This and That

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These are the absolutely beautiful Cedar Waxwing birds that are visiting Houston these days. They come in the evenings. These are pictures I took from my youngest daughter bedroom’s window.

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A simple meal. Pork breakfast sausage, frozen sauteed veggies, sauteed cauliflower, tomatoes with our basil, and peanut sauce.

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And one of my current readings which I am enjoying a lot. An essay collection by Franzen, How to Be Alone.

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Whether they think about it or not, novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language, a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating; maybe mystery, maybe manners. About all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers and the way in which members of this community recognize each other is that nothing in the world seems simple to them.

I hope it’s clear that by “tragic” I mean just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn’t resolve into cant. (Indeed, the most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy.)

And in this essay I quoted from, titled Why Bother?, he quotes Flannery O’Connor.

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

-Flannery O’Connor

And the great thing about reading with others, and keeping the conversation flowing among readers, it’s that it cures us from our isolation, and it helps us to share questions and possible answers to those.

In reading Madam Bovary, I’m bombarded with answers that go beyond what Flaubert gives me in his book. Emma (Madam Bovary), is surrounded with the same dilemmas that surround many young (and not that young) women today. She is trying to find her place in life, and although by no means I am justifying her actions, I cannot help but feeling the pang of her profound isolation, and hers and her husband Charles lack of initiative in trying to find each other in marriage. Probably both lack perspective, any sort of vision to go pass the first stages of romance and brief infatuation, a transition into married life, which is constantly exposed to the many assaults that it suffers no matter the time or place.

What a contrast between Emma and Charles, and Abigail Adams, and John Adams! Both women’s husbands were “common”. We may have learned to regard John Adams with admiration, but Abigail’s mother couldn’t help but feeling sad at her daughter’s wish to marry him. John Adams’ family was not what we may call fancy. Not the exciting life Emma dreamed with at all. The Adams were practical people, John loved his simple farming work more than anything. Abigail’s life wasn’t a glamorous life. The looks of John were as unimpressive as maybe the looks of Charles Baudelaire were. Yet Abigail rose up, found love in the midst of pain, illness, and separation, while Emma dive into the spiral of despair and total loss of hope.

Abigail had mentors, models, a rich inner life were values were taught and lived. “Don’t talk about people, but about things, Abigail”, her father told her (I’m paraphrasing). And what was Emma told?, how was she regarded? Her father was happy to rid of her. Her mother in law, a helicopter mom, in ‘love’ with her perfect son, couldn’t see beyond her nose and despises her from day one. A woman who, herself, doesn’t have a manual occupation, a woman in not such a happy marriage herself, has no love for one of her kind, no sympathy or words of encouragement.

Why did Emma despair?, why did she lack hope? Emma read. What went wrong? We know that Emma’s readings did not seem to have any direction, nor any positive effects on her character. She was unable to keep any pursue or occupation. Abigail read, yet what she read was aimed at her own growth, and provided her of healthy joy. We are told that Emma read books as young that were of a certain kind, similar to, say, ‘christian romances’, or just ‘romances’, books that ‘fill your head with birds’, as we say in Spanish, and as it’s mentioned as happening to the head of Don Quijote. Abigail Adams read books that were substantial, and probably a few ‘self help’ books of the era, too. It’s not just the books, it’s the books AND something else. The books, yes, and the dance of the books with life, with our life. It reminds me of our societal worries when books like the Twilight series became popular, along with the movies. Teens are running to perdition, all because abusive definitions of love and relationships are embellished and repackaged in the allure and magnetism of those exquisite and classy vampires!

I wish books had all that power. And yet, for some (Don Quijote, Emma, some of or young daughters, sisters, neighbors, peers), they have it. But not because of the books, but because of the crumbly worldview and fragile character of those who read them.

I  understand now a bit more of why Emma is called the feminine Don Quijote. Her mother in law thinks that books are the root of her problems, and she makes sure Emma cannot get any books, (as those who loved Don Quijote burned almost all his library to stop him from leaving his home a second time in search for adventure).

