Normal Unhappiness of The Family Idiot




Jean Paul Sartre’s five-volume The Family Idiot portrays Gustave Flaubert, the romantic founder of French literary realism, as a victim of circumstantial suggestion and auto-suggestion living in the clutches of a figurative sort of conversion hysteria; namely, pithiatism.

In the first paragraph of Chapter Eight, ‘The Imaginary Child,’ Sartre alludes to the characteristic of pithiatism, a sort of hysteria determined by suggestion, in respect to his family idiot:

“This is Gustave as he has been constituted. Of course, any determination imprinted in an existing being is surpassed by the way he lives. In the child Flaubert, passive activity and gliding are his way living this constituted passivity; resentment is his way of living the situation assigned to him in the Flaubert family. In other words, the structures of this family are internalized as attitudes and re-externalized as actions by which the child makes himself into what others made him. Conversely, we shall find in him no behavior, as complex and elaborate as it might seem, that is not originally the surpassing of an internalized determination.”

According to Sartre’s psychoanalysis, Gustave’s being was not wholly defined by circumstances; he would have no self of his own as a mere victim of circumstances devoid of existential independence and freedom. He would be in effect a zombie or a machine unconscious of his own existence; if someone were to act like a machine we would naturally deem him psychotic not neurotic.

Naturally every human being by necessity introjects his social identity from others and projects what he has learned. Nevertheless, the individual, by virtue of its independent will to exist forever without impedance if it could, is bound to put up some resistance to the imposition of conformity, as we can see in every squalling child, and he will invariably get away with what he can get away with while accepting influences that serve his purpose. Thus he becomes his own person; a person being, to some extent, a unique composite of individual existence and social being. Every particular is a coincidence of universal qualities, no two coincidences being identical; hence the individual is somewhat unique.

As far as Sartre, a former member of the French Resistance during the war, was concerned, Flaubert did not actively affirm his existential self in the world. He just did not want to make the effort and thus in part be defined by its resistance thereto. He had what we might call a weak will—at one juncture he reflected that he was cowardly in his youth. He did not seem to know who he really was because he had not looked within; he had not conducted a painful regressive analysis of his self; instead, he avoided himself, using his literary art to paint himself out of the picture.

French Existentialism, with its struggle for freedom through individual responsibility, hails back to the introspective discovery of the self as will; that is, to French Voluntarism, for which Maine De Biran was an introspective pioneer. Biran confessed that, “Even from infancy I remember that I marveled at the sense of my existence. I was already led by instinct to look within myself in order to know how it was possible that I could be alive and be myself.”

Sartre, mentioning Flaubert’s resentment as a chosen way of living, does give young Flaubert a will of his own in his choice of style; negation or resistance to external influence constitutes the will of the individual, made manifest to us in his behavioral style. And that would leave Flaubert morally culpable for his way of life, at least as a liar.

Mind you that the pithiatic hysteric is a liar who believes in the lie; but this belief represses an otherwise nagging doubt to the so-called unconscious sector of the psyche. The forgetting of the doubt is imaginary; the belief is make-believe or bad faith inasmuch as it is not blind faith. It is a commanding hysterical performance of the kind that has made fools out of many psychoanalysts.

Sartre’s Flaubert was a paralytic writer whose acting career had been thwarted by his father, and who was self-blinded to his own existence and suitable self. That is, his neurosis prevented from being himself; that is, a comic actor instead of the serious writer he wound up being.

You see, Flaubert as a boy loved to stage little plays, and fancied himself as a playwright. Sartre, again and again, affords Flaubert’s father the brunt of the blame for Flaubert’s bad faith or inauthentic personhood; for it was his unappreciative father, whose affection he craved, who constituted the comical would-be actor as a self-contemptible family idiot who would isolate himself, withdrawing himself from his prospective audience to entertain them from afar, passively, in writing, instead of actively or directly, in person.

Otto Rank’s conclusion to his lecture, ‘The Play within Hamlet – Toward an Analysis and Dynamic Understanding of the Work,’ sheds some light on the psychology of playacting distinguished from playwriting:

