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Edens d’acclimatation : l’utopie positiviste chez Honoré de Balzac et Émile Zola Narayana, Valérie Catherine

Abstract

My dissertation deals with Utopian writing in Honore de Balzac's "Le Medecin de campagne" (1833) and Emile Zola's "Travail (1901). From a theoretical point of view, I argue that while it might seem contradictory for Realist or Naturalist authors to be writing Utopias, this type of fiction, with its highly axiomatized discourse and its will to grasp material norms, is in fact compatible with these authors' scientific and documentary aspirations. I suggest that prior to the refutation of positivism by logicians of science in the mid-1900s, the idea of separating «physics» from «metaphysics» haunted scientific and social thinking. The quest for this demarcation informs all attempts to characterize society in what I call positivist utopianism. In the case of Balzac, "Le Medecin de campagne" attempts to carry out a logical demonstration of the benefits associated with agrarian reforms achieved in a rural community on the eve of Louis Philippe's constitutional monarchy. Though the discourse on the village's economic and social rebirth is delivered in a largely deductive fashion, the premises - religious or liberal – of this axiomatisation are never made clear. In Zola's "Travail", the elaboration of the fictional community takes a different form. Here, the premise of social perfectibility is given, held to, and demonstrated quite consistently, save for a few problematic but meaningful exceptions. Indeed, the novel's predictability is such that the work's artistic merit came under fire at the time of its publication. By positioning the work in its historical context, I suggest that the very simplicity of its stance is highly polemic. Written in light of the Dreyfus affair and of Emile Poincare's scientific popularizing, the novel can be read as an exploration of the woes and freedom of trying to write "scientifically" while acknowledging that mere convention governs truth. I conclude that "Le Medecin de campagne" and "Travail", appearing at pivotal historical moments in post-Revolutionary France, herald social as well as scientific modernity. They yield a problematic representation of the social object whose existence in language and material reality both enables the Utopian project and frustrates it.

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