Pastiche of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

This post is the second in a series of three pastiches of French authors, all depicting undergraduate life at Caltech, appended with commentary targeted at readers with no familiarity with French literature.

The first post in the series.

It was eleven fifteen pm, Friday, May 5, 2018; Clifton, having made his usual half-hearted attempt to enjoy interhovse; was back in his room on the second floor, leaning out of his window, and watching the pulsating mass of students in the courtyard below, dancing to “Just the Way You Are,” when a knock rapped against his door, and a falsetto voice called his name; and before he could make to answer, he heard the sound of a door-code being punched; the door opened just wide enough to allow entrance; and David Hedon (who was always called by his first and last name), slid sideways into his room.

“Why aren’t you at the party, my dude?” David Hedon asked, and without waiting for an answer he pulled a small ziplock bag of white powder from the pocket of his hoodie and dangled it in Clifton’s face. He had scored half a gram of ketamine off a grad student in the physics department, and was feeling generous, so had stopped by the party to collect a few of his favorite people, and now he was hoping they could all hang out in Clifton’s room.

The six of them sat in an ellipse on the carpeted floor, beneath the faded mandala tapestries, taking turns holding a teaspoon beneath a nostril and sniffing milligrams of ground crystal into their sinuses. When it was his turn, a frosh named Tobias anxiously admitted that he had never insufflated anything before, and they all delighted in advising him on how it was done.

“It’s exactly what you’d expect, you just hold it up against your nose and breathe.”

“You have to check which nostril you’re breathing through first.”

“Careful not to breathe out and blow it everywhere.”

“You have to, like, sniff, don’t just breathe in.”

“Did you know that you generally only breathe through one nostril at a time?”

“And make sure to hold your breath, to let it settle on your mucous membranes.”

“It’s called nostril-cycling. One nostril for fifteen minutes, then the other.”

“No, hold on, that’s way too much. Five milligrams at a time.”

Tobias, flustered, ended up with ketamine on his face and in his throat, but not in his nose. David Hedon suggested he try again, but he shook his head saying he would wait his turn.

The conversation turned to research, and homework, and classes; and it continued with starts and stops as they each sunk into a gentle fog, lapsing repeatedly into quiet stillness, until it subsided entirely.

Some time later, Liz, who was seated next to Clifton, tilted toward him, leaning forty five degrees, and holding her arms erect in front of her. They swayed through the air in no particular pattern. “Do you ever think it’s weird that we live in Euclidean three-space?” she asked the room at large.

“Hey Clif,” said Thurin from across the room, sitting up a bit, and straightening his shirt, which was printed with a headshot of Chairman Mao. “You tryna go to grad school next year, or what?”

Clifton had spent his youth daydreaming about professorship, prestige, and nerdy female admirers, but now, with grad school applications only a few months away, and his path to success more tangible than ever before, these thoughts brought him only the immense pain of losing what he had for so long assumed was rightfully his. “What’s the point?” he said morosely. “For every professorship in high energy physics, there are like fifty qualified post-docs.”

Prescott pulled some weed out of his pocket and started rolling a joint. “You know what? We just need to cut it out with this `everyone is equal’ bullshit, ya know? Like, obviously, obviously you’re going to have statistical psychological differences between different ethnic groups. Obviously. Why not use that to help make an informed choice?”

“The medieval Muslims were fucking brilliant,” said Hannah, accepting the joint from Prescott, and taking a puff (Clifton wished they wouldn’t smoke in his room), “have you seen their art? They deeply understood quasiperiodic structures. Modern mathematicians have only started really working that out within the last thirty years.”

“Anyway,” said Thurin, who spoke no Spanish, but was confident in his ability to master anything he set his mind to, “I figure if physics doesn’t work out for me, I can just run off and join the Zapatistas.”

Prescott swore them all to secrecy, and told them his plans for a machine-learning line of hotels. He was already in communication with potential investors—friends who had graduated a couple years before and were now making half a million dollars a year in finance. Hannah had gotten honorable mention in the art of science competition this past year, and was going to pursue music visualization or paleontological drawing or maybe film if mathematics didn’t work out. David Hedon, who was unconcerned about his future, had taken a seat next to Tobias, and was talking in a hushed tone, perhaps advising him on proper insufflation technique.

Hannah handed Clifton the joint, and he walked to the window, hoping to lead by example. Leaning out, he was assaulted by the sound of Pitbull yelling “It’s going down, I’m yelling timber!” The mass of students was still pulsating on the dance floor. “Have you considered that dance is just the excitation of human eigenmodes?” It was Liz. The window wasn’t really wide enough for two people, so her arm was pressed against his. Clifton was struck with the absurd image of the two of them, hand-in-hand, picking honeysuckle in San Marino. He exhaled smoke into the warm night air. With the ketamine and cannabis making their way into his brain, and the rhythmic throbbing of the party below, he forgot his anxieties about the future. Clifton felt a deep sense of belonging in the universe, as if his body were perfectly in tune with the resonant frequencies of the globe.

Sentimental Education was published in 1869 and depicts a cross-section of French society leading up to the 1848 revolution.  It takes a cynical look at how cultural angst can fester and erupt into futile violent conflict.  Characters from all walks of life coexist in social spaces against a backdrop of indulgence and malaise.  Interpersonal relationships exist ambiguously between real friendship and transaction.  Political discussions are vapidly idealistic and self-serving.

Like many scenes in Sentimental Education, my pastiche takes place at a party.  The rhythm of the prose matches the rhythmic beat of dance music, and detailed imagery creates a sense of presence while also characterizing the subculture being depicted.

Flaubert uses juxtaposition to suggest similarity between people, ideas and situations that are superficially very different.  The juxtaposition of the chaotic insufflation instructions and the political discussion draws attention to the way that people are more interested in being heard than in being helpful.  The juxtaposition of the different political ideas—self-serving racism under a façade of rational common sense vs ignorant endorsement of both anarchism and totalitarian communism—suggests that these ideas are both born of the same narcissistic reasoning.  Indeed, Flaubert is full of seeming opposites that are really one and the same: conservatism and communism, love and hatred, extreme optimism and extreme pessimism.

This last duality rings especially true today.  We’ve been told to expect success and happiness, and we are bombarded with constant opportunity. The constant opportunities foster indecision and inaction, and the expectations of success mean that we are constantly disappointed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *