Paul Fleming


On his book Exemplarity and Mediocrity: The Art of the Average from Bourgeois Tragedy to Realism

Cover Interview of July 24, 2009


One way to think about the book’s significance would be to consider it as an engagement with the inherent tension in the terms “average,” “common,” and “ordinary”—a tension that exceeds questions of art and goes straight to the heart of democracy.  On the one hand, these terms express an optimum and an ideal, on the other, a pejorative sense of middling and mediocre quality.

One sees this tension within the notion of the “common man.” As a station in life and as a political voice, the common man is repeatedly celebrated, often as a locus of “truth,” of how things are “on main street.”  But even here one does not want to fulfill this position in an average way; one wants to be an excellent, outstanding embodiment of the average man, its most perfect specimen.  Alexis de Tocqueville already diagnosed this distinct psychosis of democracy, particularly in America: modern, democratic man suffers from two conflicting pathologies – the cult of equality (“I’m an average guy”) and the cult of individualism (“I’m different from everyone else”).

My book’s discussion of the literary permutations and strategies for addressing such a dilemma may help to consider this phenomenon on a larger, more pervasive scale.

© 2009 Paul Fleming