Gustave Flaubert & the Demons of Masturbation

September 2nd, 2010 · 7:26 pm @ admin  -  No Comments


In his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert satirized the writing process (among nearly every other pursuit, artistic or otherwise) through his two bumbling protagonists, who struggle first for a subject on which to write before realizing that the main problem is that they have no taste. But if Bouvard and Pécuchet have no subject on which to write, Flaubert himself had an opposite problem through much of his life: a single subject that he spent three decades trying to write about, which consumed him and nearly destroyed both his writing career and himself.

It was while traveling in Italy in 1845 that Flaubert had first seen Bruegel’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, a painting that resonated deep within him, and which sparked in him a desire to retell the desert saint’s tribulations for the modern age. He worked on it for four years, and, in the fall of 1849, assembled his two closest friends—Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp—for a reading of what he believed was to be his masterpiece. The 30 year-old writer was excited to finally share it with the two men whose opinion he trusted more than anyone else, and Bouilhet and du Camp were likewise excited: even though Flaubert had yet to publish anything, they both knew of his extraordinary potential, and were anxious to hear this masterwork that had so fully consumed him.


Flaubert told them beforehand that he wanted their honest appraisal of the work, but then, just before he began, Flaubert waved the manuscript pages in the air above his head and exclaimed, “If you don’t howl with pleasure at this, you’re incapable of being moved by anything!” Settling down, he began to read.

And read. He read the entire five hundred and forty-one pages straight through: eight hours a day in uninterrupted four-hour blocks of time, for four solid days. During that entire time, these people that he loved and trusted more dearly than anyone else—Maxime Du Camp, Louis Bouilhet—sat in silence as he read his opus.

They would later remember it as the most painful days in their lives, as they listened to an endless morass of words that was alternately incomprehensible, banal, repetitive, childish, and plain boring. “As he read,” du Camp later recalled, “Flaubert warmed, but we, though we tried to share his enthusiasm, remained cold as ice. Words, words—harmonious phrases expertly put together, full of noble images and startling metaphors, but often redundant, and containing whole passages which could have been transposed and combined without changing the effect of the book as a whole. There was no progression—the scene always remained the same, though played by different characters. We said nothing, but Flaubert could easily perceive we were not favorably impressed, and from time to time he interrupted himself to cry: ‘Wait! Wait! You’ll see!’”

After it was over, they did their best to put a good face on it and let him down easy. But it was difficult, as they felt clearly that the last four years had been wasted on something that was completely unsalvageable. Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, “We think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.” Finally, du Camp, struggling to put a good spin on things, explained to Flaubert, “You proceed by expansion. One subject sweeps you toward another, and you end up forgetting the point of departure. A droplet becomes a torrent, the torrent a river, the river a lake, the lake an ocean, the ocean a tidal wave. You drown, you drown your characters, you drown the event, you drown the reader, and your work is drowned.”

It was du Camp that finally, to rescue the situation, suggested that Flaubert adopt a different strategy: “choose a down-to-earth subject,” he told Flaubert, “one of those incidents in which bourgeois life abounds, something like [Balzac’s] La Cousin Bette or La Cousin Pons….” Ultimately du Camp’s advice took the form of Madame Bovary in 1857, which finally redeemed the promise of Flaubert’s talent.

And though he deeply identified with the bored, provincial housewife he’d created (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he famouly quipped), Flaubert never gave up Anthony, and spent the rest of his life working on different drafts, before finally publishing the third major version in 1874. And though the final product would in time have its admirers (including Mallarmé, Freud and Foucault), it was almost universally panned upon publication, sending Flaubert further into frustration and depression.

Flaubert’s Anthony is the ecstatic version of Emma Bovary. Whereas Emma loses herself amidst the reverie of books, Anthony is assailed by actual demons—retreating to the desert for contemplation, the Devil tempts him with hordes of fantastical creatures. Some attempt to seduce him through lust and vanity, but many try to play on his fear of physical death through savage beatings and attacks.

