In This Essay I Will: On Distraction


First Person

From Elements, a portfolio by Roger Vieillard in issue no. 16 (Spring–Summer 1957).

I began writing this essay while putting off writing another one. My apartment is full of books I haven’t read, and others I read so long ago that I barely remember what’s in them. When I’m writing something, I’m often tempted to pick one up that has nothing to do with my subject. I’ve always wanted to read this, I think, idly flipping through, my eyes fixing on a stray phrase or two. Maybe it will give me a new idea.

In this moment of mild delusion, I’m distracted. I’ve always wanted to write an essay about distraction, I think. Add it to the laundry list of incomplete ideas I continue to nurse because some part of me suspects they will never come to fruition, and so will never have to be endured by readers. These are things you can keep in the drawer of your mind, glittering with unrealized potential. In the top row of my bedroom bookshelf is a copy of Flaubert’s final novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet. Something about it seems appropriate, though I’m not sure exactly what. I pluck it down.


Bouvard and Pécuchet is at heart a simple novel, though its episodes could branch out, fractal-like, into infinity. There is a reason Flaubert never finished it, despite working on it for at least eight years before dying of a stroke at the age of fifty-eight. Originally titled “The Tale of Two Nobodies” (literally “The Two Woodlice”), its protagonists are two copy clerks, who, in the middle of nineteenth-century Paris, meet on a bench on a boulevard. Superficially, they are complementary opposites: one short, one tall; one ascetic, the other sensual. In a deeper sense, they are the same: office workers who perform questionably meaningful tasks while trying to cling to a bare sense of individuality. They strike up a friendship—they are amateurs, dilettantes, believers in progress. They are, in Flaubert’s imagination, men of their time. As they grow bored with their jobs of rote reproduction, they set out to fill their leisure with the pursuit of knowledge:

They learned about discoveries, read prospectuses, and their newfound curiosity caused their intelligence to bloom. On a horizon that receded further each day, they glimpsed things at once strange and wondrous.

(I am relying here on Mark Polizzotti’s translation.) After Bouvard receives an inheritance from a recently deceased uncle, the two men hatch a plan to remove themselves from the city’s bustle and the drudgery of their work. They will use the money to buy a modest estate and live a life of freedom as country squires: “No more writing! No more bosses! Not even rent to pay! For they would own a house of their own! And they would eat chickens from their own farmyard, vegetables from their garden—and would dine with their clogs still on!”

Liberated from the office, they now can do whatever they wish. Why not tend their own garden, as Voltaire’s Candide once exhorted? Well, curious minds that they are, they want to learn the best way to make the garden grow. So they turn to books, and become case studies in the dangers of overestimating one’s own intelligence. If they are gardening, they think, why not turn to agriculture, too, and make better use of their land? Their plants die. Why do the plants die? Because, Bouvard and Pécuchet conclude, they didn’t sufficiently understand the hard sciences—and so their study of chemistry begins. Chapter by chapter, Flaubert lampoons his poor pair, who fail at discipline after attempted discipline: landscape architecture, anatomy, history, literature, phrenology, religion, even love, and on and on. In each pursuit, they never lose the optimism or the hubris of thinking they can put their knowledge to work in the world. When they become interested in pedagogy, they adopt a pair of abandoned children who are at turns mystified by and contemptuous of their efforts to improve their well-being. The fruit trees fail, the novel is abandoned, a cat is boiled alive, the children cause scandals.

Commentators have remarked on the static structure of the novel: the reader must be willing to hear the same joke told repeatedly in different variations—a joke that punishes its pitiful protagonists over and over. Each time, this odd couple believes that they are close to a breakthrough, or at least to something like fluency, in their newly chosen field. But when difficulties emerge, failure follows quickly: “They gave up.” This futility is matched by, or even enhanced by, their optimism. Each time they surrender, they find something else to become engrossed in. Is this perseverance, or life as a great chain of distractions? And have they tricked themselves into thinking it matters?


