Liberty Fried Absurdities by David Arthur Walters

The Author's Den

Liberty Fried Absurdities

Life in Downtown Kansas City is such an epicenter of metropolitan absurdities that I have become fond of being eccentric or off center somewhere else; for instance, at Country Club Plaza. The Plaza has something of a French fried flavor which pleases me and makes me want to visit France before I die. Hopefully the muffins in French cafes are larger than the ones at Muddy's.

I reached into my cheap plastic briefcase after I sat down on the bus from downtown to the Plaza the other day and pulled out some old notes I had taken from letters and books that I had perused several years ago. I've been carrying them around ever since. They seemed significant, but I really did not know why until I took up the subject of mystical estate development in Kansas City and proceeded with the creation of my personal doctrines of Absurdism for the Heart of America. Now the notes make quite a bit of sense, or nonsense, if you please. They serve to adumbrate Absurdism as it stood in France over a century and a half ago in the context of the bulging-belly bourgeois revolution against left-wing radicalism and right-wing royalism. Reading them again on a bouncing back seat of the jolting Country Club Plaza bus was similar to gazing at an impression of myself, kith and kin in a rusty mirror:

For instance, on 14 November, 1871, Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand as follows:

The good bourgeois is becoming more and more stupid! He does not even go to vote! The brute beasts surpass him in their instinct for self-preservation. Poor France! Poor us!" And this: "We suffer from one thing only: Absurdity. But it is formidable and universal. When they talk of brutishness of the plebe, they are saying an unjust, incomplete thing. Conclusion: the enlightened classes must be enlightened. Begin by the head, which is the sickest, the rest will follow."

There it is: Absurdity. Absurdity is a very stupid thing. Mind you that Flaubert was in a dark mood, and for very good reason. The Franco-Prussian war was disastrous for his country. Defeat led to defeat after defeat. The army and Emperor (Louis) Napoleon III capitulated on September 2, 1870. That was followed by a bloodless revolution in Paris. Thus fell the Second Empire, and the Third Republic began after Bismark insisted on the election of a national assembly. On January 18, 1871, the Prussian king was crowned emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. On February 17, 1871, M. Thiers was appointed chief executive, under control of the assembly. The war would be renewed under the new Republic. The Paris Commune, outraged at the sight of marching German troops, revolted and were put down by troops on May 21, 1871. As for Flaubert's role, he had been appointed lieutenant in the National Guard, but he refused to wear the Legion of Honor. His house had been occupied by the Germans - not much harm was done, however. Several friends had died, including his old classmate, Louis Bouilhet. He was depressed and feeling more misanthropic than usual. But he had never thought much of French society, anyway. Back in September of 1855, he had written to Bouilhet:

"Against the stupidity of my age I feel waves of hatred that suffocate me. The taste of shit comes to my mouth.... I want to keep it there, congeal it, harden it, make it into a paste to daub all over the nineteenth century, as Indian pagodas are gilded with cow dung; and who knows, maybe it will endure?"
Nothing is perfect, and Flaubert had Nothing in mind since the morbid Romantic days of his youth - his culture was somewhat like our Goth culture today. He finished a novel in 1869, L' Education sentimentale, about the degeneration of his generation. Its protagonist, Frederic Moreau, inherited a fortune and decided to move to Paris. His mother asked him what he would do there. "Nothing." In fact his ambition was to achieve Nothing. He loved to wander aimlessly on virtually endless walks about Paris.

Flaubert, in another letter to George Sand circa 1871, begged askance of the social turmoil: "What shall we believe in, then? In nothing! That is the beginning of wisdom. It was time to have done with 'principles' and to take up science, and investigation."

Just say Yes to Nothing, we might say. Let us have faith in Nothing, for Nothing is Perfect, Nothing is Impossible. Nonetheless, as we can observe in the Heart of America, simply beginning with the heads of society does not work. Poor Kansas City! Poor us!

