A Style of One’s Own: On Fried’s Flaubert


The Death Bed of Madame Bovary, Albert-Auguste Fourie, 1889

by Dylan J. Montanari

Flaubert’s “Gueuloir”: On “Madame Bovary” and “Salammbo”,
by Michael Fried,
Yale University Press, 196 pp.

Readers of contemporary art criticism may have come across the following story about Michael Fried. Fellow critic Rosalind Krauss was with Fried at a show in the mid1960s when someone confronted him about a Frank Stella painting. “What’s so good about that?” the challenger asked. According to Krauss, Fried told the young man that, on some days, Stella went to the Metropolitan and stared for hours on end at the Velázquez paintings there. More than anything, Fried said, Stella would like to paint like the 17th century Spaniard. He knows, however, that it’s not possible for him to paint like that. In fact, it’s not possible for anyone to paint like that, because painting isn’t like that anymore. Stella truly wants to be Velázquez, Fried supposedly added, “so he paints stripes.”

However apocryphal, the story provides a window into an aspect of Fried’s work that has intrigued this reader and perhaps others, too, namely the role that intentionality has to play in his art critical and art historical writings. As the story illustrates, there seem to be two currents in Fried’s thought that may appear to run against each other and yet, for him, are clearly part and parcel of the same stream. On the one hand, an artist like Stella is indisputably the one responsible for his own work. Who else could be? Stella responds to the situation in which he and art find themselves by doing what Fried says he does – painting stripes. At the same time, however, there is something right about his decision to paint stripes in that way at that time, having realized certain things about what painting has become, perhaps by realizing what painting can’t any longer be.

In that rightness seems to flow the current counter to the irreducible intentionality of Stella’s and other artists’ art. Perhaps they are responsible for revealing to us what, at a given time, is right, but surely they are not responsible for that in virtue of which that thing they do with and in their art is right.

In a sense, there is no real tension here. After all, how could something like the “that in virtue of which” be something for which one is responsible? One can be responsible for something like an artistic decision and for its being right, but surely one cannot be responsible for the conditions of possibility for its being right (this would be akin to being responsible for the history of art!). Yet there is something funny about the idea that someone could do something (like paint a picture) and be fully responsible for all of the motions that led to the creation of the picture without being responsible for what the picture “amounts to.”

There is something funny about it, at least, for those not already largely accustomed to this sort of talk. In literary criticism, especially, confusion over these sorts of issues abounds. Since virtually everyone seems to think a novel is the sort of thing for which there are or should be, in principle, just as many interpretations as there are readers, it is an understandable enough thought that a novelist cannot possibly be responsible for every single one of those interpretations, cannot have put the material for every single one of those interpretations in his book intentionally. But what kind of thought is this? What material is there in a novel if not what a novelist put in it? Setting aside for this discussion the extent to which a reader’s response is extraordinarily constrained by factors both internal and external to the work, there just seem to be too many things to notice in a great work of art for the artist to have intentionally put all of them in his or her work for others to notice.

Frank Stella, photograph by Ugo Mulas, 1964


Michael Fried, who is at his best when describing the peculiar achievement a work – whether a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, or a video – amounts to, has not often devoted himself to literature, which is what makes Flaubert’s “Gueuloir” such a welcome addition to Fried’s bibliography and Flaubert’s.

In 1987, Fried discussed Stephen Crane in a book principally devoted to Thomas Eakins as well as Crane himself, titled Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. There, as in his book on Flaubert, he evinces a fascination with the ambitions of and limits to style, and what those limits produce as excess, as remainder.

A further interest derived from this notion of productive limits is in the manner the style in which a text is written can call attention to the materiality of writing, thusly detracting from or competing with the readerly attention given to what the text depicts or portrays, ostensibly what the text’s style is in service of. Also worth noting is Fried’s interest in the conflictedness of the beholder, an issue that is not limited to the books mentioned but extends to virtually all of his writing career. Whether in having her conviction compelled by an absorptive pictorial scene that seems to defy and bewilder the conditions of beholding, or finding herself at once attracted and repelled by realism so painfully excessive it threatens the thresholds of experience, Fried’s spectator is often at once torn and transfixed. In his own writing, Fried achieves a similar sort of effect; the showing is often compelling, but one wishes at times for a bit more in the way of telling.

