Information and Bouvard and Pecuchet

Months after completing my dissertation and generating a book proposal, materials for the academic job market, and designing and teaching several classes, I’ve gotten around to reading Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet.  It is a novel I had been meaning to read before I began my dissertation for several reasons.  That Flaubert was an influence on Joyce is important to me, but I also wanted to read it because I adore Madame Bovary and these works of refined stylists, Chekhov, Austen, Tolstoy, Baldwin, etc., as ends in themselves.  It was a pleasure read and delivered on that front in every way.  It’s funny, witty, and readable in a way that I find both relaxing and exhilarating.  But in addition to an example of Flaubert’s gifts as a writer, Bouvard and Pecuchet exhibits a type of writing that would become important for the modernist period.  Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education (which I confess I read long enough ago to have a sketchy memory of) are both highly literate books, and the former especially reproduces the experience of reading certain kinds of texts.  In each of these novels, Flaubert fixates on the experience of reading from a narrative sense in that his characters are constantly reading and reacting to their readings, but also because depicting these experiences demanded that he too “did the reading”.  In so doing he was forced to differentiate between proper and improper ways of digesting the information found in books.  This blog post is a preliminary look at how Flaubert navigated this difference and then compares his approach to the examinations of Joyce and Pound I perform in my book, Modernist Literary Media.

Bouvard and Pecuchet represents the experience of accessing information and its potentially deleterious effects for characters Flaubert felt weren’t armed with the proper contextual perspectives, but it differs from Madame Bovary in a couple of important ways.  The first way is more logistical/material/practical, and is well-documented in Flaubert’s correspondence: in order to write Bouvard and Pecuchet, he had to perform a great deal of research, which he frequently complained of as onerous and hardly worth the time it took.  The second difference seems related to this first, but is more difficult to explain.  Bouvard and Pecuchet are depicted with a viciousness and derision that is not present in Flaubert’s story about Emma Bovary.  Emma’s mistakes are romantic and situated in a bildung narrative structure in which a character gains knowledge that, despite failing to prevent tragedy, humanizes her.  Bouvard and Pecuchet aren’t afforded this same artistic mercy and, perhaps because Flaubert died before he could finish, or because of a fundamental shift in how he conceived of the characters’ relationship to this information, they never get redeemed from their failure to properly apprehend their mistakes.

To begin with the first issue, in both the introduction by translator Mark Polizzotti and preface by Ramond Queneau, Flaubert is on record complaining about the volume of work Bouvard and Pecuchet required to write.  Here Polizzotti quotes Flaubert scoffing at his own outsized ambitions: “‘I’m going to have to study a host of things I know nothing about … One would have to be insane, completely deranged, to take on such a book!'” (vii).  Bouvard and Pecuchet taxed him in ways that his previous had not: “Each of his novels required vast amounts of research, whether in the field or on the printed page: for Bouvard and Pecuchet, he famously read some fifteen hundred volumes, much like the protagonists themselves–and not without their litany of complaints” (xxv).  That Flaubert was forced to “do the reading” alongside the protagonists he is writing is evidenced throughout the series of investigations Bouvard and Pecuchet undertake.

Throughout the novel (or “encyclopedia” as he sometimes referred to it) he repeatedly reproduces their experiences with texts, and in ways that prefigure the works by Joyce, H.D., Toomer, and Pound that I studied in my work on literature and databases.  Like these authors that would follow, Flaubert selects elements of information from other texts and then arranges them into a narrative causal chain on the pages of the novel.  The clearest example of this process appears–fittingly to my mind–as Bouvard and Pecuchet study history.  They begin, after the sheer number of historical contingencies become apparent to them, by naively approaching from a total coverage model: “They no longer had a fixed idea about the individuals and events of that time.  To form an impartial judgment, they would have to read every history, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster and error that would lead to others, and on unto infinity.  They gave up” (105).  As with each of their projects, Bouvard and Pecuchet are confronted with the difficulty of mastery and so give up.  In this case, they scale back their ambitions and decide to “[write] the life of the Duke of Angouleme” (109).[1]  Their understanding of the discipline of history is as such: “one could take a subject, read all the source materials, make an analysis–then condense it into a narration, which would be like a summary of facts, a reflection of the whole truth.  Such a project seemed feasible to Pecuchet” (108).  What is so frustrating (and funny) about this description of the work of history, is that it is immediately preceded by a critique of that very method:

Few historians have followed these rules–but always in the interests of a particular cause, religion, nation, party, or system, or to discredit a kind, sway the populace, or offer a moral example.

The [historians], who claim to be relating the facts, are no better.  For it is impossible to say everything.  One has to make choices.  But one’s selection of documents is guided by a certain viewpoint; and as this viewpoint varies, depending on the writer’s situation, history will never be fixed entirely. (108)

Here is where the events and activities Flaubert depicts in the narrative converge with the practical realities he confronted as he wrote the novel.  He provides the reader with a vision of how Bouvard and Pecuchet proceed with their history: “They pondered the project, debated it, and finally resolved to spend two weeks at the public library in Caen gathering background information” and “[w]hen they had taken their notes, they drafted an outline” (109).  The text that follows appears as a list of dates followed by a description of events in the life of the Duke:img_20170206_170315474

The organization of their outline fades quickly:


And eventually devolves into Bouvard and Pecuchet’s superficial considerations about love affairs and even their conviction that haircuts reflect individuals’ dispositions:


The characters both tend to gravitate toward superficial information, and are constantly seduced by trivial considerations.  In the case with the Duke’s conflicting haircuts and then the importance Bouvard and Pecuchet attach to it, the novel’s humor derives from these episodes that lead to their failures and surrenders.

However, as much distance as Flaubert puts between himself and his characters, he was required to reproduce this fictional research in order to portray it in the narrative.  As noted above, Flaubert was vocal about the unique difficulties the composition of Bouvard and Pecuchet presented, and they centered around the volume of information he integrated into the text.  But they also derived from the similarity between his project to “‘vent all his anger'” by lampooning the stupidity of his characters and the actual scholarly work it required to do that.  In other words, Flaubert’s project to make fun of his characters (and by implication the “the disgust” his “contemporaries” inspired in him) required that he do a lot of the same superficial research that irritated him so profoundly.  Flaubert was himself anxious on this front: “Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I’ve become them!  Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it” (xxv).[2]

With each new object of study, Bouvard and Pecuchet cycle through credible and superficial source materials, reading philosophy, history, medicine, agriculture, architecture, etc.  They read diligently until they find it difficult, then resort to more accessible sources.  As a narrative pattern, this repetition provides a great deal of humor, and affords Flaubert opportunities to exercise his most ferocious ironies.  Here Bouvard and Pecuchet begin with ancient Greek philosophy but deem it too difficult: “The ancient masters were inaccessible, given the length of their work and the difficulty of their language” (190).  The characters’ solution is to retreat into easier materials: “And, desiring something less taxing, they bought Mr. Guesnier’s Basic Course in Philosophy, for classroom use” (193).  Bouvard and Pecuchet immerse themselves in this text taking opposite positions in scrimmage philosophical arguments (a habit they form as they move into metaphysics, religion, and politics), but a new, and I would argue, to Flaubert’s thinking, a more dangerous feature of their approach to information arises.  Flaubert writes:

But philosophy heightened their opinion of themselves.  They looked back pityingly on their former preoccupations with farming, literature, and politics.  The museum now inspired their disgust.  They would have liked nothing better than to sell off all those knickknacks.  And they moved on to chapter 2, the faculties of the soul. (195)

This passage is a great example of Flaubert’s gifts for understated irony, that last sentence clinching a withheld joke that the characters had assumed this false superiority not only from a secondary text, but only from its first chapter.  In addition however, the passage reveals that the two, beyond their penchant for trivial considerations, are highly credulous consumers of information.  Arriving at an understanding of why Flaubert reserved his most withering derision for these two fairly simple and mostly harmless clerks [3] can begin with how they approach information as either inherently fixed, factual, and falsifiable, or altogether worthless.  They don’t evaluate the information they consume at all, it is either useful in the sense that it effortlessly reveals the truth, or it is artificially constructed, the product of potentially biased selection criteria and information labor.  As the Queneau succinctly puts it, Bouvard and Pecuchet “are in love with the absolute and cannot bear contradictions.  They believe in the absolute validity of the functioning of the human mind confronted with phenomena” (xxxi).  Flaubert was diametrically opposed to this need for certainty.  Queneau quotes from a letter Flaubert wrote in 1850:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to conclude.  We tell each other: but our base is not fixed; which of us will be right?  I see a past in ruins and a future in embryo; … Everything is in a state of confusion.  But this means wanting only noon or midnight; it means not understanding twilight…What mind of any strength–beginning with Homer–has ever come to a conclusion? (xxxiv)

Some forty years later, Joyce would follow in Flaubert’s groove by reaching back to Homer as a basis for his informationally overloaded novel Ulysses.  As I’ve argued in an article on Ulysses, however, Homer provides no solution for the interpretive problems presented by modernity.

Whatever pathos or redemption that results from associating an ordinary and socially ostracized Jewish Dubliner with one of the most enduring heroes in Western literature becomes buried under the mountains of extraneous information.  The order and vitality that can be achieved by reaching back to those foundational texts of the Western letters’ Greek ancestry become obscured by auto-generating parodies of Fenian jingoism and the clichéd patois of bourgeois women’s magazines.  The initiation of these exaggerated interpolations compromises the epic weight Homeric correspondences lend to Ulysses.  The order the mythic method offers to the modern world becomes indistinguishable from a mass of information that tells no story, that provides no closure, and continues to accrete information that, because it operates according to a program, registers no special sorrow at the stillborn reunion of a sonless father and fatherless son as Bloom and Stephen part in the middle of the night, both toward uncertain futures.  In unleashing the database aesthetic, Joyce expresses both the power and the impersonality of associational logic.  This power derives from its limitless ability to connect elements of information to one another, and the impersonality from the automatic way these elements connect, which results in a decentralization of the creative role of the human.  Rather than a catalyst, creator, or protagonist of novels and poems, the human constantly tries to interpret the information, to determine what is relevant, to catch at the thread of story beneath the morass of indefinitely accumulating associations.  This is the context in which Joyce most profoundly predicts the twenty-first century role of information and raises a new dilemma about whether or not humans determine information or vice versa. [4]

Pound too participates in this archival vertigo.  His Cantos, like Flaubert’s recreation of Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history of the Duke, recreate the disorientation of archives.  In recreating the life of Sigismundo Malatesta, Pound foregrounds the conflicting accounts, but also the joints between the elements he extracted from the archive and assembled into his poem.

This adaptation continues with some isolated references to other figures but slowly changes into a more rapid, jarring presentation of events and facts that are linked using ‘And’ to coordinate and conjoin the elements:

And the wind is still for a little

And the dusk rolled

to one side a little

And he was twelve at the time, Sigismundo,

And no dues had been paid for three years,

And his elder brother gone pious;

And that year they fought in the streets,

And that year he got out to Cesena

And brought back the levies,

And that year he crossed by night over Foglia, and…” (C 8 32-33.166-175)

The presentation of events in this fashion continues into the first 123 lines of Canto 9 and then transitions back to direct quotation (this time with quotation marks) from Malatesta’s correspondence.  The separate elements are strung together through the ‘And’ at the beginning of the lines.  In this section Pound exposes the ligature that binds the individual elements together.  Individual fragments from the texts serving as sources for the Malatesta Cantos appear one after another.  The interposition of ‘And’ between the elements emphasizes how the pieces are separate, but linked through their inclusion in the poem.  Had Pound made this into a coherent narrative, the text would create the impression that there is a narrative and causal relationship between the elements.  The effect Pound creates through this strategy comprises an extended list of individual elements selected from the source texts for the cantos, presented on the page one after another.  This recreates the patterns Pound identified while searching the archives in which these documents are housed and extracting specific pieces for inclusion in the poem. [5]

Like Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history, Pound selects elements from his research on Malatesta and integrates them into his pseudo-narrative account of his life.  Unlike the bumbling characters, however, Pound is obsessed with showing the alternative dimensions to every story.  He is clearly a fan of Malatesta’s temperamental buoyancy, but insists on presenting these positive aspects of his character and career alongside negative accounts  showing the complexity and perspectival nature of history, narrative, and the more general activity of interacting with information.

This is all to say, that Flaubert’s frustration at how individuals used information in his age had measurable influence on the Anglophone modernists like Joyce and Pound.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is important to read alongside these informationally overloaded works of the twentieth century for precisely this reason: Flaubert was sensitive enough to diagnose a problem that would become an obsession of modernism as the volume of information increased with the passage of time.  Even more dramatically, in an age of algorithmically populated newsfeeds, bot-generated “fake news”, and clearly unqualified Secretaries of Education (Devos was approved during the composition of this post), it is that much more essential that we hear Flaubert’s late nineteenth century derision of unquestioned information creation and consumption.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is a polemic against the self-satisfied acceptance of prepared wisdom in the face of a complex world:

this novel is constructed almost entirely on cliches, whether the seemingly endless stream of platitudes voiced by the characters, the deadpan bromides encountered in the many works our heroes reference (man of which later reappear in the ‘Dictionary’), or the assumptions governing their choices of occupation. … It is no accident that the protagonists are copy-clerks, and the novel’s planned resolution, which finds them returning to their profession after having tried everything else under the sun, is telegraphed well in advance: in fact, Bouvard and Pecuchet have never stopped being copyists, and their constant absorption and regurgitation of discipline after discipline is just so much acting of that mechanically reproductive act. (xiii)

In this sense, the novel, like the work of so many twentieth century modernists, presents information as a crisis, as a challenge not only to institutions and bureaucracies, but to artists and individuals seeking to find meaning within the climate of overload.  That Bouvard and Pecuchet, published incomplete in 1881, has its origins in The Dictionary in Accepted Ideas (which follows the text of the novel in the gorgeous Dalkey edition and is hilarious) is doubly interesting for this reason.  Flaubert was driven to fits of rage by the platitudes of the society around him because they were themselves the result of a lazy orientation toward information.  They represent, like so many uttered by Bouvard and Pecuchet, a kind of surrender when things get complex.  Each easy piece of wisdom is the reduction of something complex to a mnemonic device, easy to remember and share, but divided from the reality it is thought to represent (and in that sense what frustrated Flaubert is what frustrated Pound in his Imagist period).  But each entry in the dictionary is itself a savage quip indexed to a particular contemporary rhetorical idiocy or recycled witticism Flaubert encountered.  In that sense, Bouvard and Pecuchet novelizes the development of these accepted ideas and the people that transact in them.  As I’ve argued about Ulysses, Palimpsest, and The Cantos, the novel performs an arrangement of information in ways that seek to extend our understanding of it.  Like Joyce’s composition structure–the avant-texte in textual genetic terms–or Pound’s poetry which is literally comprised of archival fragments, Flaubert seeks to confront the problem that information overload presents by churning it into his art, fictionalizing and aestheticizing the cultural challenges presented by its overload.  That Flaubert began this project nearly three quarters of a century before the authors I argue participate in the development of databases testifies to the long development of the literary confrontation with information.

[1] This is a truly funny moment in the text.  Pecuchet suggests they write the life of the Duke to which Bouvard replies “But he was an idiot!”  This doesn’t faze Pecuchet who replies, “So what?  Secondary figures sometimes have enormous influence, and this one might turn out to have been a key player” (109).  Funny as it is, this exchange (and Bouvard’s initial objections and then pliability) is emblematic of many of their most vexing habits of mind.  They don’t know the Duke was a player, but are content with the possiblity that he was.  They have no rigor for choosing their topics or their methods.

[2] It’s important to acknowledge that I’m not adding much to a discussion already taking place in the introduction and preface to Bouvard and Pecuchet, but the aim of this post is to connect Flaubert’s frustration with how he felt individuals like Bouvard and Pecuchet consumed information with the modernist writers like Pound and Joyce who sought to reproduce their own information climates.

[3] One conspicuous way Bouvard and Pecuchet are far from harmless is in their treatment of animals.  They kill both a dog and a cat in undeniably cruel ways.

[4] From my article on Ulysses and databases forthcoming in Joyce Studies Annual.

[5] From my chapter on Pound’s XXX Cantos.


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