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Revolutionizing the fossilized: Balzac and Janin's naturalist discourse in Les Francais peints par eux-memes.

One of Georges Cuvier's most important contributions to the field of natural history concerned the origin of fossils. While Cuvier has traditionally been cast as the head of the "fixist" camp in the infamous querelle des analogues that opposed him to Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, (1) his work on fossils resulted in a theory that envisaged change in a quite radical way. (2) When most early nineteenth-century scientists believed that fossils were petrified bodies of presently existing species, Cuvier crafted a theory of extinction. By showing that fossil imprints did not match the anatomy of living animals, he proved that some species had in fact disappeared from the surface of the globe.

In Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupedes, published in 1812, Cuvier developed a hypothesis about the probable factors and conditions of extinction: "Ils n'ont pu disparaitre que par une revolution qui a fait perir tous les individus existant alors, ou par un changement de climat qui les a empeche de s'y propager. Mais quelle qu'ait ete cette cause, elle a du etre subite" (Cuvier 139). (3) A natural revolution, followed by the disappearance of certain species and the emergence of others: the idea was to influence not only the field of natural history, but also contemporary perceptions of society, in a century marked by political instability and social unrest. (4) Certain "social species," (Balzac, Avant-propos, 10) were perceived to have indeed disappeared. This social extinction is high among Jules Janin's preoccupations in the introduction of Les Francais peints par eux-memes, a collective work published between 1840 and 1842:
   Mais voici bien une autre revolution dans les moeurs et dans
   l'etude des moeurs! Tout un hemisphere qui disparait! Un monde
   entier qui s'abime [...]. OU donc s'est-il perdu, ce type du
   courtisan que l'on croyait eternel [...]? Ces gens-la, race perdue
   sans espoir de retour, etaient les plus importants de la nation
   [...]. Oui, ce monde-la s'est perdu; il s'est evanoui dans les
   revolutions et les tempetes. (vii)

Janin evokes a "monde perdu," brought to its end by revolutions and storms. His depiction (a "tempete" and an "hemisphere qui disparait") resembles quite strikingly Cuvier's description of a "cause subite" and "changement de climat." The analogy is more than a witty joke designed to entertain the reader: as the idea of extinction spread in the natural sciences to become more than a hypothesis, writers and thinkers alike started to consider the social sphere in similar terms. The theory of extinction indeed provided a paradigm of thought to reflect upon the fast and unpredictable pace of social change in early nineteenth-century France? Les Francais peints par eux-memes is a case in point: preoccupied by both the increasing diversity of social types and their intrinsic instability, the project adopts a pseudo-scientific classification that perhaps paradoxically points more at the volatility of modern life than at the fixity of the social types that take part in it.

This essay will focus on the project of Les Francais peints par eux-memes as it is understood by Janin and Balzac, and in so far as it claims to borrow its method and scope from natural history. While acknowledging the inherent "heterogenericity" of the panoramic genre (Cohen 232), I propose to look at a particular interdisciplinary component of this hybrid work: how do Balzac and Janin use the paradigms of thought unearthed by natural history? What anxieties are common to scientific research and to the attempt in Les Francais peints par eux-memes at encompassing the variety and transience of modern life? I will argue that both Balzac and Janin subvert the naturalist model that they claim to build on, in an ironic stance that defeats the same social taxonomies that it constructs. Eventually, the impossibility to safely compartmentalize and circumscribe modern lire leads to an anxiety about national identity and about the role of capitalism in the instability of social types--two questions that are, as Benedict Anderson has shown, closely related. Money, as both the permanent ground into which some social types fossilize and the elusive circulating flux into which others become engulfed, ultimately constitutes the environment of this social biodiversity.


Les Francais peints par eux-memes belongs to a genre that Walter Benjamin famously called panoramic literature; to Benjamin, panoramic texts are a counterpart to visual panoramas insofar as they seek to give an overview of contemporary everyday life while simultaneously describing its components in detail (531). This genre flourished in France during the July Monarchy, and involved the most famous authors of the time, among them Balzac, Sand, Lamartine and Janin, to name only a few. Panoramic texts are illustrated--Gavarni and Daumier participated regularly in panoramic projects--and are typically composed of short sections dealing with a specific entity of everyday life. That entity often corresponds to a social type (as in Les Francais peints par eux-memes) but it can also be a building or a quartier (as in Paris guide [1867] or Le Diable a Paris [1845-46]). Other categories under scrutiny include customs (Paris, ou le livre des Cent-et-un [1831] has a section on "la vie de cafe," and Le Diable a Paris [1845-6] includes a chapter on a bourgeois wedding) or objects--Henry Monnier wrote a short text about the use of albums in Paris, ou le livre des Cent-et-un, and it is not rare to find sections about fashion, clothes and costumes in panoramic literature. While Les Francais peints par eux-memes is exclusively organized by sections on social types, other texts are less systematic in their approach and include chapters about different categories (places, customs, professions, and everyday objects, mainly).

