Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour was an unexpected change in light of the Twain reading from the previous class. Flaubert’s writing was certainly not as comical as Twain’s had been in Innocents Abroad, and I noticed several themes throughout Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour that I think are worth discussing. One of the most notable themes in Flaubert’s writing is his preoccupation with the grotesque, such as in his observation of an Egyptian boy’s crude language and of a tryst with a prostitute he writes, “the whole thing gave the effect of a plague victim or a leperhouse.” His focus on the grotesque could relate to his awareness of reality in light of the Orientalist context through which he imagined Egypt, which was also prevalent throughout the reading and coincided most evidently with his sexual encounters. In Orientalism, Said writes that, “Woven throughout all of Flaubert’s Oriental experiences, exciting or disappointing, is an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex.” Flaubert’s letters to his friend Louis Bouilhet certainly demonstrate his enthusiasm with this aspect of his travels, and it is easy to generalize that Flaubert objectifies women and sees their sole purpose as being there for his pleasure. He notes the exoticism of the women he sleeps with and it’s obvious they are seen as the mysterious, sensual ‘Other,’ especially in light of the fact that they cannot communicate.
I think the difference between Flaubert when writing to his mother, his friends, or in his notepad could be attributed to his preconceived notions of what his travels would be like before he ever embarked on them. This is shown in the fact that he wrote about the view from the top of a pyramid before ever visiting it, based on his own reading and outside knowledge. I think these preconceived notions have a way of slipping into his subconscious, dictating how Flaubert acts and how he describes his travels to others. When he finally does get to the top of the pyramid with his travel companion, Max, he pays much attention to the beauty, transcribing it in romantic language. I believe this had something to do with the fact that Flaubert already had an idea of what the view should be; so, reality must be just as good, if not better. I believe that, even If the view was a crummy one, Flaubert would have found a way to twist it into beauty.
Furthering the notion that Flaubert already had an idea of what Egypt would be like is the fact that he is abhorred by the graffiti on the pyramids. “One is irritated by the number of imbeciles’ names written everywhere,” (Flaubert 54). Additionally, Flaubert shaves his head, dresses like the natives, smokes sheesha, drinks coffee, and spends time with the natives, as if this is what he were expecting and prepared for. He even mentions how silly some thought he and Max were as they dressed in the native garb, shaved their heads, and said allah.
Something that struck me about Flaubert was his arrogance, which is much more prevalent before he embarks on his journey, such as comparing his trip to the death of his father based on his mother’s screams, or berating his cousin by bringing up quite practical concerns. “He nearly drove me mad, and yet I stopped him politely!” And while his arrogance isn’t quite as potent during his travels, it still manages to peek through, such as the time he attempts to romanticize his degradation of women by claiming what he felt for Kuchuck was something more than lust, even describing a “violent play” followed by sex as having been replaced with affection the next morning. And especially considering this is after he shares this woman with Max. He even goes so far as to think perhaps Kuchuck will remember him, but then points out his own folly in such an assumption. Something else I noticed, however, was his diminishing superstition as the travels went on, no longer worrying about bad omens.
Aside from romanticizing tristes with prostitutes and the already beautiful landscapes, Flaubert’s letters seem a bit boastful and tale-telling, especially those to his friend. In fact, Flaubert’s letters to his mother kind of creep me out and read a bit like love letters. I think he would have been well-served by a year at summer camp to avoid this weird Bates-style attachment to his mom. But again, I do believe the letters to his friend and even the notes he takes about his sexual exploits are more of Flaubert attempting to fit a model of what his trip should be like and what sex with these women should be like.
I suppose that the romanticizing aspect really got in the way of Flaubert accurately documenting his stay in Egypt, but no one goes without expectations, a little exaggeration, and a feeling of being an expert when they travel.
Off topic a little bit, but I LOVE cats. My roommate went to Ghana last semester and visited Egypt where she got me an ash tray and told me that cats walk around like squirrels or pigeons there. When I saw mention of this in the Flaubert piece, I got really excited. Also, I was just really interested in the whole camel cry thing after Flaubert talked about it; so, here it is.
When comparing Flaubert’s notes from his time in Egypt to the letters he sent, I couldn’t help but notice their differences in style and subject matter. The notes he wrote seemed very staccato and stream of consciousness. Half the time, he wasn’t even writing in complete sentences. The experience of reading them, for me, was like being in a dream—piecing together little glimpses of his trip, wandering through seemingly disparate images, grasping at vague associations. These notes also focused more on relaying or remembering information—he talked a lot about what he was doing, who he saw, what the weather was like—small, compressed details of his trip. The letters to his mother and friends, on the other hand, read much more like miniature stories, he operated under full disclosure when revealing little anecdotes from his trip to them, giving us a much greater sense of how he was interpreting the culture around him. The letters were much more emotionally charged, visceral, and in my perspective, more interesting to read than the blow-by-blow of his movements and experiences in quick, abbreviated bursts. However, even the subject matter of the letters he wrote was dependent upon who he was writing to—either his mom or his close friend. Of course, when writing to his friend, his observances were much more vulgar and boastful of his experiences, where as the letters to his mother were tame and pleasant. The notes, on the other hand, lacked a real audience, besides Flaubert himself, which could perhaps explain their brevity and their resemblance to passing thoughts.
