Guy de Maupassant, and America Today
Having now read 98 of the 290 short stories written by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), from 4 English translation anthologies with many repeats between them, I am convinced that he was the best short story writer ever. The quality of his stories range from “good” to “masterpieces,” there are no mediocre nor bad ones.
Any writer aspiring to be a literary artist must read and learn from de Maupassant. He was a master of economy of style, brisk pacing, even-tempered wit, deep insights into human psychology that remain entirely relevant to this day, and of devising imaginative plots with deliciously apt denouements (endings).
He was superb at describing food, dining and cuisine, and also of sensory impressions like smells, with vividness. Also, he was a lyrical artist with his many passages describing natural settings: the sky at various times of the day and during various seasons, river environments, the woods, open hilly grasslands and plains, and weather day or night. The best equivalent I can recall in American literature is Mark Twain’s lyrical passage in “Huckleberry Finn,” on the early morning mists on the Mississippi River.
It is easy to find critics, from de Maupassant’s day to ours, who dislike him. This is because he was so truthful, and so matter-of-fact about it; never an appealing trait for people protecting cherished illusions and prejudices. Indeed, Guy de Maupassant does not show any prejudices, except perhaps for a marked dislike of cruelty, and a marked enjoyment of life, from which springs his enormous compassion for the very very flawed creatures that we human beings are.
Reading Guy de Maupassant as a social critic of the French Second Empire (1852-1870) and Third Republic (1870-1940), it is easy to see why that Third Republic fell in 1940. Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, “The Rules of the Game,” is a gem in this regard. The health of a nation is based on the attitudes of its people, and the attitudinal corruption riddling the Third Republic, despite its wonderful cultural elegance peaking during its Belle Époque (1880-1914), undermined its political strength against the subsequent assaults by fascism.
The attitudinal weakness and sociopathology of Americans today, as say compared with the awesome fortitude of the Russians of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the 2 year 4.5 month siege of that city during 1941-1944, or of the Cuban population for over half a century since 1961, is similar to the classism and dissolution of the French bourgeoisie during the Third Republic. But, today’s Americans are practicing their dissolution and societal enervation without the culture, grace or elegance of the 19th and early 20th century French.
That 70 million Americans could vote for Donald Trump in 2020 is the saddest commentary one can imagine on the abysmal state of the American Public Mind. While I have now read many thoughtful and statistically supported analyses, from November 2020, of the erosion of Trump’s political support and the electoral collapse of his regime, I remain convinced that his appeal was always based on one factor: bigotry by white people (and minority individuals who hankered to join the capitalist übermensch club) whose xenophobia is expressed as fear of being economically swamped by demographic dilution.
I acknowledge that Marxist analyses of the November 2020 election, based on their economic focus using their class analysis dissection of American society, are excellent; and that perhaps a few of the pop-psychology and ‘cultural’ commentaries on that election’s aftermath also offer some insights; but I think it all boils down to identity politics (voting for the projected ‘me’ reflected by a candidate), electorally, and gut “race-consciousness” emotionalism, which is stronger the less educated the individual. That very highly educated very rich people would also vote consistently for Trump and the Republican Party is entirely a function of their parasitism, but even with them gut-level racism is a factor in their sociopathological outlook on human society.
What is wonderful in Guy de Maupassant’s stories is that they are filled with a wide variety of characters, and many of these reflect the attitudes I just described with respect to American voters in 2020. So, one gets sharply drawn personified images of the many shades of those attitudes. Another aspect of his sharp insights into human nature is that we are not strictly governed by our rational minds (which rationalist-materialist stricture I see as the biggest gap in the Marxist analysis of human society), because humans in fact are much compelled by genetically programmed behaviors and tendencies erupting out of our ancestral evolutionarily honed instincts: our monkey genes. It is so easy to see Trump’s rabidly naïve functionally psychotic evangelically bigoted zombie horde as a purely reactive monkey troop defending its imaginary territory from “them!”
As regards American society in November 2020, the best that I can see is the growth of refreshing and enlightened attitudes in so much of the young population (under 45 years old), which was crucial to the electoral defeat of Donald Trump; and the best I can hope for is that a revival of real education occurs so that an increasing fraction of our younger citizens can learn how to better enjoy life by developing their minds beyond the limbic tendencies embedded in our monkey genes. It is such people who will propel any economic and political improvements that may occur in American society in the coming years, and which are absolutely essential for making credible organized responses to the challenges posed by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the destruction of world environments and the loss of biodiversity, and the overarching threat from global warming climate change.