Sunday, May 24, 2015

Le Mot Juste or To Goad the Ox

The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

To dissect is a form of revenge.
        George Sand

“From infancy, we are told, [Flaubert] refused to suffer fools gladly;” writes French-born American historian of ideas and culture, Jacques Barzun, in his introduction to his own translation of this remarkable literary curio, known in French as Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, “he would note down the inanities uttered by an old lady who used to visit his parents, and by his twentieth year he already had in mind making a dictionary of such remarks. And of course, like every French artist since the Romantic period, he loathed the bourgeois, whom he once for all defined as ‘a being whose mode of feeling is low.’" A highly deliberate writer, he detested platitudes and clichés, those borrowed, self-satisfied, expressly unconscious ideas and expressions “with which the ‘right thinking’ swaddle their minds.”

No mere pedant, Flaubert believed that language truly mattered, that the words and phrases with which people interacted with one another, and with which they described and imagined the world, was a faithful reflection of both who they were and who they might be. For Flaubert, already wary of the 19th century’s mass production of words and ideas, platitudes and clichés were not merely literary faux-pas, to be mocked and derided by those in the know, but "but philosophic clues from which he inferred the transformation of the human being under machine capitalism. This he took as a personal affront. Representing Mind, he fought the encroachment of matter and mechanism into the empty places that should have been minds." Significantly, the very word cliché has a mechanical origin, referring, as it does, to the sound made by the metal printing plates for moveable type (called stereotypes) that click and reproduce the same image mechanically without end. Yet Flaubert's war against linguistic complacency was also something more: it was a revolt against the tyranny of convention, an attack on mindless dogmatism, an assault upon the smugly stable status quo. Writes Barzun, in describing Flaubert's critique of all such ready-made phrases and expressions: "They all indicate fixity, which on reflection is seen to go beyond forms of speech or lack of ideas or aimless parroting. Social in origin, it is lust for order through convention." 

Here is an illustrative, often humorous sampling of some of the reigning bromides of his day, quite a number of which will certainly be familiar:

Accident. Always "regrettable" or "unlucky"—as if a mishap might sometimes be a cause for rejoicing.

Ambition. Always preceded by "mad," unless it be "noble."

Baldness. Always "premature," caused by youthful excesses—or by the hatching of great thoughts.

Beethoven. Do not pronounce Beathoven. Be sure to gush when one of his works is being played.

Buying and Selling. The goal of life.

Congratulations.  Always "hearty," "sincere," etc.

Conversation. Politics and religion must be kept out of it.

Darwin. The fellow who says we're sprung from monkeys.

Descartes. Cogito ergo sum.
Evidence. Is "plain" when not "overwhelming."

Greek.  Whatever one cannot understand is Greek.

Heat. Always "unbearable."

Hydra-Headed (Monster). Of anarchy, socialism, and so on of all alarming systems. We must try and conquer it.

Hypothesis. Often "rash," always "bold."

Indolence. Product of warm climates.

Languages (Modern).  Our country’s ills are due to our ignorance of them.

Locket. Must contain a lock of hair or a photograph.

Machiavelli. Though you have not read him, consider him a scoundrel.

Machiavellian. Word only to be spoken with a shudder. 

Mephistophelean. Applies to any bitter laugh.

Nature. How beautiful is Nature! Repeat every time you are in the country.

Nectar. Confuse with ambrosia.

Old. Always "prematurely."

Original. Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.

Oysters. Nobody eats them any more: too expensive!

Paganini. Never tuned his violin. Famous for his long fingers.

Philosophy. Always snicker at it.

Photography. Will make painting obsolete.

Principles. Always "eternal." Nobody can tell their nature or number; no matter, they are sacred all the same.

Progress. Always "headlong" and "ill-advised."

Property. One of the foundations of society. More sacred than religion.

Regards. Always the best.

Seashells. You must bring some back from the seashore.

Suicide. Proof of cowardice.

Taste.  "What is simple is always in good taste." Always say this to a woman who apologizes for the inadequacy of her dress.

Wagner. Snicker on hearing his name and joke about the music of the future.

Workman. Always honest—unless he is rioting.

If you are anything like me, as you read these entries you were thinking of the clichés and platitudes, the many howlers, that you yourself would add to the list. Surely first, most pressing, of my own many favorites would be the trusty epithet, looters, a term recently resurrected by liberals and conservatives alike, following the riots in Ferguson, in their smug, often specious coverage of the similar, more recent rioting in Baltimore. It seems that few if any of them saw the irony in chastising the rioters—mostly restless, disenfranchised African American youth—for their ransacking and burning of a local CVS (not a cozy ‘mom and pop shop,’ mind you, but part of a billion dollar corporate empire) in a nation the entire economy of which was recently brought to its knees by the ruthless, catastrophic, still-unpunished, ultimately government-sanctioned, looting of the American middle and working classes by our own hallowed banks and corporations. This even-then-well-known, well-documented bundle of brazen corporate swindles resulted, not in the pilfering of some aspirin, lipstick, hand cream, and diapers, but in an economic earthquake felt round the world, one that crippled the U.S. stock market, shattered the U.S. housing market, triggered a dangerous spike in U.S. unemployment, and has been calculated to have cost the average U.S. household between $50, 000 and $125, 000 in lost revenue, lost earnings, and additional taxes, taxes which subsequently were used by the federal government to rescue these same corporations and banks. Of course not even the term ‘looters’ is sufficient to describe them. 

If Flaubert was concerned about this matter then, in the late 1800's, it might behoove us, in this "global village" of ours, in this dazzling era of high-tech media union and collaboration, to give the matter of our language some thought. Even among my most progressive and skeptical friends, I have long-detected a startling uniformity of ideas, of modes of expression, of political and rhetorical thinking about the world, most if not all of which appears to have been gleaned from the same four 'right-thinking' sources: The New Yorker, The Economist, NPR, and The New York Times. It is a phenomenon that Walter Lippmann, in his astonishingly fresh and provocative 1922 book, Public Opinion, famously termed "the manufacture of consent"—a phrase, an expression, the great Flaubert would have certainly called juste.  

Gustave Flaubert is best known for his novel Madame Bovary. Read the lovely, light-as-air translation by Lydia Davis, if you can. The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas is published by New Directions.

Peter Adam Nash

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