My kindle indicates that I am at 40% of the book. Rodolphe Boulanger has shown up. He is a predator, an abuser, and he has chosen to dispose of his latest victim to make Emma his next one. He uses people. I feel very sad. I know that from now on, the worst is about to come. There was no pen pal for Emma, no wiser woman for her, not a foundation in her upbringing to keep her morally sound. Not even her own daughter awoke any tenderness in her, but she is just another burden in her ideal, external, superficial view of happiness.

Incidentally, the France that Flaubert describes to us, is simply beautiful. If he ever had contempt towards the hypocrisy of the bourgeois class, he loved the landscapes and gave us some beauty that goes unnoticed to those involved in the drama of life. We could idealize Emma’s France, and ask why is she so incapable of  appreciating the beauty around her, in nature. Maybe, if she could find any of that beauty, she’d also see some in the souls of those around her, in her own soul. She is not looking for peace, but for that desire that C.S. Lewis pursued when he was young, before he was surprised by joy. But beauty and contentment are always difficult to appreciate when we are consumed by the worries and disillusions of life. What then? Not to let worries and disillusions be the center of your life! Think and cling to all that is noble, pure, true, noble, admirable.

Why keep reading this book? Because I want to listen to Charles (even though I am not sure that will happen), I know what’s coming, but I also want to hear Flaubert tell me himself (even though I am reading a translation).

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4 thoughts on “This and That

  1. Very thoughtful post, Silvia.

    You have much kinder, deeper thoughts towards Emma than I had when I read the book. You are looking for the good and to understand her and her sad situation. Perhaps when you give your final review, after having finished it, you may give me reasons to reconsider my negative opinion of the book as a whole. As of now, this book is at the very bottom of my list of the classics I read in 2015-16! I will be very interested in your thoughts when you close the book for the last time!

    I love that these books make us think! Your posts make me think!

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    • I think some books awake different feelings and highlight different emotions and perceptions in different people. I can understand why this book is at the very bottom of your list (as it is at the bottom of many people’s lists). And, as you say, I may finish the rest (and the worst is about to develop in full), and not “like it” as much as I have this far, (although I don’t ‘enjoy or like it’, but it is worth reading so far).
      Books might be mirrors of who we are in a good sense. I have read reviews of those who love it who see the opposite in it to what I see, (they plainly think this book shows how marriage is the inevitable gate to adultery). For the atheist, the materialist, the relativist, Charles is obnoxious, stupid guy. Emma just proves the injustice that women suffered, who were trapped in marriage, without anything to do or be, relegated to, as Emma shows, dream of romance.
      Emma so far, has bought a lie, a dangerous lie. She is addicted to romance, to adrenaline, to feeling important, the center of attention and passion, the object of desire. I think Flaubert has great merit in materializing all those dangers in a novel. But many won’t register those dangers, for them, this will be proof of the feelings and perceptions of life they share with Emma.

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      • I see something different. I see the negative, the picture of what could have been. I don’t buy into the image that bounces off Emma’s eyes, looking from that window to those coming and going, I see the other side of the thoughts she could have entertained, if she had chosen not to ignore the difficulties and hardships of those around her, if she had felt any respect for plain good things (for example, Charles had no vices, unlike his depraved father and his not so exemplar father in law). Back from the first ball they attend, he only wants to kick off his boots to rest his feet, and he loves being back home to a simple meal, fresh air (without the intoxicating perfumes of the palace), and the nice views of nature. Emma is bored, it’s like the prologue to Madam How and Lady Why, two children take a walk, one (like Emma), sees nothing, comes back and complains, the other one (Charles), sees lots of things around.

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  2. I am so jealous you got to see the Cedar Waxwings! Love those birds 🙂 but I can enjoy them through your photos. And I really appreciate your comparison of Emma and Abigail (while I haven’t read anything about Emma…your insights are enlightening.) It’s not easy finding contentment right where you are – and sometimes a change or two are necessary – but more often than not I see a splendor with the simple life being good for our souls. Also loved this quote: “The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.” And some novels give you quite the experience! 🙂

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