A Dictionary of Idiocy by Stephen Bayley and Gustave Flaubert

Aristocracy, phallic symbolism, Venice...
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From the title, you might assume that this is a compendium of examples of foolishness. Bayley himself appears to back that up in his introduction when he invokes Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas, and claims to be reviving "a neglected phenomenon: what the French call a 'sottissier' and we would call a collection of howlers, or perhaps, platitudes". (By the way, the correct spelling is "sottisier"; proof-reading is shoddy throughout). But Bayley follows this with an etymology of the word "idiot", pointing out that it originally meant no more than a private man: "This is the form of idiocy we are examining here: the private man with opinions of his own." Later, he says that "What follows is a collection of modern opinions."

What follows, in fact, is a muddled series of alphabetically arranged entries on such diverse topics as Aristocracy, Consumerism, Phallic Symbolism and Venice. Sometimes Bayley seems to be offering, like Flaubert, a digest of clichés, as when he kicks off the entry on the French with de Gaulle's line on the difficulty of governing a country that has 246 kinds of cheese. But, the next moment, he offers a long quotation from Santayana, and elsewhere he seems to be asserting his own views. The underlying rationale is impossible to sort out. Certainly, a book that quotes liberally from Dr Johnson, Voltaire and de la Rochefoucauld is dealing neither with foolishness nor with modern opinions.

The incoherence would not be important if Bayley had new and vital ideas to offer, but the matter of the articles too often descends into the merely etymological. He frequently contradicts himself, which is forgivable in a book of opinions, and repeats himself, which is not. At times he is bizarrely anachronistic: complaining of the limpness and lack of imagination of English salads, he quotes Elizabeth David, writing in 1955. Often he is careless about matters of fact: in a list of words coined in the last 200 years, together with their inventors, he manages to include Robert Boyle (d. 1691), Thomas Browne (d. 1682) and John Milton (d. 1674).

There are two further sections. The first is a list of "Opinion-Makers", which Bayley defines as "writers whose opinions are better known than their books". In this category he includes the obvious (Oscar Wilde and HL Mencken) alongside the recondite (Baltasar Gracian y Morales, Elsie de Wolfe). He gives them potted CVs but, strangely, cites few of their opinions.

The best part of the book is the closing selection from Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas. Bayley's preface displays an intelligent appreciation, and he has made the sensible decision to publish the headings in French, preserving their original alphabetical order.

In the end, though, A Dictionary of Idiocy is doomed to redundancy because it is founded on the assumption that we need more opinions. Open any newspaper, sit at any bourgeois dinner table, and you are instantly overwhelmed by opinions, a suffocating mass of them. Where we need help is in working out which ones are worth listening to; and here, Bayley is no use.

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