I know that Flaubert wasn’t writing these notes in hopes that they would get published, however, I can’t help but look at them as pieces open to consumption. More so than the letters, the notes seem to accurately reflect the experience of traveling. While the letters offer a wealth of description and emotion, these are qualities that we seem to imbue our travels with after the fact. Perhaps this is just my opinion, but when I am actively traveling and experiencing a place, I am not really arranging and embellishing a narrative in my head, I am just taking in the surroundings and the people. I am not contemplating the social and economic implications of race relations; I’m trying to figure out where to eat lunch in 20 minutes--because I’m starving. I think the notes do a better job of reflecting the immediacy and motion of travel, where as the letters are drawn from this movement once it has settled. In this way, the letters become more aware, more analytic, more emotional—they become a narrative; one which can be molded to fit an audience. Thus, one trip can tell many different stories—a fact which is quite clear when comparing his letters to his mother to those he sent his friend.
I guess that is where I see the trouble with pegging Flaubert’s narrative as an orientalist text. I have trouble looking at it as an orientalist text simply because the intent behind the piece was not to be an anthropological study of Egyptian culture. Also, I think it is hard to place a fairly modern concept onto a text that has been consolidated and translated by someone other than the author, and which was originally meant for a very close and personal audience. Of course, one could argue that intent doesn’t matter, and that regardless, the piece still reveals quite a lot about the western view of the east. However, I would like to challenge you to think of it this way. If someone were to posthumously collect all of the postcards and emails you have sent during your travels—IM’s to your friends, your parents, email’s to mentors, your drunken blog posts at 4 am to no one in particular--do you think they would be an accurate representation of how you felt about the place and people you were visiting? How would the narrative change depending on who you were writing to, or why you were writing in the first place? While I think it is interesting and productive to study Flaubert’s travels through an orientalist lens, I don’t think it is helpful, nor accurate, to label it an “orientalist text.”
This is a strong contrast to the conventional ideas of travel today, where vacation is marketed as purely a family event with, inevitably, other families pushed up against yours. While I find it difficult to criticize modern travel without feeling like I am putting on an air, I could perhaps save myself with the larger and more blameless criticism of consumerism in general. Travel serves a similar function to many things affected by modernism in today's society—to gain personal identity. To travel to a particular place is as much a statement of self as choosing to dress in one fashion versus another. Sayings like: “She would go to France,” are common. We no longer travel to be filled by the place, but instead to fill it, to impose on it, with what romantic ideals we believe it should have so that we may inhabit that romantic place.
Flaubert’s letters, included in his account of Egypt travels elucidates Kafka’s notion on the author’s phantasm, which grows in the substratum of the letter writer’s hand i.e. within the very letter one is writing. As such, letter writing is the modality wherein one can trace the hauntological constitution of one’s previous-I. The personal pronouns of the author continuously project, while simultaneously albeit paradoxically demarcating a fluid state of coming-into-being-and-passing-away. Thus, the Lettering-I, the double specularity of its subject, is enigmatic. Flaubert himself comments on the phantom of the self that is illuminated by the genre of letter when he comments, “I wrote a letter. I have it now: I have just re-read it and am holding it in my hand, quite without emotion; its paper gives no hint that it is different from any other piece of paper, and the letters are like any other letters in any other sentences. Between my self of that night and my self of tonight [two years later] there is a difference between the cadaver and the surgeon doing the autopsy” (Flaubert, ‘Croisset to Cairo’, 21). In this way, the changing of internal states of that traveling inspires can be noted and reflected upon latter when there is a discourse presented to another back home. As such, the letter offers a parallax view of its subject, especially when looked on at a later date by its composer. Flaubert looks at the subject in the letter to his mother, himself, and reflects upon it—commenting on the difference between that self, and the self that is present to him now, as he writes. Thus, there are two different views or perspectives on the subject, Flaubert, of Flaubert’s travel log. This offers the reader an index or verification on the attitude in which Flaubert accounts his travels. The posture presented, at the specific moment in Flaubert’s log, is of a corpse- or a body within the throes of ‘melancholia’. I was reminded of the comment made in our Twain reading of Innocents Abroad, where the subject of that discourse comments on Vienna, through a romantic lens that portrays a ‘tainted’ impression of the place “…the glamour of old romance that pictures her to us softly from afar off as through a tinted mist, and curtains her ruin and her desolation from our view” (XXII). As such, the accuracy of the account is brought into question. The tint, of Romantic affectation definitely poses as a threat to attributing objectivity to the account. Although, I do not suppose that objective view was Twain’s, or Flaubert’s goal for maintaining a travel log. Rather, considering again Twain’s preface and Flaubert’s obtain of his letter to his mother, both made a priority of looking again at what they had written during travel and reflected upon it. In this way, both comment on the dual or split subject that is brought through about within memoir, or autobiographic accounts, such as the letter or travel log.
