Monday, April 25, 2011

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

"Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible", critic James Woods in How Fiction Works (2008). 

Madame Bovary was Gustave Flaubert's first and most successful novel and is regarded as one of the masterpieces in Western literature.  It has been called a perfect work of fiction and is noted for its vivid detail and realism. Flaubert (1821-1880) spent five years writing Madame Bovary, a long-time by standards of the day.  However, Flaubert had a passionate need to find the correct word ("le mot juste") in his writing and he would spend long hours looking for the right descriptive adjective.  From reading his work, I think his effort was fruitful. I never felt like I was being inundated with trivial details, descriptions or facts.  Rather, I felt I could see, hear, smell and taste the world through these characters. I am not a fan of overly detailed descriptions, but Flaubert has an incredible talent for capturing imagery with words that kept pulling me in.

The title character is Emma Bovary, the young, attractive wife of Charles Bovary, a country doctor. Living in rural France in the mid-1800's, Emma dreams of travel, grand balls and enjoying the fine things in life which are quite beyond her current position. She is constantly comparing the dreariness of her bourgeois, middle-class life with the excitement of living in Paris or being surrounded by high society. She has a strong, reckless personality and is almost entirely devoted to satisfying her own need for pleasure.  She is a sensualist.  By the end of the novel, Emma has spent nearly all of her and Charles's money, largely in supporting her affairs with other men and a secret life of luxury. She does go through moments of repentance where she tries to be a good wife, mother, charitable to the poor and has an almost "born-again" Christian transformation.  However she then swings violently back to her furtive life of debauchery. I think today we would say that Emma is bipolar.

Emma has a strong personality which sharply contrasts with Charles.  He is a humble, dull and tractable man, easily manipulated by both his mother and Emma.  He doesn't recognize that Emma is spending all their money and easily caves into any request she makes.  I think Emma doesn't realize that her unhappiness is something that she creates.  She cannot accept the reality of her situation.  In addition, she refuses to engage in serious self-reflection to improve her life in ways that are within her power.  She is utterly capricious, manipulative, deceitful and a slave to her desires.

I cannot add significantly to the volumes that have been written about Madame Bovary.  However I definitely plan to return to this book and enjoy it again.  Not for the characters or the plot, but for the rich language that Flaubert uses to describe even the most provincial details of provincial life. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

The novel "Lolita" is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest works of fiction from our past century.  It is on Time's list of the 100 best English-language novels and #4 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. It is characterized by masterful prose, descriptive detail and unique word play, as well as its controversial subject, the seduction of a 12-year old girl by an older man.  The success of this novel has entered our common vocabulary; the noun "Lolita" is used for any young vixen who could captivate and allure an older man.  

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia where he learned to speak fluent Russian, English and French and later wrote novels in all these languages.  Following the Russian Revolution his family fled to the West and Nabokov eventually settled in the United States where he became a citizen in 1945.  He was a man of diverse interests, at one time teaching tennis, boxing and comparative literature, composing chess problems, and as a research fellow at Harvard University he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The finacial success of Lolita, published in 1958 in the US, gave Nabokov the ability to concentrate full-time on his writing.

I doubt there is much I can contribute to the discussion on Lolita that has not already been said.  The main character, Humbert Humbert, fantasizes about young women whom he calls nyphettes. Eventually he seduces 12-year old Lolita and, after her mother dies, travels with Lolita across the US staying in motels and visiting tourist attractions. Lolita seems more or less happy with the arrangement until the end, but Humbert is clearly paranoid about being caught. After about two years Lolita runs away, marries and starts a family.  Humbert is devastated, even though Lolita was growing out of her "nyphette" stage anyway.  Humbert exhibits a great amount of self-delusion as he tries to justify his love for nyphettes and he claims, in fact, that Lolita seduced him. 

Publishing a novel with this subject matter today would be quite controversial, so it is almost unfathomable to me that it was printed in 1958 during the conservative Eisenhower era.  What I found most attractive about this novel was the rich, creative writing style of Nabokov.  Sometimes I felt like I was reading music and the words were flowing off the pages.  I was also impressed at how he used adjectives and nouns in contexts I would have never have thought possible.  It was almost lyrical.  His synthesis of imagination and linguistic skill results in a really unique writing style and I found myself reading the same passages several times.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Machiavelli and Modern Politics

Machiavelli said that the highest virtue was whatever allowed the prince to survive politically.  This may not always express itself in the survival of the state; many politicians believe the ends justify the means they use in their own ideological pursuits.  They may not call this Machiavellian, but clearly it fits  his idea of virtue.

Of course no respectable political leader would admit to engaging in Machiavellian ethics.  That being said, I thought it would be interesting to try and find examples of Machiavelli's influence on modern politics, using a few words from Machiavelli himself.

A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.

