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Synchronicity: An Acausal Literary Principle

The Construction of Meaning Through the Unification of Acausally Connected Elements, in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary


Mar 23, 2010


As a literary system, Gustave Flaubert's realism was formulated in opposition to the principles of romanticism. Where romance explodes in affectations of emotional excess -- "What rapture! Oh, what agony!", Flaubert restrains emotion in favour of detached objectivity -- "A spasm flung her down ... Everyone drew close. She had ceased to exist." If literature aspires to artful expressions of universality, then Flaubert aspires to the impartial observation of that universe.

Towards the end of impartiality Flaubert approaches writing as a scientific pursuit. Just as the world is governed by action and reaction, so is Flaubert mindful that chapters should connect to their "neighbours organically, according to a verisimilar ... unstated progression of cause and effect." However, just as cause and effect are not the only organizational principles that apply to our experience of reality, so does Flaubert work to apply other literary principles within the natural, realist foundations of Madame Bovary.

While Madame Bovary's chapters proceed causally, deeper realist signification arises from Flaubert's construction of emotive webs of meaning that capture and connect causally independent elements, and indirectly substantiate the psychical content of the characters. Hence where romantic phraseology directly describes dramatic content (as evinced above), it is by the unitary force of Flaubert's emotive webs that dramatic meaning arises. Because signification is central to the study of psychology, it is notable that Flaubert's quest to represent meaning via webs prefigured what twentieth-century psychologist Carl Jung later postulated in his observation of "meaningful orderedness," or what he dubbed "synchronicity." Synchronicity is a natural psychical explanation operating beyond causality, in which the "simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with ... external events" constructs "meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state." Hence by way of meaningful similarities Flaubert was an early literary practician of what Jung later codified in his psychology of synchronicity.

To better understand the semiotics of Flaubert's meaningful webs and their connection to Jung's meaningful orderedness, we will first outline the tenets of synchronicity, then differentiate synchronicity from icon and metaphor, and finally apply the tenets of synchronicity towards analysis of two passages from Madame Bovary.

The paradigm example of synchronicity described by Jung is the story of an untreatable patient who dreamt of a scarab. At "a critical moment" in the patient's therapy -- just as the patient was describing their dream -- a scarab flew into the office, and this heralded a positive turn in the patient's recovery. Here two acausal events (dream discussion; insect arrival) were connected not by cause but by content (mental scarab; physical scarab), and signification arose from their meaningful acausal unity. Synchronicity therefore describes the "simultaneous occurrence of meaningful equivalences in heterogeneous, ... unrelated processes" that reveal a "psychoid property which, like space, time, and causality, forms a criterion of ... behavior." This psychoid property suggests for Jung the actuality of "a pre-existent psyche which organizes matter" and generates "a knowledge not mediated by the sense organs."

By Jung's paradigm example we may thus define synchronicity using the following three desiderata; there must exist (i) multiple objectively acausal events (ii) connected by meaning (iii) that reveal through their unity a psychoid property which forms a criterion of behavior. Here we find our first point of correspondence between Jung's synchronicity and Flaubert's semiotics. Where Jung posits an imperceptible "pre-existent psyche that organizes matter," Flaubert proscribes that an "author must be in his book like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible." Keeping this principle of organization in mind, we will now explicate the difference between icon, metaphor, and synchronicity.

A synchronicity operates beyond a metaphor or icon. Although Flaubert regularly employs metaphors and icons, as seen for example in his statement that "Charles's conversation was flat as a sidewalk," in such examples we readily perceive an individual simile and not a web of meaning. Here the source symbol (flat sidewalk) is applied directly to the target object (Charles' conversation) and the reader may simply imbibe the metaphor; no effort is necessary. In the matter of synchronicity the reader may passively or actively engage the synchronicitous web, but in every case there are multiple acausal and independent source symbols applied indirectly to one or more target objects and a wider meaningful coincidence is thereby manufactured.

Having defined the tenets and characteristics of literary and psychological synchronicity, let us now examine Madame Bovary for demonstrations of this principle.

The first example to be discussed is the hilltop horse ride of Emma and Rodolphe, which describes the moments leading up to the consummation of their affair. As Emma proceeds up the hill and toward the forest she feigns for herself uncertainty about what events she will permit to unfold; "There was a mist over the countryside." Mystery hides the precise shape of Rodolphe's designs from Emma, but still the underlying forms are not hard to discern; "Wisps of vapor lay along the horizon, following the contours of the hills." Knowing full well why they are there, the two savour the fact that they are together and avoid submitting to each other too quickly; "For a time Rodolphe and Emma continued to follow the edge of the wood." Soon however "they turned into the forest, and at that moment the sun came out," both physically and as a symbol of impending physicality. By juxtaposing physical mist with (Emma's) psychical uncertainty, hidden hills with (Rodolphe's) secret strategies, and the rising sun with the advance of affections, an emotive web of meaning is here constructed. This meaningful web effectuates a transcendent correlation between the elements of the scene and the subjective state of both Emma and the reader. An almost sensible apprehension of the rapture and suspense that Emma experiences as she verges on infidelity is created. As a result in this passage we find an exact literary correspondence with Jung's own description of synchronicity; the "simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with ... external events" that constructs "meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state."

The second example to be examined by the paragon of synchronicity is Emma's receipt of Rodolphe's final letter. Upon the mere sight of Rodolphe's gift basket Emma is immediately awash in a "feeling of dread." She senses the grievous contents of the letter hidden within, and "as though she were fleeing from a fire she ran panic-stricken up the stairs" into the attic in order that she might undergo the letter's punishments privately. The attic however proves to be the very epicenter of the blaze from which she flees. "There the roof slates were throwing down a heat that was all but unbearable" and "pressed on her so that she could scarcely breathe." Before entering the attic Emma's mental condition is already one of impassioned oppression, and further to her internal oppression the physical conditions that obtain within the attic synchronicitously enhance the reader's experience of that torment. The heat of the attic pressed on her corporeally just as her emotions pressed on her incorporeally, and both elements press on the reader significantly. Thus we observe a synchronicity; the cause of heat in the attic is unrelated to the cause of Emma's distress, and the temporal combination of Emma's physical suffocation with her emotional suffocation constructs a meaningful equivalence in the mind of the reader, the experience of pain. Here we see clearly Flaubert's use of meaning to connect acausal elements and capture dramatic content in a system of meaningful orderedness that actualizes a character's psychic content.

By the examples above we see how Flaubert's project of objectivity drove him to develop a literary method of dispassionate observation in order to construct dramatic content. By his system of meaningful coincidences all aspects of a character's existence are adapted to uncover their feelings and desires, and through the unification of causally independent elements readers are given a glimpse into the meaningful organization of Flaubert's literary universe. If Flaubert is the transcendental cause, then the experiences and emotions of Emma Bovary are the meaning around which all other elements of Madame Bovary converge and by which they are organized. In this way Flaubert's meaningful coincidences typified Carl Jung's meaningful orderedness, by which Jung suggested an acausal principle to explain experience; that is, "The coincidence of a psychic state in the observer with a simultaneous ... external event that corresponds to the psychic state or content ... where there is no evidence of a causal connection between the psychic state and the external event."

The greater importance of the connection between Flaubert and Jung is the recognition that just as an author unites the elements of a story by their own meaning, so do readers construct a unity of the elements that they perceive in their experience of a text by their own existence. Thus we each exist by our own system of meaningful orderedness, and as our own continuous synchronicity.


Part of the series: UWO