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Biological Time, Historical Time

Transfers and Transformations in 19th Century Literature

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Edited by Niklas Bender and Gisèle Séginger

Biological Time, Historical Time presents a new approach to 19th century thought and literature: by focussing on the subject of time, it offers a new perspective on the exchanges between French and German literary texts on the one hand and scientific disciplines on the other. Hence, the rivalling influences of the historical sciences and of the life sciences on literary texts are explored, texts from various scientific domains – medicine, natural history, biology, history, and multiple forms of vulgarisation – are investigated. Literary texts are analysed in their participation in and transformation of the scientific imagination. Special attention is accorded to the temporal dimension: this allows for an innovative account of key concepts of 19th century culture.

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Volume-editor Niklas Bender and Gisèle Séginger

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Stefan Knödler

Abstract

The contribution analyses the history of literature as conceived by August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), which is modelled on contemporary science, especially the comparative anatomy of George Cuvier and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Like these scientists, Schlegel proceeds by comparison and systematization as well as by historical classification. Following romanticist philosophy of Nature, Schlegel presumes a unifying principle, which is likewise at work in nature, in language(s), and in literature. Retracing its path, the philologist starts off from the language and literature of his present time to go back to Antiquity and even to Sanskrit.

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Volume-editor Niklas Bender and Gisèle Séginger

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Claude Rétat

Abstract

The reference to Darwin, topic at the end of the 19th century, is at the heart of a verbal sparring match about who will be (or will claim to be), in matters of struggle for life, on the right side of history. Louise Michel articulates the topoi of evolution, and alongside the topoi of evolution-revolution, with an imagination and a practice (of thought, of writing, of militant engagement). Her 1892 article “À propos des explosions” (“On explosions”, treating the assassination attempt of Ravachol) shows in a paradigmatic—but nonetheless sardonic and original—way her use and practice of scientific reference.

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Claire Barel-Moisan

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At the turn of the 19th century, writers such as Camille Flammarion or Rosny aîné use the novel to draw a picture of the future of mankind: Earth will have reached the end of its natural cycle, due to the cooling of the sun, the collision with a comet (Flammarion, La Fin du monde, 1894), or because of the changes in the ecosystem induced by human activity (Rosny aîné, La Mort de la Terre, 1910). For these authors, futuristic novels are a means to transpose scientific theories in the field of fiction. The genre of the novel thus allows them to explore most remote times and to render theoretical abstractions incarnate. Evolutionary theory, for example, is made visible in Rosny’s novel by the description of a desert universe where mankind is supplanted by a new species. This paper aims to address both the poetic and ideological issues brought to light by this use of futuristic novels. It also studies the conception of time implied in these novels depicting the end of the world.

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Frank Jäger

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The present study argues that the omnipresent use of “savage”, “violent” and animal-like metaphors, found in Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, constitutes a specific form of literary transformation and (re-)creation of concepts and ideas found in nineteenth-century natural history such as evolutionary theory or metamorphosis. By analysing some of the recurrent imagery and metaphors used by Lautréamont, the study aims to shed light on the intertwined interactions between the emerging fascination for natural history and its impact on artistic writing.

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Sandra Collet

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In La Comédie humaine, Balzac aims to provide a complete description of the various ‘social species’, which was modelled on the animal classifications established by Buffon and Cuvier. However, faced with the transformations that his century had undergone, Balzac the novelist also wished to be a historian. The succession of revolutions in France in the 19th century confronted him with two divergent time scales: the brief and shattered one of Man in History; and the longer one of Nature. These revolutions, which were profoundly transforming French society, raised the crucial question of the individual’s adaptation to a rapidly changing society. The scientific models of naturalists, especially Geoffroy Saint Hilaire’s transformism, offered the novelist a theoretical model for constructing a classification of social species caught up in history, and thus for harmoniously combining historical and biological models.

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Juliette Azoulai

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The contribution analyses the works of three outstanding authors, Michelet, Flaubert, and Zola, in order to point out the interaction of two rivalling conceptions of time in nineteenth-century literature: evolutionist temporality, presupposing a continual, progressive representation of time, and revolutionary temporality, which, on the contrary, presupposes an asyndetic, halting conception of it. Although the first temporality rests on concepts from the biological realm, and the second one on the historical and political, there are fields of blending in nineteenth-century thought: socio-biology proposes an evolutionist vision of social development, and the catastrophist theory of Cuvier proclaims a history of the earth modelled on revolutionary jolt. The complicated relations between evolution and revolution that are to be found in nineteenth-century authors are tributary to this delicate linking between nature and culture, which is individually recreated in each literary universe.

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Yohann Ringuedé

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Ernest Cotty is a French minores poet and entomologist who composed a “geologic poem” in 1876, Antediluviana. Within the framework of this article, I attempt to characterize the diachronic way antediluvian beings appear. Indeed, the palaeontological science tends to represent the history of life by stratification, as a pure succession lacking in logic and biologic ties. That parataxis seems to match with the successiveness of Cuvier’s theory of history. The poetological signs of that view are numerous and multiple in the poem, which intends to prove that whereas Cuvier has been compromised by transformism, French poetry goes on considering him as an alternative which reconciles the biblical genesis and Creation as seen in a long diachrony.