into Flaubert’s touchstone for literary writing, upon and through which the majority of his explicit and secondary sources flow: the Bible.[33] As with Jerome and Sulpicius Severus, “His flouting of contemporary orthodoxy endowed his work with a potential that is still far from exhausted… instead of warring on behalf of or against the republic, science, or the church, he subverts all of them.”[34] Through Pentecost, Babel, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the fulfilling words of love, borne of the Holy Spirit, Flaubert and the Desert Fathers make the offer of the living bread: by comprehending world history in this light he is able to process an immaculate prose fixed in insularity. But this is where the emphasis in restraint lies, as Flaubert is unconcerned with typological, titular anchorage outside of the enclosed authorial realm. Even if salvation is a lie, and yet its course is fixed by the New Testament. It is a hope in the impossibility of hope, mirroring the impossibility of absolute comprehension in existence; language is a limited summit.

Procedurally Flaubert chooses not to turn to the trends of his age but strives for the highest form of self-denial and asceticism: proverbial impersonality.[35] This habit of being is maintained by an ever-forming literary crystallisation that drew the ire of peers and courtrooms (Imitatio Christi). The Flaubertian corpus exists on a plane between literality and superficiality. But what is set in stone is that the last words of Madame Bovary are “Croix de la Legion d’Honneur;”[36] that Carthagians and mercenaries alike are crucified face-to-face at the end of Salammbo, followed by a variation on the Stations of the Cross;[37] that Three Tales “spatially renders the figure of the Cross through the vertical dynamic of the final scenes, which are crossed horizontally by the carrying of the severed head of John the Baptist out of the vertical castle walls onto the plain of Galilee.”[38]

When Flaubert looks to a closer, more immediate past in either the Enlightenment or the French Revolution, he sees an age of stupidity, ugliness, and shallowness. Yet his response is aesthetic rather than political, a method of victory having diagnosed the prospect of political discourse or success as a temporal waste that is willingly blind to the Hegelian framing of humanity: that we learn from history that we do not learn from history;[39] he is merciless in his unmasking of illusions.[40] In order to understand the monastic approach to historiography we must turn to Leclercq: “The only desire which is legitimate is to possess God here below and forever; here below, in the very midst of sorrow, and because of it; later, in Heaven since celestial realities (caelestia) are but another name for God.”[41] The coming of the Cistercians some centuries off, are not Leclercq’s perspectival-principal literary sources of monastic culture identical to Flaubert’s literary craftwork and way of life? They are: Holy Scripture, the Patristic Tradition, and Classical Literature.

As Diderot held that freedom would be realised when the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Flaubert lived in the sentiment’s metaphorical aftermath. Religious preoccupations allowed Flaubert to proceed with something of, like Santayana, a Christian atheism. His generation’s Christianity becomes, for Flaubert, a deluded imitation of its patristic glories; it is truly right and just to abhor it. There is neither peace in the past nor in the future unless it is in terms of Heaven for the Fathers, the Text for Flaubert; here a people are either martyred, sinning, subjugating or subjugated. Covenantal sacrifice becomes for Flaubert a means of narrative; it is useless to suffer, but worse than useless to pretend there is a path to trod whereby suffering will be uprooted from the human experience.[42] His turn from a religiosity of expectation into the alcoves of incessant religious research mirrors his turn from domesticity into codependent aversion: “It all comes from their organ. Where a man has a Rise, they have a Hole! That rise represents Reason, Order, Science, the Sun-Phallus, and the hole is darkness, moisture, troubles… love is like the need to piss.”[43] By turning his generative energies to prose, Flaubert spares himself the futility of a donative, second lesson of the cross.[44]

Whereas Bovary provoked public trial, Antony undertook a private one. Rather than do what had been comradely recommended to him by Bouilhet in burning it and never speaking of it again, Flaubert worked on it in three periods throughout his life.[45] Antony’s question appealed to Flaubert because the same questions facing men in both the desert and the city 1,400 years later.[46] For in prose Flaubert found less a remedy than his own heuristic prism. He turned to Antony, Antony turned to Christ, and Christ provided the exemplary case for enduring Satanic temptation in the desert, his 40 days personifying the groundwork for a scorched atlas of literary remapping. The resilient text doubles as its watchword in the spirit of the Desert Fathers: contextual and epistemological resilience. Their concerns, like Flaubert’s are thus at once alien and identical, “understood through a single paradigm and creative text rather than through literary-critical histories.”[47] Consider Flaubert’s letter to Louise Colet, Sept. 4, 1852:

This is the very thing that the socialists of the world, with their incessant materialistic preaching, refuse to see. They have denied suffering; they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that stirs within us. Nothing will extirpate it, nothing will eliminate it. Our purpose is not to dry it up, but to create outlets for it. If the sense of man’s imperfection, of the meaninglessness of life, were to perish – as would follow from their premise – we would be more stupid than birds, who at least perch on trees.

