| Life on 200 Words a Day
Flaubert’s Cell Phone
February 19, 2006
Writing his mother from Cairo on February 3, 1850—one of those long, magnificently observed letters that could win a Pulitzer for foreign reporting—Flaubert described a scene in a typically elegant café he’d just been to: a donkey relieved itself in one corner. A man pissed in another. A faithful patron next to Flaubert stood up and intoned one of his five daily prayers, loudly and indifferently, as if he were the only man around. Flaubert was indignant. The previous evening he’d been dazed by “the poverty of the human soul,” “the fanaticism,” “the superstition” evoked by a whirling dervish who’d capped his adulations in convulsions. The café’s scenes of public braying, praying and micturating were convulsing Flaubert for a different reason: “No one finds that funny, no one says a thing.” (“Personne ne trouve ça drôle, personne ne dit rien.”) Bien entendu, Flaubert is throwing down a marker that says, I am civilized because I know when to laugh; they are not, because they don’t. Laughter is his imperious passport to the civilized side of things.
In locales, in plots, in whores, in gastronomy, Flaubert appreciated the exotic as long as he could hang on to a lifeline of manners as familiar as his favorite slippers back in Croisset: his mother, his stylistic dexterity, his superior airs that, in Cairo, took on the voice of hilarity. But before too readily judging him, who, given the stylistic skills and the mom at the other end, would not write the very same letter today, just about, and not from a café in Cairo, but from any Starbucks in the United States? It isn’t just the one man who stands up and worships, as if alone in the universe, but seven out of nine patrons who bellow into their cell phones, as indifferent to their neighbors as they are groveling of their digital gadgets. Donkeys aren’t relieving themselves in the corner, but those laptops whirring with Wi-Fi connections would probably outdo every donkey this side of Sinai in transmitted crap and scabrous droplets. And hasn’t the poverty of the human soul become universal when lusty public displays of collective worship, of technology and religion, now outdo those public displays of affection so effectively chased off by the falsely modest? In 1850 Cairo, Flaubert merely saw the future and had no way of knowing it. His readers today still don’t know it, preferring to borrow his imperiousness for their lifeline even as they read his very lines at the corner Starbucks, between a cell call and a lap-surf.
—L.D. Amabed Jr.