NOT widely known and little appreciated, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) offers high intellectual entertainment that might surprise readers who know him principally as the author of Madame Bovary. Bouvard and Pécuchet are the descendants of the European novel’s archetypal literary pairings like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Diderot’s Jacques and his Master, and are themselves the precursors of characters like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, which in turn influenced the creation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And the rise of the cinema in the 20th century caught on early to a similar creation of twin contrasting characters, the most famous being Laurel and Hardy: well-meaning men who are constantly confounded by reality.
Meeting by chance, Bouvard and Pécuchet realise that living a mundane existence as copy-clerks in Paris, they share a great deal in common and become inseparable companions. Bouvard comes into an inheritance that enables him to buy a country estate in Normandy and the two friends move there, determined to leave behind an existence of constricting mediocrity with its unthinking acceptance of received ideas. They plan to organise their life according to the latest thinking.
Their first experiment is to cultivate their land by following the most advanced methods described by ‘experts’ in textbooks and journals. All they reap is disaster. They attribute their failure to ignorance and attempt to be more thorough in their study when applying the latest learning to other projects; and so, in a succession of hilarious chapters relating their experiments, they put to practice the theoretical knowledge gleaned from a detailed examination of archeology, psychology, literature, philosophy, the nature of sexual passion and on to the upbringing of children, only to fail with each project. It is as if Laurel and Hardy were building a house by following a blueprint and even if it was beginning to look crooked they stubbornly went on with the construction until, just when Hardy banged in the final nail, the whole structure collapsed.
Bouvard and Pécuchet are bewildered by the world around them. Their repeated attempts to establish a rational order invariably ends in chaos or utter bafflement. Life mocks their quest for meaning by showing them the commonplace and rewards their aspiration for grandeur with a mountain of banalities. Their expectation of some profound philosophical understanding leads them to fall neck-deep into clichés.
Failing in all their experiments at living an original and meaningful existence, Bouvard and Pécuchet return to their life as copy-clerks, and one imagines them copying down the same old sentences and repeating worn, trite ideas to eternity, which perhaps is the fate of humanity. And now, in this age of mediocrity, of novelists.
There’s a lot more to Flaubert’s novel than the story of two friends trying to come out of the rut of a banal, repetitive existence only to fall deeper into it. It is both a representation of society and a critique of its organisation; it contains a precise rendition of people. Even the stock characters like the priest and the doctor are living individuals and not caricatures and present an amusing comedy of manners made sharp by a satirical undercurrent. Engaging the reader with encyclopedic knowledge, the novel will appeal to those with some learning and they will discover in it incomparable intellectual entertainment.
Whatever the quality of one’s appreciation, there’s no denying the sociopolitical and philosophical ideas generated by Flaubert’s novel, which is what I propose to examine. Those ideas are very much relevant today, and readers who prefer their literature to be didactic might like to note that some of the best instruction is to be obtained from works that were never intended to teach anything but only to show the existential confusion that is the essential human condition, while works written with a specific moral in mind become stiff as corpses. Because he has no intention to instruct but only to examine reality with almost a scientific objectivity, Flaubert ends up being a greater teacher than many a committed writer. He analyses, tabulates, shows, and lets the reader make a judgment of any truth that may consequently be deduced.
Most of humanity, so we deduce from Bouvard and Pécuchet, experiences life as a succession of clichéd situations and perceives reality through the lens of received ideas. Original thought, minority opinions or any non-conformist expression are a threat to a society which finds stability in the undeviating recurrence of familiar events and linguistic expressions. Societies structured on some dogmatic belief are quick to brand an original thinker a heretic, an accusation for which Galileo was punished by the church in 17th-century Italy and many a brave soul in the 20th century, from China in the East to Chile in the West, was branded a dissident for questioning the state dogma and incarcerated, tortured or made to disappear. Modern democracies, for all their lip-service to human rights, find self-righteous justification in inventing new forms of punishable heresy, as witnessed in the fate of the music band Pussy Riot in 21st century Russia.