Like Athanasius, Flaubert dismantles hypothetical predicates by leaving no wiggle-room for temporised debate.[48] For Flaubert aesthetics offer, as for Mary Mothersill, “A theory of beauty or artistic merit that must provide some account of the predicate or predicates that it takes as generic.”[49] By lambasting the temporal, Flaubert sheds light on a delicate balance of nihilism without restraint[50] and ideological patristics. His historical-literary conscientious rejection of the city amidst communal revolutionary movements was simultaneously an echo of medieval rejections re: trickle-down anachronistic teleology:[51]

The Vita Antonii and medieval hagiography directly enable Flaubert in his Tentacion to play several time frames off one another analogically, namely the early Church in fourth-century Egypt, medieval Christendom, and nineteenth-century France… Certainly in aesthetic terms Flaubert’s use of the vita and summa as history paradoxically liberates the solely theological constraints of these genres, and widens the question of representing exemplariness to non-theological domains such as comparison of cultures and societies.[52]

Despite irregular nods to Herodotus, Vitruvius, Lucian, and Diodorus,[53] Flaubert gleams from Athanasius the notion of an exemplary, singular sacrifice even in secular, bourgeois matters:[54] “Madame Bovary is me!” Here Flaubert both progresses novelistic discourse while recalling Torah typologies of, among others, Philo and Origen by Fr. Jean Danielou, S.J.[55] Another aspect of the ceaseless appeal in Athanasius is that his historiography orbits around the notion that Antony’s sacrifice is not an instance but a process, first interiorly brought on by Christ. It then transforms one – be it Antony or Athanasius – into a being who can no longer recognise themselves. “Layered strata of significance” fills both the hand’s veins and the clutched instrument’s ink beneath its weight, finding “a connective and analogical ‘logic.'”[56] By replacing world-self, or the “already-out-there-now” with a monastic historicisation, Orr considers that density at the core of such a novelistic system is in Flaubert’s not case not a matter of “opting for aesthetic undecidability either when it comes to representing the unrepresentable of prehistory or mythic ecstasy. When harmonised, the two seeming extremes of lyrical/idea vs. scientific/real details can depict illumination of revelations beyond human grasp.”[57] Thus the classical, secular texts in conjunction with biblical and hagiographical works lead to a varied middle-ground between Athanasius and Flaubert; this treasure-chest of intertextual dialogue ranges from Arthur Schopenhauer to Bernard of Clairvaux.

Writing on Bernard of Clairvaux’s debt to Benedict,[58] Jane Foulcher observes that “There is no route toward God that does not entail a humiliating encounter with human weakness, with the broken or false self… Spiritual progress is painfully slow because there is always interplay between grace and nature, between grace and human freedom.”[59] The monastic experience offers an enclosed space within which to develop a rhythm and structure that is not unlike the hagiographical motif in ever-building, ever-developing upon the theme of Imitatio Christi. The difference is, of course, that now the person has a chance to become a text,[60] an instrument of His peace within what Thomas Merton called the “Four walls of freedom.”[61] This is a Flaubertian insight on par with Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of the New Testament[62] and solitude as authentic freedom.[63] Solitude is for Flaubert, Schopenhauer, and the Desert Fathers a testament to absolute freedom; it is itself for these seemingly unrelated writers a lived philosophy that, in turn, begets coming to understand that philosophy is a literary genre. If it is alien to us today, it says more about the future than it does about the past; our inability to fathom being alone with God is indicative less of vanished God than it is a technological eradication of the Logos, Geist, Dasein in person and society, returning to Leclercq:

Now at the beginning of His public life, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, that He might engage in single combat with the devil. The struggle in the garden was the prelude to the struggle in the Garden of the Agony. This last was the exemplar and meritorious cause of the charity of all the martyrs and all the hermits who would be tested, like Christ himself, in the furnace of tribulation because they were pleasing to God.[64]

There is both Christological and authorial truth to this concept of mind, as an interiorised eschatology – a suppression of the cosmic in order to preserve a surgical prose – is what Flaubert is operating with: the authorial, narratological freedom to apprehend eschatological totality in principle, theory, and exegetical history for the sake of maximum knowledge which, transformed in contemplative space, is at last transmitted into prose.

