Thursday, October 28, 2010

“Salammbô” by Gustave Flaubert

Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent by Richard Avedon, 1981

Suddenly he perceived on the horizon, behind Tunis,
what looked like slight mists trailing along the ground;
then these became a great curtain of dust extending perpendicularly,
 and, amid the whirlwinds of the thronging mass,
 dromedaries' heads, lances and shields appeared.

It was the army of the Barbarians advancing upon Carthage.

It is a paradox really, and a kind of an odd one too, when you consider that Gustave Flaubert was summoned to court on charges of obscenity for a book like “Madame Bovary”, while he got away with such a barbaric monstrosity as “Salammbô”.

The worst thing after all, which happens in Bovary is the suicide of a bored and adulterous “bourgeoise”, while Salammbô, a book bulging with horrors has it all: from bestial love to religious inspired child massacres, from horrendous battles scenes to mass executions of prisoners. Not only did Flaubert get away with his shocking book, but Salammbô became a commercial success as soon as it hit the bookstores in November 1862.

Even Baudelaire was impressed when he commented: “An edition of two thousand books sold in two days…, only Flaubert could have written this beautiful book…”. Salammbô did definitively seal the writer’s fame, its exotic topic inspiring painters like Gaston Buissière or even the great Mucha, setting the standard for the next generation of writers, people like Huysman and maybe Oscar Wilde. Salammbô even started, quite exceptional in those days, a fashion craze: “Le style Carthaginois”.

Today however, readers seem to have forgotten Salammbô. A quick glance at the statistics in Library Thing for instance shows that nearly 12.000 people own Bovary while only 700 can boast of having Salammbô on their shelves. It is of course true that today the Academic world sees “La Bovary”, as one of the most influential novels ever written and a seminal work of realism, showing the writer’s perfectionist eye for detail and his obsession to find and use “le mot juste”.  But so is Salammbô, and probably even more. To claim Bovary as Flaubert’s masterpiece and restricting one’s reading to that single book is simply unfair. Flaubert had not yet displayed all his talent and while his own preference would go to his “Temptation of Saint Anthony”, I think that if you honestly consider the man’s total oeuvre, you come to the same conclusion as I did: “Madame Bovary” is not Flaubert’s best, but clearly Salammbô,…easily, …hands down.

And what a book indeed!

The story famously opens with the description of that barbaric feast in the gardens of the Palace of lord Hamilcar, an estate situated in the Megara neighborhood within the walls of the ancient city of Carthage. We are in 240 BC. The survivors of the army of Mercenaries, hired by Carthage and evacuated after the Sicilian campaign, have been allowed to camp within the city limits, on the grounds of their former commander. The famous and respected general Hamilcar Barca is not with his men. Carthage blames him for the defeat against the Romans and has banned him. But this is not the only thing that worries the tired warriors: Carthage is delaying the payments. Unable to pay, some whisper, unwilling to pay, others snarl.

Their frustration and anger is fueled by the strong wines they drink, the abundance of the fancy dishes that are served and the lush wealth exhibited around them. Drunken fights flare up, vandalism happens, slaves belonging to their host are cut free, trees in the garden are set to fire, exotic domesticated animals are butchered and then in a vicious surge of desecration, the excited soldiers spear the holy fishes that swim in the sacred ponds in the garden. These holy fishes, adorned with precious stones, are the divine descendants of the ancient sea-devils, the keepers of  Goddess Tanits’ mystical egg.

A young woman appears on the terraces of the palace and surrounded by her dignitaries descends into the garden. It is Salammbô, the beautiful daughter of Hamilcar, a virgin –priestess of Tanit. The mindless damages on the property have infuriated her. She asks the warriors to respect the memory of her beloved father, their former Leader. She asks them to leave her city, which has already suffered too much. Carthage cannot support the army and at the same time collect the money to pay its due.

The Barbaric army is silenced.