For anyone who has ever heard Fried lecture, it is easy enough to hear his voice as one reads his writing. He is unafraid of the “I,” using it so earnestly that his work seems to take on the mode of confession at times, especially when he is at his most enthusiastic or urgent. But he is just as likely, especially when closely reading a painting or photograph, to use the impersonal “one” or the rather more sociable “we,” as though he were wholeheartedly convinced in Kant’s notion that aesthetic judgments are spoken with a “universal voice.” At times, Fried nearly pleads us to agree with him, and for the most part, we tend to eagerly oblige.

In a 2011 New York Times column, Geoff Dyer mocked the elliptical and perpetually prefatory style of Fried’s writing, a ruse that quickly turned against itself as the shallowness of Dyer’s “critique” was pointed out. Fried himself took the cake, writing in a letter to the editor that “readers of Geoff Dyer’s column might be interested to know that the propensity for self-reference that so captured his attention in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before reaches new heights in my forthcoming book, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (Yale University Press).” (The latter was reviewed in the LARB’s pages here, with reference to Dyer’s article.) Dyer-like readers will find those tics in Flaubert’s “Gueuloir, too, though in the service of an eccentric and compelling extended discussion of style and the very idea of how style can be achieved.

Fried’s main claim in the first of the book’s two chapters, the one on Madame Bovary (the other is on Salammbô), which he does the reader the favor of stating explicitly, is that “the defining feature of Madame Bovary as a work of artistic prose” is a “doubleness, the manifest coexistence of (…) seemingly antithetical characteristics,” consisting in, as he puts it rather breathlessly,

(…) on the one hand, a new and altogether radical thematization of writerly intention, directed toward the actualization of an almost unattainable ideal of stylistic perfection and imagined as essentially divorced from the expression of any merely contingent feature of the writer’s life and opinions; and second, the proliferation throughout the novel of an extraordinary range and variety of linguistic and proto-linguistic effects categorizable, more or less, with the aid of terms like assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhymes, off-rhymes, resemblances between words and names, repetitions and near-repetitions of all sorts, and so on, some significant portion of which is attributable, it would seem, to something other than authorial control. [55]

Sentences like these make one wonder how they would fare in Fried’s gueuloir, and whether he has one. Yet the force of this doubleness, which we would do well not to think of aporetically, is palpable, both in Fried’s analysis and in the several examples he offers in support of it.

Most importantly, however, it sets up nicely the relatively stronger and more interesting claim that, as Fried goes on to write,

(…) the simultaneously overarching and fine-grained thematization of authorial intention means that there is no verbal or phonemic or otherwise proto-linguistic incident, however slight, that can wholly escape the gravitational field of Flaubert’s writerly project (we can never be certain that a given instance of phonemic play is an ‘accidental’ event and nothing more), just as there are no instances of manifest intention that can wholly escape the implication of a certain automaticity in their mode of production (…) [56]

Readers with long enough memories may recall Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp’s 1982 Critical Inquiry article “Against Theory” and its attendant anti-theory of authorial intention, one which Fried openly admires and accepts in toto. For any aspect of Flaubert’s writing to be found meaningful (aspects such as, for example, the number of times particular letters occur in particular stretches of text) is to at least entertain the possibility that Flaubert intentionally offered such an aspect to the reader such that she may find it meaningful. Fried does not deny that it is unlikely or implausible, in certain cases, that an aspect be the result of an intentional doing on Flaubert’s part. Rather, he is making the point that the punctilious attention Flaubert gave to his own style generated such unpredictable aberrations and idiosyncrasies that it becomes impossible to tell what is or is not attributable to it, what does or does not lie within the system of his gueuloir.

Flaubert’s gueuloir (from the French, gueule, “throat,” and gueuler, “to yell”) consisted in his reading his own writing, on a daily basis during the composition of his work, at a painfully loud volume, such that every sonic and rhythmic aspect of the writing be magnified so as to facilitate the elimination of any imperfection. This habit of Flaubert’s inspires Fried to draw upon an earlier meditation on the subject by the philosopher Félix Ravaisson, whose 1838 treatise Of Habit Fried puts into conversation with the intention and automaticity of Flaubert’s writing he finds in Madame Bovary.