“I shall attempt to pursue Shakespeare’s personal relationship to the material and to its treatment in somewhat greater depth than has previously been achieved. There can be no doubt that the great significance given in Hamlet to the dramatic art and to actors relates to Shakespeare’s professional interests and his artistic ambitions. As is well known, he also worked as an actor, sometimes playing roles he wrote. I have tried to explain this psychologically in claiming that acting is a fully valued psychic act and a more basic release for psychic states than the activity of the playwright. It is actually the actor who must complete the drama, who must do what the playwright wishes to do but, owing to psychic defenses, cannot achieve. The actor ‘experiences’ what the playwright can only ‘dream.’ If we compare this psychological formula to insights derived from the analysis of the play within the play, we find that there, too, Shakespeare has supplied an unconscious admission of how drama offered him a substitute for many things he had to renounce in life, just as for Hamlet the play replaces acts he cannot carry out due to powerful inhibitions. From the nature of drama itself, it is clear which psychic mechanism allows an actor the release, forbidden to the playwright, of blocked emotions that cannot otherwise be overcome. This is identification, taken as far as the temporary suspension of one’s own personality. In Hamlet, of course, broad use is made of identification, and in the interpretation of this drama I have often had occasion to make recourse to it.21 Our investigation shows how such identification functions as a significant component in dramatic talent; it also shows us a motive for selecting an acting career — a motive not to be underestimated. In the child’s relationship to the parents, as shown in the analysis of Hamlet, there arise certain forces that can push a personality with talent for identification, that universal artistic ability, directly into an acting career: the wish to be grown up, the wish to enact and imitate the father, to put oneself in his place — all based on the observations the child has made, though he slyly attempts to conceal this from his parents. The actor’s favorite roles offer him the opportunity truly to enact these tendencies and to allow himself to be overheard by the spectators, who have essentially become the precondition for his (portrayed) ability to carry out actions. This is the reverse of the childhood situation, which he has partially retained, while partially overcoming it through identification with the father. Thus this brief analysis of the “play within the play” extends to the entire drama Hamlet, which I believe I have made somewhat more comprehensible in its dynamic significance for the inner life of actor and spectator alike.”

Sartre cast Flaubert as an idiot and moron. Mind you that those terms may be employed without intent to insult people with mental incapacities due to neurological abnormalities and injuries. The popular word ‘idiot,’ derived from idios, meaning “one’s own,” in common parlance used to refer to a “private person” or one withdrawn from public affairs, a person or simpleton or “imbecile,” or an ignorant country bumpkin, so to speak.

As Mark Twain insultingly said, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.”

And Linnaeus, as we learn from our etymological dictionary, used the term ‘morisis’ for idiocy in the sense of mental deficiency. An idiot might be a ‘moron,’ a term derived from moros, a fool. We notice that ‘morose,’ meaning gloomy, peevish, fastidious, has a similar root. A morose person is immoral, has bad manners in contrast to moral in the sense of good mores or habits.

In fine, we believe Sartre was in effect calling his favorite neurotic, Gustave Flaubert, stupid in five volumes. A neurotic is stupid inasmuch as their defensive patterns are inappropriate no matter how useful they may be.

Since “neurotic” is no longer included in the official diagnostic manual, should we insert “stupid” in its stead?

In fact, we see that “stupidity” was a word used by French alienists to indicate the form of insanity usually known as “melancholia with stupor,” and was defined by Wilhelm Griesinger, in Mental Pathology and Therapeutics (1867) as melancholia in which the patient is lost in self-contemplation.

Neurotic people have a sort of blind spot, or rather a cataract partially obstructing their cognition; they keep doing the same, useless thing over and over again, thus revealing their partiality, or insanity if they are seriously impaired. They appear to be stupid, at least in that respect. According to Sartre, Flaubert’s stupidity was in not knowing himself, of being stupid to his bona fide existence and the nature of the being that would accord with his native or existential disposition.

Flaubert himself identified stupidity with happiness: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.”

He was indeed unhappy yet not unsophisticated, unintelligent, or stupid in the usual sense. Perhaps we might opine that Gustave became one of the fools he had played as a child, becoming stupid to his genuine existence in the process.

But that is not clever enough for Sartre’s convoluted reflections. He claims that Gustave consumed himself.

“It would be inadequate to say that he plays the fool, that in the unreal world he becomes the imbecile he would be if he were actually afflicted with imbecility; in order to produce the analogue of the persona he represents, he becomes the fool he is. This obscure mass of agitation, terrorized incomprehension, fear, stubbornness, bad faith, and ignorance, which under the name of stupidity is the index of everyone’s alienation, is awakened and stirred up by the actor so that he might be unrealized through it as a magnificent idiot. What is he doing other than what he has always done, since a bad relationship constituted him laughable? To be sure, a dialectic operates between the character and the interpreter: the actor transforms the character to the precise extent that he is transformed by it. But these are relations between images. The role serves as an alibi: the actor sheds his persona, he believes he is evading himself in the character. But this is futile: in his befuddled alacrity to be nothing but a strange image, there is a distinct malaise and a deep antipathy, which encourages him to revile himself so that others may triumph. He is conscious, in fact, of choosing this or that disguise in order to make others laugh at him as he has always done.”

If we do not understand this, we are probably stupid idiots and damned fools ourselves at the feet of this great analyst—an admirer at Sartre’s funeral procession was quoted as saying that he did not understand what Sartre said, but he knew he was a great philosopher, and that was enough.

“Since his sincerity,” wrote Sartre, “such as it is, is rejected, and since he does not recognize his own right to feel anything until adults have given their consent, he is condemned by his father’s capricious mistrust never to determine whether he is feeling or just imagining his feelings. The deeper meaning of this personalizing revolution is that the child no longer knows whether he exists or is just pretending to exist. Given this option, Gustave unconsciously chooses anti-Cartesianism and, more obscurely, irrationality. If he manages only to produce images, isn’t he an image himself?”