Can we trust to the enlightenment of our civic leaders, the heads of society, as Flaubert supposed when he recommended, "Begin by the head, which is the sickest, the rest will follow." The old heads agreed with the cosmopolitan humanist principles of the Renaissance: humanity must learn the lessons of the ancient world and believe in its own powers. And the enlightened rulers agreed with the rational principles of the Enlightenment: man must emerge from his dependence on arbitrary, superstitious traditional authority, and have the courage to decide to think for himself and to be independent. Then the enlightened heads led the world into irrational orgies of mutual mass murder in the name of metaphysical entities. What good does it do to reason with powerful and wealthy people that their fortunes should be diminished by a just political distribution of power and wealth? "Sapre aude," Take courage to know - so goes the Enlightenment motto, but what good does knowledge do if unapplied?

And what is being cultivated today in the best universities, the universities for the wealthy elite? Ideological stupidity. Listen carefully to the Bushisms of the representative "moron." Society is not being dumbed down, really, but dumbed up, and all in the name of scientific principles.

The fundamental principle of science is skepticism: doubt. Of course the Enlightenment, with its overemphasis on absolute individual liberty and equality, tended to ethical relativism. Instead of looking to the sovereign, who ruled by arbitrary, unimpeachable divine right, the Enlightenment relied on direct experience guided by reason, which is presumably available to all sane persons, and projected the total process onto an imaginary superior entity, the State. The state or the totality (Enlightenment principles imply several forms of government including the totalitarian form) of individual rights and reasons was substituted for God, and that state was believed to be in ideal harmony with natural and social law. All that was in accord with political science, for the laws of society were presumed to be analogous to Newton's laws. Of course many enlightened scientists did not give much credence to divine providence or to a continuous spirit of history, for, once the natural law is known and future effects can be controlled by setting up causes, history, especially remote history, is irrelevant other than as a mode of entertainment or a source ideas for optional ways of living; hence Flaubert, the frustrated romantic, and realist against his liking, was caught in a dilemma when he favored both science and history.

Today politicians want us to forget history, forget their voting record, forget their deeds, forget their lies and hypocrisy, and to focus on the now; to be positively pragmatic, and not principled rational radicals or metaphysical ideologues on the left and right - the original Ideologists of France, who studied Ideology, the "science of ideas", were metaphysical materialists, idealistic materialists, if you will, at the tail end of the Enlightenment. But scientists must doubt every so-called scientific principle which is not experimentally proven - and even then occasional exceptions to the theories are supposed. When applied to politics, the result of the unprincipled principle of political pragmatism is absurd. Without any principles at all, it would seem that society would flounder, would go nowhere at all, would not progress in other words, would slip into Nothing, would wind up dead in the water unless radical revolutionary principles revitalized it.

Now here is something else from Flaubert, whose fictional studies of the bourgeoisie of his day are considered by experts to be historical documents, dated 25 July, 1871, to his favorite agonist, George Sand, the very woman whom Comtean religious positivists nominated high priestess, presenting her with all sorts of gifts including panties (she demurred with an insult), on the subject of principles:

