As regular readers of this blog know, I have long searched in vain for the source of a pithy remark allegedly made by Gustave Flaubert that Irving Babbitt quoted in connection with H.L. Mencken in Rousseau and Romanticism, one of my favorite books. I liked it so much that I cited it in The Skeptic, my Mencken biography:
More important, though, Babbitt was the first of Mencken’s critics to suggest that his noisy war against the booboisie had at last reached the point of diminishing returns: “One is reminded in particular of Flaubert, who showed a diligence in collecting bourgeois imbecilities comparable to that displayed by Mr. Mencken in his Americana. Another discovery of Flaubert’s may seem to him more worthy of consideration. ‘By dint of railing at idiots,’ Flaubert reports, ‘one runs the risk of becoming idiotic oneself.’”
Would that Babbitt had given a source for this perfectly balanced sentence! I’ve publicly asked on more than one occasion whether any of my readers could trace it to its source, until now to no avail. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard from Paul Chipchase, a Francophone scholar who wrote as follows:
I think the quotation from Flaubert about running the risk of becoming idiotic oneself is hard to trace because it has been slightly modified to make it more widely applicable and more amusing. I don’t know by whom.
It looks to me as if the original source of the quotation is this: “A force de nous inquiéter des imbéciles, il y a danger de le devenir soi-même” (By dint of worrying about idiots, there is a danger that we will become stupid ourselves).
Flaubert is speaking of his father’s fear of working as a doctor in a mental hospital because dealing constantly with mad people will make you vulnerable to madness yourself. This memory of his father comes up because Flaubert has just been mocking savagely a piece of recent travel writing by Louis Enault, who has been to Italy and described his journey. He starts criticising other things Enault has written and then pulls himself up short by saying that dwelling too much on second-rate stuff, even to make fun of it, will turn you into an idiot yourself: “Vois-tu le voyage qu’Énault publiera à son retour d’Italie! C’est un polisson et un drôle que de faire un article aussi cavalier que celui-là sur quelqu’un chez qui l’on a dîné sans le lui avoir rendu. Quant à l’article, il est tout simplement bête….Non, si l’on s’arrête à tout cela, et je le dis sérieusement, il y a danger de devenir idiot. Mon père répétait toujours qu’il n’aurait jamais voulu être médecin d’un hôpital de fous, parce que si l’on travaille sérieusement la folie, on finit parfaitement bien par la gagner.—Il en est de même de tout cela. A force de nous inquiéter des imbéciles, il y a danger de le devenir soi-même.”
This is on p. 645 of the new augmented edition of Flaubert’s correspondence, 2014, accessible on the Internet, where I found it, but the older ones have it, too: 1910 edition, Conard, vol. 3, p. 299. It is in Flaubert’s letter to Louise Colet, 28th-29th June 1853. This doesn’t seem to be included in Francis Steegmuller’s English translation of the letters to Louise Colet. There is a not very sprightly English version of it among the extracts from letters at the back of the Bouvard and Pécuchet volume of the 1904 complete works of Flaubert: “You must see the story of the journey that Enault has published on his return from Italy! He is a wag and a droll fellow, who will make an article in that cavalier fashion upon one with whom he has dined without first asking his permission. As for the article, it is simply stupid…No, if one does not keep himself from all this, I say it in all seriousness, there is danger of his becoming an idiot. My father said repeatedly that he never would wish to be a doctor in a hospital for the insane, because if one dealt seriously with madness, he ended by becoming mad himself. It is the same in this case; from becoming too much disturbed by these imbeciles, there is danger of becoming such ourselves.”
The crucial words at the end lack the idea of mocking or railing at imbeciles, even though that’s what Flaubert was doing in the earlier part of the paragraph. Maybe someone else will be able to come up with a closer match to your original version.
That I very much doubt! I rejoice in the solution of this problem, which has nagged at me off and on for a quarter of a century. To you, Paul Chipchase, I doff my hat in gratitude.