A Dictionary of Received Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard et Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880 while still working on his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. This tells the adventures of two petit bourgeois dunces, born and raised in Paris, where they work as respectable clerks, who meet and realise they share the same, second-hand, trite and clichéd ideas, and the same dim-witted insatiable curiosity, about everything.

Deciding they are The Best of Friends, they set off on a series of adventures designed to highlight not only their own stupidity, but the stupidity of much so-called ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’. So Bouvard and Pécuchet is less a novel than a fable, standing in a long line of books which satirise book learning, which includes Rabelais, Don Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy.

Except that whereas those books were dominated by what’s been called ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. satires on the university-based, book learning of their times, with a great deal of effort spent ridiculing the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), or the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote) or the new fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) – Bouvard and Pécuchet is determinedly modern and realistic in style.

In a letter Flaubert wrote that the novel is:

‘a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce… I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me…’

One element of the book is the way its two hopeless protagonists interpret everything in a relentlessly middle-brow way, failing to understand the finer points of every intellectual or practical effort they turn their hands to, but rewriting them, as it were, into their own personal language of clichés and stereotypes. And all the while they cheer themselves up with the irritatingly vacuous catch phrases and platitudes beloved of their type and class.

A Dictionary of Stupidity

This explains why, alongside researching and writing the novel, Flaubert also had a project to collect together all the most clichéd, stupid, vapid truisms, the most wretched commonplaces and inanities, the most hackneyed, trite and pitiful platitudes of his age.

He used some of these in the novel, attributing them to his earnestly second-rate characters. But over the course of decades, he built up quite a collection in its own right. He began sorting them into alphabetical order and found himself creating what he initially called a Dictionary of Stupidity and then toned down into ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’.

It is a list of the unthinking slogans and clichés which people prattle out in conversation, the same old opinions you read in the press, the empty formulas politicians make in speeches, the dreary subjects you endure at awful dinner parties. Received opinion, fashionable platitudes, accepted ideas.

As it grew, Flaubert seems to have planned to make the Dictionary of Stupidity form volume two of the completed Bouvard and Pécuchet but died before his plans could be finalised. It was only published in French in 1913, and had to wait till 1954 to be translated into English.

The Dictionary is usually published as an appendix to the larger novel, but Penguin had the bright idea back in the 1990s of publishing it as a stand-alone booklet which I picked up at the time (it seems to be out of print now).

Funny

What’s surprising is how funny it is. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Much funnier that Bouvard and Pécuchet (which is occasionally touching but isn’t, frankly, very funny at all).

This is partly because it is so compressed and pithy. Given half a chance Flaubert will write you a whole page about agricultural techniques or medieval siege machinery or Biblical ointments or whatever pedantic facts he’s come across in his immense background reading and which can be squeezed into one of his long narratives.

But all this verbiage is absent in the Dictionary. Its prose is incredibly compressed. It gives just the most commonplace interpretations of each subject in all their glorious banality. Frequently Flaubert places next to each other two completely contradictory views, both of which are in common circulation, to highlight how unthinkingly stupid we so often are.

I found it helps to imagine some of the phrases being spoken out loud by either a bluff colonel or a delicate maiden aunt (as appropriate).

Examples

ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything foreign, sign of progressive thinking. Contempt for everything un-French, sign of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

AGE, THE PRESENT AGE – Always denounce vigorously.

AMBITION – Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

ANIMALS – If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

ANTIQUES – All forgeries.

ARCHITECTS – All imbeciles.

ARISTOCRACY – Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

AUTHOR – Advisable to know a few authors. No need to remember their names.

And so on. In its way, The Dictionary is as much a portrait of the age as Sentimental Education. Sure a lot of it is dated. But the real eye-opener is how many of these clichés of the bourgeois mind, circa 1880, are still clichés of the bourgeois mind in 2018.

BEETHOVEN – Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

TOYS – Should always be educational.

TRAVELLER – Always ‘intrepid’.

WALLS – Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls…’

WATCH – The only decent ones are made in Switzerland.

WIT – Always ‘sparkling’. Brevity the soul of.

WORKER – Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting.

Flaubert wrote that ‘after reading the book, the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it’ and realising what a mug he is – a splendid ambition. We could do with more silence.

SEALED – Always ‘hermetically’.

PIKESTAFF – Plain as a.

KORAN – Book by Mohammed. Exclusively about repressing women.

INTERVAL – Always too long.

ILLEGIBLE – A doctor’s signature ought to be illegible. So should any official signature. Shows that you are overwhelmingly busy.

GREEK – Anything you don’t understand. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’

A perfect book to dip into for a few minutes and find yourself chortling, then laughing out loud.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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