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Flaubert’s Bouvard & Pécuchet: Curators of a Private Museum

In the realm of artistic expression, Flaubert, akin to Manet’s museumic role, embodies literary custodianship. In “Bouvard and Pécuchet,” protagonists meticulously transcribe fragments, constructing a private museum of paradoxes. Artists, confronting similar contradictions, persist, forging individual paths. Flaubert’s tale is a reminder: art, transcends time, inspiring limitless exploration.


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In the grand tapestry of artistic expression, Flaubert emerges as the quintessential custodian of the literary realm, akin to Manet’s custodianship within the museumic expanse. The creative denizens, such as ourselves, find our oeuvres inextricably intertwined with the vast continuum of antecedent artistic manifestations or, more profoundly, with the nebulous and boundless conception of art itself. Analogous to the painstakingly precise systematization and categorization of written documents within the hallowed precincts of a library, our artistic forays are imbued with a meticulousness and scrupulous attention to minutiae.

Flaubert, in his magnum opus “Bouvard and Pécuchet,” unfurls the lives of two Parisian bachelors of eccentric predilections, who serendipitously find themselves ensconced in the arduous vocation of duplicating sundry writings. Their journey commences with an impassioned endeavor to transcribe disparate fragments gleaned from an eclectic assortment of sources — be they tobacco pouches, dilapidated newspapers, torn posters, or even mutilated tomes, whether genuine or spurious, each bearing the idiosyncrasies of its respective genus. This propels the protagonists, Bouvard and Pécuchet, into a zealous quest to erect a methodical taxonomy for their burgeoning compendium, employing tables replete with a plethora of dichotomous categories. Alas, their earnest attempts at accurate categorization encounter formidable impediments, engendering considerable disquietude and trepidation. Notwithstanding these vicissitudes, they persist, eschewing speculative pursuits in favor of assiduous emulation, methodically saturating the parchment’s entirety. In their perceptual schema, all entities, irrespective of intrinsic merit, are rendered egalitarian — the commendable and the reprehensible, the ludicrous and the sublime, the aesthetically pleasing and the repugnant, the inconsequential and the momentous. Thus, their endeavors culminate in a veneration of the statistical, wherein, according to their Weltanschauung, naught subsists beyond the realm of empirical verities and observable phenomena.

Though Bouvard and Pécuchet may never amass a conventional library per se, they, in essence, engender a private museum. Indeed, the museum plays a pivotal role in the narrative, intricately interwoven with the protagonists’ predilections for archaeology, geology, and history. Through the lens of the museum, Flaubert provocatively broaches inquiries of provenance, causality, representation, and symbolism. The epistemological underpinnings of the museum are deeply entrenched in archaeology, with its aspirations to articulate claims of representational and historical import. Archaeology, in its essence, aspires to encapsulate a science of the Archés — the primordial genesis — thereby ingraining its foundational presumptions with an inherently metaphysical character.

The inescapable parallels that emerge between Bouvard and Pécuchet’s relentless persuit of erudition and the formidable hurdles encountered by creative virtuosos become palpable upon contemplation of this theme. Analogous to the aforementioned characters, artists perpetually seek enlightenment and insight from a multifarious array of founts. We consult sundry references, texts, and artistic oeuvres in the aspiration of acquiring a sagacious artistic perspicacity and orientation. Yet, akin to the tribulations experienced by Bouvard and Pécuchet, we often find ourselves ensnared in the labyrinth of perplexing antitheses and deluding misinformation. While endeavoring to navigate the inexhaustible ocean of artistic potentials, we are perpetually ensnared by the tension that pervades the realms of tradition and innovation.

Notwithstanding the intrinsic adversities and capriciousness that bedevil us, artists endure, impelled by an innate compulsion to manifest, to corporealize the intangible, and to encapsulate the quintessence of our milieu. We derive solace in the act of imitation, replication, and ultimately, the act of engendering something entirely sui generis. Through these endeavors, we erect our personal museums, meticulously curating fragments of inspiration and arranging them in a manner consonant with our individualistic artistic vision.

Within the sanctified precincts of our private inspiration museums, we orchestrate a kaleidoscope of experiences, emotions, and observations. Each encounter, akin to a solitary piece within an intricate mosaic, affords ephemeral glimpses into the convoluted tapestry of human existence. We revel in the manifold expressions of art, valuing the plethora of ideas, styles, and influences that kindle our creative fervor.

In our artistic peregrinations, we, analogous to Bouvard and Pécuchet, confront the inexorable contradictions and intricacies that manifest. We are ensnared by the coalescence of beauty and grotesquery, the convergence of the sublime and the ludicrous, cognizant that within this juncture resides a profound verity about the human condition. In the crucible of creation, when we forge our idiosyncratic artistic trajectories, we relinquish the fetters of conventional wisdom, thereby laying bare the vast expanse of our imaginative capacities.

Flaubert’s portrayal of Bouvard and Pécuchet serves as an exemplar of the indomitable spirit intrinsic to the artist, as manifest in the indefatigable pursuit of their objectives. Unperturbed by setbacks, moments of perplexity, and self-doubt, the protagonists tenaciously advance toward their goals. Rather than succumbing to despondency, they recurrently revert to the act of replication, finding solace and inspiration in the very process of creation. They epitomize an unwavering conviction in the intrinsic value of the artistic odyssey itself, embarking on an interminable sojourn of exploration and experimentation.

As artists, we too encounter instances of profound revelation, uncovering unforeseen correlations or unveiling concealed verities. These revelations enrich our artistic vision, motivating us to plumb the intricate complexities of our craft. We apprehend that true mastery does not emanate from rigid adherence to a singular doctrine or the pursuit of a predetermined trajectory, but rather from embracing the vast mosaic of influences and experiences that conjoin to shape our artistic identity.

Flaubert’s magnum opus serves as a poignant reminder that artistic pursuits are not insular endeavors, but rather, interlinked threads interwoven into the opulent tapestry of human expression. Inspirational collections and private museums contribute to an expansive artistic consciousness that transcends temporal and spatial boundaries. Each brushstroke and every inscription we commit to parchment carries the weight of myriad artistic legacies, imbuing them with fresh strata of meaning and extending the frontiers of creative potentiality.

Therefore, let us ardently embrace the ethos of Bouvard and Pécuchet — their unwavering ardor for creation and insatiable thirst for knowledge. Let us carve out our individualistic artistic trajectories sans trepidation of potential incongruities and ambiguities. In so doing, we contribute to the ceaseless narrative of artistic exploration, inspiring forthcoming generations to embrace the beauty of the uncharted and celebrate the myriad possibilities that reside within the realms of art and imagination.

Gustave Flaubert, “Bouvard & Pécuchet” (France)
Michael Fried, “Manet’s Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s” (United States)
Julian Barnes, “Flaubert’s Parrot” (United Kingdom)
E.H. Gombrich, “Art and Illusion: The Psychology of Pictorial Representation” (Austria/United Kingdom)
E.H. Gombrich, “The Story of Art” (Austria/United Kingdom)
Michel Foucault, “The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences” (France)
Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (United States)
Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” (France)
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Germany)
John Berger, “Ways of Seeing” (United Kingdom)