Free thinking, unveiled

Staying In

Bríd Conroy

To unveil is to remove the cover, to make something secret (or concealed) known. In 1856, Gustave Flaubert revealed the tragic life of ‘Madame Bovary’, and was arrested and tried for offending public morality and religion.
Married to the doctor in a small rural village in Normandy, France, Emma Bovary cannot possibly allude to the melancholy that throws her into despair periodically nor the desire for a different life, her passions and thoughts. “But how to speak about so elusive a malaise, one that keeps changing its shape like the clouds and its direction like the wind?”
The telling of a middle-class woman’s search for fulfilment was shocking to 19th-century France. Even though the Second Republic had been declared after the February Revolution, even though universal suffrage had been proclaimed and slavery abolished, society did not appear to be ready for Flaubert’s laying bare of the realities of life in a village at that time.
Emma conducted not just one but two tumultuous affairs in secret. Emma’s husband (Charles) though kind, lives a mundane, unimaginative life unaware of his wife’s reality: “Charles looks into Emma’s eyes and sees not her soul but rather his own image, reflected in miniature.” Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first lover, is of the upper classes and is revealed as having taken reckless advantage of Emma’s romanticising.
The novel is hailed as one of the most influential literary works in history. Flaubert’s thinking and philosophy, were a product of the Age of Enlightenment, which started in the late 1600s and continued into the early 1800s.
Denis Diderot was a philosopher from this era, born in 1713, the son of a master cutler in the town of Langres, in the northeast of France. His father renounced him when he became a writer and was instrumental in his imprisonment for views and philosophies that were contrary to the Catholic Church and society’s beliefs at that time.
‘Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely’, by Andrew S Curran, published by Other Press, is a beautiful book about his life and works. He is most famously known for his decades-long toil on a comprehensive ‘Encyclopédie’, which detailed all aspects of life in a factual, reasonable way, never attempted before.
Diderot rejected all of society’s norms at that time, believing in the emancipatory power of philosophy, defined as reasonable and logical thinking. He challenged what he called ‘received ideas’ from society, history, family and all forms of absolutism from church and monarchy. He was also a lover of the arts, and this book takes the reader on a cultural journey through 18th-century France as it changed and evolved.
We could be forgiven for thinking, in today’s age of endless information, that all has been revealed to us. But I believe that now, more than ever, as a global community recovering from a pandemic and facing such challenges as climate change, the ‘art of free thinking’ as laid out by Diderot and his peers, is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century.
Happy reading (and thinking).

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.