One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Flaubert's "Dictionary of Received Ideas"

The Dictionary of Received Ideas (in French, Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues) is a short satirical work collected and published in 1911-3 from notes compiled by Gustave Flaubert during the 1870s, lampooning the clichés endemic to French society under the Second French Empire. It takes the form of a dictionary of automatic thoughts and platitudes, self-contradictory and insipid. It is often paired with the Sottisier (a collection of stupid quotations taken from the books of famous writers).

At the time of Flaubert's death, it was unclear whether he intended eventually to publish it separately, or as an appendix to his unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. In some of his notes, it seems that Flaubert intended the dictionary to be taken as the final creation of the two protagonists. In other notes, it seems the Sottisier is intended as their final work.

The idea of a spoof encyclopedia had fascinated him all his life. As a child, he had amused himself by writing down the absurd utterances of a friend of his mother's, and over the course of his career he speculated as to the best format for a compilation of stupidities. In a letter to Louis Bouilhet from 1850, Flaubert wrote: "Such a book, with a good preface in which the motive would be stated to be the desire to bring the nation back to Tradition, Order and Sound Conventions—all this so phrased that the reader would not know whether or not his leg was being pulled—such a book would certainly be unusual, even likely to succeed, because it would be entirely up to the minute." He wrote to Louise Colet in 1852: "No law could attack me, though I should attack everything. It would be the justification of Whatever is, is right. I should sacrifice the great men to all the nitwits, the martyrs to all the executioners, and do it in a style carried to the wildest pitch—fireworks.... After reading the book, one would be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it."

The dictionary is comparable in many respects to Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, but takes the opposite tack by affirming all the commonplace notions.

[From Wikipedia: ]


The Illustrated Dictionary of Received Ideas (an interesting idea I stumbled on) is an ongoing project (from 2009 to the present) by Gareth Long & Derek Sullivan:
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