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French Forum 27.1 (2002) 81-111

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The Naturalist in Balzac:
The Relative Influence of Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Richard Somerset

The question of Balzac's scientific vision is not a new one. It is an issue which has been studied in its own right, and also in relation to more purely literary concerns. In a sense, it is not in fact possible to separate Balzac's "scientific vision" from his literary style, since the latter is in part determined by the former. For example, the question of whether Balzac should be considered a "Romantic" or a "Realist" author—one of the most fundamental stylistic questions faced by Balzac scholars—arises largely as a result of the explicitly scientific aspirations of La Comédie humaine. Balzac's formative years were the 1820s and 1830s, at the height of the "bataille romantique," and well before the "bataille realiste" of the 1850s. 1 But the peculiarity of his position is not just a question of timing; it resides more particularly in the fact that the ideas underlying his novelistic creation have much in common with a certain strand of "Romantic thought"—it is close to German Naturphilosophie—but his authorial voice is typically one of detached objectivity; which is to say that it is close to the style which would come to be called "Realist," and quite distinct from the voice of impassioned insight associated with the "Romantic" movement. He seems to combine a "Romantic" vision with a "Realist" style. The strangeness of this mixture is somewhat diminished by the tendency of its different elements to come to the fore in different parts of the cycle of novels. The first part of La Comédie humaine, the Études de moeurs, is meant to be an empirical survey of all of the different varieties of Social Being represented in nineteenth-century France, and it is here that Balzac's "Realist" style is most in evidence. In the second two parts, on the other hand—in the Études philosophiques and the Études analytiques—Balzac expressly presents his "Romantic" notions on the ultimate nature of mankind; and in these [End Page 81] sections he does in fact tend to use the voice of impassioned insight rather than the voice of objective Realism. This divide is not absolute, however, and aspects of Balzac's Romantic philosophy of the human being are very much present in the Études de moeurs, even though they are expressed here only in implicit terms.

Balzac conceived the outline of his novel-cycle at a time of fundamental epistemological re-organization. "Science" was undergoing a divorce from "Philosophy" the better to establish itself as an independent type of knowledge. It would no longer be subservient to the former umbrella discipline, but would stand next to it as a different way of knowing about the world. The distinctive mark of the "scientific" approach to knowledge was its objective empirical method; and conversely, the distinguishing mark of the "philosophical" approach was its association with the subjective consciousness. Of course these two approaches did not absolutely have to be antagonistic, or even separate: it was perfectly possible to study a phenomenon initially in an empirical way, before passing on to a more intuitive synthesis of the objective facts, and thus arriving at a speculative explanation of the deep causes of the phenomenon. This is precisely what Balzac aimed to do with his chosen phenomenon: the Social Being.

These are the methodological considerations that gave La Comédie humaine its form. What about its theory-content? As a "scientific" investigation into the organisation of the Social Being, it would have to start by taking a position on the fundamental nature of man himself; and this position would have to be derived from a secure position within the established sciences. The concept of "unity" emerging from the "transcendental" approach to the study of animal anatomy in the 1830s was well suited to the novelist's purposes. "Il n'y a qu'un Animal," Balzac famously proclaimed in the "avant-propos" of 1842: all...


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