Sunday, May 07, 2006

Language -- Flaubert’s cracked kettle and how he tried to mend it


Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. -- Flaubert, “Madame Bovary”

Frederick Brown’s “Flaubert: A Biography” is reviewed by Eric Ormsby, who concludes by saying this about Flaubert’s lifelong attempt to improve the acoustics of the kettle.
From his letters it seems clear that Flaubert was often inundated by impressions. Style provided a means of ordering the world. And style was not only physical in some vague sense; it was acoustic. Night after night he would shout his sentences out to the stunned flower-beds and dumbstruck nightingales in his Croisset garden. Words must connect justly with other words, but they must echo in actuality as well. Style was not only a barricade, imposing limit and order on the unruly; it was also the slow, stubborn, patient mending of that irreparable crack in the kettle.
He doesn't mention the bears, but I imagine they kept dancing.

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