Leave It to Flaubert to Tell It as It Is

Three excerpts from the recently published edition of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller, seem to me an apt commentary on our own time.

cover of the letters of gustave flaubert 365 enh

Mankind is displaying nothing new. It’s irremediable wretchedness has embittered me ever since my youth. So I am not disillusioned now. I believe that the crowd, the mass, the herd, will always be detestable. Nothing is important save a small group of minds, ever the same, which pass on the torch.

* * *

Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times. Mankind has always been like this. A few years of quiet fooled us. That’s all. I too used to believe in the progressive “civilizing” of the human race. We must expunge that mistake and think no better of ourselves than people did in the age of Pericles or Shakespeare, dreadful periods in which great things were accomplished.

* * *

I am appalled by the state of society. Yes, such is the case. Stupid, perhaps, but there it is. The stupidity of the public overwhelms me. […] The bourgeoisie is so bewildered that it has lost all instinct to defend itself; and what will succeed it will be worse. I’m filled with the sadness that afflicted the Roman patricians of the fourth century. I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth. I hope to be gone before it carries everything away. But meanwhile it’s not very gay. Never had things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest — disdain for Beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.

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