Navigation – Plan du site

Le Bruit de l'amer: Time, Loss and Fossilized Romanticism in Madame Bovary

Luke Bouvier

Résumés

Des études récentes ont mis en lumière le « désordre temporel » d’Emma Bovary, son étrange inaptitude à produire un événement dans sa vie ou à intégrer le temps dans son expérience. Une scène clé à cet égard est celle où, curieusement, Emma échoue à pleurer la mort de sa mère alors même qu’elle met en place tout un rituel romantique du chagrin qui n’aboutit qu’à l’indifférence et à l’ennui. Élaborée à partir d’un schéma psychanalytique assez vaste qui englobe les dernières recherches sur le traumatisme et l’addiction, cette étude montre que cette scène est symptomatique d’une incapacité plus large à assimiler la perte, qui se manifeste à travers les problèmes d’ennui et d’addiction, ainsi que par l’incapacité générale d’Emma à s’orienter par rapport au passé. Les implications linguistiques de ce problème sont particulièrement importantes : un tel trouble temporel lié à un défaut de deuil peut en effet être lu précisément à travers les perturbations du langage qui en résultent. Dans la figure étrange et indéchiffrable de la mère Rollet, par exemple, on peut discerner l’aventure cryptique du langage qui se produit à partir du problème de la perte mal assimilée, la conspiration de mots qui conduit Emma au suicide par la mise en place de retours équivoques du signifiant. En dernier ressort, si l’échec d’Emma à faire le deuil de sa mère est révélateur d’une certaine inaptitude à faire le deuil du temps lui-même, cette scène initiale marque aussi l’incapacité ou le refus d’Emma de faire son deuil d’une esthétique morte. Quand Emma satisfait son goût pour l’imagerie romantique en écoutant « tous les chants de cygnes mourants », ce qu’elle n’entend pas est précisément le caractère stéréotypé et dégradé d’une telle imagerie, l’équivoque romantique se manifestant à travers un champ de signes mourants.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

La Nourrice au miroirAfficher l’image
Crédits : © Nancy, Musée des Beaux Arts

1As a crucial symptom of the unraveling of Emma's life with Charles in the first part of Madame Bovary, mealtimes pose a particular challenge for Emma, for that is when her discontent with her marriage regularly culminates in an unbearable sense of disgust:

  • 1  Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, ed. Bernard Ajac (Paris: “Garnier-Flammarion”, Flammarion, 1986). (...)

Mais c'était surtout aux heures des repas qu'elle n'en pouvait plus, dans cette petite salle au rez-de-chaussée, avec le poêle qui fumait, la porte qui criait, les murs qui suintaient, les pavés humides ; toute l'amertume de l'existence lui semblait servie sur son assiette, et, à la fumée du bouilli, il montait du fond de son âme comme d'autres bouffées d'affadissement. (p. 126)1

  • 2  Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978)

