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  • Zola’s Rougon-Macquart: Compensatory Images Of A “Wild Ontology”
  • Rainer Warning and Translated by Rosalyn Raney (bio)

Of all realists, none has devoted himself to the scientific spirit of the nineteenth century as eloquently as Émile Zola. Balzac did seek contact with the greatest biologists of his time, but his own vitalism was still deeply rooted in Romantic metaphysics. The “docteur ès sciences sociales,” 1 as he liked to call himself, knew nothing of that kind of sociology which, according to Auguste Comte, was to follow biology as the newest of the positivistic sciences. Flaubert only seemed closer to Comte. Whenever he referred, as he often did, to the “précision des sciences physiques” 2 as the model for his own impersonal writing style, his intention was to emphasize Romantic self-expression, rather than optimism about scientific progress, which he tended to ridicule. In Bouvard et Pécuchet the positivistic spirit appears as the farce of the century. He had begun this work as an old man, in 1872, and continued work on it until his death in 1880. In approximately the same time period, half of the Rougon-Macquart had already appeared—an impressive example of the contemporaneity of the [End Page 705] non-contemporaneous. Flaubert’s comic distance from optimism about progress is revoked by his disciple. Certainly the novel is an instrument of social criticism for Zola, but this criticism does not apply to the belief in progress but rather is connected to positivism to the point where the novelist believes himself to be struggling on the same front as the scientist: say everything in order to heal everything. Whenever Zola’s literary merit has been questioned, from his time until the present, usually those naïve characteristics tied to this optimism are mentioned, starting with the novelist himself who stages the story he conceived as a scientific experiment with an uncertain outcome, to the brightly-colored palette of scientific references, from the Romantic social utopia of Saint-Simon to the positivism of Comte, the determinism of Taine, the doctrine of heredity of Prosper Lucas, and to Darwin, Haeckel and Weismann.

Only recently has a change in this assessment begun to emerge, caused by the scientific “reappraisal” of the nineteenth century associated with names such as Georges Canguilhem, 3 Michel Foucault 4 and Wolf Lepenies. 5 Foucault’s well-known thesis of epochal caesura between the two conceptions of knowledge and science, between what he terms classical epistemes of representation on the one hand and the genesis of historical consciousness in the Romantic period on the other hand, made it possible to subsume the scientific-historical heterogeneity of the nineteenth century under a unified perspective and to better understand this sort of apparent naïvety. Positivism was not as empirical as it purported to be. To the extent that the new sciences of life, work and language devoted themselves to the discovery of functional units, they could not simply turn away from metaphysical questions. The interest, typical of classical epistemes, in tables classifying the observable yielded to the search for origins, movements, which are completed in unobservable spatial and temporal depths. This makes a seemingly strange co-existence of positivistic modesty and hermeneutic speculation entirely comprehensible. Zola, who identified so much with the pathos of the search for origins, was also able to profit from this new perspective on a long-neglected phase of the history of science. If there is currently a Zola renaissance which promises to break down the barriers of both [End Page 706] ideologico-critical research and structuralist immanentism, it is based on precisely this possibility of taking Zola just as seriously as his references. 6

Certainly such a classification of Zola by the basic tendencies of the epistemes of his time does not provide any information on the odd way in which Zola enacts this knowledge in his novelistic fiction. To be sure, the high level of abstraction at which Foucault develops his categories legitimizes the recourse of literary study to precisely these categories, but only heuristically. Foucault has never left any doubt that literary references to epistemological configurations are justified up to that point where they may be assigned the...

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pp. 705-733
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