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Flaubert's «Salammbô»

The Ancient Orient as a Political Allegory of Nineteenth-Century France

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Volker Durr

With Salammbô, Flaubert turned to the old Orient and Carthage’s civil war with its mercenaries to relive his travels in the Levant and indulge in erotic and heroic reveries. Yet his alluring heroine gives way to political and military matters that take up two-thirds of the text and makes the Orient, conceived as the «other,» the same: an allegory of Flaubert’s France. Political chaos and desperate military situations produce the charismatic leader who, abetted by the bourgeoisie, defrauds the rebels to realize his imperial and dynastic goals (Barca and the two Napoleons). By analogy, Flaubert patterns the emergence of the «shofet» Barca after the politics of ancient Israel, where the charismatic king supersedes rule by councils of elders and the judges («shofets»). «He wants to make himself king,» his rival Hanno shouts. Barca’s triumph constitutes a twofold revolution: the overthrow of the existing order and return to royalty, which governed Carthage until 480 B.C. In France, the rise of Napoleon III signified revolution, a coup d’état, and repetition: a farce. Flaubert draws for his similes on Punic mythology and the Afro-Oriental setting. Salammbô is also a novel about time.