Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust - Zola the conceptual anti-humanist

Thérèse Raquin (1867) is a conceptual novel, or an experimental novel.  Two questions, then:  what do those words mean; what is the concept?

Here's what I mean.  Genuine scienticians may have their own, correct, ideas. 

Experimentation is a method.  The method leads to results and discoveries.  Sometimes the results are proof or disproof of a hypothesis.  Sometimes the discovery is a new concept, a new hypothesis.  Concepts are not necessarily the result of experimentation, though.  They can emerge full-fledged from the old brainpan, so to speak.

Writers, artists, continually experiment, and continually invent or discover new concepts.  The exact process varies enormously from artist to artist.  This is why I am always interested in how creativity works.  Sometimes, we can actually watch an artist experiment.  The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) began with a concept, a trivial one, frankly, but as Dickens wrote and published the serialized pieces, he began to discover a new way of writing a novel.  By somewhere around the middle of the serialization, the nature of the book had completely changed.  We can see some of the steps, some of the combinations of elements that did not work (failed experiments) and the combinations that did.

Émile Zola, in Thérèse Raquin, is not experimenting.  He is demonstrating a concept.  He is the chemistry teacher blowing something up for the entertainment of his students.  No, that's not right.  The chemistry teacher knows that combining X, Y, and Z always gives a harmless flash and puff of smoke.  Zola himself is responsible for the intensity of the light and the color and quantity of smoke.  It's all a trick, a trick called fiction.  He's cloaking his fiction in science and psychology, which I guess Zola also identifies as science.

The concept is that humans are merely animals, bipedal ferrets.  The sub-concept is that even if humans are not merely animals, novelists have ignored our animalistic side - this fiction is a provocative response to other fictions.  What would happen if the author stripped away culture, morality, religion, and ethics?  Say the protagonists of the novel are a lazy hedonist and a "wild animal," governed by appetites and primitive psychology, driven to passionate extremes by pheromones and repression.  Here's what happens:

It was inevitable that it would come to hatred in the end.  They had loved each other like animals, with the hot passions of the blood; then in the nervous upheaval following their crime, love had turned to fear and they had felt a physical horror at the thought of their embraces... (Ch. XXVIII)

Inevitable!  Except in a different story, governed by a different concept.  But this is the language of Thérèse Raquin:  animal, passion, blood, savage, green, horror, irrational. 

Of all earth’s meteors, here at least is the most strange and consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for an ideal, however misconceived.

Now I am averting my gaze from the unpleasant Zola.  This passage is from the essay "Pulvis et Umbra" (1888) by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The author is somehow able to incorporate scientific ideas about evolution and the size of the universe, about the unimportance of humanity, while still maintaning that humanity is, in fact, important, that the poor fools have rare delights and live for ideals. 

Zola claims, in the preface to the novel, to be writing in the service of "truth."  "Sincere study, like fire, purifies all," he writes, absurdly.  Fortunately I have no obligation to believe an author.  More on that tomorrow.


  1. And fortunately for me, I have no obligation to like (or read any more) Zola even though I very much like your posts about him.

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post about not believing authors...

  2. This post is interesting to me in light of the end of Germinal, which I just read last night and am having trouble coming to terms with...it's either weirdly and unconvincingly idealistic all of a sudden, or it's somehow arguing that so-called idealism is just another pap that animalistic man suckles. Actually, if Zola agreed with Stevenson that living for a misconceived ideal is inherently "consoling," that would explain a lot!

    Reading this entry, I do think Germinal is more complex in its view of humans and human motivation than Therese Raquin. There is that irrational animalism, but there are other causes of human behavior, as well.

  3. I am reading Therese Raquin for the first time and it is the first Zola novel I've ever read. Yes...his animalization of the characters is striking. I enjoy the book just for the language itself...the simple directness of it is refreshing for me right now. His insistence on his scientific purpose (in the forward)kind of dulls the magic of his prose, which is often beautiful. One wonders too how much of that is rallied up in response to the accusations of his being a filth monger by his critics of the time. Is he perhaps covering up his own possible prurient interests in the creation of his texts and what lofty eye gives him the perfect detachment to look down upon these woeful creatures? In the forward he writes that his own friends accuse him of making others feel inferior. I can only imagine what this Zola guy was like and I look forward to reading a bio I am set to go on after finishing TR. Some days I am inclined to agree with him. Regardless....Thanks for these posts and like very much your summation "the conceptual anti-humanist" this is a worthy area for exploration. Best

  4. Colleen's experience with The Human Beast was not exactly positive. You make it sound, conceptually, almost the same as this earlier novel.

    My sense, Emily, of what Zola believes is weak. I know he doesn't believe eveything he writes (tomorrow's topic du jour). One power of the Natualist conception - like evolutionary psychology - is that it can explain anything. The question is, how well?

    J-37 - I fear I have been overemphasizing the pseudo-scientific parts. Because you're right, a lot of the writing is quite good - crisp, vivid, clean. And you're right about the Zola's coceptual motive, too - it's partly real, partly prankish, partly marketing. That's my guess, at least.

  5. Poor old Zola. I think he did believe his own theories, quite genuinely. And he was writing in an era in which the poor had been either romanticized or ignored, or else used to teach moral lessons. (There was an ongoing fascination with the figure of the prostitute and endless stories in which she was saved from sin, converted to religion and then obliged to die to keep the moral nice and clean and intact).

    Zola wanted to show this class in the midst of fierce passions and genuine longings. It may still look condescending to emphasise their animality, but it was better than using them as some sort of object lesson pandering to the ideological niceties of the upper classes. But hey, no one said you had to like it. :-)

  6. Some problems, litlove:

    1. The characters in Thérèse Raquin are not poor. They're bourgeois shopkeepers. They have extensive savings.

    You'e talking about Germinal and Nana and such, right? I can see how part of what Zola is doing is a reaction to Hugo and lesser figures, to French Romanticism.

    2. I don't think Zola is condescending to the poor. Based on this novel, he is condescending to humans. If he writes about the poor as unromantically as he writes about these shopkeepers, that's impressive, a real commitment to the concept.

    3. I don't know what Zola believes, and happily take your word for it. I know what he says he believes about this novel, and I know what he actually puts in the book. Those two things do not actually mesh as well as the author claims. That's what I try to get at today. My suspicion is that he's insincere and slippery. Your suggestion is that he's a true believer and therefore any deviation is a failure in his purpose or art.

    4. I don't have to like it, sure. But I did! I liked Thérèse Raquin. Anyone who likes noirs would like this book. And I want to read more Zola.

  7. I'm in Colleen's boat. I appreciate your comments but I getting more and more Done with Zola the more I read about him!