Postscript: A Journal of Graduate Criticism and Theory new series number 3 (2009)
Lacanian Shopaholics and Conspicuous Consumption in Madame Bovary: The Mirror (Stage), a Beaver Hat, and the Desire for Desire
Lacey Decker featuring Bradley D. Clissold
Emma Bovary inhabits a world dominated by developing bourgeois capitalism in provincial France, and, motivated by the perceived boredom and emptiness of rural life, she falls into a spiral of continual desire for extreme joy, the aristocratic lifestyle, and desire itself. She deals in conspicuous consumption, both of material goods and romantic ideals of love, granting her possessions and lovers fetishized significance, as objects to satisfy her starry-eyed expectations, while simultaneously indexing the new and emergent values of capitalist mobility. Gustave Flaubert effectively satirizes these developing lifestyles of the emergent leisured classes, building up excessive detail in his prose, and showcasing Emma’s excessive indulgence in trinkets, lovers, and sentimental desires to illustrate the inseparable relationship between possessions (meaning, the ownership of material objects, and the state of being possessed by them), passion, and sexual love. Emma attempts to become a spectacle of fashion through the visual currency of conspicuous consumption, trading on the added values of a new kind of signified where knowledge of how much something costs is more important—to both wearer and spectator—than the use value or even actual exchange value of the object displayed.
The only character seemingly exempt from this exhibition of wealth and style is the blind beggar; he functions as a (guilty) corporeal reminder of consumption and exploitative colonialism in the New World, and his ubiquitous beaver hat serves as a symbol of European capitalist greed and outmoded exploitative colonial practices. His singing, an audible contrast to the strict dealings in the visible throughout the novel, always appears at inopportune times, particularly when Emma is journeying home from a lover’s rendezvous, or, most indicatively, when she sees her final reflection in a mirror on her deathbed. The mirror, for Emma, has been a lingering Lacanian presence in her provincial life, both as a source of identity formation and as a fetishized object—something separate from the body, and another quixotic ideal to strive towards. Emma’s driving desires inevitably lead to her self-imposed destruction, and she inhabits the troubled dialectic that exists between fantasy and reality because she values objects and lovers for their romanticized signifying status. As a result, Emma’s personal and insatiable desires therefore mirror, in many important ways, the budding bourgeois capitalist attitudes and practices of nineteenth-century France.
The idea for this collaborative essay began during a meeting of the Memorial University 2008 Summer Reading Group where critical discussion quickly moved to the issue of conspicuous consumption and Flaubert’s use of it in the detailed narrative descriptions that comprise much of Madame Bovary. The strong materialist focus of Flaubert’s narrator allows the novel to luxuriate in a density of verbal imagery and a richness of detailed specifics that is at once a conventional cornerstone of literary naturalism and its practiced modes of aestheticized realism, as well as a subtle political vehicle for satirizing French bourgeois lifestyles and cultural practices. That Flaubert took such sharp aim at an emerging bourgeois culture that desperately tried to ape the manners and ostentatious materialism of the upper classes in French society is not a new scholarly discovery. Indeed, Emma’s exploitation at the hands of the Monsieur Lheureux—one of the novel’s representative figures of ruthless mercantile interests—explicitly highlights the importance, in the nineteenth century, of looking the part of a doctor’s wife rather than a farmer’s daughter. However, our interpretive interests soon became focused on the multiple ways in which conspicuous consumption in the novel also extends beyond this superficial appeal to Emma’s vanity through purchasing, possessing, and then showing off recognizable luxury items. The interview-style format that follows is the product of a scholarly experiment where we wrote and exchanged weekly email installments of critical analysis and close reading, responding to and further developing each other’s arguments on conspicuous consumption in Madame Bovary. Our primary goal was to generate scholarly arguments that would remain flexible enough to accommodate the critical shifts that occurred with each additional installment and to maintain, in that exchange of critical insights, a tone and sensibility of open-minded interpretive exploration. In the critical dialogue that follows Lacey Decker’s critical readings are marked by the bolded initials LD, and Brad Clissold’s are introduced by the bolded initials BC.
