“The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.” He also wrote, “Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.”
Such thoughts are part of Gustave Flaubert’s lifelong diatribe against the bourgeoisie and the society brought about by the 1848 Revolution in France. I’m now reading his letters which are fascinating on several levels. Many are oddly relevant to our present sociopolitical troubles.
(I devoted much of my academic study to French literature, particularly the 19th century poets. My dissertation focused on how Symbolist poetry came to be absorbed in England. And its forebears, including Flaubert and Baudelaire, always pervaded my thoughts. Maybe I unduly glorified French rationalist thinking and its artistic renderings, but they have become subsumed into my life.)
I consider the MAGA fanatics to be part of the new bourgeois society that has come to dominate much of the American scene. These folks are the newest iteration of how capitalism and its aspirations and fantasies have transformed middle-class life. The zealots now want to break the system that gave them strength. Stupidity is their dominant characteristic.
Many of these bigoted beliefs and attitudes represent implicit biases that are outside the level of conscious awareness. It couches the rhetoric of white supremacy in the language of individual freedom and individual rights. Hate speech is justified as “free speech,” gun control is an attack on “the right to bear arms,” criticism of offending marginalized group members is seen as “political correctness” and vaccine mandates are seen as governmental intrusion.
These people, in other words, have romanticized their deceptions just as the characters in Madame Bovary did. In that book Flaubert crucified the delusions of his characters through irony, evocative description and, at the same time, narrative detachment. This brought a new kind of realism to the novel. Its withering portrayals of small-town life and its stultifying effects have all kinds of echoes in today’s MAGA followers.
The people of Madame Bovary are limited intellectually and culturally; they are sometimes sincere and well-intentioned, sometimes petty and vulgar, sometimes pathetic and confused, and sometimes unaware of the most obvious things or unable to take the most obvious action.
One of these characters struck me as a sort of analogue for Donald Trump. Homais, the garrulous pharmacist in the book, is forever making egotistical and pompous speeches, always inspired by his self-esteem. He indulges in shady medical practices but never gets caught out. In the last line of the novel Flaubert wryly records that Homais was finally awarded the Legion of Honor he had always sought.
If only the force of art and the achievements of a powerful style could protect us from such real charlatans. Flaubert brilliantly maligned them in his day; as writers we must continue the struggle.