Un Coeur Simple

by Ariana Reines

The heart of the world is in chains: a conversation about the pleasure of Flaubert’s misery, making the hard soft and harder, and the green lion.

“Un Coeur Simple” was originally commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of the public-program series Miscellaneous Uncatalogued Material at the Museum of Modern Art, the third session of which was facilitated by Ariana Reines on March 7, 2012. (All three sessions have been transcribed and compiled for the second edition of Triple Canopy’s Volume Number series.) “Un Coeur Simple” was also published by Triple Canopy as part of its Thinking Through Images project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Ariana Reines: When I was invited to participate in this program back in January, I told Triple Canopy that I’d like to present an essay in verse on Flaubert’s Un cœur simple (A Simple Heart) and that, as part of it, I wanted to try to learn how to do something with my right arm: make the veve emblem you have on your handout by sprinkling cornmeal, which is the way that it’s done in Haiti. I wasn’t asked to respond to Sherrie Levine’s Flaubert project.1 I proposed to write an essay in verse on Un cœur simple, but I hadn’t even read the story. I just thought for some reason, at the time, that it would be an important thing to do. Then it turned out there’s this Sherrie Levine piece. It was more of a psychic or cosmic communication between me and Triple Canopy’s editors than an ordinary editorial or curatorial process, and I want to say that now so that you understand what’s really going on here.

1 Flaubert’s Un cœur simple was first published in the 1877 collection Trois contes (Three Tales). Sherrie Levine’s Gustave Flaubert: “Un cœur simple” is an appropriation of the Flaubert text, printed in one hundred copies on handmade paper, with its own layout and typefaces. The book was published in 1990 on the occasion of the exhibition series “Afinités sélectives,” at the Palais des Beaux-Arts of Brussels. Levine had previously reprinted the novella, word for word, under her own name in New Observations magazine in 1985. In 2002, she published “Pathos: Trois Contes,” an essay discussing Un cœur simple, in the journal October.
Sherrie Levine, Gustave Flaubert: “Un cœur simple,” 1990. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Library.

William Smith: And I’ll just try to obfuscate. (Laughter)

AR: Yeah! I’m excited to do something that I’ve never done before with all of you tender-hearted people. This specific veve goes with the voodoo Loa Ezili Freda; she’s the Goddess of love—she is a bit of a cognate of Venus—but it’s very complicated, and her heart is not a simple one at all. I didn’t learn how to make the emblem with my hand, so instead we’ve printed the image, which I’ve been meditating on in an unintentionally insistent way. What I’m going to do now is read this weird essay, which is repetitive, so you can just relax, you don’t have to worry about paying attention unless you want to. Elements of the plot of the story Un cœur simple will come up. Then I’m going to read that entire story aloud in the courtyard, since it’s a nice day.


AR: It seems like you’re all stunned, in misery.

Lucy Ives: I can ask you a question. Will you take questions?

AR: I will take anything. (Laughter)

LI: This is a general question about the way you read Flaubert. Flaubert is an author I have a lot of trouble with because of his obsession with style and creating a work that has a kind of objective integrity. And so, when he famously says things like, “I am Bovary,” for example, I’m left wondering what that means, or how I’m meant to perceive the author within his texts. And I was thinking this morning, as I was rereading this story, there’s a moment where, after Félicité’s nephew has died, the news comes to her, and her head falls back and her eyelids turn pink. It’s a very strange moment. Then, also, when Virginie dies, there’s the description of the corpse: The face sinks and something happens to the eyes. I had an uncanny impression that at these moments of death the body of the author is somehow appearing in the text. So I wanted to ask you about your impression of Flaubert’s presence in his own text, or his relation to his own text as a body.2

2 “As for my ‘lack of convictions,’ alas, convictions smother me. I burst with suppressed anger and indignation. But, in the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God in his. Man is nothing, the work of art everything. This discipline, which may come from a false point of view, is not easy to follow.” Gustave Flaubert to George Sand, December 31, 1875.

