Monday, August 24, 2020


In some respects, this summer feels like winter. The coronavirus restricts social activity, and the high temperatures keep us indoors in a manner similar to low temperatures. But there is still quite a bit of outdoor activity. The electric company decided to finish off the Enos Severance apple tree, because they thought that the rest of it could fall over and knock down wires. They left large logs for me to deal with, and I have been cutting and splitting them gradually. Between this and the maple that blew down during the winter, there are about two cords of firewood, but I haven't finished splitting the apple tree yet – the work is physically demanding without a log splitter. I was a little irritated that they cut down the apple tree, because it was still alive. Fortunately, there are new shoots growing out of the stump, and it will probably regrow.

I've also been touching up the paint on the house, as I do most summers, and found some rotten wood that required someone with greater carpentry skills than I possess. It is hard to find carpenters here for small jobs, because they don't think they're worth their time. Even if you know them and they've done work for you before, they don't even bother to call you back, and you have to search for someone new. I find this a little ironic, since most of the ones we've had are not all that proficient: they're usually a little sloppy. This time I found a man who, though he didn't reveal himself fully, was probably desperate for work. We never discussed it, but I looked him up, and he was in the newspaper last year for voyeurism. He normally works as a massage therapist, and he was found guilty when female customers noticed that he had installed a camera in his room, which, it turned out, he used to record them in various stages of undress. I think that he was efficient and skilled as a carpenter – he did a good job.

The high temperatures, along with heavy watering, have been good for the tomatoes. This is another high-yield year. Each year the insect pests and fungal attacks vary. This year there have been fewer hornworms, but there have been some stinkbugs, and there is an average amount of fungal damage. The hornworms get very large if you don't remove them in time. If left alone, they can do serious damage to plants. They eventually metamorphose into hawk moths, which are so large that they resemble hummingbirds. The stinkbugs damage individual tomatoes by making them inedible. They haven't been a serious problem this year. It is interesting to note the changes in insect populations from one year to the next, because you can get some sense of a highly complex ecosystem. For example, the hornworms have gradually increased in number over the last few years, but, starting last year, the numbers have declined, probably because they are being attacked by parasitic wasps which lay eggs inside them; the wasp larvae eat the hornworms and form small white cocoons on their exteriors. Those wasps first appeared last summer. The stinkbug population varies for unknown reasons and usually doesn't present much of a problem. It may be that they prefer hot, dry weather.

I am also observing what I hope will be the denouement of the Trump administration. As each week passes, it becomes increasingly apparent how appallingly bad a president he has been. This is turning out to be an excellent example of the corrosive effects of capitalism on human well-being. I think the main picture that is emerging is that Trump has no qualifications for the job, but that he was identified and developed as an asset for Fox News and other right-wing media purely for their profit. Peripherally, it could be argued, the entire news media have been complicit in the ascent of Donald Trump. Time has shown that Trump has none of the skills necessary for the job, and that there was ample evidence of this four years ago. The primary attribute of Trump is that he became a cash cow for the news industry, and, with the profit motive driving news coverage, there were no news outlets with an incentive to encourage or accelerate his removal. However, the case is now incontrovertible that Trump, as president, is a menace to society and the world. Trump is like a defective consumer product that should have been taken off the market long ago. Because he is ideologically incoherent, it seems that his wealthy backers are primarily interested in money, and that their so-called conservative principles are a sham.

I have a suitable nonfiction book lined up to read and will be starting it shortly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet III

I finally got around to finishing the book. After philosophy, Bouvard and Pécuchet become interested in religion. Bouvard, who is more or less an agnostic, doesn't exhibit much enthusiasm for the topic, but Pécuchet becomes a complete fanatic, and Bouvard observes him flagellating himself in private. Pécuchet begins to harass the local priest with theological arguments, but, as in every other episode, his enthusiasm soon dies out. Next, they both become involved with the adoption of two children, Victor and Victorine, whose mother is dead and whose father is a jailed convict. To no avail, they attempt to instruct them, exposing them to many of the works that they have found important, and they employ various educational concepts from sources such as Émile, by Rousseau. Although at first the children seem to respond somewhat positively, Victor becomes violent, as he had been previously, and boils a cat that they give him as a pet, killing it. Victorine is less problematic initially but she soon becomes pregnant by one of the locals. Because of the pregnancy they are later forced to give up the children, whom they hadn't formally adopted. Bouvard eventually agrees to assume financial responsibility for Victorine.

In the meantime, Bouvard and Pécuchet decide that the layout of Chavignolles is improper, and they take it upon themselves to survey the town with the goal of remodeling it, in much the same way that Haussmann redesigned Paris. This would involve tearing down much of the center of town. They engage more in village life, and Bouvard becomes a highlight of the local café, where he debates whomever he meets. Both of them take on a pedagogic role in Chavignolles, and they hold public lectures for its benefit. This precipitates their downfall, unleashing all the grievances that have been building up among the townsfolk. By this point, Flaubert himself had died, and the remainder of the novel is his summary of what he intended to write. Pécuchet's lecture is pedantic and criticizes the local government and administration. Bouvard's lecture is more conventional but also meets with disapproval.