"Read my lips", this is practically a maxim among politicians.  Saying one thing and doing another is second nature to most successful politicians.  Of course this can backfire, therefore breaking promises is best used only for preserving political position. For example, promising not to raise taxes can get you elected president, but don't break that promise until your second term. 

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Here Machiavelli is saying that even when we try to do good deeds, we often do evil.  In other words, be prepared for people who will not like you, even when you are trying to help them.  This continues to happen to the US throughout the world.  Remember our relief missions to Somalia?  Bombing Yugoslavia?  The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya?  We think we are doing good, but we just seem to be making more enemies. 

In this country health care reform, granting everyone access to medical care, is ostensibly a good thing but many view this change with hostility.  Likewise, many shortsighted people in the middle class vehemently resist higher taxes for the wealthiest 2% - even though it can only help them and the economy.  Similar views can be found when we try and make people wear seatbelts, buy car insurance, avoid predatory mortgages, etc...
It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.

If you cannot make everyone love you, make them fear you but never make the people hate you.  Being loved is great, but fear has worked well for other countries (USSR and Nazi Germany) and many countries have loved or feared the US.  However, once people begin to hate you will have lost respect and potential allies. Many countries have contempt for the US which is one reason we have lost influence on the global stage.  
I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.

This has been uttered by Marxists, Fascists, Liberals, Conservatives, etc...  Of course Machiavelli does want to preserve the status quo as far as staying in power goes.  Machiavelli also said that when taking power,  the prince should eliminate the old nobility and replace it with new more loyal followers.  This would literally be true in more extreme situations, but even in our democracy a new president wants his most trusted allies in key positions. Machiavelli also suggested making the rich poor and the poor rich which will help endear a new monarch to the masses. 
Necessity justifies behavior that is not considered moral normally

With our war on terror we justify military tribunals and suspension of habeus corpus as "necessary". We should remember that Lincoln also suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War and FDR illegally interned Japanese-Americans during WW2.   But as Machiavelli says, a state and a prince can do whatever is necessary to preserve the government.   It could be argued by Lincoln, FDR, GW Bush and Obama that they are only doing what is required to protect us (i.e. the government) out of necessity.

It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.

Thomas Aquinas wanted us to believe that most men are good and only a view needed to be directed toward virtue.  Machiavelli took a more pragmatic, realistic view.  We need laws in our country to protect our freedom and property from other people.  People are inherently self-interested and nearly everyone seeks to acquire more resources than they need for survival. We can find innumerable examples of this without even mentioning Wall Street, the predatory mortgages, pyramid and Ponzi schemes.   Laws should protect the prince, his government and his people from these evils. 

Of course the prince does not need to follow these laws - but he should appear to follow them.  

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

Machiavelli thought that good counsel was critical for a successful prince.  Abraham Lincoln was known for his "Team of Rivals" and other presidents and leaders have depended heavily on their cabinets.  However, bad counsel can lead to ruin - ask Tsar Nicholas II about how Rasputin worked out.  I also imagine someone told Nixon that breaking into the Watergate hotel was a good idea. 

For among other evils caused by being disarmed, it renders you contemptible; which is one of those disgraceful things which a prince must guard against.

You need a strong military to reflect your strength and keep away "wolves".  Germany and Japan instigated WW2 in part because they considered the Allies to be weak.  Our country uses its military as a deterrent to other countries that would threaten us - although it does not always work.  Likewise, it could be argued that Saddam Hussein kept up the ruse of having WMDs to keep his neighbors wary of him.   
Machiavelli also stressed the importance of citizen-soldiers, rather than hired mercenaries.  Like our military, no one has more at stake in preserving a government than those who freely choose to defend it.

The one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not. 

All politicians needs to read the political tea leaves.  If you want to stay in power, you need to be on the right side of political issues like segregation in the South, busting up or supporting unions, or going to war.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Every time someone in our country tries to change the status quo, like fixing health care or social security, they run into a barrage of opposition.  A prince has to have all the characteristics listed above to be able to push his new political agenda.  He is confident, secure at home and abroad, has good counsel and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Machiavelli: The Prince and Political Philosophy

Is The Prince an amoral or immoral book, or just misunderstood?

Machiavelli said that sometimes a prince must disregard accepted standards of virtue and "enter into evil as necessitated". However, if maintaining the State is the prince's most important job, then can we really say that anything he does is wrong? After all, if the State falls then we could lose everything (freedom, property, our culture and laws) so shouldn't we let the prince do whatever it takes to maintain power? The prince is intimately linked to the state, as the French king Louis XIV famously articulated, L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the State"), therefore if the prince falls, the state falls.  Likewise, as Aristotle said in Politics, the chief aim of any government is the preservation of the State. Therefore we should expect that a successful  prince will do anything he needs to do to stay in power. 