AR: That’s a beautiful question, and it calls us to be attentive to color in this story. And I don’t mean only the color of the parrot or the pinkness of the eyes; there’s also a blue, almost Krishna blue—and I’m not some kind of weird Hindu-obsessed freak—but at the end, when Félicité is dying and she sees the green parrot before her, there’s also this bizarre blue light, and she inhales it.3 Also, the color of the Negro—and that’s how he’s referred to in the translations of the French. (At one point this family moves into the town and they possess a Negro and a parrot.)

3 “A blue vapor rose in Félicité’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away;—and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.” Gustave Flaubert, Un cœur simple, 1877.
I see Loulou as an eloquent failure. I see Levine’s response to Flaubert as utterly of her time.

To segue into the second part of your question, about those moments of death that also seem to exude or exhale the decrepitude of Flaubert’s own body: I connect those to that part of the story in which Félicité is meditating on the mystery of the Holy Ghost, which is sometimes depicted as a bird, sometimes as a flame, sometimes as a breath. I also think it’s interesting that sometimes the French term is translated as “the Holy Spirit” and sometimes as “the Holy Ghost”; Flaubert was living with the ghost of the Holy Spirit, which was locked up and destroyed. I see the slave, the Negro, who bears the parrot, as the emblem of the Holy Spirit in chains. And through the simple heart of Félicité, I see an effort to seek out the heart of the world, or the Holy Spirit of the world. And I see, well, a Negro carrying a parrot in this little French town.4 What it means is that the heart of the world is in chains. It’s a pretty simple device.

4 “At dinner-time, Madame de Larsonnière’s servant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. A note from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had been promoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her to accept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.” Flaubert, Un cœur simple.

As the old outcast whom Félicité takes care of, and who camps by the river like a hermit, falls into decrepitude, he gazes at Félicité with amazement—almost the way she would later look at her parrot, Loulou—with this kind of delirious gratitude at the grace and kindness that is being shown to him in spite of everything.

LI: I think it’s interesting to end with delirious gratitude; it’s one of the strangest features of the story.

AR: I led a vision-quest thing in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago called the Opening of the Mouth. One of the people there, a brilliant thinker named Nomy Lamm, was writing something and said, “This is my hardest and my softest work.” We all know from history and psychoanalysis that it’s out of our own frailties that everything comes. So Flaubert’s decrepitude, while extreme, is no different from the decrepitude of all writers; we are all rotting and our hearts are necropolises,5 and everything that we do, everything that we make in this world, comes out of some kind of loss or mourning or desire. And yet something about what Nomy said made me want to learn how to read with my heart, to subjugate my intelligence or my critical faculty in a way that, perhaps, one is afraid to do when seeking the perfection of style.

5 “How many of the dead we have in our hearts! Each of us carries within himself his necropolis.” Flaubert to Sand, November 12–13, 1866.

In 2004, Levine created a series of small bronze sculptures of parrots, which she named Loulou, after the parrot in Flaubert’s story. I wonder if Levine felt she had to cast these parrots in bronze because she was in an art world and market, and a gender moment, where in order to enter this zone of the heart, attempt a soft work, and be taken seriously required the parrots to be cast in bronze. I see Loulou as an eloquent failure. I see Levine’s response to Flaubert as utterly of her time.

Sherrie Levine, Loulou, 2004.

Christine Smallwood: I’m having trouble with this dichotomy you’re setting up between irony and pathos. My reading of Flaubert has always been that he masters cliché. Cliché is the thing that, I think, bridges irony and pathos. We really genuinely inhabit all of our clichéd thoughts and experiences. And so this dichotomy seems like a straw man to me. The second thing I want to ask: I don’t remember the exact terms of the discussion between Flaubert and Louise Colet about her own work, but I do recall that her one creative work was autobiographical and that Flaubert was quite nasty about it. And so I’m wondering if part of what your essay is doing is recuperating some kind of conversation with Flaubert from a woman’s perspective. Because Flaubert was not—I mean, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” has never really been understood as a personal identification.