2If Emma's notion of love is consistently figured as sweet, this first major bout of disgust reveals its polar opposite: the intensely unpleasant, nauseating bitterness of existence that Emma finds served on her plate. On closer examination, though, we begin to suspect that Emma's extreme disgust is not in fact the opposite or absence of love, but rather the product of an acutely equivocal experience of taste, a disturbing resemblance of apparent opposites that lays bare the “contaminated” nature of her sweet conception of passion. In effect, what we hear in this passage are the return of echoes from Emma's first experiences of romance: the bitterness on her plate recalls, for example, the painted plates in the auberge from which she gets her first taste of love on the day her father brings her to the convent school in Rouen. But more importantly, what we can discern in Emma's sense of bitterness, “l'amertume de l'existence”, is perhaps the most significant of the collapsing oppositions at the basis of her torment: the equivocal return of amour as its paronym amer. In a different context, Tony Tanner has pointed out the prevalence of such “phonemic and semantic echoing, merging, moving together” (p. 257)2 in the novel, seeing it as a symptom of the dangerous destruction of meaning through repetition and homogenization in monotone. Flaubert, he writes, shows “the words in his text beginning to look at each other and discover similarities and repetitions”, indicating “the beginnings of some kind of ultimate perverse rapprochement among words themselves, not a marriage but a merging” (p. 257), a flattening of difference that “would indicate that a total loss of any sense of meaning is imminent, which is indeed the real horror at the heart of Emma's experience” (p. 258). Indeed, as the “toxic” resemblance of amour and amer suggests, the bitterness of life that Emma experiences is not the simple opposite of the sweetness of love that she expected from her marriage, but its equivocal double. Love, as it turns out, leaves a bitter “aftertaste”, or as the contours of this scene would imply, the idea of love that Emma figuratively consumes is threatening to “come back up” here as a bitter return in the literal feeling of nausea. Something about that love was obviously tainted, adulterated, gone bad. If Emma earlier assumed that love and marriage would guarantee the possession of a lasting “difference”, what she discovers in the action of this “taint”, then, is that they only produce a continuous return of the same in increasingly degraded forms. Indeed, this “disgusting” return of sameness is audible in the very culmination of Emma's revulsion, in the intensive “monotone” alliterative echoing of the phrase “toute l'amertume de l'existence lui semblait servie sur son assiette.”

3In Emma's case, though, the hint that this problem of toxic returns might be uncannily harboring a dissimulated figure of the mother — la mère in l'amertume — suggests that an underlying disorder of mourning might be at work, one whose symptoms first become apparent while she is still a teenager at the convent, precisely at the moment when her mother dies:

Quand sa mère mourut, elle pleura beaucoup les premiers jours. Elle se fit faire un tableau funèbre avec les cheveux de la défunte, et, dans une lettre qu'elle envoyait aux Bertaux, toute pleine de réflexions tristes sur la vie, elle demandait qu'on l'ensevelît plus tard dans le même tombeau. Le bonhomme la crut malade et vint la voir. Emma fut intérieurement satisfaite de se sentir arrivée du premier coup à ce rare idéal des existences pâles, où ne parviennent jamais les coeurs médiocres. Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l'Éternel discourant dans les vallons. Elle s'en ennuya, n'en voulut point convenir, continua par habitude, ensuite par vanité, et fut enfin surprise de se sentir apaisée, et sans plus de tristesse au coeur que de rides sur son front. (p. 98-99)

  • 3  Elissa Marder, “Trauma, Addiction, and Temporal Bulimia in Madame Bovary”, Dead Time: Temporal Dis (...)

4Apart from a few other brief mentions, this is virtually the only point in the novel where Emma's mother overtly “appears”. As Elissa Marder comments in her illuminating discussion of this passage, though, Emma's mother “appears only to disappear, and this disappearance becomes remarkable precisely because it leaves no mark” (p. 140)3. Marder reads this scene as a symptom of what she perceptively identifies as Emma's “temporal disorder” (p. 132), her ultimately unsuccessful attempt to produce an event out of the “temporal void” (p. 142) in which one could only in the most impoverished sense of the word say she “lives”. Emma's failed attempt to mourn her mother, who seems to disappear without a trace, thus for Marder represents a formless maternal “non-event”, “the void that serves as the apparent origin of all future non-events, including, of course, Emma's warped non-maternal relation to her own daughter, Berthe” (p. 140). For Marder, this scene announces the key symptoms of what she considers to be nothing less than Emma's “quintessential malady of modernity, the inability to incorporate time into experience” (p. 131); in such temporal disturbances as Emma's “involuntary forgetting”(p. 131) and “obsessive rites of recollection” (p. 132), she discerns “the prophetic traces of a depiction of the temporal structure of the many forms of trauma and addiction that have come to define contemporary American culture” (p. 132), ultimately reading in Emma's strange exile from time “critical traces of the history of the modern subject” (p. 138).