I would like to interject this reflection with one of Sappho’s fragments, specifically number thirty: This way, that way: I have two minds in me ("Sappho"). The fragment brings me to the presence of the addressee within the cognition of the author’s I. Within the framework of the letter, as in our dear Flaubert’s discourse with his mother, there is a continuous play of edits that confess, and conceal the dual specters (The Addressee, and the phantasmic-I) implicit to the Letter per se. One such of these edits contributes a lack of sea-sickness to his person at first, and then moments later confesses that he has indeed been sea sick, “…Do you want to know something, poor darling, something wonderful? I haven’t been seasick except for the first half hour after leaving Marseilles, when I vomited a glass of rum I had drunk to prevent my being sick)” (cf.Flaubert 1 “Flaubert to His Mother, Malta. On board the Nile, Night of Wednesday-Thursday, 7-8 November , 26).
What tensions, when considering the “truth” of what happens to the traveling subject. The letter, as such is the non-locus of you and I: we are not found fully clothed there. The letter is the modality that restores the paradox of the Egyptian Amoun, as it signifies the quality of being “concealed”, while also being employed as a form of address. This paradoxical notion—addressing through concealment is alluded to when Flaubert- “ This is a great place for contrasts; splendid things gleam in the dust” (Flaubert Flaubert to Louis Bouilhet, Cairo, Saturday night, 10 o’clock 1 December 1849, 44). Later on in the same letter, he closes with a request for his addressee to write to him, and write to his mother which brings the reader back again to the beginning of the letter which confessed that he was mindful of the Louis throughout his travels (as we were well aware that he was of his mother)—“let me begin by giving you a great hug, holding my breath as long as possible, so that as I exhale on to this paper your spirit will be near me. I imagine that you must be thinking quite a bit about us. For we think quite a bit about you, and miss you a hundred times a day” (41). Thus, Flaubert’s comments remind one of the traveler’s condition, and how when writing letter’s to loved one’s back home during travel, we are ever-mindful of the words that have not yet reached us; the sentiment choking, and strengthening by the lapses of presence implicit with the letter’s itinerary.
Considering the notion of the “authentic account” that we have spoken about in class, I noticed that the authenticity of Flaubert’s commentary within his travel log is checked in relation to its contrast with his companion, Marcel du Camp’s notations. Considering this expert, I was reminded of an interesting account through the repetition of Flaubert’s mention of ‘dogs’ throughout the account. An example being, “At the station entrance, a priest and four nuns: bad omen! All afternoon a dog in the neighborhood had been howling dismally. I envy strong-minded men who don’t notice such things at those moments” and just a short while later, he notes, “In the waiting room there was a gentleman…who was deploring the fates of dogs on trains” (Flaubert, 20). He even employs a simile, linking the Sphinx to a dog, in order to bring the Sphinx’s posture to mind’s of his readers at home, “It grew larger and larger, and rose out of the ground like a dog lifting itself up” (The Pyramids and Sakkara,’ From Flaubert’s Travel Notes’, 50). In his letter to Louis Bouilet he brings his addressee to his current scene through a common auditory stimulation, one brought to life by a dog, “At the present moment the moon is shining on the minarets—all is silence but for the occasional barking of dogs” (Flaubert, 41). The appearances of dogs in Flaubert’s travels are accounted for in Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Flaubert in Egypt” – “By day, on the minaret-top, the stork clacked its beak. At the edge of/the carrion-field, the wild dog, snout blue from old blood,/ skulked, and camel bells in the distance” (2).
The recurrence of Flaubert’s notice and record of dogs reminded me of the work, “Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes, and how in a chapter called ‘The Flaubert Bestiary,’ under the heading of “dogs” he cites a certain discrepancy between the accounts of Du Camp, and Flaubert. Consider the following in light of the differing accounts we were presented in our Flaubert reading:
“4. The Dog Drowned and the Dog Fantastical. In January 1851 Flaubert and Du Camp were in Greece. The visited Marathon, Eleusis and Salamis. They met General Morandi, a soldier of fortune who had fought at Missolonghi, and who indignantly denied to them the calumny put about by the British aristocracy that Bryon had deteriorated morally while in Greece: ‘He was magnificent,’ the General told them. ‘He looked like Achilles.’ Du Camp records how they visited Thermopylae and re-read their Plutarch on the Battlefield. On January 12th they were heading towards Eleuthera-the two friends, a dragoman, and an armed policeman they employed as a guard—when the weather worsened. Rain fell heavily, the plain they were crossing became inundated; the policeman’s Scotch terrier was suddenly carried away and drowned in a swollen torrent. The rain turned to snow, and darkness closed in. Clouds shut out the stars; their solitude was complete. …They were riding cautiously, straining their eyes for a distant light, when the policeman shouted, ‘Halt!’ A dog was barking somewhere in the far distance. It was then that the dragoman displayed his sole talent: the ability to bark like a dog. He began to do so with a desperate vigor. When he stopped, they listened, and heard answering barks. The dragoman howled again. Slowly they advanced, stopping every so often to bark and be barked back at, then reorienting themselves. After half an hour of marching towards the ever-loudening village dog, they eventually found shelter for the night. What happened to the dragoman is not recorded. Note: Is it fair to add that Gustave’s journal offers a different version of the story? He agrees about the weather; he agrees about the date; he agrees about the dragoman that couldn’t cook (a constant offering of lamb and hard-boiled eggs drove him to lunch on dry bread). Strangely, though, he doesn’t mention reading Plutarch on the battlefield. The policeman’s dog (breed unidentified in Flaubert’s version) wasn’t carried away by a torrent; it just drowned in deep water. As for the barking dragoman, Gustave merely records that when they heard the village dog in the distance, he ordered the policeman to fire his pistol in the air. The dog barked its reply; the policeman fired again; and by this more ordinary means they progressed towards shelter. What happened to the truth is not recorded.” (Barnes, 64-5)
This notion of re-orientation, recorded by Du Camp, and brought to mind by Barnes, takes on another aspect when considered within the illumination of the note provided at the beginning of chapter “The Pyramids and Sakkara’ which states, “It has sometimes been been suggested by scholars that the very act of keeping a travel diary played a role in carrying the Romantic Flauvert towards Realism. …”it is fairly typical of Flaubert’s writings on the ‘Orient’ before his journey” (Flaubert, 48). I particularly noticed the Romantic Flaubert’s employ of apostrophe, a rhetorical device used to address an absent person, [as in the status of the addressee of the letter] in the exerpt, “O traveler! O thinker! And your thirst will be appeased, and all your life will have passed like a dream, for you will feel your soul go out toward the light and sour in the infinite’ (Flaubert , cf. the first Education Sentimentale).
The outward inaudibility (of the address) is conditioned since the linguistic eye has turned inward, therein ascribing a different contextualization for sound. The refinement of context is analogous to Socrates’ relay of Theuth’s nomenclatural act regarding vowels wherein each vowel’s silent features evaded sensory perception, and thereby also its intelligible name. As such, the context of Flaubert’s address to the imaginary reader, ascribing the current imagined conditions, to his own soul, as the sight of the Sphinx— demands an aesthetic listener, rejoining the text to Theuth’s depiction of vowels in their primordial or preliminary sense. —Resulting with the refraction of the linguistic echo within the structural encasement of the body back towards the subject-as-home. This refraction- a directional sever and inaudible revolve- initiates the compliance of the permanently existing artifact orcompositional notation with the perform movement. The corroboration between the oppositional binary forms eclipses the linguistic purport of the apostrophe’s address. — Subsequently, the primordial silence within the audio-linguistic factura becomes emergent when set in the reverberation chamber (sōma) the anthropocentric vowel, ‘O’. As such, resurrection of a recorded image, as reverberation seeks to maintain or elicit the quality of performance within the subject’s internalized auditory event, inasmuch as it is hetero-affectionately constituted, as in, by a split Flaubert. Thehauntological quality of the echo (an open concept with paradigmatic and derivative employment) contests the boundary or borderlines of its corporeal encasement. This type of fantastical play is challenged within the actual log of Flaubert, wherein he does not employ such romantic notions of the soul, or rhetorical devises such as apostrophe. Thus, as Said, mentions in is work, Orientalism, actual travel to the ‘Orient’ may challenge a romantic notion, but provides new root source for ever-more aesthetic employment, “For neither of them was the Orient exhausted by their uses of it, even if there is often a quality of disappointment, disenchantment or demystification to be found in their Oriental writings” (181). This feeling of disapointment is clearly rendered in Flaubert’s comment on seeing the Sphinx, “Today the Sphinx is so familiar from photographs that the actual sight of it is apt to be an anti-climax, especially when one finds it surrounded by touts and other tourist conveniences” (Flaubert, 50). As such, the ‘Orient’ after the actual trip their, achieves for Flaubert a new sentimentality, one of Realistic styling, a calm light, such as the Sphinx under ‘the Sphinx, all gray and bathed in a great rosy light” which Flaubert does not describe as over-determined, and surrounded by touristic reminders (Flaubert, 50). Such light reminds me of a illumination found by the realist writer within the everyday which is described by Virginia Woolf [as qtd. by David Sidorsky] as the impressions made on a writer during each day that are in need of accounting, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there…Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (144,Modernism and the Emancipation of Literature from Morality: Teleology and Vocation in Joyce, Ford, and Proust . Such a halo, is recorded by Flaubert in the log, describing his preliminary travels ‘From Nogent to Paris’ as such, “I opened the window; the moon, surrounded by a halo of midst, was shining in puddles; it was cold. I thought of mother, her face all contracted from weeping, the droop at the corners of her mouth…” (Flaubert, 20).
1. “He it was who originally discerned the existence, in that unlimited variety, of the vowels (ta phoneenta)--not "vowel" in the singular but "vowels" in the plural-- and then of things which, through they could not be called articulate sounds, yet were noises of a kind. There were a number of them, too, not just one, and as a third class he discriminated what we now call the mutes (aphona). Having done that, he divided up the noiseless ones and mutes (aphthonga kai aphona) until he got each one by itself, and did the same thing with the vowels and the intermediate sounds; in the end he found a number of the things, and affixed to the whole collection, as to each single member of it, the name "letters" (stoikheion). It was because he realized that none of us could get to know one of the collection all by itself, in isolation from all the rest, that he conceived of "letter" as a kind of bond of unity (desmon) uniting as it were all these sounds into one, and so he gave utterance to the expresion "art of letters," implying that there was one art that dealt with the sounds. (18b).” qtd. in Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: University, 1981. 163. Print
One scene in particular that intrigued me was how Flaubert described his desire to be remembered by the certain prostitute as more than the other men she encountered. To me, this sounded a lot like a symbolic desire to have made more of an impact on the land he traveled than others. Like so many of these writers seemed to be obsessed with, Flaubert expresses a warped vision of the “discover of a new place” to being impacting said place more than others. I see the intrigue in this, however, because it, too, makes one feel like more than just the average traveler. If this woman did remember Flaubert more than the other men, he could justly feel superior and special. It would make the trip even greater than had remembered.
Another interaction of Flaubert’s that I found interesting was the time he would rather forgo sleeping with one of the prostitutes so as not to ruin the memory of all the prostitutes trying to interest him. He seemed to enjoy them fawning over him so much that he would rather not even choose one. This again speaks to what he is trying to achieve with the prostitutes. It seems to be deeper than just a superficial pleasure. Flaubert was never married and seemed to stay far from close relationships, yet as evident in the beginning of the first except, he was very close to his mother. I think there is some emotional depth we can examine from these two particular interactions Flaubert has. He seems to be a man with much longing for attention and to be validated as more special than others.
I have never been to these places Flaubert visited, though I can imagine my experiences there to be quite different. Being more westernized in background like Flaubert, I might have some of the same reactions to the dances, food, customs, and such, but would obviously spend my time in different ways than him. Overall, this piece was unique because there were really no filters on Flaubert’s thoughts and I feel that provided a true authenticity to his work.
With regards to the narrative Flaubert constructs, I found that the inclusion of both letters home to France and his daily notes provided a more complete portrait of the man. His prose changed drastically with regards to his intended audience, as his travel notes are more free and unfiltered than the letters. Taken together, the amount to a full understanding of his journey. He depicts the present ("I am writing on a table with a green cloth, lit by two candles"), the immediate past ("Yesterday, December 1, at the foot of the citadel, we saw a mountebank with a boy of six or seven and two barefoot little girls in blue smocks"), earlier encounters on the trip ("Since we have been on the Nile I have done four books"), as well as reflections on life back home ("I thought of my nights in Paris brothels - a whole series of old memories came back). What these amount to is an understanding of the man at a unique moment in his life, reconciling expectations, encountering the new, and contemplating the old.
Flaubert has little reservations in describing the intrapersonal conflicts and realizations that he deals with. Both good and bad are present. In a moment of happiness he writes: "and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such a joy: I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking of nothing: it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being". In this instance, his doubts about the trip are put aside as the natural beauty of the landscape at the river in Thebes, at sunset, overtakes him. Yet, only days later, in a letter to Louis Bouilhet, Flaubert voices concerns about the effects of the trip. He writes: "I warn you seriously that my intelligence has greatly diminished. This worries me: I am not joking- I feel very empty, very flat, very sterile". The variance in Flaubert's mood and writings, I believe, is an unavoidable consequence of travel. Prolonged periods away from home, in a new setting everyday, can lead to extreme pleasure at times, but also a sort of sensory overload at others. I liken it to spending an entire day at an art museum: by the end of the day, the art has little effect over you, you struggle to see beauty, or to glean anything for that matter. Your mind can no longer perceive and interpret at a high level.
In general, Flaubert's moments of reflections come in his letters rather than the travel notes. His letters, it is important to note, a written to one of two recipients: his mother ("darling") and his friend Louis Bouilhet (mon pauvre vieux). While both exhibit a longing for their company, the letters take very different tones. Those to his mother are written to comfort her and reassure her of his safety and contentment, while those written to Bouilhet are much more reflective and poignant. It is in the latter of these that we come to understand Flaubert's thoughts and feeling about the trip thus far. He reflects on natural beauty ("It is a crazy, magnificent river, more like an ocean than anything else."), the women of Eygpt ("We are now, my dear sir, in a land where women go naked"), boredom ("From Cairo to Benisuef, nothing very interesting."), and his companion Maxime ("Young Du Camp has gone off to take a picture. He is doing quite well"), among other things. The letters, though free form and flowing carelessly between topics, show his more refined and considered prose. The experiences he values most are the ones he writes home about.
In contrast to these letters are his travel notes. Unfiltered and unrefined, often in phrases rather than full sentences, they depict Flaubert's every encounter and movement through the country. He writes automatically the things he encounters, without concern for the importance they may have. The notes paint a picture of the country: of its men and women and their customs, its cities and architecture and streets, its natural landscape, its ancient wonders. His observations show the contrasts and similarities between life in West and life in "the Orient". Flaubert writes in what can seem a demeaning manner towards the people of the country, but I believe this language benefits the narrative. Above all, it is natural and real. To censor his writings, Flaubert would reduce its effectiveness.