But to understand Athanasius’s narrative discourse in both his life of Antony and the preserved letters, we must understand his Flaubertian disclination toward philosophy. I call this Flaubertian because Flaubert is so without a clear debt to philosophical trend that the field’s absence unfolds into his own original philosophy of literature. As with both Athanasius and Marx, Flaubert looks at philosophy and sees a poverty of method;[65] that what he, or they, are going to do cannot be contained by philosophy. It is both offensive to the philosophers and suggestively prescient; philosophy is a literary genre, complete with plots, characters, and so forth. Here we see that Athanasius’s vision of Stoicism and Plotinian thought as pagan, when Arian heresies abounded, his discourse is steadfast in its perpetual recourse to Scripture.[66] At the center of Egyptian ecclesiastical politics, Athanasius turned inward to replenish the vision he held of his life in typological variations on scriptural chronology. His strange death was immortalised 1500 years later by none other than James Joyce.[67] Athanasius understands Christ as the criterion of appropriate reading and, like Flaubert, his interpretation of authorial composition is guided “not by a philosophical framework so much as by privileged biblical images that he describes as paradeigmata, behind which is an analogical vision of reality…[68] Attainment of virtue boils down to christomimetic tropology: Christ is the perfect example of virtue, ‘typified’ in his life.”[69]

Flaubert likewise sees literary history as a process that ebbs and flows, with his generation an organic gutter of superficiality and stupidity. Bernadette McNary-Zak describes in Useful Servanthood a method that serves well as a monastic foundation for Flaubert’s acute responsorial instrumentation: “Verbal purity and integrity were felt to be indispensable for engaging in meaningful interpretation.”[70] Likewise, Antony’s successor Abba Ammonas employed literary letter writing as a means by which to incrementally grant recipients a ladder to communion with the indwelling of the divine, or cosmic purity. His correspondence attests to the exterior paradigm that made possible such an interior growth by way of texts designed for literary reference[71] or private recitation.[72] As for both Antony’s successor and his literary champion, affliction and disgrace are gains.[73] There is to be no confusion, either: be it the dinner table or before an impaling rod, a courtroom or a drawing room: the wrath of an ungodly society is a good thing for both the saint and author, both dialogical pilgrims. Approval from the condemned is a death sentence; it is better, and more at one with God, to undergo the gates of hell.[74]

Whereas Flaubert’s ascension is strictly that of novelistic prose, Athanasius’s removal from society unfolds in stages that parallel the movement of his spiritual development. The journey to freedom in solitude is not achieved at once in a process of eventuality and culmination but is rather a snowballing effect.[75] Historical license, as in Jerome’s case, unfolds into the literary mind. The outsider writes himself into the scenario that commands recognition but which, as is the case, opens the door to rejection, condemnation, and exilic means. But in the case of the first monks who contained a groundwork for literary fiction, a more complete isolation was consciously sought. It is taken further in the crowning success – and its suicidal implications – in martyrdom. Outside of martyrdom, the chronotopic universe seeks lack of concern for the body, and nearly continuous prayer.[76] The age of Athanasius similarly gave way to novelistic insight by way of Jerome’s source-work in creating a literary persona, drawn out of Christian literary activity, by his constructing the hermit Paul first from the standpoint of a self-styled Latin Origen. Then, revisiting the descriptions of classical poets and Eusubius’s own description of Origen, Jerome made the foundational move of weighing a high level of literary activity on the scales of Christian ascesis, “demonstrated his absolute commitment to God through his abandonment of his social position, his familial obligations and even his dearest friend.”[77]

By bringing Christ down to earth, through the country and into form, Flaubert latched his novelistic discourse upon the anthropological process of religious vision and acts draw up Christological, late antique questions and statements on the development of a consciousness transforming from one of plurality (Muses), to a contained plurality that is ontologically singular (Trinity). As the gods became God, so did Flaubert pave the forthcoming way of inventive measures for the novel, literature’s youngest form, inculcating Realism by way of prosaic non-rational, with the help of Antony.

