Saturday, May 8, 2010

Escape Artists

"But my mama never warned me about my own destructive appetites."

Jenny Lewis

Let us mark Mother's Day with a nod to one of the least praiseworthy of fictional mothers, Emma Bovary. Forever foisting her daughter--who was an unacceptable intrusion upon her own self-absorption and self-indulgence--upon the maid, Madame Bovary was one upon whom motherhood was truly wasted. Fortunately she had only one offspring to neglect and not several.

Indifferent mother, unloving wife, adulteress twice over, disastrous spendthrift, melodramatic and self-pitying hysteric, and ultimately miserable suicide, Madame would be utterly despicable if it weren't so tempting to identify with her. Her basic problem was an appetite that could not be satisfied by the milieu in which she found herself. The first step toward forgiving her is, of course, the basic feminist recognition that like all women, she was born into a world designed to frustrate female motivations at many turns.

Madame Bovary was a hapless Romantic, an escapist, a fantasist forever pining for some vaguely imagined realm of glamour. She happened to be paired up with the worst possible mate for her, the profoundly unimaginative Charles. Devoted and reliable, he would have proven a serviceable husband for a number of women, but for Emma he was poison.

Charles and Emma ended in calamity and not mere unhappiness because both of them were impractical dreamers. There was no check on the development of parallel marital fictions. Charles achieved his fantasy of domestic bliss through total denial of what was going on in front of his eyes; his only claim of diminished responsibility derives from his low intelligence.

Emma, after all, wants to be able to accept reality as it presents itself to her senses, but she is unable to. She endeavors to love her husband, but the love will not come. She prays for virtue; she fitfully and impulsively tries to summon maternal instincts. The spirit on some level is willing, but the flesh craves more than her straitened bourgeois existence can provide. And that is part of the problem, that she wants it both ways, that is, the respectability and stability of a doctor's wife as well as total freedom and exotic adventure.

One can imagine her as a writer or an actress, pursuits that were open to women even in that pre-feminist era. But she either lacked the courage of her convictions, or she did not understand herself well enough to recognize where she might find what she needed. Perhaps she was a failed artist, or one endowed with an artistic temperament without accompanying discipline or skill. The problem is not really escapism itself, for the pharmacist Homais, who smugly and pedantically revelled in every grubby aspect of "the given," comes off as an odious figure. For it is human nature to be impatient with reality, to be bored, to need perpetual stimulation of one kind of other. Thus religion, thus the arts, thus games and sports (Homo ludens indeed), thus war, drugs, and sexual intrigue. Some are arguably born more bored than others, and inasmuch as relief of boredom is one of the central tasks of life, Madame Bovary made a particular mess of things. Consciousness is restive by nature; the trick is to afford this restlessness its due scope without hurting others or oneself unduly along the way.


Retriever said...

Good stuff! Write more, please.

Emma is a twit, but most married women can relate to her at least some of the time.

She is an Eve, whom the serpent beguiled. And easy to blame her, because if she had just been good and done as she was supposed to, there would have been a lot less trouble.

Happy people are rarely compulsive shoppers.

Or adulterers.

Thinking how many women of her day just drank themselves into stupors on patent medicines...

ALso, tho she goes over the top sometimes, and veers into too much female-blaming, Dr Helen has written well on how much romance novels have to answer for: making women dissatisfied with good decent husbands because they aren't romantic enough.

Ho hum, Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards. And woman.

Dr X said...

"But my mama never warned me about my own destructive appetites."

I've always enjoyed that line from the song. It's so unexpected in relatively popular music.