San Francisco, California

We Long to Move the Stars to Pity

I first came across this passage in Artful by Ali Smith that I finished just last week and it’s an unforgivably good quote extracted from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I haven’t read the book yet, but I believe that in this section the writer is describing a relationship that he finds himself haunted by because words could never quite describe how he felt:

…one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

What does that first part mean, “exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections”? Well, I reckon that Flaubert is arguing that we have to forgive bad grammar and misdirected excitement in ourselves and in others. We have to forgive clichés and bad jokes. We have to because sometimes those grammatical errors and half-baked ideas reveal something vulnerable and interesting about us.

“We long to move the stars to pity”, as Flaubert magnificently writes, but we just can’t ever find the right words to do the trick.


I was reminded of this extract today as I was walking around Potrero Hill with a friend and whilst she was describing her dissatisfaction with her new job. During our chat there were a few lulls in the conversation where we just couldn’t really describe why we were both so unhappy with everything. And we almost sort of didn’t want to. We couldn’t describe how we felt but I think we also both knew that we were experiencing the same sorts of feelings and there was a measure of comfort in the silence because of that. Trying to describe how we were feeling would somehow cast everything in the wrong light.

Instead of clutching at the easy metaphor or cliché we just sat there in the boba shop, brooding.