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Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 345-348

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Thiher, Allen. Fiction Rivals Science: The French Novel from Balzac to Proust. U of Missouri P, 2001. Pp. 226. ISBN 0-8262-1357

According to Nadar, Balzac explained his "terror" of the photographic medium in terms of a somewhat anachronistic theory of its relation to physical matter:

According to Balzac, each body in nature was composed of a series of spectra superimposed in infinite layers, foliated in infinitesimal filmic particles in every direction from which the body is optically perceived. Man, ever unable to create - in other words, from an apparition, from the impalpable, to compose a solid [End Page 345] thing, to make something from nothing - each Daguerrienne operation therefore managing to surprise it, detached and retained one of the layers of the objectified body by attaching it to itself. Thus, for the body in question there was an obvious loss of one of its spectra, in other words a loss of a part of its constitutive essence with each new photographic operation (Quand j'étais photographe [Paris: 1900] reproduced in Dessins et Écrits, ed. Arthur Hubschmid [Paris: 1979]. 978; my trans.)

If we can trust Nadar's apocryphal recollection, Balzac equates the material particles emanating from the body and captured by the dageurreotype with a spiritual or spiritualized entity, the individual's "constitutive essence." He resurrects the medieval Scholastic theory of emanation that posits a resemblance between the optical image and its object or point of material origin, a theory supported by the analogy between material and spiritual forms, by appealing to a mechanical, materialist understanding of physics: it is impossible, at least for human beings, to produce something from nothing. The anecdote raises a series of questions about the relations between Balzac's discourse and the scientific discourse of his time. Is Balzac's explanation of the photographic image a pure fiction? Is it an attempt to mimic scientific reasoning in order to prove a non-scientific truth? Does Balzac actually utilize models or methods of explanation that were relevant to the scientific culture of his day? And, if so, to what end, to transform the novel into a scientific discourse, to lend an air of authority to a non-scientific discourse, or rather, as Allen Thiher argues, to compete with scientific discourse in employing methods for explaining physical and social phenomena? Thiher's title effectively encapsulates his thesis:

Much of modern literature has developed, especially from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century, as a response to the claims of science, specifically to the claims of science to dictate what can be known with any degree of certainty. In this period, in fact, many writers came to believe that they could rival science in proposing knowledge. This strikes me as the central feature of the French novel as it developed from Balzac to Proust. (3)

Although steeped in scientific knowledge, Proust's work brings closure to this period of epistemic competition by designating subjectivity or the mind as the proper object of literary knowledge, while ceding knowledge of physical phenomena to scientific discourse (209). Thiher's argument is convincing in its basic form. His explanations of nineteenth-century scientific theories are very informative, although the attempts to relate these theories to the discourse of the novel sometimes reach too far and are undermined by competing claims, methodological limitations, and the relatively short treatment granted to such a vast and complicated subject.

Thiher neither examines the preceding anecdote from Nadar and others like it, nor many passages from correspondence where any of these novelists actually discuss science or scientific works. There may be good reasons for this. Flaubert's correspondence develops an aesthetic that already distinguishes quite strictly between the purposes and representational means of art and those of science, thus contradicting [End Page 346] the chronology of FRS's argument. Proust's correspondence is replete with mentions of numerous scientists and their works, but also reveals his self-avowed ignorance of scientific theories and authors that the narrator of the Recherche presumes to know and...


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