Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard and Pécuchet study logic & Hegel

Note: I never read a word of Flaubert before. But an essay on mathematics and literature in the latest New Left Review [1] led me to Flaubert’s last, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, which apparently was the premiere avant-garde novel. This was Flaubert’s stated revenge against all the ideas circulating in the 19th century. Bouvard and Pécuchet are a pair of dilettante autodidacts who endeavor to absorb all the world’s knowledge, flitting from one subject to another, superficially absorbing, discussing and debating ideas in one area before moving on to the next.

So I figured I need to check this out. After reading the introductory material, I turned to chapter 8, in which Bouvard and Pécuchet  turn to philosophy. Flaubert cracked me up! Here are a couple specimens. — RD

This huge effort to demonstrate a load of platitudes, the author’s pedantic tone, his monotonous turns of phrase (“We are prepared to admit…” “Far be it from us to think…” “Let us examine our own conscience…”), the excessive praise for Dugald Stewart, and his overweening verbiage left them so revolted that, skipping over the faculty of wanting, they jumped straight to logic.

It taught them the meaning of analysis, synthesis, induction, and deduction, as well as the primary causes of our errors. Nearly all of them resulted from the misuse of language. “The sun sets, the sky clouds over, winter is approaching”: insidious locutions that make us believe in personal entities, when they are only simple events! “I remember such-and-such an object, axiom, or truth.” An illusion! Ideas, not things, are what remain in the self, and a truly rigorous language would have us say: “I remember such-and-such an act of my mind by which I perceived this object, deduced this axiom, or recognized this truth.”

As the term that designates an incident cannot encompass all of its modes, they labored to use only abstract words. And instead of saying, “Let’s take a stroll,” “It’s dinner time,” or “I’ve got diarrhea,” they came out with: “A walk would be beneficial,” “The hour has arrived in which to absorb foodstuffs,” and “I am experiencing a need for evacuation.”

Pécuchet did not stop there. He bought an introduction to Hegelian philosophy, then tried to explain it to Bouvard: “Whatever is rational is real. Only the idea is real. The laws of the mind are the laws of the universe. Man’s reason is identical to God’s.”

Bouvard pretended to understand.

“Thus, the absolute is at once subject and object, the unity in which all differences are joined together. In this way, contradictions are resolved. Shadow makes light possible, cold mixed with heat produces temperature, the organism is maintained only through its own destruction. Everywhere there is a principle that divides and a principle that binds.”

They were sitting on the monticule. The priest came walking by the latticework fence, holding his breviary. Pécuchet invited him in, to finish the presentation of Hegel in his presence and see what he made of it.

The man of the cloth sat with them, and Pécuchet broached the topic of Christianity.

“No other religion has so well established this truth: ‘Nature is but a moment of the Idea!’”

“A moment of the idea?” murmured the priest, taken aback.

“Of course! God, by taking a visible envelope, demonstrated His consubstantial union with it.”

“With nature? Now really!”

“By His decease, He bore witness to the essence of death. Thus, death was in Him; it was and is part of God.”

The clergyman bridled: “No blasphemies, please! It was for the salvation of the human race that He endured the sufferings…”

“Error! You are thinking of death in the individual sense, which is no doubt an evil. But relative to things, it’s different. Do not separate spirit from matter!”

“Nonetheless, sir, before the Creation…”

“There was no Creation. This has always existed. Otherwise you would have a new being adding itself to divine thought, which is absurd.”

The priest stood up. He had business to attend to elsewhere.

Since the existence of the world is but a continual passage from life to death and from death to life, then rather than everything being, nothing is. But everything becomes. You understand?”

“Of course I understand! Well, actually, I don’t.” In the final account, idealism exasperated Bouvard. “I’ve had quite enough of this! The famous cogito gives me a pain. They take the notions of things for the things themselves. They explain ideas that can hardly be understood using words that can’t be understood at all! Substance, extension, energy, matter, soul—what a load of abstractions and speculations. As for God, it’s impossible to know what He is, or even if He is! It used to be that He caused the wind to blow, lightning to strike, the world to turn. Today He’s reduced to almost nothing. Besides, I don’t see what good He serves.”

“And where does moral philosophy fit into all that?”

“Oh, who cares?”

“It does lack a foundation,”Pécuchet said to himself.

And he fell silent, backed into an impasse, a consequence of the premises that he himself had posited. It was a shock, a crushing blow.

Bouvard no longer even believed in matter.

SOURCE: Flaubert, Gustave. Bouvard and Pécuchet, in a new translation from the French & with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, preface by Raymond Queneau. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. With the “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” and the “Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas.”

Note: You should unhesitatingly acquire this translation. The old translation publicly available does not measure up.

[1] Bamford, Alice. “Intaglio as Philosophy,” New Left Review, January/ February 2018, pp. 141-148. [Bachelard, Flaubert, combinatorics, historical epistemology]

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Uploaded 7 September 2020

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