[This is from Milan Kundera's acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, the text of which makes up the last part of his book The Art of the Novel. I thought about it throughout the Coen Brothers' new film, which I found strangely moving. Hopefully, you'll soon see why.]
Thus the spirit of an age cannot be judged exclusively by its ideas, its theoretical concepts, without considering its art, and particularly the novel. The nineteenth century invented the locomotive, and Hegel was convinced he had grasped the very spirit of universal history. But Flaubert discovered stupidity. I daresay that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought.
Of course, even before Flaubert, people knew stupidity existed, but they understood it somewhat differently: it was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education. In Flaubert's novels, stupidity is an inseparable dimension of human existence. It accompanies poor Emma throughout her days, to her bed of love and to her deathbed, over which two deadly agélastes*, Homais and Bournisien, go on endlessly trading their inanities like a kind of funeral oration. But the most shocking, the most scandalous thing about Flaubert's vision of stupidity is this: Stupidity does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!
With a wicked passion, Flaubert used to collect the stereotyped formulations that people around him enunciated in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date. He put them into a celebrated Dictionnaire des idées reçues. We can use this title to declare: Modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas. Flaubert's discovery is more important for the future of the world than the most startling ideas of Marx or Freud. For we could imagine the world without the class struggle [well, I can't - AS] or without psychoanalysis, but not without the irresistible flood of received ideas that—programmed into computers, propagated by the mass media—threaten soon to become a force that will crush all original and individual thought and thus will smother the very essence of the European culture of the Modern Era.
The Coen Brothers, it need hardly be said, have had since the first a singular preoccupation with human stupidity, and I think their understanding of it is not significantly different from Flaubert's—it "is an inseparable dimension of human existence" and it progresses with the progression of knowledge and technology, though in a sporadic, even disjunctive manner. Perhaps because of this sporadic nature, stupidity is an excessively difficult idea to convey artistically with any meaning. The Coens have been unable to do so consistently, but one has to give them credit for trying.
This focus on stupidity was not entirely suspended in No Country for Old Men, but the broad myths that structure the plot and animate the characters and underwrite the aesthetic diffuse that focus substantially. The figure of Anton Chigurh banishes stupidity to the corners of the film, I think to its detriment.
In Burn after Reading, the Coen Brothers have returned to their central topic and again demonstrate their inconsistent ability to give stupidity its fair measure. At their best (Malkovich's character, Osborne Cox), the characters are molecules of stupidity, each component particle a different weight, pushing on the others to find a geometrical balance. Other characters (Brad Pitt's Chad) are mere atoms of stupidity, pinging into things and maybe rattling a few electrons off with the collision, but not, in the end, more than occasionally agitated. These atoms of stupidity attract with a flurry of motion, a nimbus of small things flitting rapidly, but the core is just a dull clot. When the Coens do build their molecules, however, one almost believes they understand human stupidity—an amazing feat, especially given how much we've progressed since Flaubert.
* agélaste - "[from Rabelais], it means a man who does not laugh, who has no sense of humor."