The combination of letters and notes make for a complex and intriguing narrative, unlike that of Innocents Abroad, which I welcome and very much enjoy.
Marketing research suggests one of the reasons why people have a special liking for nostalgia is that our brains are “wired to recall our past experiences as having been far better and more pleasurable than we experienced them to be in the moment” (Martin Lindstrom, Brandwashed)*. This phenomenon is called “rosy retrospection.”
Besides indulging in Oriental courtesans, Flaubert had a knack for maintaining relationships with his mother and close friends while abroad. When writing letters home, did he experience rosy retrospection? I'm interested in how he crafted each letter to serve a certain purpose (to comfort his mother or to confide in his friends) and how these letters may have affected his consciousness while traveling. In other words, we know from Flaubert’s own travel notes and letters that he wrote for different reasons, but could he have remembered events differently or described them differently to his audience?
It’s no surprise he doesn’t include his experiences with courtesans to his faint-hearted mother who he left behind. He is actually very endearing and caring in his vocabulary, which is evident through the use of “darling” and overall sweet tone. However, just because he omitted certain events in letters to his mother isn’t enough to prove he went through rosy retrospection.
Flaubert does mention he was surprised to have seen one new element that he had not expected to see: “the grotesque.” A cudgeled slave, the coarse traffiker in women, and the thieving merchant. He mentioned a less pleasurable experience, but these two sentences are all he dedicates to those descriptions. I often take notes in observation of what I see and what I want to remember later. Could it be that Flaubert’s mind unconsciously filters information, keeping better details and forgetting the poorer ones? He does include poor experiences in his writing, but emphasizes the positive ones by going into detail about how he felt and what sights he saw.
Various studies show that people have a strong tendency to recall past events “more favorably after the fact than we did while those same events were taking place” (Lindstrom). This could have happened to Flaubert at various points, while writing his notes at the end of the day recalling past events and while he continued to refer back to his notes and make further revisions. I am fine with not knowing for sure, but I think rosy retrospection is something to keep in mind when we reflect on our own experiences.
While in Egypt, he writes a lot about the people and their customs, has fun with many whores, and is awed by the splendor of the statues and the sphinx. Rather than an acknowleging an outsider’s view on the discourses of power, which may have been overlooked, I believe that Flaubert’s inability to separate race from culture made the reading hard to examine. When he talks about the Sphinx’s lack of having a nose, portraying its “blackness,” I did not know what to think. Granted, I usually took his comments on color with the historical context of the time, but I felt as if he connected each and every black person, potentially in the whole world, with terms such as “negresses.” In a physical denouncement of color, I see a very “Otherized” view of the middle-east, in that he undermines the people by generalizing them from perceptions of their skin tone. Although I agree with Said’s comment that “In all of his novels, Flaubert associates the Orient with the escapism from sexual fantasy,” I think that one could argue that Flaubert’s experience was individualized for himself, in which his travels are “authenticated” in a specific fashion.
As much as I appreciated his travel narrative and rich elaboration of detail at first, I started to cringe as I continued reading. Although I am going to admit that I enjoyed Flaubert’s descriptions of his sexual escapades in Egypt, I am not going to deny that I found his descriptions of the women he slept with denigrating and objectifying. However, I understand that Flaubert traveled and wrote this back in the 1800s, when society and gender relations were completely different. Overlooking my initial discomfort, I begin to appreciate Flaubert as a writer and person who was not only seeking to discover Egypt, but was also hoping to learn more about himself in the process.
Flaubert makes it clear that he understands the poverty and harsh living conditions that he witnesses around him in Egypt, but still displays a first order tourist mentality in the way that he moves from place to place. It is difficult for him not to feel “horror at the ruin, decay, and corruption” of the poverty and chaotic infrstructure, but he does not hesitate to switch his attentions over to more aesthetically pleasing and wondrous scenery. However, it is not difficult to imagine myself standing besides Flaubert when he describes the Sphinx, the pyramids, the sun…He possesses a love and wonder for Egypt that really expresses itself through his words.
I think the area I was most able to relate to Flaubert with is how traveling to new places may seem exciting and adventurous, but one can be plagued with anxieties and loneliness at times. Traveling is not an easy thing to do, because it brings about the prospect of unknown dangers, unpredictability, and a whole lot of strangeness. However, the danger of new places also seduces with the hints of adventure, the possibility of uncovering the senses and broadening one’s experiences, and even to find kindred spirits. Flaubert fell in love with Kuchuck, and even though I wonder to myself if it was just a passing passion (since he was involved with so many women), it is still a reminder that traveling is a love story: with the place, its people, and cultures.
Overall, I can feel the honesty and humanness of Flaubert’s travel accounts. In my opinion, he does not try to pretend to be a certain type of tourist or traveler. Although he clearly stands apart from the natives as a foreigner, he is not afraid to try new things, to jump right in and experience Egypt and its culture in all its richness and beauty. Overall, Flaubert is very much a human traveler at the end of the day. Someone who gets scared, who panics, who objectifies, who writes to his mother about his travels, who needs to fulfill his more carnal desires, who wants to absorb the beauty of places…Maybe it is important to forget the self consciousness we have towards ourselves as either travelers or tourists so many a time, and remember instead to simply be in the place that we are in at the moment, and live.