"I think, like you, that the bourgeois republic can be established. Its lack of elevation is perhaps the guarantee of stability. It will be the first time that we have lived under a government without principles. The era of positivism in politics is about to begin."
Perhaps Flaubert should have absolutely adhered to his old faith in Nothing, for his faith in the scientific heads of society and in their willingness to be reasonable was mistaken. Yet he makes a good point about the rage of the Revolution, the concept of absolute equality - most absurdly wed to absolute liberty. That is not to say that blind faith in the presumably innate idea of equality was altogether pernicious or destructive of liberty, for the positive results are prodigious: vast improvements in social welfare include medical advances, criminal justice reforms, care of the weak and needy, freedom of trade craft, freedom of exchange, ethical treatment of colonials, and so on, all in accord with the Enlightenment principles of toleration, cosmopolitanism, rational morality, and so on. Today we prefer to speak of the equality of opportunity instead of absolute equality - we avoid the question by the rationalizations. In any even, even individual Christian democrats and communists know very well that absolute equality is as absurd as absolute liberty - their marriage is absurdity compounded. This, from Flaubert to Sand on 8 September, 1871, is quite fascinating in context:
"Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times.... We are floundering in the after-birth of the Revolution, which was an abortion... and the reason is that it preceded from the Middle Ages and Christianity. The idea of equality (which is all the modern democracy) is an essentially Christian idea and opposed to that of justice. Observe how mercy predominates now."
Justice is not only, To each his own according to his conditioned greedy self. A world without justice or contrary to justice, a world that rewards evil and punishes good is definitely absurd - the Absurd is the mental illness of our age. There are some goods and evils upon which almost everyone will agree as to their goodness or badness. Protagoras opined that we cannot do without justice. Everyone must speak freely on the subject of justice or injustice shall be the rule and civilization will perish. Protagoras is wrongly considered to be the Greek father of ethical relativism. In one little fragment of his work, we see that he said, "Man is the measure of all things, those that are, that they are, those that are not, that they are not." Protagoras was of course speaking not of individuals but of the species, Man, humankind; and, he did not mean to say "how" things subjectively are to individuals, for he posited a That, thus acknowledging the objective existence of things. Plato puts relativity in Protagoras' mouth elsewhere, but in Plato's Protagoras, Protagoras opines in his 'Great Speech' that justice is the first virtue that Athenian society cannot not do without, and, by Zeus' decree, injustice warrants exile or the death penalty since its absence is the death of society. Moreover:
"... the Athenians, and mankind in general, when the question relates to excellence in carpentry or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations.... But when they meet to deliberate about political excellence or virtue, which process only by way of justice and self-control, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise.... They say that all men ought to profess justice whether they are just or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is that a man must have some degree of justice, and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in human society.... They do not conceive this virtue to be given by nature, or to grow spontaneously, but to be a thing which is taught, and which comes to a man by taking pains. No one would instruct, no one would rebuke or be angry with those whose calamities they suppose to be due to nature or chance; they do not try to punish or to prevent them from being what they are; they but do pity them. Who, for example, is so foolish as to chastise or instruct the ugly, the diminutive, or the feeble?"

As for history again, today we might say that we care a lot about history, but few people really know or care much about any of it, at least not in depth, for they are too busy producing and consuming, taking care of their families, and avoiding painful truths in their leisure time by diverse means of recreation - fortunately, history can be entertaining, so some history comes through albeit grossly distorted for effect. Besides politics and religion, it is uncouth to talk about history in bourgeois society, for almost everyone quickly loses interest, or becomes angry, supposing that some pedant is trying to get one up on them or put one over on them in a show of intellectual superiority. Journalists as well are mostly interested in what is happening now or very recently. Believing that news must be new news, and in their haste to be up to date, they seldom access their databases. For instance, reporters at the local newspaper are relatively ignorant of the history of their own city; as a result, they consistently misrepresent the past rather than look into it. We hear such lazy remarks as, "I have been in Kansas City for ten years, and I have never seen this before." Not realizing how brief ten years is in the scheme of things, they say an event or idea is novel when it is not.

Such casual negligence is a serious matter, for selves and civilizations are memories that can be destroyed by the repetition of mistakes when history is forgotten. Flaubert, although sick and tired of radical, liberal and conservative principles, seemed to abhor revolutionary principles more than reactionary principles. He might warn us, Do not slander or slaughter history again and again with rationalized injustice and merciful ethical relativism (of the protestant humanist-enlightenment?) lest such an imbalance result in a violent reaction of right-wing authoritarian government (fascism: OED). He might then say, Let us not swing back to the unlimited extremes of metaphysical "justice." What? Do we have our tail in our mouth in some sort of vicious circle ala the ancient doctrine of eternal recurrence? Or was Lawrance, my historian friend, right when he said that the ideal will never be achieved, because "History is a mistake?" But if history repeats itself, there is no mistake. Or does the wheel roll forever forward as it turns? In either case, I am beginning to believe the very ground I stand on is absurd, and I do not blame Hamlet, whose name means "stupid," for asking his stupid question.

