Monday, June 09, 2014
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE AND GUSTAVE FLAUBERT: POLAR OPPOSITES OR NATURAL COMPLEMENTARIES?
Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Flaubert are two icons of nineteenth-century French culture. Apart from their Norman birth, they would appear to have nothing in common. The aristocratic Vicomte de Tocqueville was born in 1805, in the middle of the Napoleonic period. Gustave Flaubert, the bourgeois son of a physician, was born in 1821, during the Bourbon Restoration. Tocqueville ranks as the astute dissector of social conditions as conditioned by politics, both with regard to North America and to France. For his part, Flaubert was a kind of high priest of literary art, taking enormous pains to perfect the style and structure of his works. As far as we know, the two never met, though Flaubert read at least one of Tocqueville’s works with great care.
Closer inspection shows significant points of contact. Both witnessed the revolutionary events of 1848 in Paris at close hand. Moreover, Flaubert’s signature work, Madame Bovary, offers significant commentary on contemporary conditions. As his friend George Sand observed it was a social novel. In this work, Flaubert discerned some of the same traits of banalization and leveling down in provincial France as Tocqueville had identified in America.
There is a more significant link between the two men, however - one which has been little observed up to now, - and that is their common interest in North Africa.
As a Mediterranean country France had long been concerned with the Muslim lands south and east. The sixteenth century saw the emergence of a tacit alliance between Christian France and the Muslim Ottomans, based on their common enmity for the Habsburgs. This common interest promoted French commercial ties with the the Levant and North Africa..
The French-Ottoman connection also had cultural effects. Gradually French supplanted Italian as an international means of communication in the Ottoman Empire. Another product of the connection was the translation of the One Thousand and One Nights (Les mille et une nuits), by Antoine Galland (1646-1715), which appeared in twelve volumes between 1704 and 1717. First posted to the French embassy in Istanbul in 1670,, Galland returned to the region several times later. The French savant burnished his reputation as an orientalist by taking charge of the Bibliothèque orientale ("Oriental Library"), a vast compendium of information about Islamic culture published in 1697. His rendering of the Nights followed. Of pan-European interest, this splendid rendering started a vogue for oriental tales in France. Examples include “Zadig” by Voltaire. “L’oiseau blanc, conte bleue” by Denis Diderot, “La Dernière fée, ou la Nouvelle lampe merveilleuse” by Honoré de Balzac, and “L’histoire de la reine et du Soliman” by Gérard de Nerval. In 1845 Flaubert embarked on his own “Conte Orientale” (also known as “The Seven Sons of the Dervish”); he never finished it, and only sketches remain.
The French campaign in Egypt and Syria remains (1798–1801) was a bold, but ultimately doomed effort by Napoleon Bonaparte to gain a foothold in North Africa, and to establish a foundation of scientific knowledge of the region. The expedition was also intended to disrupt the British connection with India,
Despite some decisive victories and an incursion into Syria, Napoleon and his army were eventually forced to withdraw, after sowing political disharmony in France, conflict in Europe, and suffering the defeat of the supporting French fleet at the Battle of the Nile (Aug. 1-3, 1798).
In Egypt Napoleon was accompanied by a delegation of distinguished savants who studied the country from various aspects. This endeavor gave rise to the Description de l’Egypte, a series of publications (1809-1829), which offered a comprehensive scientific description of ancient and modern Egypt as well as its natural history. It is the collaborative work of about 160 civilian scholars and scientists, as well as about 2000 artists and technicians, including 400 engravers. Another achievement of French scholarship was Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphics (1822), the foundation of modern Egyptology.
Foiled by the British in their attempt to take over Egypt, the French turned their attention to Algeria. In the early nineteenth century the Ottoman empire controlled at least nominally the whole coast of North Africa up to the Moroccan border. Triggered by a seemingly trivial incident, the French conquest of Algeria began in 1830; military efforts to pacify the entire country dragged on for almost twenty years. Not without significant resistance, the French moved to take control of the entire country, beginning with the coastal towns.
In 1805 Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was born into an old Norman aristocratic family with ancestors who participated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His parents, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard of King Louia XVI, and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, barely escaped the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre in 1794.
Alexis de Tocqueville is best know for his classic analysis of American society Democracy in America (1845-40). He also wrote a study of his native France, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), concerning his native France. In both works he studies the interaction of social conditions with politics, paying relatively little attention to high culture. Both of these major works were written from a liberal standpoint.
