On the Subject of Blasphemy
In Flaubert's last novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet, two middle-aged copyists come into an inheritance and move to the countryside where they try their hand successively at farming, medicine, archaeology, history, literature, spiritualism, gymnastics, education, philosophy and religion and manage to fail at each and every one of them before finally resolving, after 40 years, to return to their work as copyists.
Both characters are imbeciles. They read an entire library and get nothing out of it except the illusion of understanding. But, in the eighth chapter, in the most famous passage of the entire novel, Flaubert writes that "a lamentable faculty arose in their spirits, that of seeing stupidity and no longer being able to tolerate it. They were saddened by insignificant things: the advertisements in the newspapers, the profile of a bourgeois, a mindless remark overheard by chance."
No less of an imbecile (and no less of a dilettante) than Bouvard and Pecuchet, I fear I might also have come to share this habit of theirs. Stupidity is a harsh word. To use it is to suggest that one speaks from a more enlightened plane, which in my case would be an absurdity comparable to Hitler's claim that he was a man of peace. What I can say is that the sheer strangeness of everyday life confuses me.
Things people talk about at dinner strike me as enormities that in a more logical world would suffice to dry up the ocean or turn it to blood. The cover of a catalog, the catch phrase of a TV ad, a glimpse of a flyer posted in the square, trouble me to no end.
One flyer in particular sticks out in my mind. I came across it months ago. It read "Blasphemy is denying one's dreams." I don't know the context of the phrase. It would be bad enough if it were merely commercial. In Costa Rica, where I live, a certain brand of cigarettes advertises on television along pretty much the same lines.
Attractive young actors and actresses parade in front of the screen playing idealistic intellectual types who associate smoking their choice of cigarettes with the ideal that "one person can change the world," and the desire to "see all the stars in the sky at the same time." But I suspect the phrase in the flyer hinted at something all the more corrupt because it is more sincere. It hinted at the idea to which philosophers like Nietzsche and writers like Hesse have accustomed us; that intensity of experience is all that is the point.
In a sense the flyer was silly, even meaningless. Blasphemy is to speak disrespectfully of religion. The dictionary says so. To give it a new meaning is a little like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass pretending to Alice that "glory" means "a nice knock-down argument." Pretending that blasphemy is denying one's dreams is as logical as claiming that extortion is a weak cup of tea or that homeopathy is picking up the telephone with one's foot. But of course what the author really meant is that desiring passionately is an infinitely more important thing that being mindful of religion--that passionate desire overrides everything else. It's an idea as old as the world's first adolescent.
As an old-fashioned rationalistic unbeliever, I have no desire to defend religion or to attack real blasphemy. I leave it to others to argue about the appropriateness of covering a portrait of the Virgin Mary with manure. What horrifies me is the idea that, as Rabelais once put it, to "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"--the concept that one's own desire is all that matters. I dislike this principle, not because I'm a law-and-order conservative but because it's a philosophy of vanity, and because vanity and happiness are incompatible. It's a wile, a deception that promises the world and delivers nothing, or, as C. S. Lewis put it, one in which the disciple will "find his heart's desire, and find despair."
Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther told the story of a preternaturally sensitive poet whose impossible love eventually leads to suicide. After it appeared in print young people throughout Europe began imitating Werther's style of dress, talking like him and contemplating Romantic suicide. Many opted to share the fictional character's fate, to embrace his vast yearnings and finally to become tragic heroes in their own eyes. The thought of them always fills me with an immense sadness.
Hedgwick wrote that what makes life genuinely challenging is the "hedonistic paradox"--that actively seeking pleasure is one of the least effective ways of achieving it in the long run.
My high school biology textbook offered an illustration: if an electrode is attached to the pleasure center of a rat's brain and the rat is given access to a lever that causes a discharge to the electrode, the animal will pull down on the lever again and again and again until it dies from hunger and exhaustion. No animal has the human capacity for self-control. But then, sadly, neither does any other animal have our gift for rationalization.
Alejandro Jenkins '01 is a physics and math concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.