The Black Hole of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

December 20, 2012

B and P

[I just realized, this is my 1000th post!  How appropriate that it should be about Bouvard and Pecuchet!]

I read through most of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet again over the last few weeks.  Flaubert didn’t finish the book, and the conclusion is simply an outline assembled from his notes.  It is a very difficult book to get a grip on, unless you are well versed in the Flaubertian world view:  This blogger, however, is on to something when she remarks that she read the entire thing with the childrens’  book, Frog and Toad in mind!

The ‘novel’ tells of two clerks, nobodies is how Flaubert referred to them in his original title for it, who take up a life of ease in the country after one of them comes into an inheritance.  In fact, the life they adopt is what I plan for myself in retirement: reading, travelling, ‘intellectual’ hobbies, and so on.  But this is Flaubert, remember.

B & P is Flaubert’s revenge on human culture, his ever-ticking time bomb of a black hole that sucks in everything that has been thought and said about anything, and makes it disappear with a ‘poof!’  He remarked in his letters that he hoped that after reading it, people “would be afraid to say anything,” because of course, anything they could say would be reflected in some imbecility or other in this book.  At last, people might just shut up, forever!

The book is not about anything, other than the endless mental and recreational diversions of the two clerks.  You could say it’s a book about nothing, more than one hundred years before Seinfeld hit on that theme as a platform for mass entertainment.  Of course, Flaubert’s spirit, if it watches television, recognizes and accepts the inevitability of the recuperation of his work.

People comment on this book a lot, in rather grand ways.  Christopher Hitchens reviewed a recent translation and got this off, my emphasis:

This novel was plainly intended to show its author’s deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. Such schemes founder because the human material is simply too base to be transmuted. Even Bouvard and Pécuchet receive a glimpse of this, if only through their own solipsism: “Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. . . . They felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.”

Earnest fellow that Hitchens is, it doesn’t occur to him that Flaubert is here talking about himself.  As he said of his most famous character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”  Read his entertaining and outrageous letters, and that much is clear.

In the forward to my edition, Lionel Trilling has this to say:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding … that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Sometimes I get so sick of culture I could scream…but what’s the alternative?   Here’s a passage with my favorite part in blue:

Pécuchet, without bestowing a thought on them, took up the argument:

“Excuse me, M. Jeufroy. The weight of the atmosphere, science demonstrates to us, is equal to that of a mass of water which would make a covering ten metres around the globe. Consequently, if all the air that had been condensed fell down in a liquid state, it would augment very little the mass of existing waters.”

The vestrymen opened their eyes wide, and listened.

The curé lost patience. “Will you deny that shells have been found on the mountains? What put them there, if not the Deluge? They are not accustomed, I believe, to grow out of the ground of themselves alone, like carrots!” And this joke having made the assembly laugh, he added, pressing his lips together: “Unless this be another discovery of science!”

Bouvard was pleased to reply by referring to the rising of mountains, the theory of Elie de Beaumont.
“Don’t know him,” returned the abbé.

Foureau hastened to explain: “He is from Caen. I have seen him at the Prefecture.”

“But if your Deluge,” Bouvard broke in again, “had sent shells drifting, they would be found broken on the surface, and not at depths of three hundred metres sometimes.”

The priest fell back on the truth of the Scriptures, the tradition of the human race, and the animals discovered in the ice in Siberia.

“That does not prove that man existed at the time they did.”

The earth, in Pécuchet’s view, was much older. “The delta of the Mississippi goes back to tens of thousands of years. The actual epoch is a hundred thousand, at least. The lists of Manetho——”

The Count de Faverges appeared on the scene. They were all silent at his approach.
“Go on, pray. What were you talking about?”
“These gentlemen are wrangling with me,” replied the abbé.
“About what?”
“About Holy Writ, M. le Comte.”
Bouvard immediately pleaded that they had a right, as geologists, to discuss religion.
“Take care,” said the count; “you know the phrase, my dear sir, ‘A little science takes us away from it, a great deal leads us back to it’?” And in a tone at the same time haughty and paternal: “Believe me, you will come back to it! you will come back to it!”

“Perhaps so. But what were we to think of a book in which it is pretended that the light was created before the sun? as if the sun were not the sole cause of light!”
“You forget the light which we call boreal,” said the ecclesiastic.

