Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

In the Yakima Valley

On the road again, 
and on the car radio,
another Country Music song:            

     I’m 44 now, soon 45
     The way I been livin’
     Lucky alive
     So much has been given
     And taken away
     Who knows what will happen
     Today

Late summer, almost fall
Red rust brushed peaches
Dark dust green grape leaves
Swelling purples under blue blouse sky:

     Woke up this mornin’
     Didn’t know where I was
     Wrote a letter to Heaven,
     Reachin' out for you
     But you weren’t there
     And Heaven didn’t answer either 

Signs along the road,
wood weathered grey,
in the Yakima Valley:

     Antiques
     Fresh Cherries
     Walla Walla Sweets

Later at the Grey Inn Motel 
Eating maroon cherries from a bottle 
Drinking brown beer
Thinking one thing is clear and sure:
Nighttime falls

     Lento, Largo, Larghissimo 

Yes, darkness comes
Slow like snows, 
Like muted yeses, 
Like mouth harp nos,
Like in Country Music songs,
Driving through the Yakima Valley.


Note (in response to one reader's question): 
The Country Music song lyrics in the poem 
are taken from an original song I wrote in 2004. 
So, no, I didn't hear the song on the radio, 
though I did often find myself 
driving through the Yakima valley, 
and I wrote the song on one my Yakima trips.
I've explained the age range used in the song
in a comment below.

The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).