In the long history of literature, there have always been those writers who, usually in the waning years of their lives, undertake gargantuan, overly ambitious projects that they could never hope to finish. In the case of the French Existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, this project was The Family Idiot, a five volume, 3,000 page, psychoanalytic biographical “novel” documenting the life (in all its excruciating detail) of 19th century French master Gustave Flaubert. This endeavor took up ten years of Sartre’s life, was left unfinished at his death, and pretty much destroyed his eyesight. Why was he compelled to do this? Why is anyone?
While Madame Bovary is rightly considered one of the most important novels of all time, people forget that it also solved, in one, sure stroke, a huge crisis in literature. The modern, industrialized, capitalistic world, and its modern cascade of social class, had caged artists of the mid 19th century into a confused identity – romanticism was trivial in the new, polluted, scientific society, and literature was paralyzed into stagnancy. Flaubert’s novel of a provincial woman revealing the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of French bourgeois life, scandalized society so much that they put him on trial for indecency. And realism, as we know it, was born.
The climax of Sartre’s The Family Idiot comes at around page 2,000, when Flaubert, at the age of 25 in 1846, has a debilitating “fit,” which some scholars have attributed to epilepsy (Flaubert never had another one). Flaubert’s father, a doctor, declares his son is not healthy enough for the career in law he has been studying for, and must be taken care of by the family for the rest of his life. And Flaubert is free to create. Sartre argues that this “fit” was not a medical incident, but a “willful act,” to save Flaubert’s life and provide him the environment to write. A curious idea from Sartre, who once claimed there is no such thing as an individual.