But then, offering a cup of wine in a soothing move to calm down the excited warriors, the virgin – priestess unconsciously unleashes a jealous and passionate fight between the Lybian warrior Matho and the Numidian Prince Narr’Havas. By the time, Mathô has recovered from the attack, Salammbô has disappeared.

The next day, the army of Mercenaries leaves the city and marches toward Sicca. In the countryside, the travelling army discovers hundreds of crucified lions, killed by Carthaginian farmers and exhibited as an example to scare away other predators.
Slowly the Barbarians realize their error: leaving their settlements within the walls of Megara, has endangered their situation and strengthened the hated city. They decide to return and attack Carthage before it’s too late. But Carthage realizing the great danger, decides to recall Hamilcar Barca to take command of the city’s defenses against the advancing hordes of Barbaric Warriors, Hamilcar’s former army.

In the next chapters, Flaubert not only describes the operations of the different fighting factions but also zooms in on the doings of the major protagonists. Hamilcar Barca, his daughter Salammbo, the warriors Matho and Narr’Havas are the most important. The passion of Matho for Salammbô, Narr’Havas clever opportunism, Hamilcar’s political struggle and Salammbo’s mystical experiences with her terrible Gods are all skillfully depicted against the larger canvas of the battles for Carthage. That larger canvas is the so-called Mercenary war, which Flaubert painstakingly brings to life in all its gruesome details. It is a forgotten war, taking place in 240 BC in the immediate aftermath of the first Punic war. A destitute Carthage, who has lost the war and is condemned to pay a heavy tribute to Rome, has insufficient funds left to pay off the Mercenary army it formerly employed against the Romans in Sicily. But the negotiations between Carthage and the military leaders of the Mercenaries turns awry and what had been a hotly contested "labor dispute" explodes into a full-scale revolt. Carthage fares poorly in the initial engagements but once the commands are returned to Hamilcar Barca, the Mercenaries are in a few battles and notably in the decisive “Battle of the Saw” defeated and exterminated.

Flaubert who was lauded for la Bovary as a realist and a master of modernity, now took the public off guard with his second book, suddenly unveiling the darker forces lurking behind that realism, behind that modernity. Salammbô is quite unique, in the sense that it escapes all attempts of classification. It partly fits the Romantic definition: a writer escaping the drab reality, with a flight in time and space, bringing the story of a doomed and passionate love. Flaubert applies his Bovarian techniques to bring his Realism altogether to a higher level. He successfully attempts something more difficult: to scrupulously render a truthful portraiture of life, not of his familiar rural Normandy, not of the things surrounding him, but extrapolating this realism to another time, another place another world altogether. And he does it with brio. Even when letting his creative fantasy loose on an exotic subject like an antique war in North Africa, Flaubert still tries to be true, to sound true. He laments to his friend of the enormous documentary research needed to pen down the lines of his Salammbô: “Derrière le beau if faut faire vrai quand meme.” (“Even beautiful things, should be real after all”). It is this work of thorough reconstruction to create a realism which accounts for the “grandeur” of all Flaubert’s book. It is no accident that the grandest of them all, Salammbô, is the most researched and documented of them all.

Even in his depicting of the shocking horrors, mothers hurling their infants into the blazing furnace of Moloch, exhausted, debilitating soldiers, blockaded in a steep ravine and starving to death, quench their thirst by drinking their urine (cooled down in their helmets first, Flaubert adds), lions, hundreds of them, nailed to a cross, victims literally ripped apart by a crowd in fury, Flaubert carefully bases his depictions on detailed documentation.