Flaubert supposedly searched for a perfect and “impersonal” writing style, that is, one rid of personal idiosyncrasy (hence the elimination of imperfection). Yet, precisely this method produced, as is clear to anyone who has read him and as Fried so contagiously describes, a style that was nothing if not idiosyncratic, which, by way of idiosyncratic consistency, produced consistent idiosyncrasies. Flaubert’s writing habits, in short, far from ironing out idiosyncratic kinks, led to their proliferation in otherwise unforeseen ways. What Fried gets out of Félix Ravaisson’s treatment of habit, to make a long and interesting story short, is that habit is freedom made flesh. This slogan may sound contradictory, but, as it often seems, it is the kind of contradiction Fried loves to embrace and dissolve all at once. He takes Ravaisson’s contribution to be a conception of habit that does away with the notion of repetition as the calcification of the will, and which consists, instead, in the animation of matter, in the will’s intelligence as substantiated in the body. Habit, for him, is an expression of the will that is neither active nor passive; the conscious power of mind and spirit is released, “dissolved,” as Ravaisson writes, into act and movement. Habit brings freedom ever closer to instinct without ever reducing it to nature, making the will itself into a second nature. Thus, habit offers us a glimpse into the hierarchical progression from the spontaneous autocausation of Nature, whose law is primordial desire, to the freedom of human imagination and understanding.

Though there is no conclusive proof that Flaubert read or drew upon Félix Ravaisson’s treatise, Fried makes a convincing case, based on lines drawn from Madame Bovary and Flaubert’s correspondence, that it is entirely possible that Flaubert could have read it or, if not read it, at least been exposed to its principal tenets. Fried himself drew upon the work of Ravaisson in an earlier book of his, Courbet’s Realism, devoted to the 19th century French painter Gustave Courbet. Here it may seem, to the cynical reader, that it is extraordinarily lucky that the philosopher Fried discussed with regard to the paintings of Courbet in 1992 should turn out, twenty years later, to be so well suited to the writing of Flaubert in another book of Fried’s. No doubt Fried has the courage of his convictions, and of his affections, too; rather than view his predilection for certain ideas that run through his corpus cynically, one would do better to treat it as his dogged pursuit of the concepts that most animate him, wherever they may lead or point him to. Though some have accused him of being obsessed by his own ideas, one suspects he does not regard them as his, so much as his to spell out. For him, those ideas are truly out there, embodied in the aesthetic history of the past few centuries.


In Courbet’s Realism, Fried argued against those who have it that realism in Courbet and in pictorial art more generally consists of the appropriate relation between what is painted and what that which is painted represents in the real world, a relation whose appropriateness rests in resemblance. For Fried, rather, the realism to be found in Courbet is characterized by “the separateness and distinctness of persons and objects” being “overridden,” in Courbet’s paintings, “by an exactly opposite tendency.” He shows how, in a selection of paintings, the conjuring of repetition – whether in the way that the spatial alignment of figures in a painting invites certain movements of the beholder’s eyes or in the way that a figure is depicted as in the course of performing an activity involving repetition – is tied to an effort on Courbet’s part to paint himself into the work, sometimes explicitly but more often than not allegorically, depicting activities that suggest that of painting. For Courbet to paint himself into his work as it is in the process of being created, Fried thinks, is akin to the painter’s trying to put the painting’s first beholder (himself) into the painting, thus seeming to subvert the expected conditions of spectatorship. The effect is that of anti-theatricality, or absorption, the chief concept of Fried’s thought, which actually receives considerably less attention in Flaubert’s Gueuloir than it does in other, prior books of his.

What drew Fried to Ravaisson, at the time of Courbet’s Realism, was that in the painter’s pictorial conjuring of motion, repetition, and automaticity, what the beholder is made aware of is just the kind of “mutual interpenetration of activity and passivity” that Ravaisson’s philosophical treatise on habit advances. Bringing together Courbet, Flaubert, and Ravaisson, Fried intends to accomplish at least two things, 1) show that the influence, known or not, of Ravaisson’s ideas reverberate throughout 19th century art in profound, unexpected, and ultimately unrecognized ways, and 2) show that both Courbet and Flaubert, under the sway of Ravaissonian ideas, would draw attention to the materiality of their medium in ways revolutionary to painting and prose and to the very notion of realism.

