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The following is adapted from an address given at the Wild Goose Festival in Corvallis, Oregon, on September 1, 2012.

BEFORE I CAME DOWN here to deliver this talk on how art and social justice should—and shouldn’t—mix, I posted on Facebook that I was preparing by reading the works of various writers. One commenter singled out Gustave Flaubert from my list and responded with a skeptical “Hmm.” I understood the reaction: after all, Flaubert was known as a writer who cared more for style than social justice (“One never tires of what is well-written, style is life!”). In contrast to the two other great social realists of nineteenth-century French fiction—Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola—Flaubert rarely wrote about the poor and downtrodden. His masterpiece, Madame Bovary, told the story of a provincial woman, the wife of a bourgeois doctor, who enters into two adulterous affairs, shops her way into bankruptcy, and ultimately kills herself. Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal, on the other hand, is a bleak, searing depiction of the coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s.

Yet Flaubert is the more widely read author today. One could take this fact and surmise that readers prefer style over substance, lurid subject matter over the plight of the working poor. But I think there’s something more going on. I am not so much interested in disparaging works like Germinal, which have social justice at the forefront of their concerns, as I am intrigued by the possibility that a work of art like Madame Bovary may in the end serve the cause of justice more deeply and lastingly—and thus serve as a model for those of us who care about both art and justice.

Emma Bovary’s story, though set a century and a half ago, has a startlingly contemporary feel. A beautiful young woman from the country with passion and dreams marries a doctor who turns out to be a dull, plodding fellow. What first appeared to her as a gateway into a larger world has become the door clanging shut on a prison cell. The two men with whom she has affairs seem to come from worlds that offer richness, refinement, beauty—the higher forms of life for which she yearns. One is a budding intellectual and law student, the other a wealthy man who lives in a quasi-aristocratic chateau. Each offers her a path toward an enticing future. Both abandon her.

A summary this brutally brief makes it sound like she enters into these relationships casually, but that’s not the case. Still, the reader does not have to condone Emma’s infidelities to harbor at least some pity and sympathy for her naïveté, her restless desire to be overtaken and overwhelmed by something grand and ecstatic.

Flaubert knows that we see more than Emma does and that we will be tempted to imagine ourselves above her. If we can avoid that trap—if we can avoid committing an injustice against the protagonist—it may be possible to ask the question that should be flickering at the back of our minds: how did she get to be this way and who should be helping her?

Emma’s education with the nuns, while it gives her the catechism, turns out to be more of a finishing school than a place of learning and piety, where she reads romantic novels and indulges in sentimental reveries. “Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath his cross.”

When Emma’s affairs and shopping sprees spiral out of control, there is no one who can reach out to her. She turns to a priest but he is spiritually tone-deaf. He sees that she is in distress but when she says “it is no earthly remedy I need” all he can say is that she may have indigestion. Homais the chemist, who ought to be a trustworthy representative of the merchant class, turns out to be a cut-rate ideologue, a freethinker who fancies himself a new Voltaire, but who is oblivious to the human drama around him.

And so it goes for Emma: every sector of society that should be there for her is lost in its own pettiness and pretension. As the Southern novelist and critic Andrew Lytle once said of this novel:

The bourgeoisie appears not as a class among classes, but as the class, which has usurped every estate, institution, trade, occupation, vocation, avocation in the world which victimizes Madame Bovary. Having the bourgeois mind as the only mind exposes the monstrous deformity and impossibility of such a world, a world entirely material. The isolated ego, money, physical appetites, the categories of the mortal sins (without the promise of redemption)—such do the actors in this narrative show; such is the substance of the composite life parodying the divine scheme, Substance of the very Substance.

If we are unjust to our anti-heroine, Emma Bovary, the odds are that we will miss Flaubert’s devastating indictment of an entire culture—the culture we still inhabit, where everything has become a commodity and each of us is locked up inside our private world of consumption, unable to imagine, much less to foster, the common good.

Flaubert the obsessive stylist labored mightily, as he himself once put it, to find le seul mot juste—the one precise word. It is possible to dismiss this as mere aestheticism—the artist locked inside his palace of art fussing over the color of the curtains. But I would counter that Flaubert’s concern for language was that it be, in the deepest sense of the word, just. Ezra Pound said something similar: “The poet’s job is to define and yet again define till the detail of the surface is in accord with the root in justice.”

