Storytelling in a World “Without God”
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Jake Kendall explores György Lukács’ assertion that irony is the highest freedom in a world without God through an examination of Madame Bovary.
The hero is the champion of their people. They slay the monster, save the day, and usher in new eras of peace and prosperity.
As far as a list of key duties and responsibilities goes, theirs is exhausting. And yet, at the very least, they are easy to understand and clearly defined. The Epic Hero drives the Epic Story – stories that depend upon epic narrative devices, such as destiny or divine purpose.
Divorced from these narrative devices, the Epic Hero withers away into absurdity. Beowulf, for example, has never been frustrated by a bout of erectile dysfunction, neither has Achilles developed a conscience and dabbled with Pacifism, for these are problems that cannot be smitten, days that cannot be saved. These are issues more befitting of their antithetical reflections: the realist hero, a protagonist who wrestles not with monstrous foes or antagonistic deities, but with the moral murkiness of life as we know it.
Realism is so prevalent within modern literature that contemporary readers could be forgiven for assuming that the sub-genre is a tradition older than it is. For centuries, writers tended towards high drama, writing for audiences who were collectively sincere in their religious beliefs and superstitions, and were more connected with their myths and legends. This trend switched during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Authors flocked towards tales of the domestic, telling relatable stories for the post-enlightenment and industrial age.
So why swap Gorgons and Daemons for the kitchen sink? Because authors began finding deep fulfilment within explorations of disillusionment. They followed modern philosophers, stripping away the artifice of purpose, and telling stories that thought beyond good and evil. In doing so, these writers found thematic depth in low drama. To quote the philosopher György Lukács, they discovered “the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God.”
To unpack this quote, we need to understand what Lukács means by “a world without God.” He is talking of Literary Realism, he is talking of storytelling emancipated from epic narrative devices, he is – in the most positive possible manner – talking of plots without purpose. “The highest freedom that can be achieved” refers to irony, the contradictions and tensions caused by the conflict of information, which, when deployed skillfully, casts a plurality of shadows over plot events, and invites readers towards emotional and moral introspection and, in doing so, becomes “the objectivity of the [realist] novel.”
In purely theoretical terms, this brilliant observation of realist fiction remains a little opaque perhaps. For an excellent illustration of what Lukács means, we will turn to Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary remains a vibrant and compelling tragicomedy, a pioneering realist novel that cruelly smashes the romanticism of its protagonist against the jagged rocks of a disappointing society and its outdated institutions.
In a key scene, a triumphant Emma Bovary stands alone before a mirror. She indulges in a refrain, “I have a lover.” She is finding herself attractive and excited by life for the first time in years following her first act of marital unfaithfulness. The drudgery of her disappointing husband and her dull and parochial existence have been consigned to the past. She is now entering “a magical realm where life would be all passion, ecstasy, rapture.”
However, Emma Bovary is a romantic who defines love in excessive and uncompromising terms. It is a force “turning everything upside down, sweeping your will along like a leaf in the gale.” She imagines her perfect lover as “a strong, handsome being, a heroic spirit full of passion and delicacy, a poet’s heart in an angel’s body.” In other words, she is an absolutist, and an idealist, operating within a realist work. Her attempts to sublimate life into some juvenile and idyllic fantasy can only lead towards disillusionment. Indeed, Emma’s blend of romanticism, selfishness, and obvious dissatisfaction with her life is so immediately apparent to the opportunistic womanizer, Rudolphe, that his only question upon meeting her is: “how to get rid of it, afterwards?”
And so, we return now to Emma Bovary standing before her mirror. She is denied the contextual understanding of her situation that is granted to readers; Rudolphe’s predatory assessment of Emma, his calculated approach and manipulative seduction have all been recorded faithfully, recasting this moment of triumph and happiness for readers in a tragically ironic light.
Yet the scene skillfully deploys contradictions and tessellations in ways that do more than merely humanizing his monster. “I have a lover!” is a private scene for Emma, one that we are intruding upon. Flaubert reinforces the reflective nature of this passage by placing her before a mirror. Flaubert uses a free and indirect style, the omniscient third-person narration blending for a crucial moment with the emotional state of his protagonist during this flight of fancy. Like someone observing their reflection, we experience Emma from two perspectives – the depiction becoming simultaneously subjective and objective. The duality cruelly exposes the contradictions of her situation. Her private belief, that she is entering a “magical realm where life would be all passion, ecstasy, rapture,” can only be read as sincere. Readers understand that she is deluded, that she savors a hope for happiness that is bitterly futile and welcomes the start of an emotional and sexual relationship that we know is not offered in earnest. The consequences of her mistakes will be painful and humiliating; they will be an experience that Emma will not survive.
The effect on the reader is not prescriptive. By not including any overt value judgement, Flaubert has obtained narrative objectivity. His image of Emma is a layered invitation towards a personalized reader response. The plight of the adulterer might be read as deserving, or even amusing. Alternatively, a reader may well sympathize with a doomed sinner, forced to live a miserable life within historico-philosophical conditions that do not suit her. The objective narration even allows for readers to experience both reactions simultaneously; we can readily pass judgement on Emma Bovary for her actions and attitude, while understanding the reasons behind her unhappiness and empathizing with her situation.
My reaction to Emma Bovary made me understand that irony is more than simply the author’s means of undermining their subject, or a way to inject poetic pathos into satire. It is a dynamic narrative function that charges fiction with the maturity granted by emotional hybridity. It wallows in moral murkiness, gleefully provoking and challenging readers. A plurality of interpretations is the reader’s highest freedom and is best achieved by sacrificing authorial authority. By doing so, writers of realist and literary fiction have been able to transcend idyllic narratives. Sauron, after all, has very few cheerleaders. ▲
Jake Kendall has just finished his Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh, and is dreading the return to normal life. You can follow him @jakendallox.