Le Style – Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium – 2017

University of Virginia (USA) – 9-11 novembre 2017


1. “Between death and life: style tested to the limité”

Claire Barel-Moisan, CNRS Lyon, ANR Biolographes 

Following in the footsteps of Xavier Bichat’s Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (1800), which defined life as “the set of functions that resist death”, scientists and writers throughout the 19th century endeavoured to develop an understanding of “life” based on an examination of the limits where it ended and death began. The fascination with these limits was particularly intense at two different periods, each of which was marked by distinctive scientific and ideological concerns. In the Romantic period, a “galvanic” literature investigated numerous cases of partial or questionable deaths, focusing on two main types of case: severed heads and the resurrection of electrified corpses. Examples include Janin’s L’Âne mort et la femme guillotinée (1829), Balzac’s L’Élixir de longue vie (1830) and Le Lendemain du dernier jour d’un condamné by Cherbuliez (1829). Beyond Bichat’s experiments on executed prisoners, followed by those conducted by Doctor Andrew Ure (1818), people continued to study life by focusing on the point where it bordered on death, a case in point being Professor Julia de Fontenelle’s Recherches médico-légales sur l’incertitude des signes de la mort (1834). Writers and scientists alike adopted a materialist approach to death: literature proposed ironic scenes of failed resurrections which altered the traditional dialectics between mind and body. In a departure from this “horrific” literature, the second half of the century explored the limits between life and death using very different kinds of experiments. Henceforth, the idea was to explore the inextricably intertwined nature of death and life, as exemplified by the debate on spontaneous generation. Baudelaire’s poem “Une charogne” (1857) and Zola’s novel Nana (1881) are just two examples of this theme of life emerging out of death. These contrasting approaches to transcending the limits between life and death in order to achieve a fuller understanding of living organisms were accompanied by clashing stylistic approaches; it is the aesthetic and social implications of these approaches that this paper aims to tease out.

Claire Barel-Moisan

2. “Writing natural history in the 19th century: the style of Félix-Archimède Pouchet”

Bénédicte Percheron, Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme de Paris – FMSH, ANR Biolographes

Founder of the Natural History Museum of Rouen, famed opponent of Pasteur, and a leading populariser in the field of natural sciences, Félix-Archimède Pouchet was close to many writers, including Flaubert and Michelet. His legacy, in terms of his field, was unique: more than any of his colleagues, he succeeded in skilfully combining mythological history, the history of science and the scientific knowledge of his time. In the process, he developed a unique literary style that made a direct contribution to the popularisation of science. In this regard, he left behind a series of works, such as Histoire des sciences naturelles au Moyen Âge ou Albert le Grand et son époque (1853) and L’Univers: les infiniment grands et les infiniment petits (1865), a work of popular science which was republished several times. The Natural History Museum of Rouen, which he founded in 1828 and directed until his death (1872), also holds a substantial manuscript entitled Histoire pittoresque et archéologique des oiseaux, which displays the same blend of mythology and science. Although he valued observation, his use of mythology was a deft way of making science accessible to the layperson, but perhaps also of setting out a certain number of theories. In addition, he applied this same innovative approach to his lectures at the Royal College of Rouen, where he taught natural history (and where Flaubert was among his students). It is thus not beyond the realm of possibility that this very particular way of presenting the evolving world of science may have influenced some of his other writings, extending even beyond the sciences. This paper thus seeks to evaluate the role of writing in Pouchet’s work. 

Bénédicte Percheron – Gisèle Séginger

3. “Ernest Renan: for an embryogenetic study of the human mind”

Azélie Fayolle, Université Paris-Est, ANR Biolographes

After leaving the seminary of Saint-Sulpice and giving up his studies to become a priest, Ernest Renan wrote L’Avenir de la science in 1848 (published only in 1890). It was the outline of a project that he would describe as an embryogenetic study of the human mind. Renan wished to treat cultural artefacts such as languages and religions as having a life of their own: they were born, lived, died and evolved just like living organisms. Renan took a broad view of what constituted life, regarding it as a virtually immaterial force, but one which leaves its mark on history in a way that is both perceptible and analysable. From this point on, philology became for him an extension of the natural sciences, from which it borrowed methods, particularly that of analogy, whose heuristic importance (in terms of thinking about the unobservable transformations of living things over long periods of time) had been defended by Lamarck in his work Philosophie zoologique (1809). When it came to thinking about life from the viewpoint of the historical sciences (to which philology belongs), Renan adopted a specific style of thinking, partly inherited from German Naturphilosophie. He also took a particular view regarding documents: for Renan, sacred texts could no longer be regarded as the product of revelation; they were themselves the repositories of the intellectual and spiritual life of generations of believers and copyists who had created and transformed them. They bore the philological and cultural traces of the history of religions going back to their origins, and the task of the scholar was to reveal the stratifications of this history. 

The aim of this paper was to study the organicist metaphors (largely neglected by research dealing with Renan’s style) that enabled him to treat cultural phenomena as living entities. Renan used a wealth of imagery to retrace the development of these phenomena in naturalistic terms. What is more, for Renan, the text produced by the historian itself needed to mirror its subject and become something organic.

Azélie Fayolle

 4. “Flaubert: from the life sciences to thought as style”

Gisèle Séginger, Université Paris-Est, Institut Universitaire de France and FMSH – ANR Biolographes

In opposition to moral and religious prejudices, as well as to the Romantic style, Flaubert, taking his cue from the natural sciences, championed the idea of an expository literature. He also believed it was necessary to establish a genuine human science, modelled on what the natural sciences were doing: man needed to be studied in the same way that naturalists studied mastodons and crocodiles, without any preconceived ideas (letter of 31 March 1853). Having thus conceived of the possibility of a positive literature, he accorded style an essential role in such an enterprise: drawing on Buffon’s reflections on the unity of form and content and on Goethean organicism, Flaubert developed a conception of style that would be “in itself an absolute way of seeing things” (16 January 1852). For Flaubert, however, seeing was a new way of thinking, because it meant becoming a “triple thinker” (26 April 1853), which, in terms of his work, meant keeping all forms of discourse at arm’s length, whether it was the language of science or the inanities of middle-class conversation: the critical perspective inherent in Flaubert’s writing, the irony that carefully explores all sides of any situation, while always adding an extra twist, meant that style became the essential driving force in his work. Flaubert’s reflections on style as a way of thinking – always active, never bound by ideas or forms of discourse – draw on conceptions and metaphors borrowed from the life sciences in an effort to take a fresh approach to literature, regardless of eternal rules, aesthetic upheavals or schools of thought. This paper sought to shed light on some of the epistemological presuppositions of this conception of style as a way of thinking that was free of thought.

Gisèle Séginger
University OF Virginia

Citer ce billet
Urbanature (2020, 16 décembre). Le Style – Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium – 2017. Biolographes. Consulté le 22 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/m1r7

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.