  • 4  Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992).
  • 5  Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, L'Écorce et le Noyau, revised edition (Paris: Flammarion, 1987); (...)

5As we can hear in Emma's attacks of bitterness, though, her mother in fact does not disappear without a trace, but persists in the “toxic residue” of Emma's disgust, as an extensive network of phonemic traces and fragments that uncannily return at key moments of the novel. What this would suggest is that the disorder announced in this scene goes beyond a temporal problem, although Emma's relationship to time is certainly a crucial element in her difficulties. I would propose that Emma's inability to gain access to time seems to derive from a more general “malady of modernity” that is clearly legible in this scene, the inability to assimilate loss. Marder's analysis draws on Avital Ronell's influential reading of Madame Bovary as a case study of addiction, which addresses the problem of maternal loss more directly. Ronell identifies a “toxic maternal” (p. 118)4 at work in Emma's addictive behavior, which she links both to Emma's strange relationship to Berthe and to the figure of the dead mother. Crucial to Ronell's reading is Emma's deadly boredom, the “bâillement d'ennui” (p. 357) that Emma finds hiding behind every smile, and which emerges in this scene as the product of her romantic mourning rituals: “elle s'en ennuya”. As Ronell suggests, when boredom accompanies loss as a stand-in for the work of mourning, it can be a symptom of what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok have described as a “fantasme d'incorporation” (p. 261)5, a denial of loss at the basis of melancholia, which blocks the true work of mourning that would normally take place through the process of “introjection”. “As symptom”, Ronell writes, “boredom is co-originary with melancholia [....] It is companion to loss, but raised on tranquilizers. In Madame Bovary, boredom opens a listening to disappearance, fabricating a society's holding pattern over the death that traverses us” (p. 120). Boredom, in this sense, opens onto an experience of nothingness that gives rise to what Ronell identifies as a disposition toward compensatory addictive behavior, which she examines in terms of Emma's eating disorders and her drug-like use of literature. In this configuration of failed mourning, boredom and addiction, Ronell suggests that “something like an ontology of boredom announces its necessity here. We are reminded that for Baudelaire and Gautier, Flaubert's contemporaries and acquaintances, this experience of nothing is at times laced with drugs” (p. 120).

6Marder and Ronell provide crucial insights into the underlying logic of Emma's disorder, but what is missing from their analyses is any sense of the linguistic implications of their arguments, the way that such addictive structures can be read precisely through the disturbances of language that they provoke. Indeed, they overlook the entire cryptic adventure of language that arises from the problem of unassimilated loss in this novel, the very conspiracy of words that drives Emma to suicide through the staging of equivocal, uncanny returns. The theoretical work of Abraham and Torok on the concepts of introjection and incorporation proves to be particularly pertinent in this regard, for they situate the problem of mourning at the very basis of subjective development and in particular the acquisition of language. Abraham and Torok conceive of the work of mourning as the process of introjecting loss through a kind of figurative “linguistic” ingestion, as the assimilation or integration of loss through the transformation of the lost object into symbolic representation. For the two analysts, the prototype of introjection that will serve as a model for all subsequent work of mourning can be traced back to infancy, to the process of learning to use the voice to mediate the loss of the pleasures of ingestion provided by the mother. By this account, language use emerges as a primitive kind of “memorializing” activity, as an exchange of words in a symbolic “communion de bouches vides” (p. 263) that establishes the foundations of subjective autonomy by speaking the loss of the maternal object.

  • 6  Jacques Derrida, “Fors: Les Mots anglés de Nicolas Abraham et Maria Torok”, Nicolas Abraham and Ma (...)

