Saturday, January 01, 2011

From Flaubert

"Axiome: la haine du bourgeois est le commencement de la vertu." -- Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received Opinion
When I first read Flaubert's dictum that "hatred of the bourgeoisie is the beginning of wisdom," I wasn't sure how to take it. I encountered it while there were still punks roaming the earth and when I still was one. Surely I had thought the same thing, after all, that no man could achieve anything without first starting from hating the bourgeois. In fact, I spent the years from age fourteen to nineteen in a seething rage against all things middle class, especially the mall, the high school, the pretty, the glad handing, the cologned, the puffed dudes and fringed girls, the top forty radio, the best seller lists, and Gene Shallot.

I also knew, though, because, like a good many punks, I had gone into academics, that Flaubert might mean something more literal, given his era. He might mean a class with borders, and might in fact be snobbish as much as scornful. One never knows. Then there is the worry of irony, as Flaubert's irony is not always obvious. Hesse, after all, would bawl and blast the bourgeoisie as the worst of all things. Dostoyevski would. Lawrence would. In fact, pretty much all the good authors did. Therefore, it might be irony... but that trend wasn't by a trend by Flaubert's day....

Never mind. I put my disgust at the middle sorts into the background as I tried to calm my narcissism. There is a period of two decades or thereabouts when both sexes find themselves fascinating, both for beauty and revulsion. Either way -- as objects of admiration or poking with a stick -- they think that their own selves are very worthy of exploration; and then they think that their biographies are necessary for understanding themselves; and then they place their biographies, if they make it this far, in a perspective that stretches to their individual horizons. For me, that meant that I had my long stretch of thinking my awfulness needed a witness. Then I needed to think about how it happened to be that way, which meant biography. Then a decade followed where the importance of my biography gradually took its proper place in the context of history and ceased to be the star of the show. During this process, I explained away that five year misery of hating the middle classes as just normal rebellion and achievement of individual identity. Ho-hum. It was ever thus. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Recently, though, I've begun to wonder if that's true.

  1. First, the authors I named above share a quality, aside from their scorn: they, like perhaps 80% of the punks, are the children of middle class parents.
  2. Second, I realized that the things that I set out in endless manifestos in 1978 of "Things I Hate about Them" are things I still hate. In other words, it wasn't a phase. I may not have much paisley print, but I still have the pit of the stomach gagging when "Top Video of the Day" comes on.
  3. Third, I began to see that there was something about the middle classes themselves that separates them from the upper and lower classes, aside from money.
Ask yourself this: are the children of the working class raised filled with hatred of the values of the working class? Are the children of the upper class raised with hatred of the values and culture of the upper class? Lower class children grow up hating their material conditions and with aspirations, but do they grow up wanting nothing so much as the chance to write a stinging satire or direct a cruel portrait of their hideous families? Do the children of the wealthy emerge to write poetry ridiculing their habits of education, manners, and socializing?

Working class children may adopt a middle class speech, but the language itself will be retained, while middle class children are eager to climb or descend, whichever way they may, in language. Upper class children may affect lower dialects to "pass" in society without embarrassment, but they are not abandoning their speech, grammar, and syntax.

The children of the middle class, though, seem to have perhaps fifty percent satisfaction at any moment. The rest of the time, there is a strong kick against the pricks. The reason children of the middle class tend to remain in the middle class -- or they did before the current generation -- but they change their approach and focus, and, most importantly, they change what the middle class is.

You see, the upper and working classes tend to be defined by one another, by relations of power and capital. The former tends to spin "culture" off from itself as an armor or a set of shibboleths. The latter creates contrary, counter and resistant culture, or such culture develops synthetically from the accretion of economic migration and mixed assimilation of populations. Only the middle class has a self-aware culture.

The middle class tends to come from the middle class and from the working class. Rarely do the uppers fall, but the lowers have risen from time to time in the US, UK, Germany, and Netherlands. Thus, in these cases, the middle class is a sort of consensus of averaging. No view gets to be reflected, as all views are taken down to their most palatable features. The middle class is known not by its money -- especially not in the U.S., where Americans stupidly call themselves "middle class" whether they make $20,000 a year or $200,000 a year -- but in culture. It has no title as its entry point. Its entryway is a set of views, a set of speech habits, a set of values. In other words, it is a voluntary matter more than the other classes.

You want to be middle class? Act middle class and do not have a physical identity that causes rejection by the myopic eye of the middle class itself. The eye is myopic because of its nature: "normal," "middle," "average."

The values, the culture, is how the middle class is middle. Smart? Not too! Crass? Not too! Tolerant? Some! Generous? Realistically! Art? Understandable!

No child can love that if the child wants to have an identity. Early adulthood is the time of making oneself a self, and there is no way to be a self without having something outstanding. All of that must be pruned off for the middle. The only people who may excel in the middle are the ones who do so with physical attributes of beauty or health or service or strength. They cannot be too artsy, too fartsy, in other words, and any child who does not accept physical extremes must perforce reject the middle's standards.

At the same time, none of us ever escapes. As Flaubert, Hardy, and others would show, they could hate the middle classes, but they could write about nothing else, and their own values were resolutely bedded in the soil of the bourgeois system. This is, too, normal and natural. You see, if I stick out and have to hate the vacuity of the pop-driven, unreflected, ignorant art in the middle class, I actually remain with them in, say, my views of serving on juries and paying taxes. If I reject their ovine capacity for self-deception and political insensibility, I probably share their views on funding public schools.

Thus, we -- we haters of the bourgeoisie -- become the components of the next one. Our exaggerations and corrections give slight shifts to the lumpy Jell-o. "Suddenly" it seems that "average Americans" are tolerant of gays in the military, for example. Well, it wasn't sudden, unless you believe that everyone cringing in shame in the 1970's growing up to be those people in the 2000's is sudden.

Anyway, it was just a thought I had.

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