Of evolution, information, vitalism and entropy: reflections of the history of science and epistemology in the works of Balzac, Zola, Queneau, and Houellebecq
Byron, Thomas M.
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This dissertation proposes the application of rarely-used epistemological and scientific lenses to the works of four authors spanning two centuries: Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Houellebecq. Each of these novelists engaged closely with questions of science and epistemology, yet each approached that engagement from a different scientific perspective and epistemological moment. In Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, limits of determinism and experimental method tend to demonstrate that there remains an inscrutable yet guided excess in the interactions between the protagonist Raphaël and his enchanted skin. This speaks to an embodiment of the esprit préscientifique, a framework that minimizes the utility of scientific practice in favor of the unresolved mystery of vitalism. With Zola comes a move away from undefinable mystery to a construction of the novel consistent with Claude Bernard’s deterministic experimental medicine. Yet Zola’s Roman expérimental project is only partially executed, in that the Newtonian framework that underlies Bernard’s method yields to contrary evidence in Zola’s text of entropy, error, and loss of information consistent with the field of thermodynamics. In Queneau’s texts, Zola’s interest in current science not only remains, but is updated to reflect the massive upheaval in scientific thought that took place in the last half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. If Queneau’s texts explicitly mention advances like relativity, however, they often do so in a humorously dismissive manner that values pre-entropic and even early geometric constructs like perpetual motion machines and squared circles. Queneau’s apparent return to the pre-scientific ultimately yields to Houellebecq’s textual abyss. For Houellebecq, science is not only to be embraced in its entropic and relativistic constructs; it is these very constructs - and the style typically used to present them – that serve as a reminder of the abjection, decay, and hopelessness of human existence. Gone is the mystery of life in its totality. In its place remain humans acting as a series of particles mechanically obeying deterministic laws. The parenthesis that opened with Balzac’s positive coding of pre-scientific thought closes with Houellebecq’s negative coding of modern scientific theory.