Skip to content

Art and stupidity

January 28, 2010

“Prelude to the Twentieth Century,” Roberto Calasso’s essay on Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet begins hilariously:

When I think of The Book of our century, I don’t turn to À la recherche or Ulysses or The Man Without Qualities, those majestic constructions, exemplary not only for their genius but for their precision and obsessiveness as well, to which public opinion now grants due respect, as to those cathedrals made of toothpicks that some provincial hermit has spent the best years of his life silently building.

It’s funny ’cause it’s true…

But then it gets scary:

…everything in the world is born accompanied by its degraded Double; not only every knickknack but every idea.

Just as there is romantic kitsch and classical kitsch, as well the Renaissance, Gothic, and ‘modern’ varieties, so now Stupidity reformulates Platonism and paleontology, emotions and rationality, rebellion and subjugation, disbelief and devotion. The two bonshommes Bouvard and Pécuchet (and Flaubert inside them) then discover that Stupidity is no longer a characteristic of certain ideas. On the contrary, with the even-handed impassiveness of a god, it distributes itself in all directions: among believers and atheists, countryfolk and city dwellers, poets and mathematicians. Stupidity is the bloodthirsty paper realm of public opinion.

Obviously, he’s not talking about stupidity in any quantifiable sense, the kind of thing that a credential might ward off. It’s not lack of knowledge but lack of something else, wisdom maybe, though there is certainly kitsch wisdom. For Calasso, if Ulysses and The Man Without Qualities have become kitschified then Bouvard and Pécuchet embody the animal instinct that seeks hopelessly after kitsch.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: