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.

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