LD: Lacan’s mirror stage is the origin for many things: the birth of desire, the split-self, and a striving for a unified identity that will be an ongoing struggle. In this moment, the seeds are planted for our ongoing construction of identities that we will project onto ourselves, and onto the world or the other. Identity is a fluid process, with no seeming teleology, yet a self-image is necessary to operate in our societal surroundings. For many Western cultures, the mirror becomes a persistent repository for this search for identity, and clothing choice becomes a major accessorizing factor for many individuals at a fairly young age. Many adopt a certain style of clothing as a sort of uniform to project a particular identity to the world, and the visual currency of fashion is replete with judgements about what, or who, one wears. The intimate bond that an individual forms with the mirror as an infant is perpetuated through life, during which the mirror becomes a stabilized visual source to reinforce identity. This external reflection of the body, when covered in clothes, becomes inextricably linked to conceptions of personal identity, and such construction is not only reflected in one’s personal mirror but also acts as a projector to announce the habits of conspicuous consumption to outside viewers.
To paraphrase Lacan’s seminal moment of identity formation, when the identity fractures in the mirror stage, the infant experiences its first cohesive vision of itself, but conceives itself as a separate entity: a two-dimensional reflection which is both itself and not itself. This formative encounter with the mirror at a primitive stage of life sets us up to form a bond with our reflection, a place in which to locate the visual reassurances of our identity, no matter how fluid that concept may actually be. This intimacy perpetuates itself throughout life, and is magnified in clothing choices, which are often determined with the help of a mirror and with the knowledge of what a particular style of clothing connotes to outside viewers. Children may enter into the Symbolic order when they learn how to use the pronoun “I,” but they also reach a developmental stage when they begin picking out their own clothes, reflecting their desire to look a certain way, and to appear that way to others. Fashion is a semiotic language made up of signs and symbols which non-verbally communicate meanings about individuals and groups; fashion enables others to read the surface of social situations and functions as an iconography that expresses individual identity (Weston-Thomas). Clothing choice makes a statement of identity in the same way book covers make statements about their internal, written content, with the exception that individuals can change their “cover” every day, making the aesthetic reflection of identity all the more variable and strategically productive.
The mirror stage thus establishes the ego, or conception of self, as essentially dependent on external objects, or the other. Dressing in the style of a specific celebrity has definite implications for the imitator’s personality and desired identity. These individuals are more often than not consciously seeking out a distinct style, making the effort to purchase clothes and accessories in that vein, and adopting that style in hopes of perhaps evoking both the era and the celebrity. William H. Reynolds once wrote that “fashion is the process of adopting symbols primarily to provide the individual an identity relative to others” (32). This statement resembles Lacan’s theory that the self is defined in relation to others, and seeks individual identity through relativity to the other. Although Lacan believed that the mirror stage was a developmental phase that occurred in every infant, regardless of culture, the mirror stage is now also intimately connected to issues of materialism and celebrity. The intimate bond formed in the infant stage ensures the orientation of the imago, conceived of as the ideal “I,” toward which the individual will strive throughout his or her life, however unattainable that goal may be.
In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Emma Bovary is actively engrossed in acquiring goods that will distance her from her past as a farmer’s daughter and visually elevate her from the common country folk that surround her. Believing her great tragedy to have not been born aristocratic and rich, Emma dresses the part as best she can and sighs her days away in front of the window, which serves to partially echo her own image in the glass, and put her on display to the busy town below where the people may see that she is simply too occupied in languishing away her time to participate in working-class life.
BC: On the Lacanian front, I’m compelled by the ways in which parallel economies of desire function in the novel: the consumption of material goods to serve specific manifest and latent purposes (which acknowledges a desire for different social status as well as the desire for male attention beyond the exclusivity of the spouse) and the consumption of literary conventions and ideals of romantic love that find problems in actualization—in romance novels this works in a seemingly consequence-free environment and without small hindrances, whereas Emma’s actual adulterous affairs are difficult and demanding. In other words, I’m interested in how the desire that motivates in a Lacanian sense is one that can never be quenched and therefore ironically supplies the very conditions for the passionate experience—where intensity and pain are privileged such that what Emma desires is to be in a constant state of desire (and to be desirable as well).
