Gustave Flaubert Tells His Mother Why Serious Writers Shouldn’t Bother with Day Jobs (1850)

We are what we do — or in oth­er words, we are what we choose to spend our time doing. By this log­ic, a “musi­cian” who spends one quar­ter of his time with his instru­ments and three quar­ters with Excel, though he counts as no less a human being for it, should by rights call him­self a mak­er of spread­sheets rather than a mak­er of music. This view may sound stark, but it has its adher­ents, some of them suc­cess­ful and respect­ed artists. We can rest assured that no less a cre­ator than Gus­tave Flaubert, for instance, would sure­ly have accept­ed it, if we take seri­ous­ly the words of a let­ter he wrote to his moth­er in Feb­ru­ary of 1850.

Though he’d com­plet­ed sev­er­al books at the time, the then 28-year-old Flaubert had yet to make it as a man of let­ters. He did, how­ev­er, do a fair bit of trav­el­ing at that time in his life, com­pos­ing this par­tic­u­lar piece of cor­re­spon­dence dur­ing a sojourn in the Mid­dle East. It seems that even halfway across the world, he could­n’t escape his moth­er’s entreaties to find prop­er employ­ment, if only “un petite place” that would grant him slight­ly more social respectabil­i­ty and finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty. Final­ly fed up, he clar­i­fied his posi­tion on the mat­ter of day jobs once and for all:

Now I come to some­thing that you seem to enjoy revert­ing to and that I utter­ly fail to under­stand. You are nev­er at a loss of things to tor­ment your­self about. What is the sense of this: that I must have a job — “a small job,” you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to spec­i­fy in what field, or what it would be like. Frankly, and with­out delud­ing your­self, is there a sin­gle one that I am capa­ble of fill­ing? You add: “One that would­n’t take up much of your time and would­n’t pre­vent you from doing oth­er things.” There’s the delu­sion! That’s what Bouil­het told him­self when he took up med­i­cine, what I told myself when I began law, which near­ly brought about my death from sup­pressed rage. When one does some­thing, one must do it whol­ly and well. Those bas­tard exis­tences where you sell suet all day and write poet­ry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those hors­es equal­ly good for sad­dle and car­riage — the worst kind, that can nei­ther jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

In short, it seems to me that one takes a job for mon­ey, for hon­ors, or as an escape from idle­ness. Now you’ll grant me, dar­ling, (1) that I keep busy enough not to have to go out look­ing for some­thing to do; and (2) if it’s a ques­tion of hon­ors, my van­i­ty is such that I’m inca­pable of feel­ing myself hon­ored by any­thing: a posi­tion, how­ev­er high it might be (and that isn’t the kind you speak of) will nev­er give me the sat­is­fac­tion that I derive from my self-respect when I have accom­plished some­thing well in my own way; and final­ly, if it’s for mon­ey, any jobs or job that I could have would bring in too lit­tle to make much dif­fer­ence to my income. Weigh all these con­sid­er­a­tions: don’t knock your head against a hol­low idea. Is there any posi­tion in which I’d be clos­er to you, more yours? And isn’t not to be bored one of the prin­ci­pal goals of life?

The let­ter may well have con­vinced her: accord­ing to a foot­note includ­ed in The Let­ters of Gus­tave Flaubert: 1830–1857, “there seem to have been no fur­ther sug­ges­tions” that he secure a steady pay­check. Could Flaubert’s moth­er have had an inkling that her son would become, well, Flaubert? At that point he had­n’t even begun writ­ing Madame Bovary, a project that would begin upon his return to France. Its inspi­ra­tion came in part from the ear­ly ver­sion of The Temp­ta­tion of Saint Antho­ny he’d com­plet­ed before embark­ing on his trav­els, which his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouil­het (the reluc­tant med­ical stu­dent men­tioned in the let­ter) sug­gest­ed he toss in the fire, telling him to write about the stuff of every­day life instead.

Not all of us, of course, can work the same way Flaubert did, with his days spent in revi­sion of each page and his obses­sive life­long hunt for le mot juste: not for noth­ing do we call him “the mar­tyr of style.” But what­ev­er we cre­ate and how­ev­er we cre­ate it, we ignore the words Flaubert wrote to his moth­er at our per­il. The earn­ing of mon­ey has its place, but the idea that any old day job can be eas­i­ly held down with­out dam­age to our real life’s work shades all too eas­i­ly into self-delu­sion. We must remem­ber that “when one does some­thing, one must do it whol­ly and well,” a sen­ti­ment made infi­nite­ly more pow­er­ful by the fact that Flaubert did­n’t just artic­u­late it, he lived it — and now occu­pies one of the high­est places in the pan­theon of the nov­el as a result.

h/t Tom H.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 4,500 Unpub­lished Pages of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

How Sein­feld, the Sit­com Famous­ly “About Noth­ing,” Is Like Gus­tave Flaubert’s Nov­els About Noth­ing

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

William Faulkn­er Resigns From His Post Office Job With a Spec­tac­u­lar Let­ter (1924)

Bri­an Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Cre­ative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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