But to keep the faith in at least Nothing, if not something, I think we should not despair as Flaubert did, and abandon principles altogether, for it is in the liberal moderation between the revolutionary principles and the conservative principles that we live justly and obesely. Of course I too am bourgeois, and I find my belly liberally bulging in the human order, some popular place in between the conservative's godly order and the radical's rational order. In any case, I presume that we should know ourselves well enough in our own guilt to have forgiving hearts and to accordingly avoid extreme punishments that prevent nothing. However that might be, here is something amusing from Flaubert, the reluctant realist who was accused of immorality by the Moral Order's (Second Empire) prosecutor, on the subject of the injustice of mercy unmitigated by justice; we find the morsel in a letter to George Sand, the lady who is, by the way, his contrarian, the bisexual romantic socialist whom he calls "Master":

"The romantics will have a fine account to render with their immoral sentimentality. Do you recall a bit of Victor Hugo in la Legende des siecles, where a sultan is saved because he had pity on a pig? It is always the story of the penitent thief blessed because he has repented. The school of rehabilitation has led us to see no difference between a rascal and an honest man.... They are kind to mad dogs, and not at all to the people whom the dogs have bitten.... That will not change so long as universal suffrage is what it is. Every many (as I think) no matter how low he is, has a right to one voice, his own, but he is not the equal of his neighbor, who may be worth a hundred times more."

On 4 September, 1852, or twenty years prior to his complaints to George Sand, Gustave wrote to his lovely romantic muse Louise Colet (she admired Revolutionary women and dramatically stabbed a famous anti-feminist critic in the back) as follows: "Let nothing distress us: to complain of everything that grieves or annoys us is to complain of the nature of life. You and I are created to depict it, nothing more." Furthermore, "If the sense of man's imperfections, of the meaninglessness of life, were to perish... we would be more stupid than birds, who at least perch on trees." And to Louise Colet on 19 September, 1852, the subject of Nothing emerges again:

"I believe in nothing. I doubt everything, and why shouldn't I? I am quite resigned to working all my life like a nigger with no hope of reward.... Even admitting the hypothesis of success, what certainty can we derive from it? Unless one is a moron, one always dies unsure of one's own value and that of one's works. Virgil himself, as he lay dying, wanted the Aeneid burned. When you compare yourself to what surrounds you, you find yourself admirable; but when you lift your eyes, towards the masters, toward the absolute, towards your dreams, how you despise yourself!"

Furthermore, with Nothing in mind on 16 January, 1852, Flaubert penned a letter to Louise, wherein he effused on his aesthetic ideal:

"What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book depending on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the Earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the close expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result. I believe the future of Art lies in this direction.... Form, in becoming more skillful... leaves behind all liturgy, rule, measure.... There is no longer any orthodoxy, and form is as free as the will of its creator. This progressive shedding of the burden of tradition can be observed everywhere.... It is for this reason that there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects; from the standpoint of pure Art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject - style itself being an absolute manner of seeing things."

We have seen that, after the turmoil resulting in the Third Republic (1871-1914), Flaubert, in reference to practical life, complained of the tendency to equalization due to democratic liberation from moral codes. Yet, earlier, in 1852, during the Second Empire (1848-1852), for art's sake, or Art for Art's sake, he embraces enthusiastically the view that, "there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects."

Life as an artist can be a great escape providing that he is detached from loathsome reality. Anatomically inclined Flaubert, who had as a child observed his father performing autopsies in the hospital where the family lived, insisted that a novelist should be neutral; his personality should be absent; he must be as God, everywhere present in the work but nowhere visible. Today we might say that a realistic author observes the principle of objectivity.

Flaubert wants it both ways. In 1871 he deplored the radical principle of equality, and he ridiculed conservative principles as well, but absolute equality would result in the absence of unwanted principles, for principles are based on differences -modern ideologies deny part of the whole with half-assed principles. In 1871 Flaubert applauds the demise of principles in politics and the coinciding rise of the vulgar or low-minded bourgeoisie with its empirical interest and its pragmatic, unprincipled politics of immediate convenience. Maybe he loves the equality he hates, but that would be absurd. As for the absence of moral differences, which are based on perceptual differences, nothing would remain of the human being as such, and if everything were equal, there would be nothing to perceive. Or Everything, which is to say Nothing. But that is absurd.