AR: First, to the irony: I’m actually opposing the perfection of style and pathos. Irony and certain kinds of juxtaposition as elements of style are fine. I don’t have a problem with irony. I’m more concerned with the idea that the perfection of style is everything, as opposed to the pathos of Flaubert’s life or the pathos that this perfect style is meant to express. Flaubert has earned the reputation of being inhuman. He’s seen as this ironist, which is not the way I read him at all. I see the perfection of style in Flaubert as an expression of misery. I see any obsession with fashion as an expression of Occidental misery. The French represent the perfection of this misery. They always have, and they still do. Now this is not to say this misery isn’t elsewhere in the world, but in French culture it’s a jewel, it’s gemlike. The way I read the pathos of Flaubert, as Sherrie Levine very aptly called it—I see the perfection of his style as the utterly perfect expression of total failure, the misery of this culture.6 It’s a jewel, but it’s miserable—a miserable miracle, to borrow a phrase from Henri Michaux. And for me, reading Flaubert is a delight. When I read him, everything that I suffer just bathes over me like water.

6 “In 1849, Flaubert reads his first full-length adult work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, to his two closest friends. The reading takes four days, at the rate of eight hours per day. After embarrassed consultation, the listeners tell him to throw it on the fire. Flaubert contracts syphilis in Egypt in 1850. Much of his hair falls out; he grows stout. Madame Flaubert, meeting him in Rome the following year, scarcely recognizes her son, and finds that he has become very coarse. Middle age begins here. ‘Scarcely are you born before you begin rotting.’ Over the years all but one of his teeth will fall out; his saliva will be permanently blackened by mercury treatment. … In later years Flaubert comes to resent the insistent fame of his masterpiece [Madame Bovary], which makes others see him as a one-book author. The publication of A Sentimental Education, in 1869, is a critical and commercial flop. Of the 150 complimentary copies sent to friends and acquaintances, barely thirty are even acknowledged.” Sherrie Levine, “Pathos: Trois Contes,” October no. 101 (Summer 2002).

With my essay, I was trying to write effortlessly and unconsciously, in the way that Un cœur simple opened itself up to me. What I wrote about my depressed return to New York was meant in some way to parallel the Occidental misery that I feel is exuded by the story. There’s a hardness and softness—the desire to express rage and the possibility to speak softly about my life in a way that Sherrie Levine perhaps could not have done at my age. This is like making lace, but it’s messy lace. Félicité tries to make lace at one point in Un cœur simple, but she can’t; her fingers are clumsy and she’s no good at it. She gives up.

Lara Weibgen: You describe Flaubert’s style as this miserable miracle, this jewel, and then you immediately talk about the pleasure of the text. They’re bound together.

There’s a hardness and softness—the desire to express rage and the possibility to speak softly about my life.

AR: They are. They are absolutely one. But Un cœur simple exceeds the limits of Flaubert’s psychology, his situation, his personal decrepitude. That’s why I’m trying to open it up—beyond the way in which Levine did so by invoking his personal pathos: “Oh, this poor thing, look how he suffered.” When I read Flaubert I feel like the work is calling through time to my heart. And I think that he, with his one tooth, and his saliva blackened by mercury, his syphilis that he got fucking whores in Egypt, and the fact that he lived with his mother—all of that is there. And yet he’s made something that is a jewel, that is delightful, that hasn’t aged a day, that feels utterly true to my experience. And I feel, as a woman, that Flaubert has a great understanding of what is wrong with our world.7

7 “It is just the account of an obscure life, that of a poor country girl, pious but fervent, discreetly loyal, and tender as new-baked bread. She loves one after the other a man, her mistress’ children, a nephew of hers, an old man whom she nurses, and her parrot. When the parrot dies she has it stuffed, and when she herself comes to die she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost. This is not at all ironical as you may suppose, but on the contrary very serious and very sad. I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am tender-hearted myself. Now surely, no one will accuse me of being inhuman any more.” Flaubert on Un cœur simple to Edma Roger des Genettes, June 19, 1876.

To me, Levine is trying to enshrine something that is of the Holy Spirit. She’s accomplished a different kind of miserable miracle, a different kind of stylistic perfection. I think the form of the work says more about gender relations at that time than about the deeper, more universal message of this story. But I’m just going with my vibes on Levine.