The panoramic genre maintains at its core a tension between the calling for a general overview and the attention to details and fragments of the social landscape that it is trying to depict. The multiple authorship that characterizes this type of text allegedly achieves both a more comprehensive view of modern life and a more specific account of its components. As Janin claims in the introduction to Les Francais peints pat" eux-memes, "Maintenant, comment donc le meme moraliste, le meme ecrivain de moeurs pourrait-il penetrer dans toutes ces regions lointaines dont il ne connait ni les routes, ni la langue, ni la coutume?" (ix). Ianin argues that a shared authorship is necessary to the collective project in order to get a general view of French society without sacrificing detailed accuracy. Yet, as Margaret Cohen put it, "the fact that the text is the product of multiple authors works against--as well as bolsters--its claim to social authority," insofar as no "subjectivity [...] steps forward to guarantee the referential veracity of the panoramic whole" (234). Both a broad-spectrum depiction and a collection of particular features, the panoramic genre makes sense of the illegibility of everyday life by partitioning it at the same time as it calls into question the very possibility of dividing modern life into fragments.

This questioning becomes particularly visible in the use that Janin and Balzac make of the scientific paradigm in Les Francais peints par eux-memes. As panoramic texts seek to classify, describe, and illustrate social types, places, or customs, they often claim a methodology borrowed from natural history. But the declared link between the panoramic genre and Cuvier and Geoffroy's discipline is non-exclusive: in the introduction, Janin compares the project to quite a number of things that differ widely from scientific disciplines: fashion magazines, history books, series of watercolors, travel narratives, maps, travel guide, and daguerreotype, among others. The sections subsequently adopt very different types of viewpoints on the social types that compose the group of "les Francais." Descriptions and classifications are at the core of the project, yet because of the transgressions of genres that they lead to, they both strengthen and work against the ambition of comprehensibility. (6)

Margaret Cohen writes that the project of Les Francais peints par eux-memes, being one of panoptic representation, approaches "the phenomena of daily life with the characteristic panoptic gestures of description and classification" (231). As such, the panoramic genre is characterized by what she calls its heterogenericity: shifting perspectives, tones, and disciplinary influences, the genre adopts very different modes to describe an ever-changing society, borrowing its tone and scope from fashion magazines, city guides and novellas--to cite only a few. Natural History is only one of the many disciplines and modes of thinking that the genre exploits; yet it provides a very efficient paradigm of thought to convey anxieties about the fast evolution of les moeurs, an evolution which is often rather thought of as a series of revolutions. The perceived rapidity in the change of codes and customs indeed leads Janin to describe modern times as a series of "revolutions dans les moeurs" (vii), a phrase that not only evokes the political revolutions that punctuated nineteenth-century French history but also the term "revolution" as it is used by Cuvier and other naturalists to describe changes of climate and of biological environment--Janin later evokes an "hemisphere qui disparait."

If the naturalists' work sometimes consisted in comparing petrified fossils to live animals, the writer's and illustrator's tasks in Les Francais peints par eux-memes was similarly caught between bygone eras of alleged stable social codes and contemporary whims of ever fluctuating fashions, fortunes, and unsteady political systems. (7) The project of the books as Janin understands it is not only at odds with the past but also in tension with the future: it claims to be both a present taxonomy of social species and an anticipatory gesture foreseeing the need for documentation of future generations. Today's social types are tomorrow's fossils: Janin describes the content of the volumes as potential future remnants of early nineteenth-century everyday lire. Everyday items, social types, and customs will become as many objects of conjuncture and interpretation for future generations: "Oui, songeons-y," he writes in the introduction, "un jour viendra oU nos petits-enfants voudront savoir qui nous etions et ce que nous faisions en ce temps-la," since inevitably "nous serons un jour la posterite" and "il faudra bien qu'a notre tour nous tombions tete baissee dans ce gouffre beant qu'on appelle l'histoire" (V). The taxonomy of Les Francais peints par eux-memes is therefore a messy collection of fossils-to-be, while it positions itself against the past clear-cut hierarchical order.