With this in mind, it was surprising for me to read his pre-travel description of the pyramids, which were so poetic and filled with emotion. Compared to the descriptions of the pyramids as he experienced them, the difference is night and day. Yes, he let some of his awe slide into his words, but for the most part he spoke in short, detached sentences that focused more on chronology and bat shit than the poetics of the experience. In this sense, his Realist frame, which at this point was only starting to solidify, really creeps in and begins to color his experiences.
His experiences with the foreigners he encountered were described in similar ways, which accentuated the discordance between description and the described. The way he wrote made the incredibly unusual treatment of the Oriental people stand out even more to me. As was made clear in hindsight by the discourse of Orientalism, Eastern peoples are highly othered, exoticised, commodified, and categorized. For Flaubert his categorization of these people obviously centers around sex. Also, whether he makes them do it or not, there are easterners with them at the pyramids who entertain for their pleasure. The whole of Oriental existence seems to be centered on the pleasure of their western “superiors.” This theme comes back to us time and time again, and is absolutely still valid today. It was just interesting for me to read a first hand account in which that Orientalist outlook was so unmasked and normative.
As for authoritarianism: how many 19th century writers do we find that are obsessed with the seemingly novel idea of a sultan, whether out of fear or admiration?
Some of these attitudes persist to this day. There is a popular debate over whether the pyramids were built by the pharaoh's slaves or not (for the record, they weren't), and Disney's Aladdin was in big trouble for awhile concerning its politically incorrect opening song. (Part of the song seems to suggest that the East uses arbitrary, barbaric punishment systems). As for hedonism, belly-dancing is still a common trope of the western popular imagination concerning Egypt.
Anyway, with those examples aside, I would argue that the conception of the middle east as a travel-able (or untravel-able) place has changed. It has changed from the land of hedonism and dying Sultanates (which, at the least, provoked some sort of respect in the form of awe, even if it was representationally flat) to one of arbitrary violence, puritanism, and theocracy.
I came to this conclusion from comparing my own travels to Egypt with those of Flaubert's, and the concerns that loved ones expressed in both cases. For Flaubert, his mother becomes extremely upset at his decision to leave for Egypt because...well, I'm not entirely sure. It seems to stem more from his mother being overbearing than an actual fear of anything in the place of Egypt. Even letters to his friends do not serve to reduce fear: they are more to sate the curiosity of those who didn't go (i.e. what is it really like to be in front of the pyramids?)
When I went, friends, family, and acquaintances tended to express a small amount of admiration (mostly over getting to see the mythical pyramids), followed by hestitation, and then worry. "Are you sure it's safe?" This was several months after the Tahrir square riots and Mubarak's fall. Granted, Egypt was in a particular place at that moment, but the anxiety that others expressed to me was no doubt part of the larger fear of crazy, western-hating fundamentalists. The fear was not me simply being far away in a semi-mystical land: it was the image of me being gunned down in some theocratic hell-hole midst a spontaneous uprising. (For the record, Egypt couldn't have been more peaceful while I was there, and people were generally extremely kind).
No doubt these changes in stereotype are due to new historical events and economic relationships in the 20th and 21st centuries, but they hold interesting implications for travel to the "Orient." To the popular mind, the middle east seems less like the semi-mystical, semi-barbarous place of wonder and more like...something even more crude. No doubt this limits travel to that area: Even almost a year after the uprising in Egypt, fear of instability kept tourism down about five times to what it normally is (60,000 compared to 300,000 tourists, so I've been told).
Flaubert's mom was definitely right to be worried about her son on his trip to Egypt - which is part of what makes this arrangement of texts so delightful. Framed with the uncomfortably intimate (at least in English) notes to his mother - and the enchantingly standard travel notes - Flaubert's actual accounts to his friends of his erotic encounters make me realize that this is, perhaps the Original model - and possibly the best - of tourist.
Flaubert has the clothes, he visits the iconic places, he takes pictures, he is appalled by other tourists - and then tops it all off by toning it down into a very digestible set of notes for future tourists - who probably go around with their nose in a tour guide and get this diluted experience based on the notably iconic things to do in Egypt. In doing so they may miss out entirely on the Kuchuk experience.
This is what is so haunting about the modern day Lonely Island tourists - the feeling of being short changed by wandering around with guide books trying to hit every historic icon listed. Usually historically significant places - the first time your in a new land - will be something you already were expecting - like the pyramid and the sphinx.
Instead - by referring to the guide book before you travel short changes the experience. Flaubert noted himself how the Sphynx was more grand because his only impressions of it came from pictures. I feel travel narratives can have the same effect - if they are intended (which they probably weren't in the case of Flaubert) as guide books. Instead, travel narratives - for me - are best after I've already been to a place. They add a layer of color to an existing experience - rather than creating an image that will be compared to reality at a later point.
