The Apostrophe Blog
I have been cleaning the house for days. When I first started, there was a real need, the fact that we would be hosting our belated housewarming on Sunday afternoon. But once that was over—and the post-party cleanup had taken place as well—I found that I simply kept going. Dusting along every doorway lintel. Rubbing away smudges from the silvering glass of the 70-year-old bathroom cabinet’s mirror. Wiping crusty soup spills from the top of the stove. Rounding up dust javelinas that had been breeding under the bed.
Once all the nitpicky maintenance work was done, it was no giant leap to move on to being mildly possessed about making order out of any remaining chaos that existed throughout the house. We moved in barely ten months ago so there were still stacks of unshelved books, empty boxes stacked like Leaning Towers of Pisa along a basement wall, and not one but at least six strings of holiday lights knotted together in a Rubbermaid bin.
During my cleaning frenzy this past week, every one of my monuments—to the messy, to the neglected, to the forever unsorted, to the maybe-it-will-have-a-creative-purpose-someday—found its way back to order. And the result for me? A feeling of contentment and well-being along with (for me) a post-tidying peace. That’s the physical, emotional, and psychological place/space I prefer to occupy when I sit down to write. But I do wonder: Is it, instead, simply one more neurotic (and senseless) ritual along my journey to making my way to the desk and the words?
Gustave Flaubert, the brilliant French novelist, creator of that indelible character, Emma Bovary, is alleged to have once said: “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Bourgeois is one of those words that was tossed about with abandon in the history class I took from a self-avowed Marxist my freshman college year. For me, it’s one of those words that has been taken out of context and ping-ponged back and forth so much that I, for one, am not sure what it means any more. Which sent me on a quick look at its definition (when used as a noun) in the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Edition:
1 a : BURGHER b : a middle-class person
2 : a person with social behavior and political views held to be influenced by private-property interest : CAPITALIST
3 plural : BOURGEOISIE
The Oxford English Dictionary offered a bit more lexicological juice:
bourgeois |boŏrˈ zh wä; ˈboŏr zh wä| adjective
• of or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes : a rich, bored, bourgeois family | these views will shock the bourgeois critics.
• (in Marxist contexts) upholding the interests of capitalism; not communist : bourgeois society took for granted the sanctity of property.
noun (pl. same) a bourgeois person : a self-confessed and proud bourgeois. ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from French bourg. Compare with burgess.
And from its thesaurus:
adjective: 1 a bourgeois family middle-class, propertied; conventional, conservative, conformist; provincial, suburban, small-town; informal white-bread. Antonym proletarian, unconventional.
2 bourgeois decadence capitalistic, materialistic, money-oriented, commercial. Antonym communist.
noun: a proud bourgeois member of the middle class, property owner.
Well, I now own property again (or does Wells Fargo, holder of our mortgage?) and, according to income data, my husband and I are still firmly lodged in the upper middle-class. I’ve never lived in a suburb. I grew up in a fairly provincial small town where, as a kid, I ate those tidy, cookie-cutter-perfect slices of white bread. But a long way back, before the oil embargo of the 1970s, as an idealistic (and often foolish) college student, I soundly rejected materialism and America’s consumer culture in favor of what many might call the unconventional, what we used to call “alternative” back in the day.
What, if anything, does this have to do with writing?
When I was younger and had more stamina, I sought—even cultivated—an anti-bourgeois life. In many ways, I emulated old Emma B, living my life like an eccentric, flamboyant, reckless yet hopefully likeable, often depressed and disillusioned character in a novel or a walking poem-nightmare rather than a proper, staid, respectable (boring?) member of society. Being original, artistically risk-taking (which is how I interpret Flaubert’s use of the word “violent”) was one of my core values. Did I generate a lot of material for potential writing projects? Yes. Did I get a lot of writing done back then? No.
The writer Hermann Hesse had this to say about what makes the bourgeoisie tick:
“The bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self…And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed by God, as he prefers comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire.”
I think Flaubert would vigorously disagree. In his own personal emphasis on art and the arduous apprenticeship required by a writer to the word, isn’t Hesse’s description exactly what Flaubert is arguing against? Only because of my good fortune, my life of relative, uncomplicated calm and ease, have I been able to make my way to anything remotely original in my work. Thanks to my creature comforts, to my petty bourgeois routines-in-place, I have had the luxury to explore my “inner consuming fires.”
So perhaps that’s the nugget of received wisdom in Flaubert’s quote. Surround yourself with order, with stability, with routine. Marshal your resources so that you have options rather than noose-around-the-neck liabilities. Make your home your sanctuary so that, indeed, it can be both a safe haven and a springboard into your wildest flights of fancy. Dust and polish, sweep and mop, and then put away the dust rag, the straw broom, the scrub brush, and settle down to do the work.
For me, it’s definitely from order, from a sense of stability, from the comfortable reliability of daily routine that the work slowly grows.
Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, story by story.
Word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, poem by poem.
The public domain image above is of the original 1936 dust jacket art by Russell H. Tandy for The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, the thirteenth volume in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series by Carolyn Keene.
* The title of this post is an homage to Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic comedy, The Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie. The 1972 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, it chronicles a group of upper-class friends whose lives are truly not what they seem on the surface.