Of course men and women do have a perfect right in this absurd world, which is deaf to our logical persuasions, to contradict themselves, to change principles; to suit their conveniences and the changing times; to so tire of principles as to just ignore them altogether or to at least renounce them altogether. Actions, we have often heard, speak louder than words. A human being may intentionally practice reverse hypocrisy: she may divide herself into physical actions and symbolic actions, and let her mind run wild or relatively free of ethical principles while keeping her body out of trouble. In any case, a writer might embrace Nothing in his suburban writing den outside of Rouen, and keep his lover at arm's length, in Paris, with letters about another woman, say, an imaginary woman, Madame Emma Bovary, who always wants to be something other than what she is lest her dream vanish into thin air.

Even Nothing would be better than something, since the real would destroy the dream and make of Emma an everyday adulteress. After Flaubert was charged by the prosecutor after the publication of his scandalous Madame Bovary, his fellow authors wondered why he bothered writing about such a prosaic subject as adultery. Of course adultery was not the underlying subject. Flaubert said, in response to, Who is Madame Bovary? "C'est moi."

Jean Paul Sartre later figured Flaubert for a hysterical man. But how can a man be a true hysteric without a convulsing womb? Please do not answer that question. The famous existentialist's multi-volumn, compulsive-obsessive psychoanalytic criticism of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, addresses Flaubert's aesthetic approach to Nothing, Madame Bovary, as follows:

"When writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert shows (his muse Louise Colet) his deep desire as an artist: to appear to treat one subject but in fact to be treating quite another, quite different in quality and scope, or not to treat it at all, by which he does not mean writing to say nothing, but writing to say Nothing. This is the role of the immediate in Madame Bovary: to symbolize, strictly speaking, to allude to the macrocosm or the void that is its equivalent, and above all to distract attention, to fool the reader, and while the reader is absorbed in reading a contemporary story, to inject him with an ancient eternal poison through style."
Sarte's criticism of Flaubert can, in turn, be criticized as an autobiographical novel of self-analysis. He attributes the genesis of Flaubert's own "pithiatism" (French psychoanalytical term for hysteria-neurosis), his "poison", or ancient original sin, to Flaubert's morbid childhood with its contemporary Romantic inclinations; again, we might compare the youth culture then quite well with today's "Goth" culture - there are many intellectuals including budding authors in their midst. Sartre renders Flaubertian quotes such as, "The earth is the realm of Satan," and "I believe in the curse of Adam," and so on. "In short," Sartre quotes Flaubert, "The worst is always certain, I believe in Nothing.

"Evil is that gnawing contradiction at the heart of being, that discovery in every being, when it invests all its forces in persevering, that it is merely an illusory modulation of nothingness." Moreover, "The extraordinary purpose of art, in Gustave's view, is to manifest the ineluctable slippage of being toward Nothingness through the imaginary totalization of the work; at the same time, its purpose is to preserve indefinitely, by that regulated illusion which is the work, a sense of endlessness in this slippage, fixing it through the restraining power of words whose permanence assures us in the Imaginary that it will never reach its end...."

Now, then lest we become too pessimist to the infinitesimal, nondimensional point of nothingness, at this point we should consider taking up the Imaginary as a positive faculty, and pursue Jules de Gaultier's Madame-Bovary philosophy - Bovaryism. We might, in effect, admit that we live illusory lives, embrace our illusions and successfully strive to be something other than what we are, something much better, hopefully. Perhaps I will do just that after practicing My Absurdism for awhile. I note that I am already becoming bored with my version of Nothing, and have been thinking of Camus again, his point of departure, the Absurd, for a down-to earth morality in between soccer games on sunny days and falling down the stairs with Sartre, drunker than a skunk. Sources:

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, transl Francis Steegmuller, Picador.

The Gustave Flaubert Letters, transl Aimee L. McKenzie, New York: Boni and Liveright 1921 Dictionary of Literary Biography ed. Catherine Savage Brosman, Detroit: Gale Research 199?