7As suggested above, though, what is most pertinent for understanding Emma Bovary's case is the notion of incorporation that Abraham and Torok oppose to introjection. As a means of denying loss, incorporation would substitute one “œuvre de bouche” (p. 263) for another, displacing the process of introjection — “parler à autrui de ce qui vient à manquer” (p. 264) — by filling the emptiness in the mouth not with introjective words but with an imaginary object. Such a gesture would mark a fantasmatic regression to an idealized, utopic condition preceding the primordial perception of oral lack, as “le vide de la bouche [...] redevient la bouche avide de nourriture d'avant la parole” (p. 263-264). In the figure of the ingested “chose imaginaire”, then, the melancholic would ultimately attempt to preserve the lost object of desire by swallowing it and “encrypting” it. As Abraham and Torok suggest throughout their studies of incorporation, the symptoms of such an internal “crypt” can be exceedingly difficult to detect, since it is created to deny “l'idée même du besoin d'introjection” (p. 264); but to the extent that the symptoms of incorporation can be read at all through the analytical “decryption” of the language emanating from the crypt, incorporation must necessarily be imperfect. Inasmuch as incorporation marks an attempt to resist assimilation, a refusal to accept the loss of an object of desire as a partial loss of self, disgust would appear to be something like the other face of an inevitably failed incorporation, an “external” symptom of an alien, unassimilated other within that can never be “perfectly” encrypted. In his introduction to Abraham and Torok's Cryptonymie: Le Verbier de l'homme aux loups6, Jacques Derrida discusses this notion of the crypt in terms of an exclusion of sorts rather than a preservation, an “internal” form of disgust, or “vomissement interne” (p. 56) of the imaginary object, a phantasm that in Emma's case can ultimately be deciphered precisely in the linguistic symptoms of her “external” disgust.

8To return to Emma's attempt to mourn her mother, this critical scene does not contain any overt figures of consumption or disgust, but it follows close upon Emma's apprenticeship in romantic consumption, her “swallowing” of the romantic stories depicted on the plates in the auberge or served to her by the old seamstress at the convent. In this sense it constitutes the first major instance of what Ronell and Marder think of as Emma's “addictive” use of literature, that mingling of life and literature that in Emma's case serves to ward off the specter of lack or loss. Given the importance, though, of the “maternal object” as the primordial figure of loss in Abraham and Torok's account of subjective development, as well as the very insubstantiality of Emma's mother as a character, this scene would appear to be less concerned with Emma's reaction to a particular instance of loss than with the establishment of an archetype of incorporation at the basis of her identity and behavior, the elaboration of a moment that delineates her general “incorporative” disposition toward loss and lays out its linguistic ramifications.

9At first glance, Emma's reaction to her mother's death would seem to have little to do with incorporation, since she quite deliberately tries to mark the event with a profusion of symbolic activity — the “tableau funèbre”, the letter she writes to her father, and of course the romantic imagery in which she envelops herself: “Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l'Éternel discourant dans les vallons” (p. 99). What Emma's telltale boredom indicates, however, is that this symbolism in fact remains strangely impervious to loss: as their failure to produce any “tristesse au cœur” suggests, Emma's mourning rituals strikingly mark no absence, they carry no trace of loss — in effect, they fail to memorialize. Instead, they have been diverted for another purpose, that of achieving “ce rare idéal des existences pâles”, an apparent success on the very first try that leaves Emma feeling “intérieurement satisfaite” (p. 99). In this regard, what Emma has suppressed is precisely the equivocal nature of her romantic images of mourning: for her, they signify a seeming plenitude, the “positivity” of a founding moment of identity, but without the concomitant experience of lack that necessarily conditions such a moment, without that lining of loss that would signal the true work of mourning through the process of introjection.