What is distraction? Maybe it is just the need to be diverted: from the direction you originally set out on, from what it was you thought you wanted to do. After all, to desire something requires projecting yourself into the future—how do you know you’ll still want it when you get there? And along the way there are so many attractions, way stations, spots of time. Even an annoyance can be a pleasure: a fly keeps buzzing around your head while you try to write the next sentence, a ringtone interrupts the movie, and—it’s you. Just this one time you’ve forgotten to turn your phone off. If only the world would stop bothering you, you could finally get down to work.

Bouvard and Pécuchet, you may think, aren’t exactly distracted. In fact, at times they seem nearly maniacal in their thirst for knowledge. But isn’t the idea that] they are potentially interested in everything a kind of curse, something worse than indifference? As fast as they find a passion, they can be drawn away from it. They are avatars of the societal affliction Flaubert called la bêtise—mankind’s universal stupidity. Their curiosity has no staying power—it’s just the dirty runoff of a Zeitgeist that tells them to improve themselves, improve the human race. Their distraction implies a lack of concentration, the mark of a bad student. And they are tragic because they want so much to be good, to get the right answer. All the worse that they’re not reflective enough to see that all the spinning of their wheels will never lead anywhere. (But how could anyone think that and keep going?)

Now that I no longer work a forty-hour-a-week job, I tell many people I am writing a book. It is going along, I say, but slowly. How is it that so many chores, parties, trips, assignments, and plainly wasted hours intervene? Not everyone is distracted from their most cherished goals. But I think everyone is distracted from something—it is desire’s shadow, trailing behind our self-presentations. By beginning anything, we create the possibility of detours.


Today, it’s a commonplace to call the internet the ultimate distraction. While putting off writing this piece, itself already a distraction, I maintained a powerful ability to introduce obstacles to its completion. Recently, during another attempt to write, I snapped to my senses hours later, as if smash-cut through time, and realized I had been watching skateboarding videos on YouTube. I have never skateboarded in my life—I am not certain I have ever even attempted to put two feet on a board. I binged a Thrasher series called My War, about skaters who have struggled with a particularly difficult trick and persevered. I watch a skater known as Jaws ollie a massive twenty-five-step staircase in Lyon, tear his MCL, and come back, months later, to essentially jump off the side of a building repeatedly until he lands the trick. There’s no way this can be good for your body, but I find myself strangely compelled by the almost religious dedication. In their pursuit to hurl themselves down large flights of stairs, the skaters are committed.

I close the browser. There is an entire genre of commentary based around the idea that computers or the internet are having a deleterious effect on our attention spans, even on our reading comprehension. We are never present, the platforms having gamed out our interests better than we can ourselves. We contemplate putting our phones in automatically locking pouches before we sit down to dinner. I’m not sure it’s so simple—everywhere, a lot of work seems to be getting done, and every day we seem to be faced with more text to read than ever. I return to my document. I take some disparate phrases from my notebook and start to arrange them into the lines of a poem. Even doing something ostensibly virtuous, I am still attempting escape. I start looking at one of the pdfs I have open in Preview: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

All that we should do is just do something as it comes. Do something! Whatever it is, we should do it, even if it is not-doing something. We should live in this moment. So when we sit we concentrate on our breathing, and we become a swinging door, and we do something we should do, something we must do. This is Zen practice. In this practice there is no confusion. If you establish this kind of life you have no confusion whatsoever. 

Ah, turning to Zen—a bit of a cliché, I think, but still. Haven’t I been doing something, even sitting in front of this machine? I’ve at least been the swinging door, letting the rest of existence pass through me.


Flaubert did an immense amount of research for Bouvard and Pécuchet. While writing the novel, Flaubert read around fifteen hundred books in all the subjects that his Nobodies attempt and abandon. Perhaps Flaubert, in some sense, became one of la betîse himself, because he would never become a master of agronomy, anatomy, or pedagogy—only a master of the pen, an “homme-plume,” as he called himself in his letters. And the more he reads, the further he gets from completing his universal book.

Even the protagonists, having learned something despite themselves, can’t help but become melancholy, like Flaubert. In their defeat they become strangely sensitive, easily disturbed:

Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. And reflecting on what was said in their village … they felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.

In order to write an essay on a new topic, often one has to sail a little in the dark. I am not a Flaubert expert. I can write this essay only as an amateur: the breadth of scholarship on one of the giants of the novel is too daunting for me to do it otherwise—I would have to give up before I began.