Less well known is Tocqueville’s interest in North Africa. Even before the French conquest, in 1828 he indicated his support for the conquest and colonization of the country, In 1833 the French savant wrote an essay entitled “How to Have Good Colonies.” Four years later he published two letters offering his thoughts regarding the task of consolidating and colonizing France’s acquisition of Algeria. In 1841 he decided to see for himself by traveling to the country, After the trip he wrote several analytical essays, some of them directed to the attention of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. They seek to show how France could dominate and maintain its foothold in North Africa. “I have no doubt,” he opined, “that we should be able to raise a great monument to our country’s glory on the African Coast.” In 1846 he made another trip to France’s new colony.
Tocqueville’s ideas about Algeria and the interests of France there evolved over time in the sense advanced by Jennifer Pitts. The one constant, however, was that he remained a liberal imperialist.
In an effort to understand the Muslim mind, he made an effort to read the Qur’an, though he could not seem to get through it. He had opposed the effort of his friend Count Gobineau to establish the inequality of races. Yet there can be no doubt that he shared the common perception that “Orientals” were mired in backwardness, and destined to yield before the superior civilization of Europeans.
Born in 1821, Gustave Flaubert grew up in comfortable circumstances owing to his father’s position as chief physician in the hospital at Rouen. On the father’s death in 1846 Flaubert inherited some 500,000 francs, enough to support his literary endeavors for most of the rest of his life.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, the young Gustave became imbued with some key features of rising romanticism, one of whose components was fascination with the East. This is clear from a rhapsodic paragraph he composed when he was 17, as part of a short, quasi-autobiographical novel called “The Diary of a Madman.” “I see myself young, twenty years of age, surrounded by glory, and dreaming of lengthy trips to Southern lands. I see the Orient with its vast deserts and its palaces teeming with camels with their copper bells. I see horses galloping towards a horizon made red by the sun. I see blue waves, a clear sky, and silvery sands. I sense the aroma of the warm seas of the South. And beside me, under a tent shaded by aloes trees with big leaves, a brown-skinned woman, with an ardent gaze, who wraps me in her arms, speaking to me in the language of the houris.”
During a trip to Italy he saw a somewhat lurid painting representing the Temptation of Saint Anthony ascribed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (then kept in the Palazzo Balbi in Genoa). He became fascinated with this subject, returning to it at several periods of his life. The tribulations of the saint took place in Early Christian Egypt.
From October 1849 to June 1851 Flaubert undertook a trip to Egypt and the Levant together with his wealthy friend Maxime Du Camp. In addition to seeing the sights, including many noted monuments of ancient Egypt, the two friends sampled the sexual offerings to be found there, both female and male. Flaubert unfortunately acquired syphilis, a condition that required periodic mercury treatment for the rest of his life.
In 1858 the novelist undertook a trip to Algeria and Tunisia to make sure that the details of his Carthaginian novel Salammbo were correct.
As a final orientalist venture, Flaubert completed his novella dealing with John the Baptist, “Hérodias,” in 1877.
Flaubert’s concerns with the East were recurrent, almost excessive. Yet all of his productions dealt with eras in the distant past. His travel diary from 1849-51 of course dealt with the present, but it was not published during his lifetime.
As the above account has shown, Tocqueville and Flaubert shared an intense interest in North Africa, though their foci and goals were different. Still, both can be accommodated under the broad tent of Orientallsm. On the one hand, there is the complex of factors analyzed by Edward Said, in which the peoples of the Near East are characterized by their Otherness with relation to Western Civilization. On the other hand, there is the picturesque exoticism seen in the evocative works of the Orientalist painters.
The Orientalist approach that characterized the “natives” as listless and unchanging was found in a number of European countries. Yet in France it was inflected by a peculiarly French sense of exceptionalism. In their different ways, both Tocqueville and Flaubert were Francocentric in this sense.
Tocqueville sur l”Algérie, ed. Seloua Louste Boulbina, Paris; GF Flammarion, 2003.
Richter, Melvin, “Tocqueville and Algeria,” Review of Politics, 25 (1963), 362-98.
Duan, Demin, “Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Imperialism,” Ethical Perspectives, 17 (2011), 415-47.
Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005 (on Tocqueville, see pp. 204-49).
Lörinszky, Ildiko, L'Orient de Flaubert : des écrits de jeunesse à "Salammbô: la construction d'un imaginaire mythique, Paris: l'Harmattan, 2002.