The singularity of Flaubert’s contributions lies in a secular take on monastic meditation being “the craft of making thoughts about God.”[78] Rather than reversing the idea of enclosure and the precipitation of dogmatic canons, Flaubert calls from an intellectual place of enclosure that applies prosaic acuity to the specter of Christendom. For Flaubert, the faith is less a shell of its former self than it is a pair of shells:[79] historiography and fictionality.[80] The present tense is irrelevant not because Flaubert is bound to the nostalgia industry, but because the present tense is a conceptual impossibility; this impossibility is yet an overflowing fountain of mnemonic waters in its vindication of the non-rational. Medieval monasticism portrays the individual within their network being “perfected”, or “made complete” in an architecture of memory: “The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved in fostering the qualities we now revere as ‘imaginative’ and ‘creativity.’”[81] Flaubert, as with monastic texts, is understood through negation: first, in the severance from biblical and literary canons in order to undergo initiation in the art of religious, artistic subtilities;[82] second, the formal perceptivity adds a dimension to this textual realm by subtracting the possibility of an actual religious enclosure from his life of solitude; third, in turn he seeks to perfect, or structurally complete the text, rather than the communal self.[83]

Tendential Juridicisations     

In order to further comprehend, and thus solidify, the literary traces that monastic tales hold in the desert and complete themselves in Gustave Flaubert, we must go deeper into the idea of formalistic perceptivity in terms of the texts’ unities through opposition. By this it is meant that as a general literary rule, on the whole nothing in hindsight can but appear less ferocious, or plainly, we are often perplexed at how famously banned texts were ever brought to court or considered even minimally offensive rather than self-evident. For the monks, however, our incomprehension is one of insanity; for we place ourselves within a Manhattan or San Francisco and hypothesise a dogmatic literality that renders contemporaneous trends repulsive beyond measure (to a great extent one does not need to be religious at all in order to despise the modern world, as religion has in general gone from opium to pharmacology). But despite how bad things may be, it is never seems like anything less than insane to leave Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Rome behind in order to live and write in desert pits and caves. Thus, we shall first gloss Flaubertian insanity before moving through Agamben and into the Desert Fathers’ genre-as-form-of-life that precedes his Franciscan liturgies by nearly a thousand years.

The life turned over to a pair of textual variations on Pascal’s wager, pro and contra, find common footing in that “The infinite is not a thematic excess: It is, on the contrary, the rhetorical lack that makes the discourse function. The infinite is composed not of an excess of signified, but rather of a missing signified, of an excess of signifier that is constantly being displaced, replaced by another signifier.”[84] The missing signified begins in the ontological-existential sphere of consciousness. The monks abide by the Bible, a faith tenuously cemented by physical distance from the vile city. Inscriptions of eternity mark their exilic prosody in a way that is contagious and cumulative in Flaubert, where again the writer is bound to the consolation of living in the not-city. What remains is an erasure that is replenished in textual immersion, reminiscent of what Felman writers further, namely, “Inscription is possible only because there is erasure. The castration of meaning, the drowning of the signified, determines the flow, the substitution and displacement of signifiers.”[85] Metaphor on the way to heuristic chastity, the recast net magnetically hostile to vulva. Furthermore, Felman’s reading of these early Flaubert texts lead to the question: How can propose, in the same project, ‘I am going to tell the story of my life’; my life is my thought’? This is a legitimate question is we have an absolute poverty of Neo-platonic, or philosophical knowledge; for the very issue was put forth by Parmenides and illuminated by Pseudo-Dionysius, the one working through Homeric poetics and the other, uncoincidentally, monastic texts; it is therein no coincidence that the Desert Fathers fall in between these figures of Parmenides and Pseudo-Dionysius. As concerns exegetical prose poetics, Agamben’s offering of Bernard of Clairvaux makes another study’s bridge between Flaubert and the monks.[86]

In Basil we see also the aesthetic realm of negative anthropology carried out: “The abbot is the artifex of an art, ‘not attributing the performance of it to himself but to the Lord’ (32). The fabulous artifexer is simultaneously Pauline[87] in a prose guided by the is-not in order to comprehend an otherwise unfathomable what-is. For the theologian this is grace, or revelation; for the irreligious this is revolt against the culture industry laid out in a prose irreconcilable with the profane.

This genre of form-of-life is nonetheless more complicated than it appears. For Flaubert one might pick up biographical texts and works dealing with the life behind the work. But its tradition, created by monasticism with a groundwork laid in Latinity, brings us closer to the Rabelaisian madness that is behind Basil and Paul above: what does it mean to say that one is no longer responsible for one’s actions, and that for good or ill God has taken over? For Basil, the statement is at a glance charmingly selfless; but what is key here is that we take it as a glance. It would appear that this idea of self-God, dependent upon the hostility of grace, is indeed brought out of the negative in terms of authorship, where one is, if only in an empirical, debased state, God of one’s work, with the world of plot and characters literally within one’s hands. The public square replaces the cloistered life, and government officials must now deal with a Prosaic Basil, or Novelistic Paul: thus we observe banned books each year, reminiscent of past burnings, but herein predicated upon that spirit that loosed in Flaubertian prose, and its Marxian hermeneutic of transcending the immediate scenario of bondage in order to understand anything whatsoever. At this point we are ready, for instance, to recall Jameson’s Augustinian connotations in the Political Unconscious, and no longer claim anything but a perfect understanding of the matter.

