Tag Archives: saving leonardo

Without Moral Commentary

gustave-flaubertIn Chapter 6 of Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey turns to the crucial role evolutionary materialism has played on the stage of Western thought – and not least in the arts and humanities.

Enter the literary naturalists: writers like Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Emile Zola, and Gustave Flaubert. These chaps used fiction “to portray society as a product of evolution, subject to the law of tooth and claw,” and they often took their lead from science. To them the novel or play was a sort of laboratory in which human behavior could be studied in a detached and clinical way. “Events” – and this is key – “were to be presented without moral commentary.”

A striking example can be seen in Flaubert’s work:

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the main character engages in various adulterous affairs and suffers a gradual breakdown of character until she commits suicide. Yet the process is portrayed with clinical detachment – no sympathy, no redemption, no moral to the story. When Flaubert was charged with obscenity, his lawyer defended him by arguing that the book’s scenes exhibit the same fidelity to fact as a camera. But that was precisely the problem. Events were described photographically, without moral comment. Flaubert once wrote that art should strive for “the exactness of the physical sciences.” He treats his characters as somewhat repellant specimens that he picks up with tweezers to examine.

And this is where it gets even more interesting:

Today’s readers are puzzled by the charge of obscenity, given that the book contains no explicit sexual descriptions. But nineteenth-century readers were far more sensitive to the shift in worldview. They were aghast at the novel’s naturalistic worldview – its refusal to apply any kind of transcendent perspective or moral principal – which they recognized as reductionistic and dehumanizing. The literary naturalists may have claimed to be scientific and objective, but they were not simply observing human experience. They were imposing a preconceived philosophical framework that reduced humans to biological organisms in the Darwinian struggle for existence.

Contrast #1: In the nineteenth century, this kind of philosophy was met with distrust, if not actual hostility (as evidenced by the obscenity charges). In the twenty-first, we hug it and kiss it and welcome it into the house. Oh the joy of being post-modern, you know?

Contrast #2: I’ve never read Madame Bovary myself, and frankly I have no desire to; yet I think it would almost be worth it, if only to see the antithesis of Tolstoy’s approach in Anna Karenina. Both deal with adultery – only one of them deals with adultery as sin. Talk about a fascinating study.

On the Bookshelf XXIII


Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
“… the story of Cornelius Suttree, who has forsaken a life of privilege with his prominent family to live in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River near Knoxville.” I really don’t know what to say about this one, except that it’s freakishly weird – like Flannery O’Conner on steroids – and I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing.
Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand
I usually avoid contemporary Christian fiction like the plague, simply because so much of it is face-slappingly bad. I’ve heard Bertrand’s book is a welcome exception to the rule. The Kindle edition is currently available for free, so grab it if detective novels are your thing.
Emma by Jane Austen
Because, in the words of Peter Leithart, “real men read Austen.” And they have a good time doing it, too.
Henry V by Shakespeare
With the possible exception of Coriolanus, this is easily my favorite Shakespeare play, not least for passages like this one: “The sum of all our answer is but this: We would not seek battle as we are, Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.”
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
“Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.” The first installment of the bestselling Expanse series – which I know nothing about, except that it has been highly praised by a number of reviewers I follow. It was, I must admit, George R.R. Martin’s blurb that piqued my interest: “It’s been too long since we’ve had a really kicka** space opera.”
Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron
Let’s just say I’m reading this one with an extreme amount of skepticism. And the endorsement from Rachel Held Evans isn’t helping any.
Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey
“Is secularism a positive force in the modern world? Or does it lead to fragmentation and disintegration? In Saving Leonardo, best-selling award-winning author Nancy Pearcey makes a compelling case that secularism is destructive and dehumanizing.” If you loved Pearcey’s work in Total Truth, you’ll love it here.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?