Guy de Maupassant, and America Today

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Guy de Maupassant, and America Today

  1. Pingback: Guy de Maupassant, and America Today | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

  2. I know it’s a mistake to list artists as best, second, third, and so on. That’s too much like a presidential election, you’re a winner or a loser. All the same, I’m much more moved by Anton Chekhov’s short stories than by the admirable Maupassant’s. About Maupassant, we ought to remember the contrast with his master, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert took sides, declared the bourgeoisie the supreme enemy and, it seems to me, saw the French social system much more acutely. It’s no surprise that Jean-Paul Sartre never stopped writing about Flaubert whom he thought a key to understanding French society. Sartre wrote 3000 pages on the novelist, starting under the German occupation in 1943. When he went blind in 1973, he reluctantly left his inquiry unfinished.

    • I agree that numerical rankings of artists are silly, and that stating personal preferences along with one’s reasons is much more informative. I am hostile to Sartre (as you are to Maugham) as a matter of personal preference, because of his bad attitude toward Camus (who unlike Sartre was an actual hero of the Resistance), and because of his postwar championing of Stalinism, when any donkey could see it was pure dictatorial evil. Mine is not an artistically open-minded attitude here, but there you have it. No question about Flaubert’s quality, and his significant influence on (and early teaching of) de Maupassant. For me, de Maupassant (through his stories) is so freshly alive, active and vibrant; it is like a literary equivalent of the feeling I had in galavanting through life in my 20s. Light or dark, he is just so much fun.

  3. 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?

    More so the American Educational System! Garbage in, garbage out.

  4. About the books I read:

    #1 “Guy de Maupassant, Selected Short Stories,” translated/edited by Roger Colet; Penguin Books, 1971 (mine=1986, England)

    #2 “The Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant,” edited by Saxe Commins; Modern Library (Random House, NY), 1945

    #3 “The Dark Side, Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (by) Guy de Maupassant,” translated by Arnold Kellett; Carroll & Graf Publishers (NY), 1989/1990

    #4 “Mademoiselle Fifi, Parisian Adventure and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant,” edited by Walter S. Keating; Stravon Publishers (NY), 1949

    All these were bought at used book stores. This was my way of finding as much of the work as possible; I accepted the overlaps. I’ll buy more when I find them.

    I would recommend getting whatever you can, by way of anthologies. But, I have listed them in my preference/priority ranking.

    #1 Excellent selections, 30 stories, good translations = no pussyfooting.

    #2 Excellent selections, 45 stories, good translations of an older type, shaded somewhat toward “modesty.” For example the introduction by Saxe Commins is very good but in describing Maupassant’s life and final madness never uses the word “syphilis” nor mentions venereal disease (which more modern authorities now think may have been congenital, since his younger brother Herve, also died of it). Another example of this modesty is the exclusion of a tale (included in #1) where a woman’s nipples are explicitly described.

    de Maupassant was excellent in describing the buildup of sexual passion, without getting physiologically explicit in any way.

    #3 Slanted to “Halloween” type stories, 31 of them, good translations (they read nicely). Both translator and editor worked from England.

    #4 Just a 2nd hand book find; features illustrations in a ‘modern’ semi-cartoon style, the artist is highlighted, 20 stories.

    All four have good introductions/prefaces.

    That’s 126 stories in total with 28 overlaps (by my scanning and calculation).

    Enjoy!

  5. Richard Graham writes:

    H.L. Mencken: “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

    H.L. Mencken: ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’
    These quotes are all over 100 years old.

    US citizens have been lying to themselves for decades, if not centuries, so the logical conclusion had them electing a proudly ignorant, bare-faced liar as President. The world can no longer pretend US citizens know anything about the world, their own best interests, or the best interests of their longest allies and best friends. US citizens have put the world through several investment bubbles, and 3 great recessions in 20 years. This destroyed decades of lower and middle class wealth. US citizens can’t be expected to defend democracy, expand human rights, maintain an incorruptible rule of ‘law’, or manage the most important part of world’s economy.

    Trump is among the last acts of the US Imperium because:

    imperial decline progresses by supplanting genuine leadership and public participation with a courtier class responsible only to oligarchs;
    US leadership and citizens can’t tell trusted friend from odious enemy as the enemy looks and acts so much like the US;
    an immense military is incapable of winning the smallest wars, or even retaining the allegiance of its junior officers;
    praetorian guards are created loyal only to money and cruelty (BORTAC – US Marshals);
    the economy is used like a casino to enrich the unworthy;
    children are used to punish immigrant families fleeing US imperial savagery in their own countries;
    the most recent generations are the worst educated since 1776 as science, schools, libraries, an independent press, and dissenting voices are crushed by corporate design;
    resurgent bigotry is aided by brutally stupid police and a corrupt justice system;
    ruthless violence is blessed by empty prayers and Hollywood blockbusters;
    smug indifference is widespread for anything that doesn’t touch their own families, or their favourite sport;
    vast numbers of citizens parade their ignorance around like they have just married a supermodel.

    These are all signs of a society about to collapse with only a minor environmental disaster needed to start the landslide, out of the ecosystem armageddon certain to come.

    This article is an impressive summary of some social ills Trump displays: Andrew Bacevich: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/04/08/all-his-endless-lies-trump-has-exposed-some-important-truths

    Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

    In defiance,

    Richard Graham

    P.S. The Albertan polity in Canada is even worse. 70% of the people here would rather commit crimes against the planet than admit the Tar Sands is a bankrupt fraud. People actually describe Alberta crude as ‘landlocked’. As if having a common, undefended border with the world’s largest energy market is a handicap. As if shipping crude through the world’s most dangerous seas, past conflict zones needing TWO Ford-class carrier battle groups is some kind of advantage. As if VLCCs were cheaper or more reliable than pipelines. Meanwhile, searching CMEgroup.com for WCS and NE2, Western Canada Select (tar sands bitumen) and Edmonton Sweet Synthetic, reveal NEGATIVE futures prices reaching -$15/bbl since April 2020 and extending to Dec 2024. Energy traders at the world’s largest commodities market have decided Alberta bitumen is worth less than nothing, and they have no interest.

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