Thursday, May 14, 2015

Flaubert as Futurist

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist words-in-freedom

Prescience is one of the prime signifiers of a fine and powerful mind. Gustave Flaubert knew what was up, as we can see from a letter penned in the early 1850s, while he was working on Madame Bovary:
What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to write, is a book about nothing, a book without any external support, which would be held together only by the inner strength of its style, the way the earth hangs suspended in space, a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if that is possible. The most beautiful books are those in which there is the least matter; the closer the expression comes to the thought, the more perfectly the language clings to the idea and disappears, the more beautiful the style. I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction. I see Art, as it has developed over the years, becoming more and more ethereal, from the pylons of Egypt to the Gothic lancets, and from the twenty-thousand verse poems of the Indians to the flights of Byron. Form, as it becomes more skillful, is attenuated; it abandons all liturgy, all law, all measure; it deserts the epic for the novel, poetry for prose; it rejects all orthodoxy and is as free as the individual that creates it. This liberation from materiality can be found in everything, for example, in the way governments have evolved, from oriental despotisms to the socialist states of the future.
Obviously Flaubert was right. What he almost certainly didn't see coming was that the clearing of contrivances, of "matter" away from expression would be essentially the same process (or a closely related process) by which his own medium—continuous walls of static, unadorned text printed on paper—would come to approach cultural obsolescence, gradually pushed aside by audiovisual media, electronic games, and hypertext. But we can't judge him too harshly. The notion that the artforms predicated on the viability of printed literature, the unchallenged mass media queen of the nineteenth century, would be flirting with irrelevance in just 160 years would have seemed to Flaubert, on the face of it, as unthinkable to one of us today that social media, iOS games, or webcomics would be looked over as quaint cultural artifacts by 2099. (The "chips in our brains in our lifetime" millenarians might disagree, though.)

Nor could Flaubert have known how right he was about the "liberation from materiality" either; the key word of the unspoken but necessary corollary statement would center on the word "digital," which would have had no meaning to him. But so did the oracles of myth convey the gods' riddles about the future without necessarily understanding their meanings.

(Note: I recently attached this blog to the domain, spending twelve bucks to purchase some additional trappings of legitimacy. In the process, my blogroll was somehow erased. Working on restoring it now.)

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