The next day, Bouvard and Pécuchet discuss the lectures at home. Pécuchet takes a gloomy position on the future of mankind: "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." Bouvard, on the contrary, believes in progress and thinks that the cultures of Europe and China will converge. He thinks that "philosophy will be religion," with "communion of all people." While they are still talking, the police enter the house and serve them with a warrant for "desecrating religion, disturbing the peace, seditious rhetoric, etc."

After this, Bouvard and Pécuchet give up their studies and revert to their earlier habits. They begin copying documents together at the close of the book. The edition I have includes the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, written much earlier, and the unfinished Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. I don't think these add much to the text and may not have been planned to appear with it, though the choice of including them does give the impression that the novel was intended to be facetious.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings about the book. Understandably, the villagers found that Bouvard and Pécuchet were pedantic and dismissive of local practices. What is striking to me is how insensitive the two were to how people reacted to them and how unprepared they were to anticipate ideas that didn't match theirs. There is no evidence that either of them engaged in self-criticism, and that includes their obliviousness to the fact that sometimes the subject under study remained beyond their comprehension. Flaubert seems to be making Bouvard and Pécuchet look like fools, but I did not see signs of a wider, more inclusive view of reality, and this makes it unclear to me what his point was. In the case of Madame Bovary, the novel seems realistic, while highlighting the tragic follies of the protagonist. Sentimental Education is also realistic, but has an autobiographical tone that seems straightforward, without exaggerated characters. Therefore, since Bouvard and Pécuchet seem like aberrations, and the realism is less palpable, I am less confident in assessing Flaubert's objectives. All I can say is that Flaubert may have thought that conscientious study can be a naïve pastime, perhaps because the answers aren't really there. It is possible that Flaubert was making a case for human limitations, even in an era of progress. In this instance, book learning comes across as ineffective. The assessment is further complicated by the fact that the context for the events that occur in the book is well in the past, and this potentially renders some of the satirical intentions that Flaubert seems to have had less clear than they would have been at the time – 140 years ago. Certainly, he establishes that Bouvard and Pécuchet are eccentrics, but, since they themselves never seem to find a path to more intelligible behavior and nowhere does the narrative offer much guidance, the overall effect for the modern reader is somewhat ambiguous. For this reason, I was less impressed with this novel than I was by the other two mentioned and found the going a little tedious at times. On the whole, I think it is best suited to French literary specialists, especially those who have an affinity for Flaubert.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet II

I'm not finding this novel exceptionally exciting, though, to some extent, it is satisfying at least in the sense that French culture, in many respects, is vastly superior, despite some weaknesses, to American culture. In comparison, life in the U.S. sometimes seems like a low-budget Western. After geology, Bouvard and Pécuchet take up archaeology and start a museum in the house. Archaeology gradually evolves into history and historical novels, and before long they are trying to write novels. Gradually they become familiar with the citizens of Chavignolles, the town in which they live, and socialize with them. In 1848, their usual lives are disrupted for a period by the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the beginning of the Second Republic. After this, they lose their zeal for learning and become depressed temporarily. Bouvard begins to court Mme. Bordin, a widow, and Pécuchet, who had been a virgin, has a brief affair with one of the servants and contracts a venereal disease from her. Nothing comes of this, they decide to give up on women, and before long they embark on a new hobby, gymnastics. That doesn't last for long, since Bouvard is fat and, at their age, neither of them is cut out for a lot of exercise. Following this, they take an interest in séances and the occult, and then they move on to philosophy and read Spinoza, Locke and other philosophers. Their relationship with the townspeople is somewhat unclear. One would guess that they are considered eccentric and amateurish, though they are generally accepted. It is probably evident to the locals that Bouvard and Pécuchet are more than a little dilettantish and are putting on airs, though the townspeople themselves are not particularly sophisticated. As far as I've read, there are signs that Bouvard has been imprudent with his money and may face financial difficulties in the future. He has acted a bit like an ordinary, uneducated person who has won the lottery and is spending injudiciously in order to achieve sophistication and worldliness, with the corresponding social status, all of which he is unlikely to attain. However, Bouvard and Pécuchet are not complete fools and seem to absorb much of the material that they study, though their lack of focus makes them seem frivolous. Their main flaw seems to be a lack of awareness of their limitations. Of the two, Bouvard seems more extroverted and worldly, while Pécuchet seems more introverted and inexperienced. They do not fit well into a modern context, because it is now generally accepted that one cannot successfully study as many fields as they do and gain sufficient mastery of each. They are repeating this mistake countless times without changing their behavior. This situation may have been more common in Europe in the late nineteenth century, when social status could be reached with general learning, as part of the process of moving from a lower class to a higher class. However, Flaubert does not accentuate class consciousness. Of course, this all contrasts wildly with current life in most of the world, where it is now possible to be completely crass and ignorant and still attain high social rank simply by being conspicuously wealthy. I will try to finish up the book on my next post. This is sort of a diversion for me, and I generally prefer more serious books. Although I like Flaubert and think that he does a good job portraying his environment realistically, I still don't find fiction to be a particularly effective vehicle for understanding the world. Still, I like this period in this part of the world, and, despite many drawbacks which I probably would have felt if I had lived there, in some respects the quality of life would have been better than what we have now. In particular, we seem to be living in an age of crass materialism while, as Tony Judt argued, we are collectively demonstrating a puzzling incapacity to secure favorable future living conditions for ourselves and our descendants, even when such a process lies well within our reach.