Cesare Borgia - the ideal prince
Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, grandson of "Lorenzo the Magnificent", of the ruling Florentine Medici family. However, Machiavelli's ideal "prince" would have been Cesare Borgia (Chey-zer-ay Bor-zheh). A member of the notorious Borgia family (Cesare's father was Pope Alexander VI), Cesare conquered territories using both the art of war as well as guile. He found trusted advisers (even hiring Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect and engineer) and ruled fairly. However he could be duplicitous when necessary and dealt out punishment quickly and brutally. For this, Machiavelli admired him, saying that Cesare's only downfall was that he depended too much on his father (the Pope) since when he died Cesare's fortune was lost.

Comparing Machiavelli with classical political philosophy

Machiavelli's political treatise The Prince at first appears a significant departure from the political philosophy passed down from Plato and Aristotle. Machiavelli assumed that all men wanted power and could not be trusted. The sovereign must be prepared for these challenges and do anything he needs to do to maintain power. Because of this he said a prince must have the character of both a fox and lion, "It is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves"


Aristotle thought that men should be civil and avoid acting like beasts. He says in Politics that man "when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all". However, Machiavelli could say that by maintaining the power of the State, the prince is protecting men from injustice.  In addition, the prince acting like a beast means that his subjects won't have to.


In the Republic, Plato has Glaucon talk about the story of the Ring of Gyges which could make a man invisible. Although all men claim to be honorable, if we could get away with something unbeknownst to others, wouldn't we try? Glaucon continues saying that the unjust man who appears just will not be punished while "the just man who is thought unjust will be scouraged, racked, bound....then he will understand that he ought to seen only, and not be, just." Mind you these are not Socrates or Plato's words.

Machiavelli says that the Prince should be like the Ring of Gyges; he should appear honorable and just, but, unseen, he should do whatever he needs to stay in power. Even Plato said that in an ideal state it was OK for the sovereign to lie. This is the "royal lie" which allows the ruler to give the impression of being just but allows him the freedom to pursue ulterior agendas. 

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas said that laws should be written with the common good in mind. Machiavelli would say that that laws serve only to help keep the ruler in power. However, if keeping the ruler in power is the best end for the people, then technically Machiavelli is fulfilling the ideas promulgated in the Summa Theologica.

At first the ideas of Machiavelli may seem to disagree with earlier political thought, however, Machiavelli can find support and justification for his theories using the same works he seems to be contradicting. Although we should recognzied that justifying every action of a prince may only apply in extremis, when the very survival of the society is at stake. 

Niccolo Machiavelli

The term Machiavellian is used to describe someone who is willing to deceive and manipulate other people for personal gain - it usually carries a negative connotation.  However, for rulers in Renaissance Europe, following the principles of Niccolo Machiavelli could be the key to staying in power. Even today Machiavelli is regarded as the father of modern politics largely through his book       The Prince, an instructive manual on gaining and maintaining political power.

Machiavelli (1469- 1527) was born in Florence, Italy during the peak of the Renaissance. Florence was the home of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, the famous Medici family and a cultural, economic and political powerhouse. Machiavelli began a career as a public servant of the Florentine Republic. Later he developed a reputation as a political philosopher, military strategist, writer and famous playwright. This was a tumultuous time in Italy with wars occurring between the numerous city-states (Genoa, Venice, Florence, Naples, Milan), conflicts with the Pope, and outside armies marching through Italy from Spain, France, Switzerland and Germany.  It was a world of shifting alliances, treachery and the overthrow of governments by both internal and foreign forces. What intrigued Machiavelli the most was understanding why some governments succeeded and others failed.  What was the key to staying in power? 

In response to this question, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a guide to acquiring and preserving power.  In this treatise Machiavelli lays out his instructions for sovereigns who have recently come to power.  He discusses how to deal with the citizenry, what types of governments are easiest to control, how to organize the military and what to look for in your counsel.  In many ways The Prince reveals things that most politicians already know.  For example, you should appear upright and honest, but feel free to be covertly ruthless and deceitful. His message laid out in The Prince has been studied for centuries and has been said to influence numerous politicians from diverse backgrounds (communists, fascists, republicans and democrats) such as Lenin, Lincoln, Mussolini, Napoleon, etc.  Some leaders have been directly affected by Machiavelli, while others have, perhaps unknowingly, followed the ideas promulgated at this book. The writings of Machiavelli have been, and will continue to be, interpreted multiple ways and used for many purposes, but the goals have always remained the same. 

Machiavelli's political children
There is still controversy about what Machiavalli really meant in The Prince, especially since he also wrote about the need for a Republic, such as Florence. I've read this work twice and I continue to find new ways of interpreting it.  Most intriguing for me now is seeing how The Prince relates to other works on political theory, and how it can be interpreted today.  Even though we will never know exactly what Machiavelli is trying to tell us, people are likely to continue using his ideas to justify their political ambitions.