For we must also consider an aspect of John Cassian that Agamben points out concerning the fruition of monastic being’s dedication to the admonition of postulates,[88] a trial of intense humiliation for ten days that precedes a change from clothing into habit, whereupon one spends a year near the entranceway under supervision of an elder monk. Obedience in turn precludes the vows, rendering in the authorial sense a Dionysian temptation to obey literary cognition, to render unto Parmenides what is Parmenidesian, and declare, like Flaubert, that life is literature. This initiative, or ritual, humiliation is not apprehended for itself alone; it is rather a key to the lock of comprehending self-gods and the exilic place, or spirit, of so much transformative literature. As Benedict’s Rule aims to transform the monk’s life into an uninterrupted Office and liturgy, Flaubertian consecration aims to keep the lines of communication afloat by letter while inverting the tapestry of humiliation: the author who has abandoned city life for live at home with one’s parent(s) cannot expect anything less from his Parisian friends. Indeed humiliation must in a sense coincide with rage; for surely Flaubert’s correspondents and advocates can understand why any of Flaubert’s neighbors, or townsfolk in general, are where they are. But the authorial champion of human rights, the irreligiously Christological vindication of Emma Bovary’s scattered archetypes among them? The torture and crucifixion echo throughout the solitude of a predicament the monastic author must write himself out of, and to fail in this regard is to contend the terrifying element that the sacrificial life was in vain; it is a martyr being hanged, drawn, and quartered, only to end up in some purgatorial rather than heavenly sphere.

Through the extreme displacement of monastic being runs a liturgical current that is also a literary soundtrack. Centurial blending of Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Judaic laws and customs, Stoic philosophies, permanent warfare and political crises, Athenian beauty sans extravagance and ritual Roman formalisms.[89] Literary fiction, or Literature, is also different from Fiction in this way: its history is a bedrock under steady metamorphosis. The world around it changes in technological aspects, or appearance, only; progress is then the history of that which is unchanging in its perpetual conviction that it is on the cusp of something that never in fact arrives. This is because the monk fails to comprehend that the non-monk is perhaps neither wicked nor profane, but simply finds the life – cloistered or open, freely religious – repulsive, having analysed its architectonic and finding the bad outweighing the good. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; but so is the historiographical nailing of liars to the wall like flies, or condemning the voting booth as nothing more than a suggestion box for slaves who will be made free not through voting, but through the totality and infinity of Marxian hermeneutic (which in its historical manifestations has resulted in nothing more than worse regimes than the regimes they eclipsed in Marx’s name). The irreligious, for their part, become religiously political, and therein lose whatever authenticity they may have ever neared.

Apostolic atheism/poverty of surroundings, e.g. distraction excised in conjunction with a vanquished temporal expectation that has also recently been observed by Agamben: “what is at stake is life and the way of living, a novum vitae genus, a life that they call ‘apostolic’ (haeretici qui se dicunt vitam apostolicam ducere…; nos forman apostolicae vitae servamus) or “evangelical” (pure evangelica et apostolica vita… vivere; vita Vangelii Jesu Christi; vivere secundum forman Sancti Evangelli).”[90] Poverty is an ultimatum and an aspect; these “idiots”, one of the way men such as Francis of Assisi or Norbert of Xanten referred to themselves, of course recalls Sartre’s Family Idiot; evaporation of possessions for the later monks mirrors the desert life but perhaps strikes us more in the twofold sense of chronological proximity and the idea that an alien land, or desert, seems to imply the futility of a wallet or a closet; wandering about town with nothing to one’s name is impossible to comprehend in a joyous light – what is the city but an accelerated arena wherein endless ways to spend one’s wages or excess funds in both visible and invisible ways is a perpetual motivations for tourists and residents alike? Why else suffer but for a higher cause? This higher level of thinking lends itself to innovation; the isolated author, monk, or city-dweller find equally, unfathomably repulsive their opposites: distracted authorial means, temporal living, or country pleb. Hence, we might also join Nelson and Gayk in “Thinking of medieval genres as form-of-life [that] both illuminates and develops the temporality, spatiality, and virtuality central to modern genre theory”;[91] that “texts and life are bound up with each other.”[92]

