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The Science of the Eye and the Birth of Modern French Fiction

By Andrea Goulet

Publication Year: 2011

Andrea Goulet takes the study of the novel into the realm of the visual by situating it in the context of nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical discourse about the nature of sight. She argues that French realism, detective fiction, science fiction, and literature of the fantastic from 1830 to 1910 reflected competition between two modern visual modes: a not-yet-outdated idealism and an empiricism that located truth in the body. More specifically, the book argues that key narrative forms of the nineteenth century were shaped by a set of scientific debates: between idealism and materialism in Honoré Balzac's Comédie humaine, between deduction and induction in early French detective fiction, and between objective vision and subjective vision in the "optogram" fictions of Jules Verne and others.

Goulet aims to revise critical views on the modern novel in a number of ways. For instance, although many literary studies focus on the impact of cinema, photography, and painting, Optiques asserts the materialist bases of realism by establishing a genealogy of popular fictional genres as fundamentally optical, that is, as articulated according to bodily notions of sight.

With its chronological and interdisciplinary scope, Optiques stands to contribute an important chapter to the study of literary modernity in its scientific context.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Critical Authors and Issues


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction. The Epistemology of Optics: Seeing Subjects, Modern Minds

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pp. 1-16

In Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881), Gustave Flaubert pokes fun at the fads and follies of his age by allowing his characters to cycle through a series of dilettantish obsessions. Among the many scientific, pseudoscientific, and philosophical discourses debunked through the heroes' ineptitude, we find a discussion of the nature of light. Bouvard and Pecuchet, who have...

Part I: Realism and the Visionary Eye: Balzac's Optics of Narration

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1. Second Sight and the Authorial chambre noire: Les Chouans, Louis Lambert

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pp. 19-32

Commonplace distinctions between romantic and realist fiction in the nineteenth century have figured literary practice as a visual matter, invoking an apparent relation between narrative form and authorial vision: the poetic thrust of the romantic novel implies a visionary eye, attuned to the realm of mystical revelation, while the descriptive logic of the realist...

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2. "Tomber dans Ie phénomène": Afterimages in La Maison Nucingen and Le Bal de Sceaux

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pp. 33-47

Many ofus, as Balzac suggests in the above passage, have turned our attention away from a particular object and encountered the delayed visual impression of a blurred shape or a spot of bright light. The effect is even more dramatic when one has purposely focused on an especially contrasting and luminous image, such as the pattern of dark window frames...

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3. Alternative Optics: Séraphita, La Recherche de l'absolu, and La Peau de chagrin

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pp. 48-58

When Balzac was taken to task in Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1963 Pour un nouveau roman, it was not only because the nineteenth-century author's realist notions of form, character, and plot exemplified a genre ripe for renewal, but also because the mimetic project itself had come to imply a particular ideology of vision, one that privileged understanding over...

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4. "Effets de lumière," or A "Second" Second Sight: La Fille aux yeux d'or

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pp. 59-82

If Louis Lambert and Séraphîta are the stories of Balzac's mystical seers, or voyants, La Fille aux yeux d 'or is one of the many stories about les initiés, characters like Eugene de Rastignac, Lucien de Rubempre, and Raphael de Valentin, whose comprehension of the social landscape dawns only gradually. Lacking a masterful vision, the initiés nonetheless experience...

Part II: Tenebrous Affairs: Romans policiers and the Detecting Eye

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5. Cuvier, Helmholtz, and the Visual Logics of Deduction: Poe, Doyle, Gaboriau

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pp. 85-109

Long before one could hire a private eye to act as paid organ of sight; before the Serie Noire in France concretized a semantic link between mystery and darkness; before a magnified eye became an immediately recognizable symbol of detectives and their tales-the roman policier had established its own narrative logic ofvisuality. With its dual parentage of...

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6. Learning to See: Monsieur Lecoq and Empiricist Theories of Vision

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pp. 110-136

When John Locke published "Molyneux's problem" in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he sparked a philosophical debate that was to enflame Europe for two centuries. Suppose, went the question, one were to restore sight to a man born blind. If he had previously been taught to distinguish by touch between a cube and a sphere, would he...

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7. Sealed Chambers and Open Eyes: Leroux's Mystère de la chambre jaune

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pp. 137-152

The 2003 release in France of Bruno Podalydes's film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Le Mystere de la chambre jaune (1907) has brought renewed attention to this classic detective story and to its visual potentiality.1 Podalydes plays up its scenes of surveillance, blindness, and insight by overlaying tropes of photography with the visual universe ofTintin comic books; ...

Part III: Villiers, Verne, and Claretie: Toward a Fin-de-Siècle "Optogrammatology"

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8. Death and the Retina: Claire Lenoir, L'Accusateur, and Les Frères Kip

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pp. 164-175

While the burgeoning detective genre strained to locate solutions to mystery in the ratiocinating mind, one literary topos at the fin de siecle proposed an astoundingly literal discovery of truth in the body-namely, in the retinal membrane of a corpse's eye. Recent scientific findings that images are photochemically imprinted in the eye directly inspired three...

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9. Optogram Fiction: Communication, Doubt, and the Fantastic

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pp. 176-192

In his introduction to the 1881 treatise La Vision et ses anomalies, Felix Giraud-Teulon compares the laws of optics to the laws that regulate the transfer of knowledge from one subject's mind to another's: "The laws governing how daylight strikes our eye are less complicated but no more infallible than the laws governing how light from another person's...

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10. Tropical Piercings: Nationalism, Atavism, and the Eye of the Corpse

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pp. 193-205

Beyond their central optogram motif, these three texts-Villiers's Claire Lenoir, Claretie's L'Accusateur, and Verne's Les Freres Kip--have something else striking in common: the theme of domestic space violently troubled by the invasion of foreign, exotic elements. In Les Freres Kip, the murder weapon that comes between English father and son is a Malaysian kris...

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11. The Fin-de-Siècle Logic of the Afterimage: Hysteria, Hallucination, and Villiers's L'Eve future

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pp. 206-221

The optogram fictions discussed in the three previous chapters reveal the ways in which the scientific discovery of retinal violet wrote the philosophical problems of subjectivity and objectivity into the membrane of the eye. While subjective vision posits a radical disjunction between truth and perception, the physiological inscription of that vision allows for a...

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Epilogue. The Afterimage of Reference: Optics and the nouveau roman

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pp. 222-226

Through this book's readings of nineteenth-century novels and short stories in the context of optics, the retinal afterimage has emerged as a key topos whose fictional deployment crystallizes both shifting notions of visual perception and evolving forms of narrative in the modern age...


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pp. 227-260


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pp. 261-270


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pp. 271-272

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202052
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812239317

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Critical Authors and Issues