10It is perhaps in this context that we can best resituate what Marder calls Emma's “temporal disorder”, her strange inability to produce an event in her life or to integrate time into her experience, which begins to manifest itself in this scene. If as Marder points out, Emma “can neither bear witness to an event nor remember one, [...] can neither live in the present nor project a future” (p. 131), it is no doubt because of her inability to orient herself temporally with respect to a past, a problem rooted in her underlying denial of loss and in what we could call her suppression of the equivocal nature of time itself. For what keeps Emma from experiencing the present as an event is that she continually proves incapable of detecting in the present a certain trace of loss, that quality of the present that makes of it a past event in the making, the “future” past. In this sense, we can read Emma's temporal disorder precisely as an inability to assimilate an event as loss by allowing it to become past, to let it slip away and become subject to remembrance and memorialization, to let it take up its role as part of a coherent narrative sequence — ultimately a failure or refusal to “process” time through introjective means. As Marder's discussion of Emma's experience of time — and in this scene in particular — clearly demonstrates, Emma instead tries to make her “positive” experiences last indefinitely, generally by repeating them compulsively to create for herself the illusion that they exist in an eternal present. As a symptom of her predisposition to incorporate loss rather than introject it, Emma in a sense tries to “possess” an event once and for all instead of letting it become past, similar to her dream of “possessing” love as an object of ingestion. Time, too, then will ultimately become something of a chose imaginaire that Emma will (unsuccessfully) attempt to swallow and encrypt, a phenomenon that Marder examines under the label of “temporal bulimia” (p. 146), culminating in Emma's inability to assimilate the event of her own death. Of course, incorporated loss does not simply disappear, but remains as a caustic “present absence” within, producing encrypted symptoms that vary depending on the strength and persistence of the underlying denial of loss itself. In Emma's case, such incorporated loss will manifest itself precisely as the pourriture that circulates in the novel, as what Emma can only perceive as an inscrutable rot that she finds continually undermining the various choses imaginaires she consumes, as when she mulls over the source of “cette pourriture instantanée des choses où elle s'appuyait” (p. 357) in the context of her struggle with equivocal returns. In temporal terms, such pourriture appears as the kind of “degeneration” of a repeated event into boredom and nothingness that we see in the scene of Emma's failed mourning. Although Marder does not cast Emma's malady in terms of incorporation or “encryptment”, she ultimately all but names it when she delineates its main temporal features as a “strange combination of simultaneous preservation and erosion” (p. 148), or “a corrosive past that is strangely preserved without being remembered” (p. 149).

11So how do Emma's “bitter-maternal” returns manifest themselves as disturbances of language, as that conspiracy of words that we could call le bruit de l'amer? To take just one pertinent example, let's examine in some detail Emma's strange relationship with Berthe's wetnurse, la mère Rollet. Apparently a marginal figure in the novel, just as her miserable hovel is situated “à l'extrémité du village” (p. 156), la mère Rollet in fact looms large as an equivocal symptom of Emma's troubles, in the very inscrutability of her relationship to Emma, which repeatedly puzzles the other inhabitants of Yonville. As Berthe's nurse, Rollet clearly figures as a problematic double of Emma-as-mother, which is the very role that provokes in Emma an “accès d'amertume” (p. 153) shortly before Berthe's birth. But Emma's relationship with her clearly surpasses this initial context and seems to take on some additional murky significance. Beyond her role as a surrogate mother for Emma's daughter, Rollet pops up at odd moments that have little or nothing to do with Berthe, while Emma turns to her repeatedly in enigmatic, seemingly unmotivated ways, as if she were the object of some unacknowledged or repressed desire. When Emma first visits Rollet soon after giving birth, we can perhaps detect an indirect, fleeting symptom of such a desire in the guise of Emma's sudden impulse to see her daughter: “Un jour, Emma fut prise tout à coup du besoin de voir sa petite fille, qui avait été mise en nourrice chez la femme du menuisier” (p. 155). By the time Emma frantically races around town in the final pages of the novel, however, appealing to one inhabitant of Yonville after another to give her money, her strange attraction to Rollet is fully in evidence; when she unexpectedly appears at Rollet's house and collapses on her bed in tears, even la mère Rollet herself wonders what she is doing there and why she has come: “Qui la gêne? se demandait la nourrice. Pourquoi vient-elle ici? / Elle y était accourue, poussée par une sorte d'épouvante qui la chassait de sa maison” (p. 381). What Tony Tanner perceptively discerns in this culminating scene is that la mère Rollet indeed does function as a mother figure of sorts, although ultimately not so much to Berthe as to Emma herself. Emma's appeal to la mère Rollet at this critical moment, writes Tanner, “contains the helpless cry of the child that Emma has become [....] [La mère Rollet] is not her real mother of course, just as it is impossible literally to go back in time. But it is possible to regress and rediscover that elemental need for the mother figure, which is what Emma experiences at this climactic moment of utter hopelessness” (p. 262).

