May 29, 2011

Why We Should Read Bouvard and Pécuchet

Bouvard and Pécuchet, characters in Gustave Flaubert‘s last (and unfinished) novel, are two copy-clerks, men of a certain age who meet by chance on the hot summer streets of 1840s Paris. As they walk, live, and explore the world together, they discover an infinity of shared habits and interests: writing their surnames in their hats in case of loss, inspecting public works, and an eternal quest for knowledge.
In dozens, even hundreds, of discussions and arguments characterized by thesis, antithesis, and on occasion, synthesis, B and P skim over a dynamic world of discoveries and information, dipping into book after book as if floating through an old-fashioned library. Converting a surprise legacy from an estranged uncle into a country homestead, they take up agriculture, scientific experimentation, and an autodidactic confusion of theory and practice, hoping to live in a state of eternal emergence. Many of us might want to do the same today.
Their crops fail to grow, or combine into monstrous hybrids. Their anatomical studies are condemned by both the local country doctor and their parish priest, and culminate in an ill-conceived attempt to dissect the farm dog, ending only when their homegrown anesthesia fails to stupefy him and he runs from their homebrew operating table. Canned goods, preserved after consulting the leading scientific authorities, decay into disgusting messes. Their efforts at citizen science — paleontological studies — cause their arrest for digging in a militarily strategic coastal area. After their disappointment with the Revolution of 1848 leads to religious conversion, they fill their mansion with countless cheap religious trinkets, but find their faith doesn’t survive disappointingly banal discussions with their local clergy on evolution and the process of transubstantiation. Pécuchet’s virginal explorations into human sexuality result in a dose of venereal disease. They build a cabinet of curiosities, but the local connoisseurs are unimpressed by its flea-market-level objects. And so on. Flaubert, who in preparation is said to have read 1,500 books, takes them and us on a wacky tour of the ideas and dogmas of the time. Yet while the book functions as a critique of human credulity, blind acceptance of received ideas, and fuzzy thinking, it’s also a picaresque, funny story, and a chronicle of a particular flavor of love. I’ve long wanted to cast a couple of Bay Area cultural figures as B and P, but I won’t tell you who they are.
Why should we read Bouvard and Pécuchet? They are we, and we are they. Google could have been their favorite tool, and Twitter their narcotic obsession. Like so many of us in the present, information is candy to them, a bright, shiny pendant swinging in an hypnotic arc. They can’t resist new input, and throughout the entire story, they never develop means of distinguishing symbols from their referents, or information from knowledge. Their hungry and impressionable minds hear all voices with the same volume and acknowledge every authority as equally correct (or incorrect, depending on the moment). Their problems are ours. This is a highly predictive book. Or perhaps we simply grew to resemble it.
One older and one newer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet, which was originally published a year after Flaubert’s death in 1881, are currently in print, and the French text is online, as well. Pay no attention to reviews that would steer current readers away — this is fiction that prefigures the dystopic dimension of our utopian present.
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