LD: Marxist critics often pounce upon Emma Bovary because of her consumption of consumer goods, and her proclivity to discard as useless “anything that [does] not lend itself to her heart’s immediate satisfaction” (Flaubert 34). In the provincial town of Yonville-l’Abbaye, Emma attempts to put on the airs of a sophisticated socialite; she makes her young maid address her and Charles in the third person and is also bent on making “a lady’s maid out of her” (Flaubert 55). She buys herself a full set of letter-writing paraphernalia, with not a soul to write to, adorns her mantle with vases, ivory workboxes, and silver thimbles, and buys bunches of trinkets for her watch-chain, in the fashion of the ladies of Rouen. Emma specializes in purchasing goods that are of no practical use in order to cater to her romantic and narcissistic fancy, and even objects that are needed, such as her daughter’s crib, are dismissed from her interest if she cannot have the high-priced, fashionable version she desires. Somewhat purgative in her spending habits, she wears virtue like a costume when she believes Léon wants her, and casts herself as a doting mother and wife who wants for nothing, while after he leaves for Paris, she spirals into depression and buys expensive scarves from Lheureux and orders cashmere dresses from the city. Emma indulges in these extravagant accoutrements, while having no place to wear them (balls and invitations to high tea not being common occurrences in Yonville-l’Abbaye), and instead stations herself by her window, as “the window, in the provinces, replaces theatres and promenading” (Flaubert 118).
Emma’s consumption of material goods is also fed by her consumption of sentimental, romantic fantasy played out in the novels she devours, and in her refusal to realize that the practicality of these passionate affairs is about as flimsy as her costly scarves. The capitalist taste for excess is mirrored in Emma’s collection of ineffectual goods, the unrealistic and overblown fantasies of her books, and the piling up of Flaubert’s detail in describing the scenes. The excessive detail in language offered to the reader parallels the surfeit of material goods found in the Bovary household, and the ornate caprices of Emma’s imagination. The reader is thus the real voyeur into Emma’s desires and is privy to the fact that she cannot have enough: enough wealth, pleasure, or fanciful love. These desires are unattainable and it is the longing for them that becomes her purpose—sought after, all the more, for being out of reach.
BC: Shortly after Emma consummates her long-smouldering passion for Léon Dupuis—and remember they run into each other after years apart at a Paris opera (the opera itself a strong signifier of leisured elitism and therefore a favourite site of conspicuous consumption for aspiring bourgeoisie)—the blind beggar makes his first appearance in Rouen. As Emma embarks on the carriage ride from Rouen to Yonville—after her second adulterous affair—it is easy to see the blind man as a symbolic embodiment of the guilt she feels—a physical reminder of the fall from social favour that is the potential consequence of Emma’s adultery. Indeed, he returns three times throughout the novel to haunt her comings and goings (usually after tryst-like meetings with either lovers or debt-collectors in Rouen) and is a constant reminder of her lowly beginnings and her fated fall from the “good life” as a doctor’s wife. That this figure is blind also links him strongly with “blind justice”—a symbol of impartial and neutral judgment; however, his presence is a reminder that Emma is being and will be judged for her actions. His blindness positions the tramp as the only figure in the novel that cannot be taken in by conspicuous consumption: he can’t see it, and his leprous condition ensures that he cannot evaluate consumption by touching what people are wearing because everyone avoids his proximity and contact. When he is first introduced in the novel, descriptive narrative details about the blind man’s appearance (details which he cannot see to evaluate himself) foreground his status as a social pariah:
On the hill there was a poor old tramp wandering about with his stick, in among the carriages. A mass of rags covered his shoulders, and a squashed beaver-hat, bent down into the shape of a bowl, concealed his face; but, when he took it off, he exposed, instead of eyelids, two yawning bloodstained holes. The flesh was tattered into scarlet strips; and fluid was trickling out, congealing into green crusts that reached down his nose, with black nostrils that kept sniffing convulsively. Whenever he spoke, he threw back his head with an idiot laugh;-then his blue eyes, rolling continuously, would graze the edges of the open sores, near both his temples. (Flaubert 248-49)
Graphic imagery of open festering sores on his face soon get coupled with the reiterated song lyrics he sings (coincidentally about the very themes of love and passion that Emma desires) while following the carriages: “Souvent la chaleur d’un beau jour / Fait rêver fillette à l’amour” [“Maids in the warmth of a summer day, / Dream of love, and of love always”]). As a recurring figure in the narrative, he is at once an inescapable reminder of the ugly side of capitalist progress and the human despair associated with exclusionary class identifications: “Sometimes he appeared suddenly behind Emma, hatless. She pulled back with a cry. Hivert would be teasing him. He told him he ought to take a booth at the Saint-Romain fair, or asked him, with a laugh, how his sweetheart was keeping” (Flaubert 249). The suggestion that the blind man go to work in a local fair as a side-show freak further betrays the exploitative capitalist logic at work: trying to make a profit via the spectacle of grotesqueries. The cruel teasing about the tramp’s supposed “sweetheart” serves only to cast Hivert (the carriage driver) and the bourgeois society that he serves in a reprehensible light. Instead of providing aesthetic entertainment for journey-bound travelers, the beggar’s disturbing appearance shocks and repulses onlookers and is matched by his, at times, frighteningly aggressive begging techniques:
