The Stupidity of Stupidity: Raymond Queneau’s Reflections on Gustav Flaubert’s “Bouvard and Pecuchet”

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Before Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Beckett’s Vladmir and Estragon or Paul Celan’s Gross and Klein, there was Bouvard and Pecuchet, two comic characters created by Gustave Flaubert in the mid 19th century.   Gustave Flaubert originally titled his unfinished comic novel, Bouvard and Peruchet, The Story of Two Nobodies. In the introduction to his translation, Mark Polizzotti, cites several letters to show that Flaubert originally intended to write this novel as a critique of culture’s stupidity. The evidence stands for itself. In one letter, Flaubert writes “I’m contemplating something in which I’ll vent all my anger. Yes, at least I shall rid myself of what is stifling me.” In another letter to George Sand, he writes that “stupidity and injustice make me roar.” And in a letter to Turgenev, “Never have things of the mind counted for less…and the execration of literature been so unspoken.” And in yet another letter, Flaubert states that “human stupidity is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I can see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.”

The extraordinary French New Novelist, Raymond Queneau, knew, quite well, that the Flaubert’s last novel was motivated by his distaste for stupidity. However, Queneau doesn’t find this to be what we find in the book. It is not just a scathing attack on stupidity:

Just as Cervantes at first presents Don Quixote as a ridiculous madman and then, in Chapter 11, has him utter a beautiful tirade that expresses Cervantes’s own thoughts..thus Flaubert’s opinion of his two “bonshommes,” (fellows, characters) and even the import of the book in general, changed as it developed.

Flaubert’s attitude these characters is “ambivalent.” They aren’t, simply, stupid.   Queneau doesn’t simply see Bouvard and Peruchet as an Abbot and Costello. Rather, they take part in a “pantheonic” and “encylopediac” novel. Together, they create their own “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.” They do and address many modern ideas and trends and think they are capable of handling each in stride. But they can’t.   And they repeat each attempt and failure with everything they approach; yet, after things are a mess, they move on not learning their lesson.

Strangely enough, Queneau finds passages which show that in writing the novel Flaubert, himself, became stupid and actually enjoyed it:

Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I have become them! Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it….I live as much as I can in my two fellows…the stupidity of my two characters has invaded me.

Queneau reads this repetition of failure as a kind of comic skepticism. He argues that Flaubert equates, via comedy, science and skepticism.

Flaubert is in favor of science exactly to the degree that it is skeptical, reserved, methodical, prudent, and humane.   He has a horror of dogmatists, metaphysicians, philosophers.  

He calls their work “stupidity.”   And the stupidity we see in the novel is a kind of stupidity of stupidity. Queneau calls this a “kind of pragmatism” since it criticizes their “desire for the absolute” which leads them to attempt to master all things.

Stupidity, writes Flaubert, is about “wanting to conclude.” And each failure of Flaubert’s comic duo shows us how flawed this desire is. Each thing they do puts them back to where they started. Like Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot or Mendele’s Jewish Don Quixotes in the Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the III, they learn nothing but they trace a skeptical turn away from the absolute toward the stupidity. They go nowhere. This comic, circular, and repetitive trajectory shows us the limit of progress and the limit to our Faustian obsession with knowledge and mastery.   By going through the foibles of his comic characters, Flaubert may have freed himself from stupidity. This is what Queneau seems to be suggesting.   In an age of stupidity, we need a literature of stupidity a …stupidity of stupidity….if you will.

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