I just had a very Bouvard-Pécuchetian moment. After writing most of what I thought was a rather good review of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet
, I clumsily exed out the tab holding my unpublished review. All that hard work and no fruit to bear! Flaubert is a keen master of small human foibles taken to extremes. In Madame Bovary
, his very funny, though perhaps severely misunderstood novel about a woman's mawkish sentimentality whose vitality exceeds her own, Flaubert plays with the elements of comedy and tragedy in such a way that our emotions toward Emma are constantly at odds. On the one hand, she is all schmaltz and vanity, she is shallow, she is vapid, but on the other hand, she represents that undying will in all of us that strives for our ideals, that unbendingly demands the perfect image of our future which is ever cast in front of out own imaginations. In Flaubert we are always dealing in extremes, in those who go too far
, who do too much
: who are self-destructive in their passions to the point of parody. In Bouvard and Pécuchet
we are introduced to our dunce-capped duo: the embodiment of human failure and foolhardiness, but also of human endurance and academic fervor. Where Emma Bovary loves too much
, but in a false love, an empty love, play-acted from pulp romances, Bouvard and Pécuchet seek an infinite
knowledge, but lack the creative genius to form definite opinions, and instead fall on the contradictions and lacuna of scholarly texts on a number of subjects.
Bouvard and Pécuchet meet and become instant friends, as close as brothers. Both work as copy clerks in Paris, and occupy cramped corner apartments, until Bouvard comes upon a large sum inheritance from his avuncular father-figure, and the two head off to live in the country. Like Emma, play-acting in love, Bouvard and Pécuchet are always acting at the proscenium of their solipsism (a shared solipsism, a double madness, folie à deux
) and critical reality. Their madness is in their methods: they are copyists by vocation, and as such they can only copy, but never create.
Sometimes Pécuchet pulled his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph, standing, with his spade beside him, in the pose of the gardener decorating the book’s frontispiece.
Like Pécuchet imitating the illustration in the book, the dunderheaded duo is ever ruined by their own lack of creative capacity. Their imaginations are purely proleptic: before opening a book they have already fully envisioned their success, but they ultimately lack the modest-temperament and genius required for that achievement. Despite their constant failures, the duo is dogged in their scholarship, and their itinerant passions are never extinguished by embarrassment or disheartedness. They are ever in the pursuit of their grande achievement, and care little wherein that achievement comes from: Like artists they craved applause
. In Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert splits himself in two: the stock and liberal, libertine Bouvard, and the gaunt, conservative and virginal Pécuchet. Like in Madame Bovary
, Flaubert's last novel is both a condemnation and a mea culpa
of human stupidity: a final salut
to both mental frailty and scholastic endurance. Our pied protagonists are always devouring book upon book, volume upon volume, and mirror their creator's voracious reading appetite: Flaubert claims to have read north of 1,500 books in preparation for writing Bouvard and Pécuchet
. And whether Flaubert's unfinished masterpiece is an encyclopedic farce or, in fact, a farcical encyclopedia, is a matter of debate: the reader will be grateful to have a dictionary handy, for each academic whim and fancy is pursued in the parlance and nomenclature particular to that rite. The great tragedy, and the grade statement of the novel, which teases us and jocosely punishes our foolish friends, is:
“Science is based on data supplied by a small corpus of knowledge. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to all the rest that we don’t know about, which is much more vast, and which we can never understand.”
The worlds of science, of literature, of love, are much more in the shadow of our knowledge than in the light: there is ever more to know, and also that which cannot be taught, that which will never be precise or certain, but requires a creative cement to fill in the apertures. Bouvard and Pécuchet simply lack creative genius, they consume and consume knowledge, read books, study at length, but the inherent differences of opinion, vagaries of incomplete knowledge, and contradictions between authors are a pediment to what they believe is true success and enlightenment.
They no longer had a single fixed idea bout individuals and events of that time. To form an impartial judgement, they would have to read every history, every memoir, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster an error that would lead to others, and unto infinity. They gave up.