Several times, they were on the move, and his hat would be thrust in through the carriage-window, while he clung on tight with his other arm, on the footboard, between the splashing wheels. His voice, a feeble wail at first, became shrill. It trailed off into darkness, like the muffled lamentation of some vague distress; and, above the jingling of the horses’ bells, the murmur of the axles and the rumbling of the empty carriage, it had a far-away sound that Emma found overwhelming. It carried to the bottom of her soul, like a vortex turning over the deep, and it swept her out across the expanses of a boundless melancholy. But Hivert, feeling the balance shift, would swipe briskly at the blind man with his whip. The lash would catch him on the sores, and he would fall off into the mud, bellowing. (Flaubert 249)
From this passage, it is evident that the blind man functions as a haunting reminder (“the muffled lamentation of a vague distress”), for both Emma and her class, of the dislocation of already underprivileged persons that inevitably results from/is a by-product of comprehensive industrial shifts and increased (mass-scale) capitalist manufacturing: the very shift in wealth distribution that allowed the bourgeoisie to attain assets of social mobility in the first place, and eventually political power. The servant to these social elites (the occupants of the carriage) is Hivert (the carriage driver) who literally whips the blind man back into a symbolic repressed state where he cannot harass the privileged, and they can “eventually fall asleep…swaying about to the rhythm of the moving carriage.” The contrast is sharp between the diseased (walking) blind man who is both violently attacked and emotionally tormented by bourgeois society and the representatives of that bourgeois society who ride around in carriages and see the external world of potential suffering and injustice in a completely mediated way (through the carriage windows which are protected by Hivert’s repressive security measures)—or quite simply, the curtains can be drawn to shut out the external world and its critical gaze (remember how the description of Léon and Emma’s rendezvous becomes eroticized by the implications of the drawn carriage curtains that refuse the gaze of onlookers [Flaubert 228]).
LD: I am similarly interested in exploring the parallels between mirrors as symbols and the Lacanian implications of the gaze (or lack thereof in the case of the blind beggar who is unable to actually view performances of conspicuous consumption). Emma Bovary’s role in the novel is very much visually orientated: her choice of fine clothes; her trinkets that have a fetishized value by being on display; her appearances at the opera; her studied reflection in front of a mirror, or her station at the window. Emma’s version of sight is very much concerned with colourful fantasies and an idolization of the aristocratic. Events such as the Viscount’s ball fuel her veneration of the wealthy and reinforce her connection to the mirror and the tableaux:
But gradually the circle of which [the Viscount] was the centre widened round him, and the halo that he wore, as it floated free of him, spread its radiance ever further, illuminating other dreams. It was Paris, rippling like the ocean, gleaming in Emma’s mind under a warm golden haze. The swarming tumultuous life of the place was divided into several parts, classified into distinct tableaux. Emma grasped only two or three of these, and they hid all the rest from her, apparently representing the whole of humanity. The diplomats walked on polished floors, in drawing-rooms paneled with mirrors, around oval tables covered in velvet cloths with gold fringes. This was the world of trailing gowns, of high mystery, of anguish cloaked under a smile. (Flaubert 54)
Emma conceives her fantasies as grand tableaux, as striking scenes wherein everyone is suitably costumed and posed—imagined scenes which may be hung upon the wall and admired like paintings. Interestingly enough, Emma does not imagine her quixotic aristocratic acquaintances as completely content; instead, they cloak anguish “under a smile.” The mirrors that panel the walls do not reflect this hidden anguish, but rather the beautiful aesthetics of their surroundings. For Emma, the Lacanian mirror that reflects the Ideal-I also serves to fetishize objects. Accordingly, these idealized objects are presented as separate from the body, as something to strive towards and to own, that is, to assimilate the image with the corporeal image-giver. This is best illustrated when Emma stands in front of the mirror after her afternoon tryst with Rodolphe and blissfully repeats, “J’ai un amant, j’ai un amant” [I have a lover, I have a lover]. A lover is something to have, to possess, to declare ownership of and to incorporate as a form of new belonging and identity into her image. In the capitalist goal of ownership and collection, Rodolphe is more important as a concept than as a complex person, and he is subordinate to Emma’s vision of herself and the fanciful image she wishes to project. Standing in front of her mirror
[s]he summoned the heroines from the books she had read, and the lyric host of these unchaste women began their chorus in her memory, sister-voices, enticing her. She merged into her own imaginings, playing a real part, realizing the long dream of her youth, seeing herself as one of those great lovers she had so long envied. (Flaubert 151)
She is now finally cast into one of her own fantasies, with Rodolphe himself unimportant, figuring only as generic version of a suave male lover who can spin lover’s speeches covered in honey and cater to her notions of romance.
