Critical Inquiry 3 (2):333-344 (1976)

Flaubert himself, in an early and now famous letter, identifies in "bêtise" the effect of an inordinate desire to conclude: "Oui, la bêtise," he writes, "consiste à vouloir conclure. Nous sommes un fil et nous voulons savoir la trame" . This is to say stupidity, to Flaubert, is less a given content of discourse than a particular order of that discourse itself.1 It is the sign of an hasty and elliptical intervention into thought of a series of preconceived conclusions, the source of which may be situated in the doxa and in the rhetoric of verisimilitude that sustains the persuasive power of the doxa. Stupidity, as the project of the Dictionnaire demonstrates, is an endless fabric of maxims and probable syllogisms the function of which is to determine the particular and the specific, the singular and the different, as paradigmatic exempla of the larger discourse of encyclopaedic universality expressed in the verisimilitude of received ideas. It is in this sense that one can see in Flaubert's notion of "bêtise" the denunciation by the writer of an especially vulgarised form of the Aristotelian concept of verisimilitude, which, built around the rhetorical figures of the probable syllogism—the enthymeme—and the exemplum , is directed towards winning adhesion to a particular thesis by appealing to generalities and probabilities, and which constructs its arguments from material drawn from the doxa.2 It is this rhetoric of persuasion by verisimilitude that Flaubert, in the various discourses of the lover, the dreamer, and the politician, will throw into ironic relief in Madame Bovary and L'Éducation sentimentale. · 1. Cf. Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:1452.· 2. The concept of verisimilitude is a difficult one and one which had received much critical attention in recent years. I have taken the term here to refer to the complex network of constraints by which the mimetic novelist, like the rhetorician, is able to engage his audience in a contract of mutual recognition and to persuade them of the "sense of reality" of his narrative, that his is a plausible interpretation of reality, worthy of belief . It is here that Aristotle's elaboration of mimesis and of the art of rhetoric is decisive. Both in the Poetics and in the Rhetoric, Aristotle distinguishes two concepts with regards to the manner in which the artist or the rhetorician solicits from his audience the belief in the justness of his reconstruction of reality. The first concept is that of pithanon, the plausible or the persuasive. This corresponds to the speculative consideration of what strategy will be most forceful in any given case. Rhetoric is indeed defined as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion " . As such, pithanon is the sign of a desire to convince, a decision on the part of an individual in a particular situation. For this desire to convince to become fully operative in the context of an audience, it needs to be recast not as a plausibility, but as a probability, as eikos. Aristotle defines eikos as "a thing that usually happens: not . . . anything whatever that usually happens, but only if it belongs to the class of the 'contingent' or 'variable.' It bears the same relation to that in respect of which it is probable as the universal bears to the particular" . Eikos is on one level a collection of contents, of topoi. But it is more than this. For otherwise this would mean that works deriving from different historical contexts would become unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. Eikos is a patterning of discourse, a rhetorical syntax, based upon the integration of the singular in the universal, and translated in the text by the enthymeme and the exemplum. The homogeneity of the mimetic novel derives from the way in which the desire to convince is mediated and dissimulated by a totalising, "natural" eikos, when, in other words, the narrator is "objective." It is when these two dimensions are dissociated, as in Bouvard et Pécuchet, that all manner of disturbance is generated. . Leslie Hill, fellow in Clare College, Cambridge University, is presently doing research on Flaubert and on general aspects of the modern French novel. This is his first publication
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