Fried does not prove any of this beyond any reasonable doubt, so to speak, and is perfectly honest when he qualifies what he thinks of as Courbet’s “attempt to paint himself as if corporeally (…) into the painting being realized under his brush” as “richly imagined (and no doubt less than fully conscious).” Indeed, this phrase – “richly imagined (and no doubt less than fully conscious)” – could be something like the slogan of Fried’s notion of intentionality. The sophisticated strategies he attributes to the subjects of his study, the subtle lines of influence weaving through various artists and thinkers, and the suggestive proposal, in the coda to “Style and Habit in Madame Bovary,” “Emma’s Funeral,” that Flaubert learned how to write the scene of Emma Bovary’s burial from viewing Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, all of these base themselves on Fried’s enthusiastic analyses, corroborated, at least partially, by the evidence he marshals in their support.


Absent diary entries or letters in which Courbet or Flaubert writes, “I read Ravaisson’s Of Habit today” or in which Flaubert says, “I saw Courbet’s Burial at Ornans today and am now preparing to write Emma’s funeral scene,” whether Fried is right in his learned conjectures will likely never be conclusively shown. However, this has less to do with the daring of his conjectures (though daring they often are) than with how up-front Fried is about their being, ultimately, unprovable. His honesty, in this respect, invites reflection on the critical practices of humanists more generally. Though not everyone will be persuaded by Fried’s analyses, and though some of his examples concerning letter frequency do not always speak for themselves quite as much as he might think, the extent to which he allows works to resonate beyond their limits, whether the frame of a canvas or the margin of a page, evinces a generosity worth emulating. In Fried’s work, art may sometimes risk being more than it is, but it never risks being less.

There are other aspects to “Style and Habit in Madame Bovary” that are worth mentioning (the pages Fried devotes to Proust, for example), but “Willing Salammbô,” the second essay, deserves its share of attention, too, though, for reasons of space, it will receive relatively less so than the first has. For Fried, Salammbô is the perfect counterpoint to Madame Bovary because, far from cultivating what some have called an “impersonal” style, an “anti-style” cleansed of impurities that, as we have seen, generates its own, in a sense, “un-willable” impurities, Salammbô seems to actively cultivate such stylistic contaminations.

Flaubert’s eccentric novel tells the tragic tale of the titular Carthaginian general’s daughter against the backdrop of the “Mercenary Wars” (3rd century BC) as described by Polybius, and is the immediate successor, in Flaubert’s novelistic career, of Madame Bovary, five years later, in 1862.

Salammbô, Alfons Mucha, 1896

As Fried shows to be well-documented by Flaubert himself in his letters to various acquaintances, the composition of Salammbô was torturous; Flaubert shows himself to be perfectly aware of undertaking a stylistic task that no one before him had faced to quite the same extent. As Fried puts it perhaps slightly hyperbolically, comparing the novel presently discussed with its predecessor, “there is perhaps no single sentence in the earlier novel that matches the sheer deliberateness, the extreme compositional complexity, palpably at work in this one.” Indeed, Fried’s central point about the novel is that in it, Flaubert, as if reacting in a less than fully conscious manner against the form of automaticity achieved in Madame Bovary, tried to achieve a style in which no element was less than fully intended. Despite their seemingly antithetical tendencies, though, the two novels are united in, as Albert Thibaudet wrote and Fried approvingly cites, taking as their subject “purified from all attachment to the here and now, a subject that can be treated uniquely from the point of view of style.” In the case of Salammbô, it is the alien world of ancient Carthage; in that of Madame Bovary, the alien world of Emma’s psychology (alien even to Emma Bovary herself).

Proof for this conclusion about Salammbô is provided by more blatant aspects such as its palpably extravagant style and the bewildering cascade of unfamiliar names and terms, as well as relatively subtler ones like seemingly arbitrary orthographical choices, a reminder, Fried thinks, of the author’s freedom. Moreover, readers are not distracted from the novel’s style by, for example, its characters, for they lack the kind of psychological traits, as Fried puts it, “that would make them even passably ‘real’ to the reader.” Fried notes here, too, the conflict between will and automatism, most vividly emblematized in what he aptly names “the grip of virtual hypnosis” that the general’s daughter and the mercenary leader mutually feel for one another, as contrasted with the steely resolve of Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general, Salammbô’s father, who is, ultimately, the novel’s “victor” (among other things, he does not die as the other two do). The conflation of narration and description in Flaubert’s writing, much reviled by some of Flaubert’s contemporary such as the critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve and brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, is one Fried prefers, with Théophile Gauthier, to classify as “evocation,” as if Flaubert were always in the process of “relentlessly creating, or re-creating,” the world of his fiction.