Biblical typology completes the authorial mode geared toward grace and receptivity; and although its historical circuitry fixed in post-desert Augustinian thought is less obvious, it is nonetheless evidenced in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart.[93] Here we are treated to a historical retelling order that works as a means by which for disciples to server themselves from motherhood’s Roman carnality. Recalling Foulcher’s portrait of conceptual monastic eschatology we understand Flaubert as a literarily religious person, we sever him from dogmatism; his two dogmas, literary cognition and stylistic totality, are grounded in empiricism; it is the narratology of operative grace that renders one free in penitential bondage, a testament to agony fixed in irony that is nonetheless a forerunner to spiritual motherhood, and a disrupting of carnal motherhood in order to lay the groundwork for venerating the Virgin Mary: “If the desert is the setting for the remaking of an identity, what is it for? What is the goal of this process of unselfing? And why is humility the way? The focus now moves more explicitly to the purpose of the monastic project, discovering the eschatological orientation that is at the heart both the Life of Antony and the Sayings of the Fathers.”[94] Flaubert arrests this notion of interior eschatological proceeding. Characters, such as a reimagined Julian the Hospitaller, come alive within its harrowing sphere.

But perhaps A Simple Heart best displays the testament begun by Egyptian monks and finished by Gustave Flaubert: that faith in literary work and the life required to compose it is a wall that death cannot surmount,[95] capable of preserving the word when flesh gives way while fueled by the sacred, archival transmission of visions temporal and otherwise in preservation; texts, simultaneously, in the world but not of it, and texts not of the world but for it. Mirroring these two dogmatic canons are the measure of Flaubert’s devotion, therein rendering the Flaubertian method of monastic literary fiction capable of, for example, disposing the king’s two patriarchal bodies, of altar and throne in one fell swoop, with a stuffed parrot.[96]

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Woods, David. “Seriously bored: Schopenhauer on solitary confinement.” British Journal

for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 5 (2019): 959-978.

[1] This reference concerning a Pauline “kinsmen of the flesh” symbolically represents kinship between both textual monasticism and the methodology of Flaubert, centered in the “Word made flesh”; and it comes from The King’s Two Bodies because, as I conclude in this lecture, this stylistic method overturns the two patriarchal bodies of altar and crown, disposed by literary fiction: the seed planted by the Desert Fathers comes into fruition with Flaubert. 

[2] A Sentimental Education, 34.

[3] “Precisely because they claim that silence is at the heart of their interpretation, Valentinus and his followers fabricate their own fictive interpretation… True knowledge does bring the knower into closer contact with the known.” Scott D. Moringiello, The Rhetoric of Faith: Irenaeus and the Structure of the Adversus Haereses, Catholic University of America Press, 2019, 51-4. But for Irenaeus and others among Antony’s forerunners Christ’s work is continued in the work of the Church, not fiction.

[4] Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology, Verso, 239.

[5] Harmless, William. Desert Christians. Oxford, 2004, 245, 328, 385-96.

[6] “If you cannot catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is to say No to them.” The Wisdom of the Desert (Trans. Thomas Merton). New Directions, 1970, 43.

[7] Vinken, 5.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] His love of prostitutes, for instance, granting him a particular Christological proximity to Mary Magdalene, or more monastically, Mary of Egypt: “I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from what there is underneath. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those flashily dressed women walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul.”. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour: a Narrative Drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s Travel Notes & Letters. Penguin, 1996, 10.

[10] Walter Cohen, A History of European Literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2017, 374.

[11] Despite Jameson’s looking back to Balzac, cf. “in late Balzac, a prodigious expansion of the narrative frame, as well as a historicisation of its raw materials, tends to displace the older static desires and manias [of convention] and to shift the focus of the narrative to something like an etiology of desire… (what is its origin and prehistory, into what can it be transformed or sublimated?). Political Unconscious, p. 170. Jameson suggests that Flaubert’s narrative classicism is of invented transitions, “chromatic bridge-passages” (222) of which I would conclude that imagistic late antique hagiography plays both abutment and beams.  

[12] The Prison-House of Language, 52.

[13] Ibid., 43-7.

[14] Ibid., 73.

[15] Ibid., 53.

[16] Matejka (ed.), Readings in Russian Poetics, vii.

[17] “[T]here is a connection between Flaubert’s revolutionary notion that a trivial subject was as good as a noble subject for a serious novel, that the worth of a work of art does not depend on what is assumed to be the worth of its subject, and the democratic notion that every human subject is as worthy as another and allowed to have desires.” Jonathan Culler, “Flaubert’s Provocation.” Text Matters 7, no. 7 (2017): 62.

[18] “Just as fish die if they remain on dry land so monks, remaining away from their cells, or dwelling with men of the world, lose their determination to persevere in solitary prayer. Therefore, just as the fish go back to the sea, so we must return to our cells, lest remaining outside we forget to watch ourselves interiorly.” Wisdom, 29.