12Using this suggestive insight as a point of departure, we can begin to decipher the latent undercurrents of disavowed loss and desire at work in Emma's relationship to Rollet, which are most significantly developed in the scene of Emma's initial visit to see her daughter. Accompanied by Léon, Emma sets off one day toward the home of the wetnurse, where she then makes her way through the impoverished setting to find her daughter sleeping inside:

L'enfant d'Emma dormait à terre, dans un berceau d'osier. Elle la prit avec la couverture qui l'enveloppait, et se mit à chanter doucement en se dandinant.
Léon se promenait dans la chambre; il lui semblait étrange de voir cette belle dame en robe de nankin tout au milieu de cette misère. Madame Bovary devint rouge; il se détourna, croyant que ses yeux peut-être avaient eu quelque impertinence. Puis elle recoucha la petite qui venait de vomir sur sa collerette. La nourrice aussitôt vint l'essuyer, protestant qu'il n'y paraîtrait pas.
— Elle m'en fait bien d'autres, disait-elle, et je ne suis occupée qu'à la rincer continuellement! Si vous aviez donc la complaisance de commander à Camus l'épicier qu'il me laisse prendre un peu de savon lorsqu'il m'en faut ? ce serait même plus commode pour vous, que je ne dérangerais pas.
— C'est bien, c'est bien! dit Emma. Au revoir, mère Rollet! (p. 157-158)

13In her work on Madame Bovary and addiction, Avital Ronell discusses this scene at considerable length, focusing primarily on Emma's role as mother and the “toxic” effect she has on her daughter. For Ronell, this passage demonstrates how “Emma Bovary invades the space of the infant as a missile of toxicity, an emetic mother, artificial and dangerous” (p. 115), or as she puts it in her summary of this scene, “Destructed landscape. Libidinal rescue attempts. Blush. Disgust. Madame Bovary is freaked. [....] The communication of nausea from mother to daughter is unremitting” (p. 114). Which mother and which daughter, though? It is Berthe, of course, who spits up the milk, but the disgust would seem to be all Emma's, since she is the one to whom that milk is so conspicuously “returned”. Again, Berthe appears to function here less as a character in her own right than as a symptom or agent of Emma's bitter-maternal returns. In this respect, her vomiting on Emma's fashionable dress constitutes a bilious response to Emma's romantic notions in at least two related ways. Certainly Berthe unceremoniously deflates Léon's romantic image of Emma, “cette belle dame en robe de nankin”, as well as their timid flirting rituals, for which Berthe appears to be little more than a pretext. In this sense, Berthe's vomiting would seem to respond at a distance to the initial scene of romantic infatuation between Emma and Léon, which takes place shortly before their outing to see Berthe — precisely over a meal, during the dinner that the Bovarys share with Homais and Léon at the Lion d'or the night they arrive in Yonville for the first time. While Charles and Homais discuss the local “miasmes insalubres” (p. 145), Léon and Emma quickly recognize their common romantic inclinations and plunge into “une de ces vagues conversations où le hasard des phrases vous ramène toujours au centre fixe d'une sympathie commune” (p. 149), discussing their love for travel and the sea (“Oh! j'adore la mer, dit M. Léon”, p. 146), their literary and musical tastes, “spectacles de Paris, titres de romans, quadrilles nouveaux, et le monde qu'ils ne connaissaient pas, Tostes où elle avait vécu, Yonville où ils étaient” (p. 149). Given the dinner setting, one could say that they seem to be feeding each other sweet romantic commonplaces, including an idealized notion of la mer, which Emma dreamily describes as “cette étendue sans limites, dont la contemplation vous élève l'âme et donne des idées d'infini, d'idéal” (p. 146). At a first level, then, Berthe's vomiting would seem to be a nauseated reaction to Emma and Léon's romantic sympathies, the return of that ideal figure of la mer in the form of its obvious cryptic overtones of disavowed loss, la mère/l'amer, which come back to Emma as undigested, unassimilated mother's milk.

