THE TEMPTATIONS OF SAINT LIBRARY - Michael Foucault, writing about Flaubert’s doomed novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
The Temptation, as it turns out, was Flaubert in full geek mode: essentially a bestiary, a compendium of creatures meticulously taxonimized and sourced out of documents, paintings, and poems. He considered it a work of the imagination, but it is, apparently, a catalogue of the creations of other creatives.
Which? Wow. I love this notion: Gustave Flaubert in a fervor, making lists of monsters, unable to control himself and just, totally, losing his way. This has happened, after all, to every writer, at one point or another. Lists! If one lists the contents of a universe, does that count as world-building? Surely, if one diagrams everything a world contains, there must be a story there, right?
Alas, no. Oh, shit, the story became a sidebar to the monsters.
I’ve not read The Temptation, but apparently it’s quite bad - over several days in 1849 Flaubert read it aloud to a group of friends, who frantically urged him to throw it in the fire. He’d been working on it feverishly for 4 years. Flaubert subsequently wrote Madame Bovary. However, he kept coming back to The Temptation (it was, after all, a Temptation), and finally, in 1874, he published it.
I’m sympathetic and charmed by the notion of Flaubert worriedly cataloguing creatures as though he was an ecologist, trapping things between pages before they got away. The same impulse haunts me, every time I search vainly for something arcane that isn’t digitized, (as I am a hopeful hunter, I regularly assume everything I’m seeking has been added to the internet, SOMEWHERE, but no. Wrong.) or think frantic thoughts about the notion of technological obscurity, the demise of discs for clouds, the nervous child in me longing for the physical comforts of a library.
Ultimately, Flaubert’s Temptation was translated into English by Lafcadio Hearn as well as being the basis shortly after its publication, for a series of magnificent lithographs by Odilon Redon. Not too shabby. The Redon illustrations are exquisite.
As for the book itself, I’m with Foucault here, in my tenderness for the tempted:
”Henceforth, the visionary experience arises from the black and white surface of printed signs, from the closed and dusty volume that opens with a flight of forgotten words; fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library with its columns of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight enclosure, but within confines that also liberate impossible worlds.” - Foucault.
More reading: Colin Dickey's terrific article about same, The Redemption of Saint Anthony.