BC: I’m still interested in ranting about how conspicuous consumption functions in this book. In Madame Bovary, the potentially subversive figure of the beggar—the nineteenth-century equivalent of the local (harmless) bum who inhabits the peripheries of society but always as a signifying ghost that returns from economic repression—marks a site of trauma in the capitalist project that resurfaces whenever one re-enters the social sphere from the private, a remaindered reminder of the costs of economic progress and social advancement in the bourgeois rise to prominence. In the body of the beggar who haunts the margins of Flaubert’s narrative lies an economic imprint of guilty conscience: the consequences of large-scale industrialization and urbanization have by necessity caused the dislocation of just this type of individual, someone already made vulnerable in society by economic lot and systemic discrimination. If you’ll recall, he makes appearances in Flaubert’s novel always at inopportune times, usually in travelling transition settings where his debt-collecting presence gets bought off twice by other characters in the novel. Although the blind man is abused by those with whom he comes into contact, it is his beaver hat that resonates loudest as a form of (unconscious) conspicuous consumption—but it is quite literally not the dandified calculated pose and display that generally characterizes the showing off of brand name (expensive/unique) recognizability; the hat, however, is what might more accurately be called a bankrupt fetishistic metonym because the hat is an outdated (conspicuously obsolete and unfashionable) fashion piece, and one that indexes ruthlessly exploitative domestic and colonial capitalism.
LD: The blind man’s phantasmagorical presence also threatens to expose the governing dialectical tension between fantasy and reality embodied in Emma’s slightly skewed romantic notions of life, and how the delicate balance between the two fuels her capitalist (over) spending, and acts as a broader commentary on the direction taken by many Western societies. Emma buys lavish clothes and objects not only for their aesthetics, but also for their associations of social prominence and luxurious living. When Emma fantasizes about her quixotic perfect lover, there is as much emphasis on the material surroundings as there is on the sentimental romance:
The sighing in the moonlight, the long embracing, the tears flowing down on to the hands of the one forsaken, all the fevers of the flesh and the tender anguish of loving—none of these could be had without a balcony in some great tranquil château, without a silk-curtained deep-carpeted boudoir, with lavish vases of flowers and a bed on a little platform, without the sparkle of precious stones and the glitter of gold-braided livery. (Flaubert 55)
The flowers and glitter and gold play just as much of a central role in Emma’s musings as does the fetishized lover: there is no particular man who makes a recurring appearance, only the one with whom she happens to be fixated at the time. The ghostly lover is as much a part of the scenery as the sparkling precious stones, and is able to be replaced when something more eye-catching comes along. This is capitalism operating on another level: the commodification of people, of replaceable lovers, of fantasies fed by narcissism bleeding into reality. As Emma continually operates both consciously and unconsciously in a state where fantasy informs reality, she becomes an emblem of the way modern capitalism functions: such fantasy/reality indirectly promises status and power as a result of the consumption of material goods, or goods that signify wealth to others.
BC: Flaubert’s desire to descriptively list (almost catalogue) a multiplicity of very specific details of daily life in the novel is an authenticating gesture of realism that functions beyond contextualizing background detail. Even beyond a described object’s use value and exchange value in the novel, such highlighted objects carry with them a host of symbolic valences accumulated over years of cultural use and exchange. Monsieur Lheureux, for example, is constantly offering Emma exotic trinkets and fashionable wares without discussion of price (so that he can fleece her when the credit builds up, seemingly left unrecorded, but always on the mind of the dishonest businessman), highlighting the immateriality of money when fetishizable objects—that is, objects capable of taking on additional symbolic values—become privileged beyond use value or even simple supply and demand exchange value.
