Saturday, April 7, 2007

Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

A century ago, Gustave Flaubert collected examples of clichéd ideas in France, calling his work The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas (translated for New Directions by Jacques Barzun).

The entry for “America,” for instance, reads “If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we should not be suffering from syphilis and phylloxera. Exalt it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there.” And the accepted way to respond to the name “Machiavelli”? – “Though you have not read him, consider him a scoundrel.”

This weekend I've been thinking about received or accepted ideas, in part because I've sent a letter to the journal "American Scholar" about a badly argued, sometimes silly, and thoroughly cliched article they just published attacking a friend of mine -- see it at -- but mostly because I worry constantly about being nothing much but a bundle of old and not very interesting and mostly cliched ideas myself.

One response to worries about being shallow and mundane (and I often succumb to this) is to quit writing. The other (and sometimes I succeed at this) is to keep writing, to write more often, with more focus, to search for experiences and ideas (in books, mostly, and in conversation) that come together in my own brain in ways they can't in anyone else's brain. If I do that, sometimes I get lucky. At least I've got a chance. And it's better than the depression that accompanies the other option.