Discreet Charms Part I

Reader, I cannot tell you precisely what ‘bourgeois’ means. I can only recount the history of my encounters with the word, and chart the evolution of its meaning in my head, in the hope that one might grasp my present predicament.

As I wrestled amid the recesses of my memory last night, I convinced myself I first came across it in the pages of 1984, which I read when I was 15. And I was probably right:

‘Lackeys!’ he said. ‘Now there’s a word I ain’t ‘eard since ever so long. Lackeys! That reg’lar takes me back, that does. I recollect oh, donkey’s years ago — I used to sometimes go to ‘Yde Park of a Sunday afternoon to ‘ear the blokes making speeches. Salvation Army, Roman Catholics, Jews, Indians — all sorts there was. And there was one bloke — well, I couldn’t give you ‘is name, but a real powerful speaker ‘e was. ‘E didn’t ‘alf give it ’em! “Lackeys!” ‘e says, “lackeys of the bourgeoisie! Flunkies of the ruling class!” Parasites — that was another of them. And ‘yenas — ‘e definitely called ’em ‘yenas. Of course ‘e was referring to the Labour Party, you understand.’

I read on, and concluded that totalitarianism was bad, and that it would be a very bad idea to have a surveillance society, but the thing I remembered most about the book was the second paragraph in which it said that the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage. Orwell’s implication was clear in my mind at least: a totalitarian society would have hallways smelling of boiled cabbage. This posed a problem for me. I liked cabbage. Granted, if waterlogged, it could be disgusting. But lightly salted with a little pepper and some butter and it could be delightful. But I did not like the idea of hallways smelling of cabbage.

So the concrete question of what bourgeois meant was still pretty far from the fore, and if it ever did surface, it would have been with a hint of cabbage.

The next time, I think, was on the pages of the NME. There was a regular feature by Alan Parker – Urban Warrior in which he said lots of funny things. Once he referred to his wristwatch as the ‘iron manacle of bourgeois oppression’. Which I thought was a funny thing to say. So I stole the joke. One morning in school the teacher was giving out about how a bomb scare had delayed him on the way to work, because there were army checkpoints on the road. I saw he had a nice watch, and so I said “nice iron manacle of bourgeois oppression you got there’, to which he replied “The army is the iron manacle of bourgeois oppression? I’ll tell you what’s real oppression: bomb scares that stop workers like me getting to work to teach people like you.” So it seemed he wasn’t listening, and it’s always bad to labour the joke, so I dropped the matter, no closer to understanding what ‘bourgeois’ might mean.

Disclaimer: the last paragraph might not be reliable. The operative word may not have been ‘bourgeois’ at all, but ‘capitalist’: I may be exhibiting revisionist tendencies. Just putting it out there, in case.

After that, I reckon it was in the introduction to Madame Bovary aged 17, which talked about how Flaubert did not like the bourgeoisie very much. It was at this point that I began to think that ‘bourgeois’ had something to do with France and the French. I may even have realised at this stage that ‘bourgeois’ had to do with bourg, having spent a few weeks in one. I should also clarify at this point that I was 17, and not reading a book titled Madame Bovary aged 17, which, as I understand it, was not written by Flaubert.

By comparison with previous encounters, Madame Bovary had a pretty profound effect on how I was to understand the word ‘bourgeois’. It was full of wicked jokes at the expense of its characters, such the backdrop of the huge spire of Rouen cathedral to show the dimensions of the desire of Emma’s lover. Anyway, the upshot of it for me was that the bourgeoisie was stupid, which was a sort of progress, I suppose. So I began to understand that ‘bourgeois’ could, in common parlance, be used as a synonym for ‘provincial’, as reflecting attitudes and general deportment very much at odds with the sort of enlightened stuff on display in modern metropolitan centres with running water and television, like Portadown. Using the word ‘bourgeois’ was rather like using the word ‘antediluvian’: it denoted a relic from a moment in history that had long passed.

Or did it? Only Part II, when I write it, would tell.

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