[19] Robert Graves’s I, Claudius is, for instance, an incomparable literary-fictional companion to Suetonius. But not only did Graves translate Suetonius: the two texts, Suetonius and Graves’s novel, achieve a sense of interchangeability when read side-by-side. Flaubert, on the other hand, seems to devour all of Polybius en route to the moment of creation; therein he abandoned everything about Polybius’s style, emphasis, memory, and representation, creating a completely unrecognisable world; this, I believe, is due to Flaubert’s personal aestheticisation of conceptual time.

[20] Cohen, 374.

[21] Flaubert’s intellectual contributions also contain the obscure gift of autodidactic precision. His work lends itself to pedagogical methods in history and fiction, the synthesis of conceptual-personal reality and the “world-already-out-there-now.” Brown, Hilary, and Richard D. Sawyer. “Dialogic reflection: An exploration of its embodied, imaginative, and reflexive dynamic.” In Forms of Practitioner Reflexivity, 1-12. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016.

[22] Cohen, 374-5.

[23] “to subvert the ruling discourses of his time… directly opposed to all the political, scientific, and religious currents that characterise his epoch… he is alone in his vitriolic skepticism.” Vinken, 16-7.

[24] Cohen, 375.

[25] Ibid., 140.

[26] Mimesis in a Cognitive Perspective, 132.

[27] Ibid., 133.

[28] Ibid., 142.

[29] Augustine’s Confessions (trans. F.J. Sheed). San Francisco, 2015: 79, 151.

[30] Garff, Joakim, Peder Jothen, and James Rovira. Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts. Northwestern University Press, 2018, cf. Pattison, George. “The bonfire of the genres: Kierkegaard’s literary kaleidoscope.” (2018): 39-54.

[31] Collected as Parables of Kierkegaard. Princeton University Press, 1978.

[32] Barbara Vinken, Flaubert Postsecular: 2.

[33] Vinken, 3.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Madame Bovary (trans. Steegmuller), Modern Library, 1957, 396.

[37] See Flaubert’s Salammbo (Penguin Classics), 275-82.

[38] “Saving the Cross from dogmatic Christian interpretation, which is what Flaubert’s work is about, is not undertaken with a view to some kind of humanisation, but rather to a more truthful imitation of Christ on the Cross… Flaubert inscribes the Cross into the praxis of pre-Christian human sacrifice, as the practice of scapegoating… Only from the unprecedented love that enters the world with Christ’s death on the Cross does the full horror of the human condition reveal itself” Vinken, 16.

[39] Although this sentiment was later politicised by Raymond Aron in his Opium for the Intellectuals, philosophically scientised by Karl Popper.

[40] Steven B. Smith, Modernity and its Discontents: 224-6. 

[41] Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 39-40.

[42] “The task of literature is to make the irredeemable figure of the Cross legible throughout history and to convert it into text so as to keep its memory alive. The failure of the promise makes the Passion of those who suffer, through its sheer pointlessness, perversity, and insanity, all the purer. The asceticism of writing is the last means available for attaining this purity. Literature erects a Cross lacking salvation and is therefore an all the more intolerable memento crucis – the only consolation lies in its ability to testify to suffering” Vinken (20).  

[43] Flaubert as quoted in Finn’s Figures of the pre-Freudian, 51, 199.

[44]  Mimesis and Sacrifice (Pally) 25-9, 216-242.

[45] Orr, 3.

[46] “We rose at three in the morning and went to bed at nine at night, living on hard-boiled eggs, dry preserves, and watermelons. It was real desert life.” Flaubert in Egypt.

[47] Orr, 20.

[48] “Literature is at its worst when such a new, secularised evangelical authority assumes it as a legitimate harbinger of redemption. The Church and, to an even more disastrous effect, its secular transformations in the forms of socialism and republicanism are as obsessed with salvation as they are oblivious to suffering. As a whole, the bourgeois middle-class credo that prizes self-interest above all other things is the absolute antipode of a genuine imitation of Christ”, Vinken (16). 

[49] Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored. Clarendon Press, 1984, 135

[50] E.R. Curtius, Essays in European Literature, 439: “In Flaubert it is part of a nihilism of values that affects all departments of life with the sole exception of art.”

[51] See Susan Reynolds’s Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300. Clarendon Press, 1997, 181.

[52] Orr, 21.

[53] Coleman, A. “Sources of the Religious Element in Flaubert’s” Salammbô”.” (1919): 174-176.