We know that the conduct of the actors of the Mercenary war was barbaric even by the standards of their time. Polybius called it a "truce less war", without any concept of rules of warfare and exceeding all other conflicts in cruelty, ending only with the total annihilation of one of the opponents.
Polybius was an important source but not the only one. Flaubert worked himself literally through tons of historic books and documents. But not only that, he studied the fauna, the flora. He remembered fitting details from his earlier travels in the orient, like his famous “mangeurs de choses immondes” (The eaters of filthy things). Flaubert, quite exceptional for those days, even travelled to Tunisia, by coach to Marseilles and then by boat to Tunis, to see, feel, smell and taste what he was going to describe.
But it would be wrong to think of Salammbô, as just a documentary rendering of a classic war. Salammbô is about people too. It is especially here that Flaubert’s modernity is fully displayed.
There is for example the story of the Mercenaries who have been lured into a steep ravine and cannot escape. Blocking the only exit, the Carthaginian soldiers watch their enemy starve to death, rot away. Flaubert not only describes the individual sufferings of the mercenaries, but explains that worse than their own death, these barbaric soldiers suffer to see their companions dying slowly, horribly. Between these men, Flaubert reminds us, “profound friendships” have grown. Far away from home, with no family, these warriors have relied on each other for their need for tenderness. “Strange loves, serious as a marriage” , has bound these fierce men together, the older one protecting the younger one, helping each other, stealing food for each other…
Witnessing the horrible end of their loved one’s makes it all more dramatic.
Another example is the scene where Hamilcar tries to save his small boy, the child that would become the famous Hannibal. The priests of Moloch are searching the city for children to sacrifice. Carthage is suffering from a terrible drought and the fanatic priests have lured the Carthaginians citizens in thinking that they can bring back the rains if they throw enough children on a pyre inside a huge metal statue representing Moloch. Nobody is save and Hamilcar, who as a high dignitary has to give the example,  has to offer his child too. It is a scene of Biblical resonance, but Flaubert brings it in such a hair-rising way, that you can see it happen right in front of your eyes. The great Hamilcar, a father in a most dire panic, absurdly trying everything to save his little boy from the claws of the priests, is a scene you are not likely to forget.
Transcending space and time Flaubert is able to convince us that he renders genuine heart wrenching feelings from another age.

Flaubert's Salammbô has a rare cult status within our family, since my father raved its merits back in the early seventies. The more digestible parts were read aloud to us kids, me just in my early teens. We learned sentences by heart and proudly quoted them each time we saw a chance to fit it in a conversation end I have always kept my Salammbô, an old, heavily thumbed and annotated pocket edition, close at hand.

No book is closer to, or more intimate with the private life of Flaubert. A private life one glimpses through his letters, his biography and the many introductions and comments of his book.  His beliefs, his worldview, his passions, his frustrations, all appear one way or the other in the beautiful lines of that antic drama. Flaubert’s early trials in writing, for instance the unpublished “Smarh”, are echoed in Salammbô. His intimate erotic and exotic fantasies are traceable as recurring themes: Salammbô for example, dancing with the serpent, so much “fin de siècle”, is a variant on Salomé’s intoxicating performance. These fictional magical dances in turn are inspired by young Gustave’s own memory of his single night with the very real Kuçuk Hanem.

But most important of all, Salammbô announces Flaubert’s last book, “the temptation of Saint Anthony”. A book that established a new literary myth. A book, Flaubert considered his masterwork and on which he toiled all his life. Flaubert had written a first version in 1850  and a few weeks before he would leave with Maxime du Camp on his “Grand Tour” through the Middle East, he gathered his courage and read it aloud to a few friends. After the reading, his friends unanimously suggested to burn the manuscript and to forget it. But Flaubert did not forget it.
Flaubert was heavily disappointed by this reaction, but travelling through Palestine and Egypt, he saw scenes which he could easily fit into his “Temptation”. It would take a lifetime before Flaubert would dare to offer his Saint Anthony “with trembling hands” to the public.
In de mean time many aspects of his “Temptation” boil up and its greater lines seep through the pages of Salammbô. There is for example Salammbô’s passionate urge to become one with the plants, the animals, the world around her, just like the holy man from the desert. But there is more: Paul Valery would deplore the passivity and the weakness of Saint – Anthony when confronted with his hallucination. Anthony does not resist but bows his head and waits till it is all over. The same can be said of Bovary and even more for most characters in Salammbô who are all, in the words of Michel Tournier, “lost souls floating, the span of a lifetime, over a swamp of absurdities, before disappearing in it. Their pitiful life is without sense, they accomplish nothing. If they disappear without understanding, it is simply because there is nothing to understand”
There is something of a pessimistic fatality in the ways of the people Flaubert depicts. A fatality he no doubt has seen in the eyes of the most miserable beggars in the east. There is something animal-like in the characters of Salammbô, something chthonic, a primitive atavistic attitude in everything they do. They roar, they shout, they claw, gouge and bite. The characters are driven by uncontrollable passions, by their Gods, by Nature. It is as if men are still partly beasts, enduring an existential misery, the refinement of the dresses they wear, the religiosity, a mere gloss.