So Flaubert does not exist or behave in the way Sartre wants him to exist, according to Sartre’s universal definition of existence, which is really a mode of being, a being responsible for oneself according to a Marxist psychologist’s desire. Flaubert, then, cannot help the way he is not himself, which unbeknown to him is a radical self; he is a phony, a victim of capitalist society. Therefore Flaubert is subject to a pithiatic form of neurosis.

A neurotic person is an unduly nervous one, a person who is anxious and emotional as the result of some invisible injury. He suffers from a psychic conflict between alternates, neither of which he wants to choose; say, between his ideal self, which others have propped up for him, and his real self, which he consequently despises when he falls short of the ideal. He is trapped between two hard rocks, and, in self-defense, works out an impractical compromise that condemns him to drag his cross around for the rest of his life.

Neurotic behavior seems to be an ineffective or inefficient or even absurd way of doing things to the observer; however, from the subject’s perspective, it may be a somewhat effective adaptation strategy inasmuch as it may allay his fears, for example, and make him feel that he has the world under control, or at least his behavior may manipulate others to react in a manner beneficial to him—unfortunately, it often makes matters worse, reinforcing, paradoxically, the neurosis. Still, the neurotic person is purportedly unaware of the true nature of his mental disorder.

Indeed, Sartre appears to have believed that Flaubert was neurotic, not figuratively speaking, but in the sense of mental illness, that he was mentally sickened by a sick i.e. bourgeois society. Disgusted with the self he was being, because he was unaware of his existential self, which should have been a radical self manning the barricades against the stupid bourgeoisie, Flaubert withdrew from society, isolating himself to agonizingly write Madame Bovary, featuring the fictional Emma Bovary, a haplessly romantic, hysterical woman who was incapable of loving any man; no man was perfect, leaving every candidate to fall short of her ideal. Her author would confess that “she is me.” He is the hysteric; she is his projection. She will die in the novel; he will wind up with the glory.

According to Sartre’s family idiot myth, Flaubert had not quite arrived at the state of neurosis at an early stage in his adolescence, although he was well on his way: “Looking at these passages [from Flaubert’s biographic writing],” Sartre reflects, “we are forced to acknowledge that Gustave does not intend to describe to us the tame, continually interrupted reveries of a “well-adjusted” adolescent; rather, he depicts an almost neurotic state, intentional, certainly, but outstripping his clear intention and yet suffered to the same degree that it is produced.”

Again the family patriarch is blamed for the neurosis with which Flaubert will be entailed:

“As the undisputed and shrewd head of the family, Achille-Cleophas contributed to maintaining the young man in a neurotic state that gave him a reason to sequester himself at Rouen and end his studies; in this sense, the father’s death certainly had the effect, if not of curing Gustave, at least of causing a remission of his illness. But the fundamental and archaic relationship of the child to the father (to convince him of his eminent value) was not altered; hence the remission was accompanied by a profound frustration.”

Sartre attributes neurotic behavior to mental rather than physical causes. His rhetoric explicating the mechanics of the inner conflict and its outward results differs somewhat from that of the early masters, but that is of little consequence since the mechanical hypotheses cannot be falsified; strictly speaking, psychoanalysis is not hard science but a soft art if not witchcraft.

When a patient is not able to dredge up something pertinent to her mental disorder from the unconscious, claiming that nothing is there, the doctor may assume that there is something invisible there, and a force called resistance to maintain the repression, and do his best to torture the truth out of her somehow. Who can prove that that the unconscious, that repression, that resistance and so on do not exist? It is easier to come up with something for the doctor to analyze, perhaps a random recitation of ideas from which the Delphic priest may divine the hypostatical associations suitable to his theoretical framework.

Sartre became all too familiar with war hysteria and totalitarian regimes during the war. He said that unwelcome feelings which cannot be assimilated are externalized so that a global defense can be set up against them—a total war for a final solution, a war to end all wars.

We may attribute our faults to others, the enemies, who then are subhuman enough to justify slaughtering them. (Freudians would say that repressed content is unconsciously projected onto or transferred to others).

“Stress is the name we shall give to this unity of the nonassimilable element and the global defense that the totalizing process develops against it, infected precisely to the degree that it tries to neutralize the nonassimilable. In this case, neurosis is stress as much as character disorder. Of course, this totalizing effort to defuse the contradictions or to isolate them achieves its aim only at the price of dangerous divergences, which alter the totalized whole.”

The problem with Sartre’s voluminous ideologically biased analysis of the great author whom he never knew is that Flaubert was not stupid but wise, and wisdom was at the root of his unhappiness, a wisdom that we all have an intuitive albeit inadmissible inkling of in our own “normal unhappiness,” as Freud called it. Sartre was well aware of that, so he himself was playing the fool and at great length. What else is there to do?


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