"They gave up" is the ringing leitmotif of our foolhardy duo, and despite their frequent differences of opinion, they are forever united in their surrender and transition to greener, untended pastures.
Their minds always at work at something which is beyond their reach, they are often too mired in specifics to grasp the larger picture. Their bottom-up approach to everything is ultimately their undoing and frequently leads to their frustration and disappointment. Even in deciding where to live gives them tremendous trouble. For though they have a tremendous capacity for seeing all sides of an issue, they lack the power to synthesize and balance that knowledge to form a clear image of reality:
At times they has almost reached a decision; then fearing they would regret it later, changed their minds, the chosen place striking them as unwholesome, or exposed to the sea winds, or too near a factory, or difficult to reach.
It is hard not to love these clumsy copyists, for every failure is taken in stride, and both stooges and spectators are visited by laughter at the precipitous ruin. Like a slapstick commedia dell'arte
, the novel is suffused with physical comedy, but also high-minded ideas and a doggedness of heart that is truly endearing to behold.
Repeatedly, Flaubert refers to the misguided attempts and misadventures of our mock-heroes as having created "monsters" - great failures of applied knowledge. In their agriculurist-phase, after failing in cash crops and fruit, and moving on to garden vegetables:
The cabbages were his only consolation. One in particular gave him hope. It blossomed, grew, ended up being huge and absolutely inedible. No matter. Pécuchet was glad to have produced a monster.
It is the nature of their madness to produce monsters, but fortunately those monsters are largely innocuous: simply mementos of their own folly. However, it is the zealotry of their simple-mindedness which produces these monsters, and has the capacity to create devastation. Like the monomania of the church or the rigid single-mindedness of political demagogues, zealous ignorance is far more dangerous than Bouvard's and Pécuchet's creative impotence. For Flaubert, though his two stooges lack in any real creative power, and in fact, are life-long copyists no matter the manifestation of their ephemeral endeavors, the stubborn ignorance and deliberate blindness of many of his heroes' critics are more likely to incite the reader's censure. Bouvard and Pécuchet are simple men with an innocent, if practically useless goal of self-enlightment, but they are often subject to the iniquities of their fellow townspeople, whether in the form of harsh criticism, personal attacks, or outright swindling, their simpleness is constantly being taken advantage of by their more Machiavellian country-folk. Despite their flaws, Flaubert's protagonists are exceedingly brave, determined and happy: they refuse to submit, despite their follies, to the yokes of others' preaches, and pursue their own happiness with a dogged passion.
Knowledge is a powerful thing: but power is morally neutral. It can be used to achieve progress, or halt and immolate progress; to save lives and to destroy them. Flaubert reminds us that complete knowledge is impossible, what we don't know always eclipses what we do, and the even greater shadow is what we don't know that we don't know. We cannot let this lack of knowledge rule us, we must seek to self-inform, to read in great volumes and in broad topics, to keep us from becoming narrow-minded. But equally important is to form our own knowledge, to synthesize what we take-in, to create our own views, to stand by them, but to remain always receptive and skeptical. It is a danger not to. Our Faustian fools give up everything in their pursuit of knowledge, but are unable to reconcile the quantity of views. As Bouvard and Pécuchet
is a panorama of the follies in science and human knowledge, knowledge itself is the very mirror of that panorama. Every failure, folly, mistake, and every rare success feeds into the great accumulation of the human ken.
Still, all their reading had gone to their brains.
Bouvard, coming down with a cold, imagined he was getting pneumonia. Since leeches hadn’t relieved the twinge in his side, he resorted to a vesicatory, which affected his kidneys and made him think he was suffering from gallstones.
Pécuchet felt some stiffness while pruning the arbor and vomited after his dinner, which left him terrified. Then, noticing that his skin was a bit sallow, he suspected a liver condition, wondered “Am I in pain?” and ended up deciding that he was.