December 12: Gustave Flaubert was born on this day in 1821 in Rouen. Until his mother’s death in 1872, Flaubert lived with her in Croisset, near his birthplace, the house purchased for him by his father after Flaubert dropped out of medical school. Apart from several longer trips and occasional visits to Paris, most often to visit his friends or seek sexual companions, “the hermit of Croisset” desired only his distance: “I am a bear and want to remain a bear in my den.” But he was a bear with a purpose rather than a bear asleep: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The famous, painstakingly written books appeared at regular intervals, like growls from the cave:
The stupidity of the public overwhelms me…. The bourgeoisie is so bewildered that is has lost all instinct to defend itself; and what will succeed it will be worse. I’m filled with the sadness that afflicted the Roman patricians of the fourth century: I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth. …Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest – disdain for Beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it…. A fine state to be in! Not that it’s preventing me from preparing a book in which I’ll try to spew out my bile…. (from an 1872 letter to Ivan Turgenev)
Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet shows that such views were lifelong. This last, unfinished novel is subtitled “an encyclopedia of human stupidity,” and there is some evidence that Flaubert intended to append this work to another social slap, his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. This is a compendium of platitudinous beliefs, the sort of tiresome thinking which Flaubert was horrified to encounter whenever he did venture out into the world. Some entries from early on:
AUTHORS One should ‘know a few authors’: no need to know their names.
BASES (OF SOCIETY). Id est property, the family, religion, respect for authority. Show anger if these are attacked.
BEETHOVEN Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BIRD Wish you were one, saying with a sigh: “Oh, for a pair of wings!” This shows a poetic soul.
BLONDES Hotter than brunettes. (See BRUNETTES.)
BOOK Always too long, whatever the subject.
“…Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?”
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?…”
-the moment of enlightenment in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; Heller died on this day in 1999
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.