Enlightenment as a Principle of Stupidity

Flaubert’s final, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet is the story of two copyists, vulgar bourgeois (in the Radio 4 sense) buffoons who, after coming into an inheritance, find themselves, by stages, exploring the whole of human knowledge, and farcically failing to understand anything. Along the way they lose property, catch syphilis, attract the wrath of the townspeople. But although there is a plot, there is nothing in the book in the way of drama. Bouvard and Pecuchet is a satire of Enlightenment, and the narrative is, appropriately, blankly quantitative: the book is a mere list of events, the way it is written is such as to elude understanding, eliminate meaning. There is no real element of time in the book: although it takes place over the course of 40 or so years, the characters do not age, and space barely features either; the locations Bouvard and Pecuchet inhabit are mere names, their details left as vague as the personalities of almost all the other characters.

Bouvard and Pecuchet is, quoting Borges who is himself quoting one of those obscure sources he often quotes who he may as well be making up, “the story of a Faust who was also an idiot.” (Borges wrote a wonderful essay on Bouvard and Pecuchet which is in the Penguin The Total Library collection of his non-fiction… I mean, if ‘fiction/non-fiction’ is even an appropriate distinction for Borges) But really it reveals all prospective Fausts as idiots. In his essay, Borges mentions a potential criticism of the book, insofar as it is a critique of Enlightenment: that the fact it concerns two idiots serves to invalidate the critique. “The failures of Pecuchet do not entail a failure by Newton.” This of course misses the point. Enlightenment serves to turn everyone into morons. It is a principle of stupidity.

Think of the Gadamerian distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis. ‘Erfahrung’ indicates the having of a true experience, which involves a transformation of both the individual and the world. ‘Erlebnis’ indicates a diminished, withered form of experience as merely ‘living-through’, in which we are not fully participating in the world. Enlightenment, of course, relies on the possibility of Erfahrung to even happen: to scientifically describe the world is to transform it. But the great irony of Enlightenment is that its project results in the very sort of experience it relies on then becoming impossible. Modern science aims at the complete description of the world, one that will hold true for all time. Thus it aims at the elimination of history. With no history, no more transformations, there is no more possibility of full, true, experience. Enlightenment wants to reach its complete description and then kick the ladder away for future generations to live an existence now blindly determined for them by gravity and neuroscience.

In his essay The Discovery of the North Pole, Karl Kraus uses the conquest of undiscovered elements of the physical world to satirise Enlightenment more generally. Though we have conquered this extra little section of nature, the world is nevertheless bound by stupidity. More Enlightenment has simply resulted in more stupidity. “When people were travelling in mail coaches, the world got along better than it does now that salesman fly through the air. What good is speed if the brain has oozed out on the way?” And yet there is a sense that we cannot halt the march of stupidity. The discovery of the North Pole was “inevitable… It is an idea graspable by all brains, especially those no longer capable of grasping anything. The North Pole had to be discovered some day, because for centuries the human mind had penetrated the night and the fog in a hopeless struggle with the murderous elemental forces of stupidity.”

Now that the destructive movement of Enlightenment has begun, destroying the possibility of Erfahrung, we lack the means to halt it. “Human imagination has not wrested one inch away from the realm of white death at a place where even the hope of transforming the world of human forces into a realm of reason foundered… it was stupidity that reached the North Pole, and its banner waved victoriously as a sign that it owns the world.” Vulgarity has been kicked off like a nano-swarm which will multiply and engulf the universe.

One of the few key moments in Bouvard and Pecuchet, I mean one of the moments where, in this largely timeless, spaceless, drama-less novel, it actually has some sort of character development, is the passage where they realise they, these two idiots, are surrounded by idiots. “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable. Insignificant things depressed them: newspaper advertisements, the profile of some worthy citizen, a silly remark overheard by chance.” Borges glosses this as the point at which Flaubert, as author, becomes reconciled with Bouvard and Pecuchet, when, after all his research (reading huge volumes of lore so as not to understand them) and writing, he finally becomes his two characters; or rather, they become him. This is perhaps true. Moreover, it is (this point arises after Bouvard and Pecuchet have embarked on a tour of philosophy) the first time Bouvard and Pecuchet really do seem to make a breakthrough into anything after any of their reading: they have learnt that the world is fallen and false. The point Flaubert might be said to be making is, thus: studying the sum of human knowledge, in Enlightenment, cannot really teach us anything, except that the world is a place deeply permeated by stupidity.

The point is, perhaps, ‘what is to be done?’ Bouvard and Pecuchet contemplate suicide, then discover religion, then set about trying to educate, first a couple of foundlings, then the people of their community. And of course, they meet with no success. But Bouvard and Pecuchet is a satire, so their example can only ever really be a negative one. I think the general lesson to be drawn is that, in a world of infinite stupidity, more scientific knowledge will not necessarily make us less stupid. What we need is a different sort of knowledge. Really what we need is, what Adorno calls, ‘critical rationality’. This requires, however this might be effected, the recapture of Erfahrung, of qualitative, transformative experience.

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