14These bitter-maternal returns that Emma finds at la mère Rollet's are even more apparent, though, in a second aspect of Berthe's vomiting. As part of the ironic deflation of Emma's romantic sentimentality, Berthe's reaction would also seem to be a prompt commentary on her momentary attempt to impress Léon in the role of the sweetly idealized mother: “Elle la prit avec la couverture qui l'enveloppait, et se mit à chanter doucement en se dandinant”. The insistent repetition of the nasalized vowel /ã/ in the last part of this phrase — “chanter doucement en se dandinant” — suggests another critical, symptomatic moment of Emma's struggle with “monotony”: her “monaural” sense of language that suppresses any trace of loss, as well as the impending repetition of the same that such “monotone” language seems to signal, one of the uncanny resemblances or equivocal returns that Emma's incorporative tendencies inevitably provoke. If Berthe's vomiting indeed constitutes that uncanny return, it is certainly not hard to decipher its equivocal double meaning, for in the very name of her wetnurse, la mère Rollet, one can hear the crucial homophonic double that hovers over this entire scene: l'amer au lait. For Emma, la mère Rollet constitutes an acutely equivocal figure at the very epicenter of her incorporative disorder, an unfathomable object of attraction that inexorably seems to lead to revulsion, since she persistently appears as either a real or fantasmatic presence at a number of Emma's moments of bitter returns. In terms of the theoretical arguments presented above, we could say that la mère Rollet represents a fundamentally dual, equivocal nature of the maternal body, which for Emma holds out both the illusory promise of (oral) fulfillment as well as the disavowed certainty of loss, a loss that in her case is primordially incorporated and driven into cryptic paronyms and echoes. When Berthe spits up la mère Rollet's milk on Emma's dress, then, what Emma no doubt senses is the momentary reassertion of this equivocal duality in the uncanny return of l'amer au lait, the bitter “aftertaste” of the maternal body as unassimilated loss.

15That what is fleetingly revealed here is the encrypted experience of primordial maternal loss at the basis of Emma's desire would strangely seem to be confirmed in the rest of the scene as well; using Berthe as a pretext just as much as Emma does, la mère Rollet emerges as a grasping mother figure who tries to take things away from Emma. Echoing the fantasmatic loss of objects that Emma experiences in her “accès d'amertume” upon becoming a mother, la mère Rollet first asks Emma for “un peu de savon” (p. 158), then “une petite livre de café moulu” (p. 158), more coffee for her husband, and finally “un cruchon d'eau-de-vie” (p. 158), while the increasingly irritated Emma attempts to flee the scene of her disgust: “Après avoir subi ses remerciements, madame Bovary s'en alla; et elle était quelque peu avancée dans le sentier, lorsqu'à un bruit de sabots elle tourna la tête: c'était la nourrice” (p. 158). In something of a parody of Emma's incorporative malady, the sound of la mère Rollet keeps sneaking up on her, keeps coming back to get something else out of her; the ordeal that Emma undergoes here is one of “remerciements”, that irrepressible return of a maternal figure (re-mère-ciements) that seems to re-enact for her the intolerable scene of originary loss. And if there were any doubt that what is at stake in this passage is Emma's own disavowed relationship to maternal loss and constitutive mourning, one need only listen once again to “la mère Rollet” to discern the echoes of a bitter-maternal legacy that makes itself heard, l'amer au legs. It is no doubt for this reason that to reach la mère Rollet's house, Emma must indeed take a strangely equivocal path that also leads to the cemetery: “Pour arriver chez la nourrice, il fallait, après la rue, tourner à gauche, comme pour gagner le cimetière” (p. 156, emphasis added) — a carefully worded turn of phrase that will appear again later on when Emma heads for Rollet's house shortly before committing suicide (p. 381).