Eileen Myles: Well, it’s kind of a feminist camp, male drag. “Madame Bovary c’est moi” is a kind of drag. When Rimbaud says, “I am an other” (“Je suis un autre”), that’s a kind of drag. When Sherrie Levine makes the hard harder, as Douglas put it, it’s butch drag—which was possible in the 80s.

AR: Power suit!

EM: Shoulders. A rack.

Douglas E. Martin: I want to ask you to do one alchemical thing. So: gold, bronze, and green.

AR: In alchemy, actually, the green lion is vitriol. The green lion is an epithet for sulfuric acid, for which vitriol is the acronym; it’s Latin, something like, “Visit the interior of yourself and you will find the philosopher’s stone.” There’s the chemical meaning of vitriol and the spiritual meaning. Everything in alchemy is allegory. Vitriol is allegorized in painting by a green lion biting the sun, which is bleeding. By burning through mere appearances—the Hindus would call it the veil of Maya, the world of illusions in which we all live—you can penetrate into the real truth of things. That’s the alchemical green. Why do I know that green is the heart chakra? Because the poet CAConrad was wearing a green shirt one day, and I’d been wanting to learn what those color correspondences are.

Sam Frank: If Flaubert is going in drag, and Sherrie Levine is going in butch drag, what persona are you adapting in your writing?

AR: I’m certainly in a kind of soft drag today. I wanted to attempt a way of thinking about reading that would be embodied. If I’m only willing to speak about the heart of someone else then I’m just a scholar or a steward of something. I wish to read as a poet. The decrepitude of Flaubert’s body did not seem to inflict itself upon his titanic, spotless reputation in literary history, and yet his prose is filled with these little stains—everything has rot on it, or it stinks a little bit. Flaubert isn’t hiding the shit of this world. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t wear clothes, that we should be naked and smear our poop on the walls together, and that that would be truer than sitting here and talking. And yet, I could have given only my feminist, postcolonial reading of Flaubert’s story and not brought up the fact that I miscarried or that love made me want to kill. And maybe that personal part of my essay was boring, and maybe if I had been listening to it I’d have been like, “Shut up!” But that’s also true. There will be things that are useful and things that are not.

EM: My interpretation of what you’re saying is that in doing this soft reading you get burned by the present. You enter the text thoroughly. Flaubert got burned by history, in a way, but now all the shit is gone—he’s Flaubert. How does one accomplish that in the present? I think this is a sort of feminist reading that allows you to enter the text and become invisible through your own magic, if that makes sense to you.

AR: That makes sense to me.8

8 From an email exchange following the discussion at MoMA:

Ariana Reines: I worry that printing Levine's bronze parrot in this green ink is too merciful and generous to her work. What is elided in this document, and what is most important, is that Levine ignored the significance of the parrot’s being green, and of color—thus RACE and thereby the entire cruel order of imperialist bourgeoisie—in the story. Color was the crux of the entire thing. I wore green bracelets and referred to Levine getting the black right in the paintings that accompanied the parrots, but failing with the bronze—failing to read Flaubert precisely because of a blindness to color. That’s why I read the entire story aloud. It’s important to me that the critical barb in my soft reading not get disappeared by the wonderful—and marvelously economical—design and layout. My criticism will be clear in the audio, but it has been buffed out of the printed document a little bit too tidily; I fear it becomes reified, through design, into the edifice of Levine’s oeuvre, which would be a mistake.

William Smith: We probably do need a new line to this effect for the publication, because your critique of Loulou was so enmeshed in your essay. As an aside, I like that the bronze parrot is depicted in green ink. Maybe one of the reasons this seems to challenge your critique is that bronze isn’t necessarily opposed to green. After all, without regular maintenance, Levine’s sculptures will eventually become green from the patina; maybe they already have a greenish tinge.

AR: Such a great point about bronze becoming green! Suddenly Douglas’s question about alchemy and vitriol and green is even more poignant. I completely missed the metallurgical valence. Maybe Levine deserves more credit than I’m giving her.