One of the primary ways in which Europeans in the seventeenth century distinguished themselves in terms of social status (even occupation) was through the hats they wore, and beaver was the most prized among the fur types. Often expensive hats of fashionable distinction would be passed from generation to generation: a legacy of inherited conspicuous consumption. However, by the time Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary (1850s), beaver fur hats in Europe had become unfashionable, replaced now by silk (velour) hats. What’s so interesting about the blind man’s beaver fur hat is that it speaks of outmoded production, obsolete fashionability, and wasteful capitalist enterprises. A brief history of the beaver fur hat industry in Europe will help to contextualize Flaubert’s use of such a strong (accusatory) signifier; by the middle of the seventeenth century when beaver fur hats became all the rage in Europe, the beaver had already been hunted to extinction on the European continent. Supply was found elsewhere (in the colonies of North America) and exported as a natural resource back to the metropolis hinterland for final manufacture and distribution. Like most colonial enterprises, the fashionable finished product obscures the actual hunting, killing, and skinning of these animals in their natural habitat. The fact that beavers were extinct in Europe at the time because of over-hunting was also a direct reminder of the consequences of the unmanaged exploitation of natural resources like animal pelts. Ironically, the blind man’s beaver hat also registers significance in terms of superstitions surrounding the wearing of beaver fur. According to the Hudson’s Bay website, “It was said that wearing a beaver hat made you smarter. It was believed that by rubbing the oil into your hair you would develop a remarkable memory. It was also rumoured that a deaf person would regain their hearing by wearing a beaver hat.” Correspondingly, the blind man is perhaps the most insightful person in the book in spite of his disability for he is a haunting memory of past cycles of consumption signified by the consumed and discarded (and reconsumed) beaver hat. Certainly, the blind man is not hesitant to call out the town’s pharmacist Monsieur Homais as a quack who cannot fulfill his medical promises—revealing the blind to be more perceptive than the supposedly sighted bourgeoisie who award the fraud the Legion of Honour.
LD: The overall significance of hats in Flaubert’s novel is indeed noteworthy: there is a big deal made at the beginning of the novel when Charles Bovary begins school and appears with a hat of “the Composite order, in which we find features of the military bear-skin, the Polish chapska, the bowler hat, the beaver and the cotton nightcap, one of those pathetic things, in fact, whose mute ugliness has a profundity of expression like the face of an imbecile” (Flaubert 4). You mentioned in the previous installment that one of the primary ways which Europeans distinguished someone by status or occupation was by the type of hat worn. Charles’s hat here is an amalgam at best, a miserable mess at worst, and would identify him as an unfashionable country boy who tries too hard to fit in by having an overwrought headpiece that is overly new, and which his teacher labels a ‘helmet.’
BC: If the beaver hat is a fallen European status symbol, it functions in a negative dialectical relationship to the attempts by Emma to ape Parisian styles and fashions. Here we might want to consider the aesthetics of “invented aristocracy” and the “mobility of style” that Emma performs. Emma is definitely heroic in a tragic way from an early feminist perspective, but she also embodies a position of being caught between two ideological systems (obviously heightened by the social expectations her status as wife and mother place on her public appearances) and betrayed by the false desires and myopic gains of consumerism (or general capitalist consumption). In the 2008 rock biography Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, the British artist Duggie Fields offers the alternative phrase “visual recognition symbols” to denote signifiers which convey “a way of being in the world that you could recognise in somebody else” (qtd. on 318-19). Such are the symbols Emma manipulates in her fashion conscious pursuits of literary adventure in the real world. The blind man’s hat is a visual recognition symbol that signifies an outstanding debt—the hat becomes the symbol of past exploitation that returns to seek payment of this overdue capitalist debt. The pittance of money that both Emma and Charles throw at the man does not even begin to pay down the debt imbalance, and his return continues in spite of physical violence (whippings). The blind man is a constant reminder of such debts still owed to the exploited of society and to this end he disgusts figures like Monsieur Homais (who ironically apes the role of a trained and experienced bourgeois apothecary):
But when the blind man, as usual, appeared at the foot of the hill, he [Homais] exclaimed:
--I cannot understand why it is that the authorities still tolerate such scandalous activities. Those wretched people ought to be locked away and made to do some work! Progress, upon my word, goes at a snail’s pace! We are wallowing in the worst barbarism. (Flaubert 279)
In response, “The blind man held out his hat, and it flapped at the carriage-window, like a piece of the upholstery hanging off” (Flaubert 280). The simile of torn upholstery offers further insight into the relationship of the blind man to the rest of society: he is a torn part of it, a break in the surface adornment and comfort of “upholstery.” Furthermore, it is the beaver fur hat—quite literally the visible surface area of a beaver—that becomes a symbol of capitalist greed. The beaver body (muscles, organs, bones) underneath the pelt becomes a mere by-product of fashionability that gets discarded as waste along the process. Here again the blind man’s sightless condition resonates with the type of blind capitalism represented by the stylistic beaver hat, now a fallen commodity but one that still signifies the latently repressed dirty work of empire and manufacturing. Turn a blind eye as they might try, the French bourgeoisie are implicated by the empty fur hat thrust into the carriage window. The gaping hollow of the hat that normally protects and shelters the blind man’s disenfranchised head, when not in place above his blind eyes, opens its hollow insides to demand debt repayment.