Grunewald Temptation Detail BETTER

The decades-long, tortured writing process that produced The Temptation of Saint Anthony veered between the sublime, the goofy, and the obscene, and ultimately, given the medical climate of the time, was curiously circular: Flaubert was drawn to Anthony because he had epilepsy, and he developed epilepsy because he masturbated, and he masturbated because he could not write his masterpiece, The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Flaubert worked on the Temptation, off and on, for thirty years, and it was a constant struggle. Often, out of frustration he turned to masturbation, which he was fairly casual in describing. “I’m gnawed by anger, impatience, impotence,” he confided to a friend. “There are moments when my head bursts with the bloody pains I’m taking over this. Out of sheer frustration I jerked off yesterday, feeling the same bleakness that drove me to masturbate at school, when I sat in detention. The ejaculate soiled my pants, which made me laugh, and I washed it off. Ah! I’m quite sure Monsieur Scribe never stooped so low!” Masturbation was a foil to good writing both literally and figuratively; in his letters to female friends, he likened to the frustrations of writing to “masturbating” his head in order to “ejaculate” a few sentences at a time. And in 1855 he wrote, “We take notes, we embark on voyages…we become scholars, archeologists, historians, doctors, cobblers and people of taste. But what about heart and verve and sap? We’re good at licking cunt. But humping? Ejaculating in order to make a child?” Above all, Flaubert wanted to make something, to be a productive member of literary society through a great and popular work. Nothing threatened this more than Saint Anthony—his obsession with the hermit was too esoteric, too idiosyncratic. The nineteenth-century wanted the realism of Balzac; it had no taste for the romance Flaubert sought to create. His was a perverse, solitary obsession, masturbatory in its scope and taste—no wonder it drove him to self-pollution.


Flaubert was playing a dangerous game; in the nineteenth-century masturbation had far more serious dangers in store than simply bad writing; it was, quite simply, lethal. Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire noted in the 1875 edition that “We find in the annals of medicine plenty of cases of five-, six-, and eight-year-old children dead as a result of masturbation.” As Samuel Tissot, one of the foremost fighters of self-pollution, noted, “Too great a quantity of semen being lost in the natural course produces dire effects; but they are still more dreadful when the same quantity has been dissipated in an unnatural manner. The accidents that happen to such as waste themselves in a natural way are very terrible, those which are occasioned by masturbation are still more so.”

Why did masturbation lay at the root cause of so much suffering? As Thomas Laqueur explains in his exhaustive history of masturbation, solitary sex was dangerous because “it was motivated not by a real object of desire but by a phantasm; masturbation threatened to overwhelm the most protean and potentially creative of the mind’s faculties—the imagination—and drive it over a cliff,” and because, “while all other sex was social, masturbation was private, or, when it was not done alone, it was social in all the wrong ways: wicked servants taught it to children; wicked older boys taught it to innocent younger ones; girls and boys in schools taught it to each other away from adult supervision. Sex was naturally done with someone; solitary sex was not.”


It was chiefly in this private, unnatural manufacture of fantasies and images that had no grounding in reality that the masturbator was liable to get him or herself in trouble. Masturbation could lead to consumption or any number of nervous disorders, including epilepsy, which plagued Flaubert throughout his life. He suffered his first attack when he was twenty-one, riding in a carriage with his brother. With the onset of the seizure, Flaubert lost consciousness for ten minutes, in what he later described as “torrents of flame” sweeping him away. He was to suffer from these episodes regularly throughout his life, and they so horrified him that he would never once use the word “epilepsy” to describe his condition.

Epilepsy no longer was seen in terms of divine or demonic possession; Flaubert was a long way from St. Anthony’s body wracked and tossed about his cave in a cataclysmic spiritual battle. Convulsions and spasms like Flaubert’s were better understood as the result of a serious moral failing, an ethical rather than divine transgression. Flaubert himself seemed to agree with Tissot’s diagnosis—he confided to a friend once how “Madness and lust are two realms I’ve explored so deliberately…. But I’ve paid a price for it. My nervous malady is the scum of these little intellectual pranks. Each attack has been a kind of hemorrhage of innervation.”

Epilepsy, after all, is not just one of many illnesses that could result from the solitary vice, it is in many ways the most emblematic. The epileptic suffers from the nightmare form of the masturbator’s plethora of fantasies: attacked by an endless series of hallucinations from which he cannot escape. Here’s how Flaubert explained it: “At twenty-one I nearly died of a nervous illness brought on by a series of irritations and troubles, by late nights and anger. It lasted ten years. (I have felt, I have seen everything in Saint Theresa, in Hoffman and Edgar Poe; people visited by hallucinations are not strangers to me.)” Flaubert was not Emma Bovary, in love with the fantasies and phantasms found in novels; he was Anthony, plagued by them, tormented by them. In the 1849 draft of the Temptation, Anthony speaks for his creator, describing his temptations in the language of the epileptic: “I felt desperately unable to control my thought; it slipped the bonds with which I had tied it and escaped me.… Like a rogue elephant, [my mind] would race beneath me with wild trumpetings. Sometimes I’d lean back in fright, or else boldly try to stop it. But its speed stunned me, and I’d get up broken, lost.”

Sleep of Reason

It was this sudden excess of imagination this plethora of fantastical images, that drove Flaubert the masturbator, just as it terrified Flaubert the epileptic. But it also sparked Flaubert the writer. As the anti-masturbating crusader Dr. Tissot noted, “The self-polluter perpetually abandoned to his obscene meditations is in this regard, something in the case of the man of letters, who fixes all his attention on one point.” So too was Flaubert, like a hermit in the wilderness, alone with his thoughts, writing his misunderstood masterpiece.

Leave a Reply