Research easily becomes its own distraction. Fiction writers are not unfamiliar with this crisis, having placed their character under a tree, then specifying what kind of tree it is, then wondering if that tree would be in flower at this particular time of year, whether it grows in the particular geographical region where the story takes place. We can become masters of rationalizing the inessential.

There’s a kind of comfort in toying with a large body of knowledge, the way in which you can avoid writing a paper by entering a rabbit hole on Wikipedia—beginning on the front page and finding yourself reading about Byzantine dynasties, or non-Newtonian fluids, or Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century. Maybe this activity, even if it never gets us anywhere, is something closer to play. And without it, at least from time to time, we become dull.


Despite all the hand-wringing about distraction, it’s asked less often what it is that we want to attend to in the first place (or, if answered, numbingly conventional—we want to “be more productive”). Today, being distracted usually has a negative connotation, because it most often means “not working,” whether you’re watching the World Cup from a browser window stashed behind your spreadsheet or you’ve decided to go to the bar on a Tuesday night instead of staying in and writing your three hundred words or polishing your presentation or organizing your sock drawer. A common idea of distraction presupposes that you’re turning away from something more important that you ought to be paying attention to instead. And you ought to be working all the time.

In order to succeed in a hypercapitalist society, we must focus. And to focus usually means to specialize: acquiring a skill, becoming a special version of ourselves—a person with a “bit” that distinguishes us from the cross section of people who otherwise share our Google AdSense data metrics. It can be hard work to become this particular, outward-facing self. The idea returns to me to the old chestnut of Marx’s in The German Ideology, imagining a different way of life: 

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

We live in nothing close to this hypothetical society, and we may never. But if Marx’s hunter-fisherman-shepherd-critic (an animal lover!) can be really envisioned, it’s clear that he is not distracted. Whatever he does is what pleases him. He is always where he wants to be.


There is a curious kind of essay that exists now, that is half-literary, half-personal: My life with author X. A year of reading author Y. The hope is that the personal touch might refresh the dusty pages of the classics—or, more likely, that great literature can buttress a first-person narrative that doesn’t quite cohere into a finished story, not yet quite heroic enough. An earlier version of this essay had more of me in it.

During Bouvard and Pécuchet’s brief turn as authors, they experiment with comedy and pick up Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 A Journey around My Room, a “travelogue” of sitting still (it was written while the author was under house arrest) that blows up mundane details to mock-heroic proportions. They are quickly discouraged: 

In this kind of book, it seemed, one must always interrupt the narrative to talk about one’s dog, one’s slippers, or one’s mistress. Such a lack of inhibition charmed them at first, then struck them as imbecilic—for the author erases his work by shining too much light on himself.

It feels good to erase myself, at least for a while. Still, something weed-like in me wants to make myself visible, to be a voice as attractive to you as Flaubert’s was to me.


Flaubert rose late, around ten, and took his time in the morning. At eleven, as one of his biographers, Frederick Brown, reports, he fortified himself for his task:

Unable to work well on a full stomach, he ate lightly, or what passed for such in the Flaubert household, meaning that his first meal consisted of eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The family then lounged on the terrace, unless foul weather kept them indoors, or climbed a steep path through woods behind their espaliered kitchen garden to a glade dubbed La Mercure after the statue of Mercury that once stood there. Shaded by chestnut trees, near their hillside orchard, they would argue, joke, gossip, and watch vessels sail up and down the river. Another site of open-air refreshment was the eighteenth-century pavilion. After dinner, which generally lasted from seven to nine, dusk often found them there, looking out at moonlight flecking the water and fisherman casting their hoop nets for eel.

In June 1852, Flaubert told Louise Colet that he worked from 1 P.M. to 1 A.M. A year later, when he assumed partial responsibility for Liline’s education and gave her an hour or more of his time each day, he may not have put pen to paper at his large round writing table until two o’clock or later.

Among the many things he is famous for, Flaubert is known as a perfectionist, a meticulous craftsman refining the rhythm of each sentence until it possessed the cold polish of a gem. He complained frequently of his slow progress in his letters—the legend is that he wrote at a pace of about five words per hour.

