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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 43-70

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"Tomber dans le phénomène":
Balzac's Optics of Narration

Andrea Goulet

Traditional distinctions between romantic and realist fiction in nineteenth-century France invoke a direct 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 novel implies a scientific eye, trained for the positivist observation of details in the world. One need only read the titles of two well-known critical works on Hugo and Zola to recognize the competing poles of visuality at stake: Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel and The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times. 1 Victor Brombert's study of Hugo emphasizes a transcendent and transgressive visuality, one that exceeds mere ocular perception. Themes of temporal boundlessness, spiritual turbulence, and hallucinatory revelation invest Hugo's narrative "eye" with a visionary consciousness. By contrast, the eye in Zola's novels belongs to a precisely located materiality. As William Berg demonstrates, contemporary scientific theories of optical perception shape Zola's avowed authorial goal of "direct observation."

Encompassing both poles of Hugo's mysticism and Zola's scientism, Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie humaine can be said to register a continual dialogue between the competing modes of vision and sight, of revelation and observation. Certainly, the long-standing "querelle Balzac réaliste—Balzac visionnaire" has cast the author's narrative range in visual terms, assigning the fantastic and philosophical elements of his writing to the logic of voyance and its historico-sociological themes to the classificatory eye of the observateur. 2 Whether they have emphasized one side or another, most critics have temperately acknowledged that "Balzac was both an observer who looked at the world with the exact eye of a scientist and a seer who gazed with inspired clarity into the depths of the human spirit and beyond." 3 By [End Page 43] associating one kind of vision with science and another with mysticism, however, this seemingly indisputable formulation promotes a distinction that was not observed in discourse of Balzac's time, nor in his Avant-propos de la comédie humaine. 4 Moreover, it fails to take into account the particular, ambivalent status of vision within nineteenth-century scientific discourse. For Balzac is writing at a moment when a tension between empiricism and idealism pulls the scientist's eye simultaneously in two directions: toward the details of the visible world as well as toward the eternal truths that subtend them. 5 Even more pertinent to a study of visuality in Balzac than the methodological double thrust of the sciences in general is the ambivalence that inhabited the field of optics at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From the philosophers of vision Locke, Diderot, and Condillac to the authors of optical treatises Monge, Hassenfrantz, and l'Abbé Nollet, the thinkers who influenced Balzac's visual theories were poised between an idealist concept of vision as the innate apperception of abstract laws and an empiricist definition of sight as subjective and physiological experience. 6

Typical of this ambivalent position is Thomas Reid, whose Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764) informed Balzac's theory of second sight (Barbéris 56). Writing before classical idealism and modern empiricism had been separated into opposing strands of thought in the field, Reid combines Descartes' and Newton's emphasis on the physical laws of optics with Locke's and Addison's studies on subjective sensation. More importantly, he blurs distinctions between physical, physiological, mystical, and conceptual vision by extending the study of optics to discussions of seers and blind men, prophets and "philosophe[s] initiés[s]." 7 In other words, Reid's summary of the state of knowledge in the field of optics embraces both revelation and observation, both categories that Balzac's readers have tended to position at separate poles of enquiry—philosophico-spiritualist and scientific. Like Reid, Balzac invokes a spectrum of visual models: inspired voyants (Louis...


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