Feigning interest in the blind man’s disease, Homais tries to get rid of the man with false guarantees of future medical treatment. Cruelly, he recommends to the blind man the comforts of a healthy full diet (which he cannot afford): “good wine, good beer, good roast meat” (Flaubert 280). There seemingly for the amusement of the bourgeoisie, the blind man is ridiculed and paid off: “—Here you are, here’s a penny, I want some change”; Hivert follows: “Well, after all that […] you’d better give us a performance” (Flaubert 280). The subsequent performance elicits from Emma even more money as she desperately tries to remove the blind man from her already guilt-ridden sight:
The blind man squatted down, and, with his head back, rolling his greenish eyes, and sticking out his tongue, he rubbed his hands on his belly as he let out a kind of muffled howl, like a ravenous dog. Emma, in disgust, flung at him, over her shoulder, a five-franc piece. (Flaubert 280)
A quick review of the rhetorical body language described by Flaubert’s narrator is revealing of the uncomfortable interaction between Emma and the blind man. He rubs his (empty) stomach, shows his empty tongue, and empty eyes, and again is compared grotesquely to something (this time an animal) that is empty (ravenous). In this way he is the embodiment of desirous longing and lack; except unlike Emma’s, the blind man’s consumer needs are more closely aligned with continued human survival. Seeing all of this gaping emptiness is too much for Emma; she can’t even face the man, but instead throws his pay-off “over her shoulder.” It should be noted that there is an added symbolic torment for Emma when she sees the blind man because he is constantly singing throughout these encounters: “The blind man carried on with his song; he seemed almost an idiot” (Flaubert 280). However, to seem “almost an idiot” is not to be an idiot, but to offer only the appearance of one. Here the narrative diction allows an undecidability to enter the representations of the blind man. In fact, the lyrics he sings are thematically resonant with Emma’s adulterous anxieties and financial burdens.
LD and BC: This effectively recalls the reappearance of the blind man when Emma is dying. In that final deathbed scene Emma requests a mirror, sees herself, realizes the gap between her narcissistic idea of herself and reality, and is forced to listen to the blind man outside of her window singing once again of love and seduction. It creates a productive contrast of senses: the visual Emma who deals in conspicuous consumption, and the blind beggar who is exempt from that visual economy by virtue of his lack of vision/immunity to mirrors, and who is always associated with the auditory (and grotesque). Not surprisingly, then, it is not until Emma is in her final death throes that the blind man’s song gets recorded in the narrative at length. In doing so, the blind man audibly haunts Emma’s death scene. He is represented as a sudden “sound of heavy clogs on the pavement below, with the tapping of a stick; and [a] raucous voice singing” (305). Even though he is heard and not seen, his recognizable song recalls to Emma’s mind’s eye the blind man’s haunting image: “And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, at the imagined sight of the beggar’s hideous face, stationed in the eternal darkness like a monster” (305). The phrase “eternal darkness” signifies simultaneously Emma’s imminent death and the ever-present dark side of pernicious capitalism that only ever emerges into the light of day in disfigured forms like the blind man. When the song ends, so, too, does Emma’s life.