I love the way the local class system is limned with such economy: the Count approaches, and they all await his words.  He lets fall a few clichés supportive of the status quo.  The dialog of the deaf continues…

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Yet again: The Wine of Life!

November 20, 2012

Who is this J. Newcome?  Is he the actual author of the mysterious series, The Wine of Life?  

There it is, right on page 4 below:


Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.


Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.


The Fountainhead?

August 4, 2012

For a critical judgment of The Fountainhead (1949), I bow to the courtly derision of Bosley Crowther’s review from that year:

…a more curious lot of high-priced twaddle we haven’t seen for a long, long time.

With little to go on in the way of drama, he [Vidor] has worked for his emotional effects with clever cutting, heavy musical backing and having his actors speak and behave in solemn style.

I watched this film on the suggestion of Ducky’s Here who made this comment on my post regarding my abandoned attempt to read Atlas Shrugged. I agree; it’s a must-see.  There’s nothing like it, and since Ayn Rand was directly involved in creating and approving this film treatment, it sheds yet more light, if any is needed, on the essential kookiness of her ideas.

At the core of the story is a tale of sexual dominance and submission.  In the scene above, Dominique tells Roark that she will not, cannot be subdued.  He, the Male Principle, replies that it depends on the strength of the adversary.  She’s doomed, and she knows it. Nothing can keep her from going to his apartment, where he calmly awaits her submission.  But she cannot endure her slavery to passion, so she ‘escapes’ by marrying a man she doesn’t love, and whom she regards as corrupt.

Roark is supposed to be the noble man of ideas, suffering the derision of the Mob.  He wanders, solitary, like a samurai, following his code, not caring about his enemies.  His arch detractor, Toohey (rhymes with phooey) accosts him, and tries to engage him dialogue, just for the satisfaction of it, but Roark doesn’t even give him the time of day.

Toohey is an evil, hypocritical, power-hungry, ‘collectivist’ who despises people, loves humanity, and spares no means in pursuit of his ends.  In short, a socialist, and a sort of comic Stalin-in-waiting figure.  How amusing that the picture on the wall in his office here is a portrait of John Locke.  Rand getting cute with the production team, no doubt.

This scene also gets at the essential absurdity of this film and its story.  Toohey convinces a hack architect, a former classmate of Roark’s, to try to design a big project.  The hack can’t do it, and he begs Roark to design it for him, “just like you did in school.”  So, this habit of academic and professional fraud is natural to Mr. Roark, the honorable egoist?  And when his design is changed, he blows up the buildings, careless of property (John Locke would vomit) and human safety.  He gets off after an amazing speech to the jury in which he regurgitates Rand’s cockeyed philosophy.  (The speech is amazing for its length – Rand must have insisted on it.  The delivery is wooden.)

We may also wonder why, if “the masses” are so stupid, which is the point of much of Roark’s speech (they always denounce the geniuses who bring them gifts), why do they acquit him?  Apparently they can think?

The fountainhead refers to the spirit of the individual from which flows all human good.  Roark’s is polluted with plagiarism from his schoolboy days.  And maybe I’m asking too much from a Hollywood flick, but why is Roark’s trashy work seen as so avant garde, when by 1949, the International Modern Style was the favorite of corporate tycoons everywhere?


Let’s Eat Slop

June 6, 2012

Once when I visited a farmer’s house, he served me a vegetable dish with miso bean-paste sauce cooked in clamshells – a style called kaiyaki in this part of the country – and fish.  While he drank sake over his meal, he said to me in thick dialect, “You might wonder what could be interesting about living in a hovel like this and eating slop like this.  Well, I tell you, it’s interesting just to be alive.”

from Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa


New Environmentalism?

May 30, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway spans the Hackensack Meadowlands

With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.”  It can be funny:  hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual.  I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash:  their ideas are so 18th century.  (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)

Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder?  I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.

I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy.  (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!)  There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World.  I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:

NC:  In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

EM:  I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation.  Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it.  He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window.  He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean.  As Pinsky notes in his review:

Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.

And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:

I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere

Great good sense, there.  Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway.  And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway.  Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…

There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that!  Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.