No book demonstrates better than Salammbô the narrative skills of Flaubert. Whatever you liked in Bovary, it is even better in Salammbô.
Here is the word – Artist at work, everything is named, colored, enhanced, a smell added here, a sound there, sunlight reflects on water, on armouries. People are dressed, their ornaments described in details, from different perspectives. With the right words, Flaubert’s magic, builds a world right in front of our eyes. And he demonstrates that he has studied his masters well. Sentences flow, à la Montesquieu, here reminding Chateaubriand, there adding a touch of Orientalist gloss or a Latin syntax. What a feast ! And it is not all!
Flaubert creates tensions, arouses our curiosity, shocks us suddenly and then with a splendid description of a forgotten detail suddenly enthralls us.
It is pure cinema! 13 chapters in balance, rigidly structured, mostly ending with a build up of tension, follow each other…The Barbarians attack! Hamilcar is back! The veil of Tanith has disappeared and a sacrificed human heart stops beating in unison with a setting sun.
Hamilcar is present in every chapter, even when he is not there. From the first chapter together with the Mercenaries we fear his return, but with the Carthaginians we hope for his return.
While stealing the Zaimph, the sacred veil of Tanith, Mathô is discovered. He envelops himself in the thin drape and walks out trough the frontgate of the city while a furious mob surrounds him but does not dare to touch him for fear of damaging the veil of the Goddess. In a later parallel chapter, Mathô is now unprotected, walking his “via dolorosa” through a crowd who has been allowed to wound him but forbidden to kill him…

Salammbô still awaits it’s Fellini.

If it is really worthwhile to read or reread Flaubert’s Salammbô, one wonders, why has it not earned the attention it deserves? The problem, I think, has been the academic habit to label and catalogue writers and their books. Once it was decided that Flaubert was the most representative example of 19th century realism, all his books which could not be collected  under this heading, were shoved aside or just admired for their aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression. A Romantic story, written by the master of Realism, announcing the symbolists and the decadents and preparing us for Modernism should however be no problem for today’s post – modernist reader, who will be more able to appreciate Salammbô in all its diverse aspects.

But few readers outside France have taken the effort to read any other work beside the obvious “Madame Bovary”. Once this one is read, people think wrongly, that they have “read” Flaubert and switch to another “must read” of the literary canon. This has been the fate of at least half of Flaubert’s total oeuvre: Salammbô, The temptation of Saint Anthony, Herodias and The Legend of Saint Julian, four stories set in classical or biblical times.

For those who do read Salammbô, there is often an unease they experience around Salammbô that has hindered them to claim it Flaubert’s masterpiece. One does not know what to do with it, how to catalogue it. It doesn’t fit, it is too cruel, it is too grand, it paints a too pessimistic image of our “Human condition”. It is as if we do not dare to confront Flaubert’s terrible tableaux. We look away in revolting disgust when we see mothers cast their howling infant children in the gaping furnace of Moloch’s mouth. We cast down our eyes when in presence of a God, a Tiran or a War-Lord, their ferocious ways unpredictable, their intentions incomprehensible.

But sometimes we also avert our eyes out of decency, out of delicacy when we are witness to the beautiful dance of the naked virgin nymph Salammbô with her Python in honor of the Moon Goddess Tanit or when a great writer like Flaubert exhibits himself in all his vulnerability, in all his sensitiveness.

Maybe Salammbô, despite all its horrors is simply too beautiful.