[54] Singular because had Flaubert chosen, say, Irenaeus as his model, the idea of sacrifice takes on a uniformity within the entirety of the Church: “When his opponents’ exegesis disregards earlier members of the church, it also disregards sacrifices made to God, and it refuses to see that these sacrifices are types of the Eucharistic sacrifice of the church” Moringiello, The Rhetoric of Faith (Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 117.

[55] For the task of a strict typological study I have found Daniel’s From Shadows to Reality (Burns and Oates Ltd, 1960) altogether indispensable. But for the precise notion in question, “[Tertullian, Philo, and Origen] use both the symbol and the content of the symbol… the application of the symbolism to all the details of Scripture; the use of a symbolic method of Hellenistic origin, and a psychological interpretation of the historical data of the Bible” (220-1).

[56] Orr, 54.

[57] Ibid, 249.

[58] Foulcher: ‘Bernard intentionally turns Benedict’s steps on their head’ (182).

[59] Ibid, 183.

[60]  DeGregorio, Scott. “Texts, topoi and the self: a reading of Alfredian spirituality.” Early Medieval Europe 13, no. 1 (2005): 79-96.

[61] Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Mariner Books: 1999, 410.

[62] “My ethics stands in the same relation to that of all other European philosophers as the New Testament does to the Old, taking this relationship in the ecclesiastical sense… my doctrine could be called the true Christian philosophy.” Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics), 62-3.

[63] Woods, David. “Seriously bored: Schopenhauer on solitary confinement.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 5 (2019): 959-978.

[64] Leclercq, xiv.

[65] See Allen Oakley’s The making of Marx’s critical theory (RLE Marxism): A bibliographical analysis. Routledge, 2015, 7-30.

[66] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 6.

[67] Baines, Robert. “The Opposite of Despair: St. Anthony Meets St. Patrick.” In James Joyce and the Nineteenth-Century French Novel, 94-111. Brill Rodopi, 2011.

[68] Leithart, 40-1.

[69] Ibid., 169.

[70] McNary-Zak, 5.

[71] Ibid, 16-24.

[72] See also Carruthers, Book of Memory, 14., and McNary-Zak 103: “The centrality of, and sustained access to, the gift of discernment in all of its forms and expressions would contribute to those processes of definition that characterised the transformation and development of Christianity in this period.”

[73] McNary-Zak, 156.

[74] Ibid 156-6.

[75] Steven D. Driver, John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture (45).

[76] Ibid., 46-7.

[77] Ibid., 48; 73-5: “The text condescends to the reader as though speaking to one who has just renounced the world, and the reader is expected to assume this role… Mental and spiritual discipline are little more than the restriction of one’s wishes and the confession of all things to an elder.”

[78] See Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: 2.

[79] “The closed eyelids were as pale as seashells; and beams from the candelabras all around shone on them” (Three Tales, 104 [“Herodias”].

[80] “Flaubert’s work of deconstruction reaches completion with the Three Tales: a project that, from the perspectives of religion and of the history of ideas, should be grasped as a culmination as well as an abyssal form of self-renouncing kenosis that consummates Flaubert’s writing.” Vinken, 21.

[81] The Craft of Thought, 2-9.

[82] E.R. Curtius, Essays on European Literature, 210: “In order to appreciate Flaubert, one must be initiated into the subtleties of artistic form.”

[83] Yet for Curtius a subtlety interwoven with a sickness unto death: “The hallucinations of Flaubert’s St. Anthony culminate in the self-annihilating wish to dissolve into matter… Flaubert finds life senseless and compiles a catalogue of human stupidity. He gathers incriminating evidence against man and the world” Essays in European Literature, 198-9.

[84] Felman, 87.

[85] Felman, 88.

[86] ”On Precept and Dispensation”, from Works of Bernard of Clairvaux. Vol.1, Treatises (ed. Basil Pennington Cistercian Fathers Series, no. 1. (Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian Publications, 1970).

[87] Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

[88] Agamben, 39.

[89] Agamben, 87.

[90] Agamben, 92.

[91] Nelson, 12

[92] Nelson, 17. 

[93] Augustine’s Sermons, viz. 280-2.

[94] Jane Foulcher’s Reclaiming Humility, 59.

[95] “This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.” Wisdom, 74.

[96] See Myra Jehlen’s “Felicite and the Holy Parrot.” Raritan 26, no. 4 (2007), 86: “Felicite’s deathbed vision preempts the Holy Spirit: art and religion are ontologically incompatible. The azure vapor that drifts into the room from censers waved below is no more the breath of the Holy Spirit than Loulou is the Dove. Felicite could never visualise the Holy Spirit—bird? fire? breath? – and, reading her tale, neither can we. But Loulou, we see clear as day.”