There is also the other side to the 'excluded' or 'alluded to' information that comes from a first generation tourist in the first degree to the second generation. And I have experienced a small taste of this on my own while traveling in Vietnam. As a group - we were told to meet up at a very popular, and might I say Tastefully named bar in Saigon by 9 pm. We checked the Lonely Planet review out - in our handy travel size tour books - and decided that Apocalypse Now would be a fairly safe bet - as our guide suggested.
And here is the -Lonely Planet review for Apocalypse Now
Others have come and gone, but ‘Apo’ has been around since the early days and remains one of the must-see clubs. A sprawling place with a big dance floor and an outdoor courtyard for cooling off, it’s quite a circus, with travelers, expats, Vietnamese movers and shakers, plus the odd hooker (some odder than others). The music is thumping and it’s apocalyptically rowdy.
Probably "movers and shakers" should have tipped us off - as much as "the odd hooker" or "rowdy" that the place would be a dive for men in their 50's (+) on the prowl for some affordable fun to epically confusing music from the 70's mixed with electronica. A very very sketchy bar, made more sketchy by the drinks (a friend of mine ordered a bloody marry and got tomato juice). After reading Flaubert an image comes to mind of the author's emails to his friends and mom - about his night in Nam.
A dear friend of mine lives in Nam - and we met up - the night following "Apo" night. He was appauled at our choice in clubs - taking me to another appropriately named club Lush which was a good time. It was a well designed place with a glowing dance floor loaded with Vietnamese B-Boys and filled mostly with single people our age, plus the odd 50+ man scoping for hookers in the corner (some odder than others). The music was well mixed by a very talented female dj.
(Sidenote - my friend also explained to me that the reason no one was drunk was because we weren't actually drinking alcohol - unless we were drinking Whiskey - instead we were drinking a mix of bootleg alcohol - mostly flavored chemicals with a slight alcohol base because they were easy to imitate. Good to know.)The best part of this collection of Flaubert's trip will stay the beginning for me - where Flaubert is talking about how mad he is at a relative for mentioning his mother's distress at his departure. While this is a really annoying thing for family to do - it was probably made worse by all the amazing experiences the momma's boy would have on his travels. And one has to wonder, if Flaubert did have the incredible time he did because he was away from his mother's watchful eye - on a worthy expedition of documentation.
Ultimately, this mix of vulnerability, adventure and confusion led to Flaubert composing an incredible piece. Immediately I was drawn to Flaubert's writing style. I wasn't even sure why, but I soon realized it was his honest voice that was captivating and perfectly fitting. After reading the sarcastic and overly proud narration of Twain, Flaubert's writing style was the perfect remedy.
Flaubert is accounting his day to day experiences and observations in letters being sent to his mother and friend. Later these letters would be expanded upon, but the fact that Flaubert is writing to people whom he cares dearly for, in my opinion, creates such a truly beautiful and sentimental tone. We've read how the true traveler must be afraid, must be willing to rediscover themselves. Flaubert's accounts are more then fitting when putting this into consideration. One could jump at the overly sensative tone, but if we remember that the true traveler is sensative and feareful like a child, we can really appreciate Flauberts narration.
Like a good movie plot, Flaubert begins by lettting his readers into the very complex and emotional relationship he has with his mother and friend. Not only does he develop them as characters, but in doing so he develops himself. I found myself genuinely feeling for Flaubert and wishing him the best of luck. Therefore, once he got into the thick of the action, describing his accounts of exploring the exotic Arabian lands, I was totally captivated.
Now, perhaps even more vital than the characters for a good story, is the sex scenes. Call me a chavunist but I certainly appreciated Flauberts sexual endevaours. This is a story about a man exploring not just the land, himself, but the people as well. His descriptions of sex are full of lust and the women he describes are exotic and exciting. Again, perfect for a good story.
Nearly as exotic, Flauberts accounts of the beautiful and epic pyramids are truly intriguing. His description of smoking with the Sphinx on the sand, gazing at the rising sun, sounds divine. In Thebes, as they danced and listened to the flute, Flaubert describes the waves "bending under the wind." He then admits the solemn and happiness that strikes him. Likewise, in reading his passages, his openess and honesty, I too feel solemn and happiness.
Something else that I noticed in relation to Flaubert’s superficiality was the commercialism embedded in the text. He describes the clothing the hookers he and his compatriots wear. In Cairo he wars “a large white cotton Nubian shirt, trimmed with little pompoms and a cut of whose description would take up too much space” (41), and consequently remarks how him and those around him look like “quite the pair of orientals” (42). Culture seems to take on a very vapid sense of meaning for Flaubert as he can wear another person’s cultural garb with very little regard for the history of the garment. To him the garb was more like a costume and one that he’d rather not be wearing as he’d rather be having sex with Kuchuck.
Lastly on the topic of Kuchuck, Said writes “there is no such thing as 'free sex'….sex in society [is] entailed in a web of legal, moral and even political and economic obligations” (190). My hunch says he is right, and that this is being reflected in Flaubert’s repeated clutching of Kuchuk’s necklace (perhaps a symbol for commercial goods?) after they copulate. What is that about…does anyone have any ideas?