The song is noteworthy because its lyrics speak directly to Emma’s experiences and turmoil. The early two-line fragment that seems to echo Emma’s own desire for a passion-filled life gets repeated here: “Souvent la chaleur d’un beau jour / Fait rêver fillette à l’amour” [“Maids in the warmth of a summer day, / Dream of love, and of love always”]). However, this time the lyrics continue, “Pour amasser diligemment / Les épis que la faux moissonne, / Ma Nanette va s’inclinant / Vers le sillon qui nous les donne.” [“Where the sickle blades have been / Nanette gathering ears of corn, / Passes bending down my queen / To the earth where they were born”]. This image of female labour (quite literally a figure reaping what she has sown) is in stark contrast to the leisured lifestyles of the bourgeoisie who witness the blind man’s performances. It is also a death-like image of a return to the earth—a return to origins (“To the earth where they were born”)—ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The final two lines reinforce this imagery of loss (symbolic death) but this time using a female undergarment that has been taken away by the (masculine) wind: “Il souffra bien fort ce jour-là, / Et le jupon court s’envola!” [“The wind is strong this summer day, / Her petticoat has flown away!”]. The careless loss of a very personal article of clothing, one so closely tied to situations of intimacy and one’s private life, speaks directly to Emma’s fallen state as an adulteress. With these symbolic lines of departure (“flown away!”), Emma dies: “A convulsion threw her down upon the mattress. They all drew near. Her life had ended” (Flaubert 305).
Even with Emma’s death, the blind man continues in his Wandering Jew/Ancient Mariner role to disturb the lives and trouble the conscience of aspiring bourgeoisie like Monsieur Homais. Once again the matter turns on false appearances and superficial promises that have not been kept:
The blind man, whom his ointment had failed to cure, had gone back to the hill at Bois Guillaume, where he told travelers the story of the pharmacist’s fruitless efforts, until Homais, whenever he went to town, used to hide behind the curtains of the Hirondelle, to avoid meeting him. He detested him. (Flaubert 321)
Because the apothecary’s reputation is at stake, Homais, “eager to get rid of him at all costs,” launches a six-month-long smear campaign against the blind man in the local press (Le Fanal de Rouen), “a campaign which revealed the depth of his intelligence and the malevolence of his vanity” (Flaubert 321). Using the ideological state apparatus of the popular press (another form of conspicuous mass consumption) to exert pressure on the authorities, Homais writes articles and paragraphs that condemn the blind man as an anachronistic deviant who needs to be separated from modern civil society:
He importunes and he persecutes you, and levies a veritable tax on all who pass that way. Are we still stuck in the gruesome days of the Middle Ages, when vagabonds were permitted to expose upon the public streets the leprosy and the scrofula they had brought back from the Crusades? (Flaubert 321; original emphasis)
In another instance, he publicly accuses French officials of not enforcing the nation’s laws and, therefore, of not keeping town streets safe from contagion:
In spite of the laws against vagrancy, the approaches to our large towns continue to be infested by gangs of paupers. There are those who have been seen to wander unaccompanied, and they are, perhaps, among the most dangerous. What can our magistrates be thinking of? (Flaubert 322; original emphasis)
Homais even goes as far as inventing anecdotes that cast the blind man as the primary cause for social disturbances like traffic accidents: “He [Homais] managed it so well that the [blind] man was incarcerated. But he was released. He took up where he left off, and so did Homais. It was a battle” (Flaubert 322). This agonistic relationship enacts the return of the repressed in the figure of the blind man and simultaneously highlights the need by Homais to keep the relentless, guilty reminder of the blind man repressed through various types of physical incarceration.
Flaubert’s narrator declares Homais the eventual “victor” in this struggle because he succeeds in having “his enemy . . . condemned to perpetual confinement in an asylum” (Flaubert 322). When the blind man can no longer be arrested and held on legal grounds, Homais turns to another institutional tool of the state used to silence aberrant members of society and other disruptive ideological forces: the mental asylum. The comically satirical concluding sentence of the novel, informing readers that Homais—the pharmacological charlatan—“has just received the Legion of Honour,” sounds a doubly ironic note when one considers that Homais’s elevated success began with the incarceration of the blind man—the man whose returning presence (as a symbolically sightless person) was a guilty reminder of the consequences of compassionless capitalist progress. So Flaubert closes his novel with a fraudulent pretender being awarded the highest decoration in France seemingly because of his capacity to isolate and remove figures of bad conscience like the blind man. However, just like a formulaic bad horror movie conclusion where the repeatedly “dead” killer all of a sudden jumps at the remaining survivors for one last homicidal attack, just when everything seemed to be over, the haunting shadow of the blind man clings to this final image of Homais unjustly rewarded. Despite his marginalization in both French society and Flaubert’s narrative as an insane individual, the blind man still figures as a latent remainder/reminder of that which cannot be placed under complete erasure and therefore threatens to return unannounced at any moment.
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