Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Madame Bovary, Facebook, Romanticism Old & New

Georges de Feure, La source du mal

When considering the social tectonics of the modern age, I do sometimes wonder if humanity hasn't succeeded in unshackling itself from the hitherto timeless aphorism of Ecclesiastes: there is no new thing under the sun. Maybe human life in the twenty-first century really isn't just the same old tune played to a different beat, on different instruments; could this epoch represent humanity's entry into a fundamentally different existence than the one it has danced for the last 12,000 years?

If I were adopt the posture of an King Solomon apologist, I might argue that it isn't the dance that has changed, but its speed. Communication has become instantaneous, human beings (or human objects) can traverse the globe in a matter or hours, and waiting longer than half an hour for anything is now an almost unacceptable proposition—but human beings as we see them documented by Homer, Thucydides, Guanzhong, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, et al. are still recognizably the same people we are, albeit differently socialized.

(What gives the apologist cause to hesitate is Hegel's observation that at some point, an increased quantitative difference clicks over to a qualitative difference—but when or if we'll hit that point (or if we've already hit it) is beyond any honest conjecture I can make at present.)

I've been reading Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary lately, and it makes me wonder if Ecclesiastes might still be correct. Throughout this mid-nineteenth century novel I've been frequently reminded of conversations and articles about (and personal experiences with) social media, the hot topic of the early twenty-first century (and hot topic maker of the early twenty-first century).

For those who aren't familiar with Madame Bovary, here's the long and short of it: it's a French novel published in 1856, and frequently regarded as ground zero (or very close to ground zero) of the realist movement in Western literature, condemning the tropes of Romanticism even as it flouted them in its narrative. The plot follows a bored, dissatisfied housewife of the French countryside who desperately pursues extramarital affairs for a taste of the glamor and passion she feels her life is undeservedly lacking.

It is a point of defining significance that Emma Bovary is a voracious reader of novels, of the Romantic literature that was saturating the market at the time. And it is of contextual importance that Emma was living in and enjoying the pleasures of a media revolution (read: acceleration) not entirely different from the throes that birthed our Information Age. Dr. Annette Lamb gives us the skinny:
In his book Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order: 1450-1830, McKitterick (2003, 9) provided an overview of print culture during this time period including
"driven by cost (no least the rates of pay for compositors) and by a new awareness in an industrialized world of the relationship between production and increased demand and consumption, a revived interest in speed, in the technical possibilities of new inventions and in their social and interpretive implications."
Piper (2009, 4) concluded that this period "witnessed a remarkable social investment in books, both materially and imaginatively."
At the turn of the 19th century, publishing houses around the world were churning out books. Major publishers in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and in other areas were increasing production through innovations in technology. They were also looking for new ways to attract customers. Critical editions, gift books, illustrated works, penny novels, and translations all added to the variety of options across social and economic classes.
People living during this book frenzy were aware of these changes. Wolfgang Menzel (1798-1873) was a literary historian. In 1828, he observed,
"If a citizen of the next century were to look back at the current moment in German history, he would say that we had slept and dreamt in books."
Mass production allowed readers to become part of a shared experience. Emily Todd (2009, 100-101) notes that in the 19th century,
"even though the novels (Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott) appeared insignificant in form... (they were characterized) as foundational to the country's literary culture. The books were catalysts for collective experience - everyone waited for them, everyone wanted them, and everyone talked about them...they became American books and animated the literary marketplace, as publishers raced to print them, booksellers and 'besieged' libraries stocked them, and men and women, as well as boys and girls, read them hungrily."
Though the printing press and mass-produced literature were hardly new to the nineteenth century, improvements in printing technology and distribution fostered an unprecedented surplus of popular literature. Emma devours these books with the same rapacity a young woman of the twenty-first century might slurp up the latest updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, tumblr, etc.

Now: it's no secret that the cultural significance of the novel (and of the other art forms that congealed around print technology) is on the wane. A year ago, I was piqued by a New Yorker article published during the Allen vs. Farrow spectacle that asked if "The News" is replacing fiction:
Henry James, Austen, Coleridge, and Shakespeare...not to mention modernists from Proust to Kafka, from Woolf to Celine: their books are sanctuaries of anti-closure and infinite perspective, of right and wrong mashed together and dissolved. Following the endless turbulent commentary on Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, and the commentary on the commentary, you could be forgiven for feeling that literary art, as Trilling defined it, has been largely displaced by life—or, at least, by the pictures of life ceaselessly produced by the all-powerful media—as the realm in which we lose ourselves in a moral problem.

