Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart

Reading philosophy can get complicated. Our last reading by Kant included totally new terms he invented himself, such as a “hypothetical imperative” (which is different from his “categorical imperative”). In Flaubert’s short story A Simple Heart we meet a woman who’s not a deep thinker. The question Flaubert poses is this: can a simple person have just as good a life as someone with a gifted mind who has studied deeply? That’s a good question. In A Simple Heart the woman’s name is Felicite. She’s very different from Kant. Kant’s a professor of philosophy and well-versed in almost every branch of human learning. Felicite is just an ordinary housekeeper in an ordinary household. She can’t read and write. She doesn’t know how maps work. But she can clean and cook and knows how to do all the practical things that are necessary to make life comfortable and pleasant. In short, her life is simple. Kant had a very well-defined philosophy. He spends several pages explaining why just “being good” isn’t good enough. You have to be good for the right reasons. Otherwise, you’re just acting out of your own self interests. Felicite, on the other hand, didn’t have a well-defined philosophy of life. She couldn’t write down her own philosophy even if she had one. And she didn’t spend much time thinking about right and wrong, much less good and evil. But in Flaubert’s world Felicite is “good” because her native goodness unfolded in her heart. She didn’t have to think about it. She just lived it day by day. Her whole world was a small village in southern France. Her daily life wasn’t very complicated: She got up at the crack of dawn so as to be in time for Mass, and worked till nightfall without stopping; then, when dinner was over, the dishes put away, and the door firmly shut, she would bury the fireplace log under the ashes and doze off in front of the hearth, holding onto her rosary. A fair question might be: what kind of life is that? Getting up early every day, going to church, working all day, then falling asleep in front of the fire? Not even any Internet or cable TV. Most people would probably prefer Paris but Felicite found that she was happy in these gentle surroundings. It was enough for Felicite. She couldn’t read but she knew the biblical stories: Felicite saw the Garden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, cities all in flames, dying nations, idols overthrown; and these stunning visions left her awed by the Almighty and fearful of His wrath. She wept when she heard the story of the Passion. How could they have crucified him like that? Didn’t He love little children, feed the hungry multitudes, heal the blind? Even simple people have problems and Felicite was no exception. She recalled …her wretched childhood, the disillusionment of her first love, her nephew’s going away, and Virginie’s death… Felicite had her share of tragedy. But she persevered. Even when her body started falling apart: …she was deaf…Though her sins might have been broadcast throughout the diocese without dishonoring her or offending anyone else, the priest decided it would be best not to confess her from then on anywhere but in the sacristy. … She also began to lose her sight. The shutters stopped opening. Many years passed. There wasn’t a lot to keep Felicite going except for one thing: her beloved pet parrot, Loulou. As the world started slipping away from Felicite she still had Loulou to comfort her. And when Loulou passed away she had him stuffed. Then Flaubert paints a comical but touching picture of Felicite and her stuffed pet bird: A shelf was put up for Loulou…without sorrow, rather brimming over with peace, she would remember how things used to be… she was forever scrutinizing the Holy Ghost, and it struck her that he looked a little like the parrot…he was the very image of Loulou… It would not have been a dove that Our Heavenly Father had picked to be the bearer of His Word; nobody ever heard a dove talk; it must have been an ancestor of Loulou’s. Is this love or just plain blasphemy? Felicite couldn’t tell you because of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand. Kant and Flaubert had two very different visions about what a good life is and how it should be lived.


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