One day, they find (in the old papers from the mill) the draft of a letter from Vaucorbeil to the Prefect.It is a measure of Flaubert's greatness as a writer that even the rough notes for his unfinished novel contain a depth perhaps seldom encountered in nineteenth-century literature. Indeed, without this coda, it is difficult to make sense of the book's project at all. Why the endless regurgitation of nineteenth-century scholarship? Why the thematically-organized chapters, pointing towards an almost maniacal completeness? It's tempting to think of the book as merely a satirical Magical Mystery Tour of nineteenth-century folly, the barest shadow of a plot holding the whole thing together. (Hayden White finds this to be the mode of nineteenth-century "satirical" historiography, at least.) Roland Barthes lends his weighty authority to such a view: the absurdity of the "eternal copyists," he says, is "both sublime and comical."
The prefect has asked whether Bouvard and Pécuchet are dangerously insane. The doctor's letter is a confidential report explaining that they are just two harmless imbeciles. They recapitulate their actions and thoughts, which for the reader should be a critique of the novel.
"What shall we do with this?"--No time for reflection! Let's copy! The page must be filled, the "monument" completed. All things are equal: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, insignificant and characteristic. There is no truth in phenomena.
End with a view of our two heroes leaning over their desk, copying.
- Gustave Flaubert, notes for the last chapter of Bouvard and Pécuchet
The final notes make it difficult to see things his way. Bouvard and Pécuchet are absurd, to be sure. But they are sinister figures as well as comical ones. They are the literary Last Men of the coming age; through their untiring efforts, all knowledge, all culture, is rendered equally bland fodder for the senseless project of copying. Their "monument," in fact, seems less to "designate the truth of writing" than to serve as a cenotaph marking the malign and premature closure of the literary enterprise as such.
In this way, the end of Bouvard and Pécuchet is an apparition of the future, and it is significant that it comes after the heroes deliver solemn speeches about the coming fate of the world. Pécuchet thinks political evil, in the form of "pantheistic radicalism" or "theistic fundamentalism," will at last triumph, sweeping away the last remnants of civilization; Bouvard thinks scientific progress will finally bring permanent happiness and prosperity. But Flaubert, in this last chapter, suggests a third conclusion: Bouvard and Pécuchet are the whimper at the end of the world, beyond which there can be no more culture.
Political evil, that great bogeyman, is nowhere to be found. For all of Pécuchet's handwringing, the end of history is not a function of politics; the political world belongs to the "phenomena" in which there is no truth. The structure of the novel, and the role of politics within it, allows a distinction between this phenomenal world and its underlying noumenal reality, the turn of the monstrous monument. In Bouvard and Pécuchet, the phenomena can be satirized--as politics is--but the noumena are treated with reverence and trepidation.
Just as we are Nietzsche's Last Men, so are we copyists. Barthes' essay thus functions as a sign and symptom of the times, along with the myriad other phenomena of contemporary thought. (The Internet and its projects are equivalent in purpose and effect to the "monument.") What is to be done? That is, as always, an elusive question; but in one of Mallarmé's prose poems, "The Future Phenomenon," we already find the "poets ... forgetful that they live in an epoch which has survived beauty." That forgetting, the escape from the trap of memory and copying, might be our only glimmer of light.