[The Allen/Farrow affair] is not just “the news.” This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art in illuminating just how nebulous reality is. (But, then, the news stopped reporting reality and started to constitute a new layer of reality years ago.)
The cause of this displacement?
[F]alling boundaries between private and public, an old morality increasingly muddled by new laws and new technology, and the dominance of a no-holds-barred media, have made moral conundrums that once never happened, or touched the lives of only a few people, the daily fare of millions.
The piece concludes:
Instantaneous news of what happened, or might have happened, has become our art, and, like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, we are all part of the swelling roar.
One implication here is that the new media's supersession of a certain type of novel is just a special case of a general phenomenon: not, per se, the usurpation of old media by new, but rather the displacement of fiction by nonfiction—a wide-spanning, cross-media genre whose name is more than a little outmoded in light of our awareness of the parades of biases that march into every news report, Radiolab story, memoir, etc.

If the the "insoluble" real-world dramas we absorb through journalism, blogs, podcasts, and so on are the new media nonfiction evolution of literary realism, I might venture to say that the metempsychosis of the romantic fiction enjoyed by Emma Bovary is to be found in the social media sphere.

A passage from Madame Bovary illustrates the kinds of books Emma reads, and how they influence both her perception of reality and her expectations for what her life should be like:
[The novels] were filled with love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely country houses, postriders killed at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page, dark forests, palpitating hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, skiffs in the moonlight, nightingales in thickets, and gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one really is, and always ready to shed floods of tears. For six months, at the age of fifteen, Emma soiled her hands with this dust from old lending libraries. Later, with Sir Walter Scott, she developed a passion for things historical and dreamed of wooden chests, palace guards, and wandering minstrels. She wished she could have lived in some old manor house, like those chatelaines in low-waisted gowns who spent their days with their elbows on the stone sill of a Gothic window surrounded by a trefoil, chin in hand, watched a white-plumed rider on a black horse galloping toward them from far across the countryside.

Everything immediately surrounding her——the boring countryside, the idiotic bourgeois people, the mediocrity of everyday life——seemed to her an exception in the world, something she had fallen into by accident, while beyond all this the realm of bliss and passion stretched forth as far as the eye could see. In her longing she confused the pleasures of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegant customs with refined feelings. Did not love, like Indian plants, require prepared soil and special temperatures? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing onto yielding hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of love——these things were inseparable from the balcony of a great castle in which life moved at a leisurely pace, from a boudoir with silk curtains, a thick carpet, filled flower stands and a bed mounted on a platform, from the sparkle of precious stones or the aiguillettes of liveried servants.
Another passage further into the book depicts her expectations for her adulterous elopement with her lover Rodolphe (presented in media res):
She and Rodolphe had been traveling for a week, drawn by four galloping horses toward a new country from which they would never return. They went on and on, their arms intertwined, without speaking. Often from the top of a mountain they would suddenly catch sight of some magnificent city, with domes, bridges, ships, forests of lemon trees and white marble cathedrals with storks' nests on their pointed steeples. The horses slowed to a walk as they approached, because of the large paving stones, and along the street there were bouquets of flowers being offered to sale by women in red bodices. They could hear the ringing of bells and the braying of mules, mingled with the strumming of guitars and the murmurs of fountains whose flying spray cooled pyramids of fruit piled up at the feet of pale statues smiling through the jets of water. And then one night they would arrive in a fishing village where brown nets were drying in the wind along the cliff, in front of the cottages. This was where their journey would end; they would live in a low, flat-roofed house shaded by a palm tree, near the water at the end of a bay. They would ride in gondolas and swing in hammocks; their lives would be easy and relaxed, like their loose silk clothing, warm and starry like the soft nights they would contemplate together.
This is not an impossible dream to Emma: this is what she expects from the voyage. (Spoiler: Rodolphe says hell no I'm not going through with this, writes Emma a sappy goodbye forever letter, and sprinkles drops of water on the page to imitate dried tears.)

Note the superficiality of every moment, every detail; it is as though Emma's ideas about the world and what it can offer her are informed wholly by blurbs and pictures of the lives of other people living in other places. (Perhaps it should be mentioned that Emma also enjoys reading women's magazines.)

Emma's ideas about the world and what it should be are basically a collage of images from nineteenth century dime novels about the passionate escapades of an idealized aristocracy—depictions as divorced from the reality of a class of inbred, solipsistic idlers as from the life of any trust-funded hispter who submits a filtered documentary of his existence to Instagram.

Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and the whole social media cohort are an endless train of skewed reports from life, pieces of "nonfiction" tending to carry a palpable bias or emotional slant. The discipline of the selfie consists of making the images where one looks better than one does 99% of the time the face by which one is known to the world. Thousands of Instagram users post thousands of gorgeous homemade for the world to admire. Millions of grinning couples smile cheek-to-cheek with an atlas of exhilarating locales at their backs. Even when bad news is announced, the savvy Facebook or tumblr user posts about the death in their family, their breakup, or their layoff with a melancholy grace and an alluring spirit of perseverance—nevermind the sobbing, the screams, the binge drinking, the days in bed, or the nights sitting up chain smoking that might have preceded the Facebook declaration that he/she has to be strong and life goes on and he/she isn't angry at or blaming anyone. And nevermind the microwavable burrito the Instagram epicurean might have had for dinner after posting a pic of his decorative gourmet lunch, or the long, petty arguments the couple might have had before and after they posed together for their pic on that cliff at Shawangunks.

(It was undoubtedly these kinds of gross errors of omission from depictions of human life that compelled Flaubert to wrote a book like Madame Bovary, in which the unglamorous (shall we say unshareworthy?) details take center stage.)

The competitive mendacity of social media isn't exactly a secret; you're very probably quite aware of it (or have at least been suspicious) if you've used Facebook for any length of time. But let's glance at a few thoughtpieces about it anyway.

From Forbes:
A new study finds that there’s another element to social media’s growing list of negative effects: A “spiral” of envy that develops when you see your Facebook friends exceling or enjoying life in ways that you aren’t. The good news is you’re not alone in your bitterness. The bad news is that the solution (aside from shutting down your account) isn’t entirely straightforward.

We’ve all felt Facebook-inspired pangs of jealousy when we flip through the pictures of friends lounging on the beach when we’ve just trudged through the snow to the office. These feelings of jealousy or envy have to do with the comparisons that we implicitly make between ourselves and our “friends,” or in many cases, our distant online acquaintances.
From Slate:
"Misery Has More Company Than People Think," a paper in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, draws on a series of studies examining how college students evaluate moods, both their own and those of their peers. Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford's psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends' reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," he told me.

....In one of the Stanford studies, Jordan and his fellow researchers asked 80 freshmen to report whether they or their peers had recently experienced various negative and positive emotional events. Time and again, the subjects underestimated how many negative experiences ("had a distressing fight," "felt sad because they missed people") their peers were having. They also overestimated how much fun ("going out with friends," "attending parties") these same peers were having. In another study, the researchers found a sample of 140 Stanford students unable to accurately gauge others' happiness even when they were evaluating the moods of people they were close to—friends, roommates and people they were dating. And in a third  study, the researchers found that the more students underestimated others' negative emotions, the more they tended to report feeling lonely and brooding over their own miseries. This is correlation, not causation, mind you; it could be that those subjects who started out feeling worse imagined that everyone else was getting along just fine, not the other way around. But the notion that feeling alone in your day-to-day suffering might increase that suffering certainly makes intuitive sense.

As does the idea that Facebook might aggravate this tendency. Facebook is, after all, characterized by the very public curation of one's assets in the form of friends, photos, biographical data, accomplishments, pithy observations, even the books we say we like. Look, we have baked beautiful cookies. We are playing with a new puppy. We are smiling in pictures (or, if we are moody, we are artfully moody.) Blandness will not do....
A college student writes in The Huffington Post:
A high school friend and I recently caught up and discussed a classmate of ours who had planned to transfer to a different university. Although I haven't kept in touch with this acquaintance, I follow her on social media and assumed she was happy with her college experience this far. In fact, I was under the impression that most of my friends and former classmates were content based on the constant updates I receive through my various social media accounts. Instagram pictures taken at parties, Facebook exchanges with new friends, tweets about strange collegiate encounters -- regardless of the social media channel, it is easy to view a window into a friend's life. Albeit, this window is not always accurate.

The problem with social media is that it only shows one side of someone's experience, and what is exposed is completely in the hands of the social media user. While they might frequently post pictures with "friends" at social gatherings, this friend may actually be struggling socially. Alternatively, a friend who rarely posts about their life online may be having more fun than the ones who frequently update their online status. While social media may seem to reveal and record one's happiness, its one-sidedness is misleading.