16This bitter-maternal legacy ultimately brings us back once again to the scene of Emma's failed effort to mourn her mother and its crucial role in making legible the incorporative tendencies that lie at the basis of her “toxic returns” and her pathological experience of time. For if Emma's failure to mourn her mother reveals a certain inability to mourn time itself, this scene unmistakably depicts Emma's inability or refusal to mourn a dead aesthetic as well — that is, to come to terms with the legacy of romanticism. Indeed, when Emma indulges her taste for romantic imagery in listening to “les chants de cygnes mourants” and “les chutes de feuilles”, what she fails to hear is precisely the clichéd, threadbare, fossilized nature of such imagery, romanticism's equivocal double voicing as a champ de signes mourants. In this regard, what we can hear in those “falling leaves” is no doubt the turning of the pages in Emma's romantic fiction, which the narrator shortly before refers to as a “decomposing” literature of sorts, a literature turning to dust: “cette poussière des vieux cabinets de lecture” (p. 96-97). It is of course Emma's inability to detect the worn-out nature of such romantic signs in particular that generates the force of the irony in this passage (and in much of the novel), since the utter conventionality of those signs so flagrantly contradicts the singular, extraordinary identity that she thinks they guarantee, “ce rare idéal des existences pâles” that she mistakenly believes will distinguish her from those “cœurs médiocres”. This scene thus makes clear the necessarily dual basis of Emma's disgust, since it brings together in almost paradigmatic fashion the first major symptoms of Emma's struggles with both clichés and maternal loss as two aspects of a common incorporative disorder, as Abraham and Torok's account of the acquisition of language would imply. In other words, unassimilated maternal loss will inevitably manifest itself in terms of a kind of unassimilated linguistic loss, through Emma's strangely “monaural” sense of hearing, her suppression of that trace of absence in language that we could call its memorializing function and that is most evident precisely in clichés, those empty tokens of a lost fullness of meaning. As we have begun to see in Emma's struggle with “bitter-maternal” returns, however, this doubly unassimilated loss does not disappear, but is instead driven into cryptic linguistic resemblances and equivocal homophonic doubles — a pervasive network of phonemic traces and fragments where it remains legible and occasionally bursts into the open as a “contaminant” that provokes her disgust, ultimately playing a significant role in her final downfall.

Haut de page

Notes

1  Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, ed. Bernard Ajac (Paris: “Garnier-Flammarion”, Flammarion, 1986). Page numbers indicated in the text.

2  Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978).

3  Elissa Marder, “Trauma, Addiction, and Temporal Bulimia in Madame Bovary”, Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert) (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002).

4  Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992).

5  Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, L'Écorce et le Noyau, revised edition (Paris: Flammarion, 1987); see in particular “Deuil ou mélancolie. Introjecter – Incorporer”, p. 259-275.

6  Jacques Derrida, “Fors: Les Mots anglés de Nicolas Abraham et Maria Torok”, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Cryptonymie: Le Verbier de l'homme aux loups (Paris: Aubier Flammarion, 1976), p. 9-73.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Luke Bouvier, « Le Bruit de l'amer: Time, Loss and Fossilized Romanticism in Madame Bovary », Flaubert [En ligne], 5 | 2011, mis en ligne le 12 juillet 2011, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://flaubert.revues.org/1339

Haut de page

Auteur

Luke Bouvier

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Haut de page