THE RAVISHING LOUISE COLET
A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Gustav Flaubert, conservative republican, and Jean Paul Sartre, a Marxist, had their promiscuity in common if not their politics. Still, while writing his psychoanalytical biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, Sartre was no doubt nauseated by Flaubert’s abusive treatment of the ravishing and ravished Louise Colet, paramour to several notables of her day. The liberal Sartre has ample respect for the female sex, while Flaubert’s attitude was characteristically vulgar:
“Woman, a vulgar animal…. Woman is a production of man; she is a mere result of civilization, a factitious creature.” His moral disgust for Flaubert’s contemptuous intercourse with women aggravated his belief that Flaubert was a sick representative of a sick society, someone under the influence of perverse suggestions, a psychological malady he associated with “pithiatism.”
Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Sartre had remained loyal to author Simone de Beauvoir in their open relationship and supported her philosophical writing as well while she carried on with others, but Flaubert kept prize-winning poetess Colet at arm’s length most of the time, using her upon occasion to suit his lascivious or his literary needs, then jilting her. She was finally so offended that she wrote a get-even counter-novel to Madame Bovary, entitled LUI A View of Him, painting him as a florid-faced womanizing buffoon and upstart writer. Flaubert’s friend George Sand denounced the novel, in scatalogical terms, as an excretion in a chamber pot.
The beautiful Madame Louise Colet whose idols were the heroines of the French Revolution was the inspiration for Madame Bovary if not the model although Flaubert would say “she is me.” He met Colet in 1846 in a studio where she was posing for a sculptor who was creating a death mask of his dearly departed sister, Caroline. She was a dozen years older than he—he preferred older women—and she recognized the value of his work long before others did so.
A man may Exist as an individual thing but he needs others to Be. Flaubert, isolated as he was by his solitary writing endeavor, needed an Other to be somebody, someone to recognize him and thus verify his existence as a human being. Yet he remained faithful to the imaginative life; in his case, to art for art’s sake.
His on-and-off relationship with Louise over eight years was tumultuous; that is, romantic, at least from her perspective—he referred to it as “a very long irritation.” He kept her at a comfortable distance, in Paris, while writing Madame Bovary at his countryside hermitage. He preferred writing letters to her over making love with her. As far as he was concerned, love for a woman is a secondary affair; above all, a real man pours himself into his work. He took occasional breaks from his Sisyphean task to pen letters about Madame Bovary to his lady love in Paris, whom he visited but would not or could not live with.
Louise Colet nee Revoil (1810-1876) was not just another vulgar nobody with good looks from the southern countryside; she was somebody in her own right, a journalist and romantic poet, and a professional one at that. She settled in Paris in 1835 with her impecunious husband, Monsieur Hyppolyte Colet, a flautist and composer, who gave up trying to control her appearance and every move, and, instead, became a “discreet” husband. She soon won the 2,000 franc prize for poetry at the Académie Française—she would win it three more times, setting a record for women.
It was not long before she established a salon, in modest quarters but attended by the capital’s most progressive intellectuals. Her cause at the Academy was not hindered by her lover who was a member there, Victor Cousin, the eclectic philosopher and director of education whose Platonic-leaning philosophy was branded Spiritualism—Hegel accused him of stealing his “soup”—a Spirit-enlivened brand that was much appreciated by the New England Transcendentalists in America. His theories had a profound influence on education in the United States.
Colet lived and breathed High Romanticism in her youth. She greatly admired women martyred in the Revolution. George Sand thought Colet was talented but going in the wrong direction with her writing; she chided her for admiring Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, and Madame Roland, who was executed for treason and for betraying her sex—Sand at that time favored the radical Jacobin party while republican-minded Colet sided with the Girondin moderates.
Colet was subject to Romantic histrionics: in 1840, when she was almost nine months’ pregnant with her daughter, she stabbed Alphonse Karr, an anti-feminist critic, in the back after he had publicly identified Cousin, whom he hated, as the child’s father—Cousin was providing support for the child. The knife hit bone and glanced off; Karr hung it on the wall of his apartment as a memento of the backstabbing. Colet’s discreet husband praised her valor, and Cousin flattered her with this epigram: “I am a quintessential woman, but I know how to act like a man.”
As for her beauty, Colet and was not remiss in flaunting it. She believed beauty was classically a very good and wonderful thing; she complained that it was being dishonored by pious Christian women. She put hers to romantic use in affairs with Victor Cousin, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset, and Alfred de Vigny.
The reason for a woman’s success is debatable when she is extraordinarily beautiful. Some women, for instance, Colet’s beautiful friend Madame Récamier, enjoyed an unusually exalted status in Paris because of the intelligence they demonstrated in their salons. Their wit was accepted as equal to men’s, and their gracious virtues were literally worshiped by romantic gallants; such “great” women, who have been credited with civilizing many noblemen, were not merely show pieces on pedestals. Nonetheless, sexual politics were such that anti-woman polemics were rife in mid-nineteenth century France; the antipathy was perhaps due to the fear of reversion to one of the horrors of the Revolution: radical women donning men’s attire and taking up arms, and the pen as well.
Colet was a lady writer, heaven forbid, following in the professional footsteps of socialist George Sand, who had once donned men’s clothes, grown a mustache and smoked cigars. It was presumed that a lady who made her living writing must not be a lady, but a hermaphrodite, or, a lesbian with masculine tendencies.
Colet was referred to by critics as a pushy woman of letters; her poetry was dismissed as merely imitative of superior poets; her success, her prizes and pension, was attributed to Cousin’s sponsorship. Even he had his doubts about women of letters; love a secret does not abhor: sometime after their affair ended, he expressed misgivings about literary women, and said their “secret beauties” should not be vulgarly exposed by booksellers.
We hesitate to characterize Colet as a ‘courtesan,’ for she supported herself with her writing and lived independently. ‘Paramour’ suits her where love is adulterous. Adultery was rather normal in those days, something Parisians to this day seem to excel at without much suffering.
Colet’s poetry was appreciated by a few critics during her time. She has lately been refashioned into a feminist heroine, recently by Francine du Plessix Gray in Rage & Fire: A Life of Louise Colet.
Flaubert, whose fame was assured with Madame Bovary, pledged lifetime loyalty to her and her daughter, but the relationship did not last long. She was especially incensed by a mocking reference, in Madame Bovary, to a gift she had given him during their affair, a cigarette case with a family jewel inscribed with ‘Amor nel cor’ (Love in my heart), a gift he referred to in his novel as a signet ring thus inscribed, given by Emma Bovary to Rudolphe. Colet took her revenge in her poem, ‘Amor nel cor’:
It was for him, for him, whom she loved like a god;
For him, callous to all human sorrow, uncouth to women. Alas, she was poor and had little to give But all gifts are sacred that incarnate a soul.
Well, in a novel of traveling-salesman style, As nauseating as a toxic wind, He mocked the gift in a flat-footed phrase, Yet kept the fine agate seal.
Colet fell into the arms of Musset, and wrote the novel, LUI—A View Of Him, to compete with Madame Bovary. Musset was the basis for the novel’s “him,” whom the novel’s heroine resisted in order to be true to the character Colet modeled after Flaubert. He said her effusion had sealed their relationship with a “funereal bouquet.”
LUI did not sell well in French. The 1859 novel has been translated into English by Marilyn Gaddis Rose, and is worth reading.