At the same time, the deceptive nature of social media also has the potential to mislead anyone who views these posts. Accurate or not, seeing friends post about their seemingly fun college experiences makes us question our own experiences. Is everyone having more fun than me? Am I not as well-adjusted as I thought? Social media provides the chance to constantly compare ourselves to our peers, causing self-doubt and a warped perspective.
Some echoes from Madame Bovary:
So [the days] were going to continue like this, one after the other, always the same, bringing nothing! In other people's lives, dull as they might be, there was at least a chance that something might happen. One event sometimes had infinite ramifications and could change the whole setting of a person's life. But God had willed that nothing should ever happen to her. The future was a long, dark, corridor with only a locked door at the end....

Would this misery last forever? Was there no escape from it? And yet she was certainly just as good as all those other women whose lives were happy! She had seen duchesses at La Vaubyessard who had dumpier figures and cruder manners than she, and she cursed God's injustice; she leaned her head against the wall and wept; she envied those who led tumultuous lives, spent whole nights at masked balls, pursued dissolute pleasures and all the wild raptures, unknown to her, which they must bring with them....
If I had told you these were passages from a 2012 novel (or nonfiction profile) about a young woman who compulsively checks her Facebook feed and miserably obsesses over friends' posts about their weddings or proms, I bet you might have believed it. (Although, yes, the lines about duchesses and masked balls would probably give it away. But this is mere topography of time and place.)

Emma can never be satisfied with her life because she believes that it can (and was meant to) be like the lives of the people she reads about in her books and magazines. A wide contingent of young people today are prone to envy, depression, and immovable feelings of inadequacy because their lives, taken in full, seem so much less than the distorted reports of other people's lives they see on the internet.

The fact we haven't addressed, of course, is that the modern-day Emma with an iPhone in her pocket isn't just relegated to the one side of the communication circuit: she is now able to disseminate a narrative of her own with the same ease as anyone else. How much does this change? What does it change? Is the invidious timeline scroller more interested in leading a more spectacular and (apparently) effortlessly poetic life, or in being able to show this life to people? The evidence at hand suggests that one is of equal importance as the other. So then we may seem to have a generation of Emmas abandoning themselves more wholly to a subjective reality distorted by the white lies, little and large, of romantic fiction (in its modern, truncated, "nonfictive" form). Nothing seems to have essentially changed: with acceleration comes amplification. (I don't reject the possibility that these changes in speed will eventually amount to change in substance, but I don't believe we're quite there yet.)

Admittedly, performing any sort of media analysis based a single piece of literature (fiction, albeit realist fiction) isn't much better than drawing conclusions from anecdotes. But coincidences like these are too curious to discount where discussions about the profundity of the changes to human nature (or human socialization) wrought by the Information Age are concerned. Perhaps it should remind us that we err in supposing the Information Age (and the problems it helps to enable) began with the internet.


  1. Which is exactly why you need to update your Twitter more often!

    This kind of psychology seems childish to me. Not in the negative sense. Just, kids tend to think this way, dreaming of the life they could have, then they grow up. What replaces it? I don't know. I spend most of my time trying not to wake up. Maybe others are different.

    In someone who is determined and honest with themself, idolizing others isn't *baaaaaaaad*. If something looks cool, I say you should try it out. If some stranger or buddy of yours on the internet seems to lead a life of filthy rock and roll in the grimy streets of Tokyo -- that's something you can do too.

    No one's happy. That's fine. But when people start lying to themselves about it, that's not fine.

    It's a really easy lie to believe: "I'm unhappy, not because of the things I've done or the person I've turned myself into, but because of the life thrown upon me."

    The antidote is to grow up. It can be hard sometimes. It can be hard a lot of the times.

  2. This is great! I will place Madam Bovary on my reading list, after I read some book that sounds like it's from a Beatles song...

    Sadly, I think this is the true mass appeal of social media that grants it staying power. Remember in high school, at the end of summer, you always thought, "I got a sweet tan, cool new clothes, and I grew as a person on that family trip to Paris. This is the year everything changes!"? Well, FB is where that actually "happens". If you really wanna go all Op-Ed about it: Facebook holds a funhouse mirror to America's character. It is a panopticon of exaggerated promises of prosperity with a signature momentum fueled by people's belief in those promises, which they hold onto as they vacillate between elation and despair.

    It's not just vacations/jobs/food/sartorial adventures anymore, either. Sometimes I think the cultural/intellectual identity sculpting is worse. Everyone gets to be their own press agent and curate an obnoxiously self-aware humility through witty self-deprecation that seems to spontaneously evaporate when they are arrogantly proclaiming their opinion about (social issue).

    You caught me at an especially loathsome moment. I was considering putting effort in the direction of freelance writing, but then I remembered terms like "SEO copy writing" and "personal branding" and wept into my guacamole, which was ok because it needed more salt.