But can all the time spent at the desk truly be accounted for? Is it possible that, despite his protestations, Flaubert was simply … goofing off sometimes? I will leave that question for the experts, but I know I have been prone to say the work was going very slowly when, in reality, I was doing something else.

And wasn’t that time that Flaubert spent before he set down to work, the time of a cup of cold chocolate and then the orchard, watching the sailboats pass by, a very good time after all?


Commentators have speculated that Flaubert considered appending to his novel a document he had written some years before, the so-called Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of the banalities and clichés of his time—the nineteenth-century French equivalents of telling people that New York City rent is too damn high or that our country is more polarized than ever. The brilliance of the entries, which are alphabetically arranged, is in their teetering on the brink of being taken seriously:

ILLUSIONS: Claim to have many. Lament having lost them.

IMAGES: Poetry always contains too many of them.

IMAGINATION: Always vivid. Guard against it. When one has none, denigrate it in others. To write novels, all you need is a little imagination.

Flaubert never finished Bouvard and Pécuchet, but he left notes about how it might end: After a climactic confrontation with their village neighbors, who have put up with their eccentricities for long enough, the two Nobodies finally feel defeated. Exhausted and penniless again, they decide to return to their first love: copying. They “smile when they think of it.” The Dictionary, the fruit of their renewed scrawling, would both demonstrate their “learning” and release them, blissfully, from thought.

According to Flaubert, the use of the dictionary was not just to collect people’s stupidities—instead, it was to make one afraid to speak at all, since whenever you open your mouth, you may immediately find yourself saying something that isn’t your own. It takes immense effort and concentration to become new. Still, one wonders what Flaubert would have done for material if everyone had simply shut up.


I’m staring out my window at my desk—surely a timeworn part of the writing process. It is late summer now. A female cardinal, its colors muted but beautiful, has gone away after spending the day as my main attraction. I’m wrapping this up, getting ready to go to dinner. Wondering how this got started, how and why I wrote several thousand words about something I still know rather little about, really. And thinking about everything else that could have been in it (Thoreau, the class where I first read Flaubert, every terrible thing I saw and felt because I came of age “online”) that I left out. I think about how much more I enjoy starting things than finishing them. I’ve always wanted to feel full of potential, more even than needing that potential to be realized, maybe. As you get a bit older, disappointment arrives to fill that space. But it gives things their contours, too—if you’re committed, you chip away against that newly evident limit. Hoping to go a little further next time.


In 1875, Flaubert, stymied by his research for and the slow pace of Bouvard and Pécuchet, began a side project. He wrote the stories that would later be collected in the volume known as Three Tales. The first and the most famous is called “A Simple Heart.” It is both connected to and completely unlike his encyclopedic monument to human stupidity. The tale focuses on the sad, slow life of a woman named Félicité, the housemaid of a well-to-do widow in a Norman town much like the one Flaubert grew up in. Félicité has few distractions to speak of, because her life has virtually no pleasure. For a modest sum, she “did all the cooking and the housework, she saw to the darning, the washing and the ironing, she could bridle a horse, keep the chickens well fed and churn the butter.” She toils thanklessly for her mistress for years, appearing, to the bourgeoisie that frequent the house, to be indistinguishable from the furniture. For Félicité, anything that disrupts this backbreaking monotony is something to be savored in memory: the man who tried to court her when she was a young woman, a dangerous encounter with an angry bull in a pasture, even the death of her beloved nephew, a sailor, on the other side of the globe. These detours from daily routine are, in fact, the signature moments of her life.

When Félicité receives a parrot from a neighbor, a gift that reminds of her of her nephew and the New World to which he might have sailed, it is a balm from beyond: something to care for that is not merely a matter of survival, something harboring a mystery, however small. After its death, the parrot is stuffed and becomes a kind of object of religious adoration for Félicité. She imagines that she sees it, her last vision, at the moment of her death.

For a man who spent his time cursing the world for its idiocy, this is a moment of remarkable imaginative sympathy, and of love. The fugitive moments in between our lifelong undertakings, whatever their ultimate worth, may be what we are searching for all along. Maybe we are distracted because we are still learning how to live. 


David Schurman Wallace is a contributing editor of The Paris Review.