And yet it would be disingenuous to suggest that art and justice will ever willingly or gracefully dance together. They want different things. Art seeks the good of the object made; justice seeks the right distribution of goods and opportunities. Art is about making; justice is about doing. Some have attempted to combine the two into a grand unified theory. Tolstoy argued that art must seek moral ends, but Oscar Wilde countered him by reminding us that “the fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.” If you’re tempted to create a moral theory of art-making, just consider whether you’d want your ethics to be determined by aesthetic choices.

The philosopher Jacques Maritain, who defended these distinctions, argued that while art and ethics, like railroad tracks, can never be made to meet, they can and must coexist in the soul of the artist. There they can live in a creative tension with one another. Justice demands that art care about the world, especially the most vulnerable, that it should refrain from getting lost in its own formal concerns, its own virtuosity. Art requires that any conception of justice be grounded in the gnarled complexity of history and the inherent ambiguity of human motives and desires.

So, guided by the example set by Flaubert, allow me to offer a few thoughts about how art and social justice might take a turn or two on the dance floor.

Didacticism means the death of art. Keats said “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” By all means, create a work of imagination that delves into some aspect of social justice, but keep in mind that if your creation is not also an exploration of its subject undertaken in fear and trembling, a journey that may bring about reversals and revisions, neither you nor your audience will gain much from the experience.

Do not be afraid to make your work beautiful—to polish your prose as Flaubert did—even if it must perforce depict ugliness and degradation. For one thing, your faith should give you the confidence that in brokenness, beauty can be found. But take note of Elaine Scarry’s persuasive argument in her book On Beauty and Being Just that beauty supports justice because it makes us care about the vulnerability and fragility of what is perceived as beautiful. As Scarry notes, citing Plato (though she could as easily have quoted Augustine or Dante), beauty enables us to move from eros, a sensual, immediate attraction, to agape, the love that seeks the good of the thing beheld.

To continue with Scarry’s insights, remember that the goal of your work should be to enable both your reader and yourself to become de-centered, so that you can truly identify with the other. In this way the center moves to the margin and the margin to the center. Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” and he meant it: he, too, felt the pain of innocence lost, the agony of wanting something more than earthly remedies in a world that was stolidly materialistic.

Beware the temptation of moralism, which has reached epidemic proportions in our culture, both within religious communities and outside of them. Righteousness so easily becomes self-righteousness. To my way of thinking, moralism is the opposite of true religion. The antidote to moralism is presence: not “do this,” but “I’m here.” Flaubert wrote: “The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.” This can be taken for artistic hubris, I suppose, but another way of reading it would be to think of the author’s presence as being compassionate—suffering with his characters, as I think Flaubert really did.

To care about justice, an artist does not always have to focus on the largest and most distant problems; sometimes, it is best to stick with intimate and local life. One of the most powerful aspects of Madame Bovary is the way it demonstrates how injustice is embedded in the very fabric of the social order, coloring the way people see the world. It isn’t necessary to go to a distant shore to change how people think and feel about justice around the globe. For example, one can admire a book like Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, which gives voice to the epic, heart-bruising story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. But as humble as this act of literary ventriloquism may be, the novel borders on reportage rather than art. The good news is that as more artists around the planet are being seen and heard, we are becoming the beneficiaries of their own local perspectives.

Problems like poverty, disease, and homelessness are so pervasive that they seem to require large-scale solutions—and therefore many people assume that the only artistic response of value has to come through art that utilizes mass media and pop genres to get the word out on a sufficient scale. This is an understandable but misguided notion. It plays directly into the way that social justice itself has been turned into a commodity: some instant uplift, a soaring rock ballad, and a small financial donation. In the face of this we need art that resists commodification: art that is handmade, art that penetrates beneath the surface of things and demands much, rather than skimming across the sentimental surface. If the needs that justice cries out about are deep and enduring, then the art we create should be just as deep and enduring. Only that kind of art can move people to make the sort of sacrifice justice would have them make.

In On Beauty and Being Just Elaine Scarry writes: “what we should wish is a world where the vulnerability of the beholder is equal to or greater than the vulnerability of the person beheld.” Such a world may always live just outside our reach, but as Flaubert knew, one of the gifts of art to justice is that equalizing of vulnerability. Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

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