The strange monotony brought about by Flaubert’s hyperbolic style is, for Fried, what accounts for the peculiar effect of every object in Salammbô seeming to compete for the reader’s attention in equal measure, an effect contemporaries of Flaubert thought of as an unbearable nearness, but which Fried thinks of (not entirely surprisingly) as the opposite, distance. What Fried means by distance is that the reader is not immersed in the novel because the language gets in the way. Whatever unity exists in Salammbô is intelligible only to its creator; the reader’s inability to perceive such a unity is, for the reader, the felt reminder of the author’s total grasp of his own creation. Similar remarks are made about the novel’s “sadism” and of its grotesque intensity, more generally. To his credit, Fried ably employs the criticism of Flaubert’s contemporaries – Sainte-Beuve, in particular – to show that they, too, were paying attention to the right, that is to say, richest and most interesting, aspects of Flaubert’s writing, and yet, were not drawing the right conclusions from them, namely, conclusions pertaining to the ultimate significance of Flaubert’s authorial and authoritative volonté.


For a book that is largely about intention, and whose author casts forth such provocative, idiosyncratic arguments, Michael Fried’s Flaubert’s “Gueuloir” finds itself as though compelled by its topic. At various points, Fried describes himself as powerless before what seem to him unavoidable facts about the art he analyzes, as having little to no choice as to take the course he took and draw the conclusions he drew. Indeed, as the book draws to a close, Fried seems more and more rushed to tell us all the things he has noticed, excusing himself, along the way, for having neither time nor space to elaborate on them. Indeed, the book itself ends with a cliffhanger, the suggestion of a further extension of Fried’s ideas in Flaubert’s “Gueuloir” about which he writes, at the end, “this opens intriguing perspectives – upon which I close,” like a Shakespearean character announcing his or her own death. In forsaking certainty, at times, Fried’s writings make room for a kind of faith. “What’s so good about that?” someone might ask, someone like the skeptic about Frank Stella whom Fried so capably answered in the anecdote from the beginning. It’s “good,” one might hazard a reply, because it is driven by a kind of internal necessity; writing a certain way, like painting a certain way, can seem like a groundless, arbitrary decision, until it reveals itself to have been the indispensably right way to go about doing that thing, whether writing or painting.

There is something obstinate about how quirky some of his conclusions are, though their quirkiness is undercut by how obvious he takes them to be, which obviousness is itself undercut by the fact that, in many cases, few other scholars, if any, seem to have noticed what is so blatant to him. Yet, in the same way one might say, in good faith, “it is obvious and no one has noticed it,” one might also very well say, “I chose to do it and I could not help it.”

There are many ways to write a book; only in being written does the book reveal itself as being (and having been, all along) writable in one way and not any others. Likewise, there are many ways to read a book, but only in being read does the book reveal itself as being (and having been, all along) readable in one way and not others, however provisionally. If literary criticism can have something to learn from an art historian (which, in principle, it should), it is to trust one’s eyes. Sometimes things are what they seem, after all; but it is we who must let them seem, unless we worry experience will prove too flimsy a foundation. Flaubert’s “Gueuloir” is, at times, an exercise in phenomenological criticism, an account of readerly experience, yet it also sets its sights on something like the condition of possibility of readerly experience, namely Flaubert’s (no doubt, less than fully conscious) self-conception of his writerly activity in the two novels discussed.

Thus, Fried’s book stands as a sort of prolegomena to any future reading of Flaubert. The possibility of its radical success or complete failure, as such, results from, as Stanley Cavell once wrote, in an explicitly Fried-inspired mood, its status as a work “condemned to seriousness.” More books should “suffer” such a fate.

About the Author:

Dylan J. Montanari is a graduate student at Stanford University. He is pursuing a dual PhD in French & Italian literature and has been focusing lately on early 20th century aesthetics. He has published translations in Chicago Review and reviews in Philosophy & Literature and the Los Angeles Review of Books. At Stanford, he co-coordinates the Philosophy and Literature Initiative. Before coming to California, he studied comparative literature at the University of Chicago.