Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 1992
pp. 33-56 | 10.1353/arq.1992.0019
PAUL CIVELLO Undoing the Naturalistic Novel: Don DeLillo's Libra Literary naturalism was a naitative form whose theoretical foundation was grounded in classical science. Emile Zola, whom Chailes Walcutt has called the "fountainhead" of literary naturalism, was a disciple of the positivist Auguste Comte and argued in his essay "The Experimental Novel" that science would provide a "solid ground" upon which the novelist could "lean fot support" (52). Yet the science of the nineteenth century is not the science of the twentieth, and the conceptual paradigm of positivism—and classical, Newtonian science from which it sprang—has to a large extent been undernamed by the paradigms adumbiated by the new physics and systems theoty. In Libra, Don DeLiIIo exploits this paradigmatic shift and, in doing so, "undoes" the naturalistic novel. He tewoiks the natutalistic leitmotif of the self caught within a univetse of force, yet within a universe which is far different from that of Zola's naturalism. In fact, DeLillo's is a universe whose conception undetmines the basic tenets of classical science and, therefore, the theoretical foundation of the naturalistic novel. Newtonian science posited a mechanistic universe composed of discrete physical "parts" which functioned accoiding to certain set laws. Pre-eminent among these laws was that of linear causality: mattet moved in a one-way, linear chain of cause and effect. By isolating the parts in a process and studying the single effect of a single cause, a scientist, it was presumed, could unlock the secret of that piocess. Natural piocesses, in othei words, were ultimately knowable, and, since the univetse was considered the sum of its paits, so too was the univeise. These tenets of classical science all presupposed a tenet fundamental to Arizona Quarter/} Volume 48 Number 2, Summer 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 16 10 34Paul Civello scientific method itself: the ability to separate the subject from the object, the obsetvet from the observed, the scientist from the experiment . Since all physical mattet was discrete, the scientist was discrete from his experiment; he could "objectively" obseive it unfold without influencing its outcome in any way. As a result, he could disinterestedly "know" his data. Oi so it was believed. Zola, in appropriating the scientific method foi the naturalistic novel, also appropriated the basic tenets of classical science. Zola wanted to establish literature on the solid ground of science because science dealt solely with physical phenomena, and to Zola physical phenomena were all that wete knowable. Moreover, Zola believed that the deterministic linear causality of the physical universe was replicated in the biological being and social milieu of man. ? like determinism," he claimed, "will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man" (17). He therefore argued that literature should not be concerned with the metaphysical "why" ofevents, but only with the "how"—with deterministic causes and effects. And, like the classical scientist, Zola believed that the subject could stand apart from the object—in his case, the novelist from his novel. He claimed that the novelist in effect conducted an objective experiment in writing the novel. Just as a scientist might do with mice, the novelist placed a group of characters in a certain environment and observed them behave accoiding to deteiministic laws. He had no more influence upon the novel's outcome than that little granted to his individual artistic temperament—a quality that in Zola's mind only influenced the novel's stylistic features. The new physics of the twentieth century radically altered the classical , Newtonian conception of physical reality. N. Katherine Hayles in The Cosmic Web refers to the new physics as the "field concept," a broad tetm intended to encompass the wide-tanging petmutations of twentieth -century theoretical physics. Taken as a whole, these theories— such as Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, Einstein's Relativity Theoty, and the vaiious interpretations of quantum mechanics—all share principles which undermine those ofclassical science. The most fundamental transformation involves the shift from the Newtonian view of a physical universe composed of parts to one consisting of an all-encompassing field in which everything is connected and nothing operates independently of anything else. Implicit in this conception is that...