The anxiety about the revolutions of les moeurs is palpable in Janin's text: it puts the general project of the volumes in an un-decidable mode temporally speaking, in an approach that takes the present to analyze the past while engrossing the puzzles of the future. The result of this impossible temporal position and heterogenericity is a referential instability. Far from classifying the social types in a stable nomenclature, Les Francais peints par eux-memes undermine any attempt at a fixed taxonomy. This undermining is not at first apparent, both in Balzac's texts and in the general project as a whole. The eight volumes of the collective work function indeed as a catalogue of the various "social species" that constitute the more general class of "les Francais." Each type has a section. (8) The texts and images carefully list, illustrate, and describe each character as precisely as if it were a natural specimen. In that regard, what the project borrows from natural history seems at first to move it towards a stable nomenclature.

But in a century marked by revolutions and constant changes of political regime, Les Francais peints par eux-memes staged a tension between past, "dead," social references, and what was perceived as the present anomy. More strikingly perhaps, representations of alleged stable and established social "types" paradoxically coexist with the widespread lament that social positions can be turned upside down from one day to the next (both Janin and Balzac tackle this issue at length in their respective texts for Les Francais peints par eux-memes). The whole project has at its core the tension between movement and stability that characterized the social sphere of the time. The perceived arbitrariness of ever-fluctuating social codes and fashions thus contrasts with the descriptions of steady, recognizable "types." The writers and illustrators who participated in the project appropriated this tension.

Jules Janin's introduction thus laments both this fluctuation and the lack of recognizable social signs in people's appearance and clothes: "A cette heure, les bourgeois vont en carrosse [...]; on ne saurait plus distinguer la femme du patricien d'avec la femme du magistrat" (vi). Yet on the other hand, after complaining about the illegibility of social appearances, Janin makes a non-exhaustive list of social types, whose outward appearances are all going to be represented in detail in the illustrations and texts of the volumes: "l'artiste," "le speculateur" "le gamin de Paris, la comedienne, la fille folle de son corps," and so forth (vi). The paradox is undeniably at work both in Janin's text and in the general project itselfi Les Francais peints par eux-memes was to be an "encyclopedie morale," listing and describing the social types that people the French society, while at the same time recognizing (and to a certain extent lamenting) the incredible mobility and instability of social codes and positions as well as their intrinsic illegibility.


Ultimately, this distress about fragmentation, versatility and illegibility goes beyond a social nervousness and points towards an anxiety about the impossibility to draw the contours of national identity from within modernity's chaos. If there are more and more types, and if "les revolutions dans les moeurs" have taken such a fast path that it is hard to keep track of them, then what does unify the French people as a nation? Does this fragmentation of les moeurs correspond to a national disintegration avant l'heure? The July Monarchy instituted for the first time a "Roi des Francais" as opposed to the Ancien Regime "Roi de France": the question of what defines "les Francais" was therefore more than ever topical in the 1830s and 40s. While the recurring anxieties about modernity's fragmentation and illegibility permeate the whole work of Les Francais peints par eux-memes, the project itself is an attempt at questioning what constitutes "les Francais" as a national group. Despite the disorienting fast pace of the changes in les moeurs, the title Les Francais peints par eux-memes maintains that there is a group that can safely be defined as French. And these "Francais" are themselves the authors of the portraits in question. Not only do they exist as a national group, but they take part in the building of the "encyclopedie morale," from the duchess to the prostitute, from the "grand homme" to the poorest peasant. (9)

Yet, "Les Francais" both as objects of scrutiny and as authors of this collective self portrait have a paradoxical status which is very palpable in the illustrations, and which both asserts and questions the possibility of a final and finite definition for the group that they form--which ultimately also questions the validity of the term "les Francais" itself. In the illustrations of the volumes, they are on the one hand represented as active in the writing of the collective work (see fig. 1). Although miniaturized, they hold pens and feathers or turn the pages of what is presumably the book itself of Les Francais peints par eux-memes. In that illustration, they seem therefore to be a group capable of defining and representing itself, and are depicted as active individuals engaged in the process of that definition. They are here "Francais" in the process of describing themselves.

On the other hand, as for instance on the front-page of the fourth volume (see fig. 2) "les Francais" are represented as literally imprisoned by the books themselves. In that image, they seem metaphorically to have lost the power of self-definition and to be passive victims of the taxonomy that Les Francais peints par eux-memes as a project imposes on them.


Although they are represented very differently in these two examples, the stability of their identity as "Francais" is in jeopardy in both cases. As active in their self-representation, they escape from the confines of the book itself--a fact that is represented in figure I where three individuals seem to be extracting themselves from the book. The illustration seems to suggest that its own referents are ever-moving and unfixable beings that resist a circumscribed and stable definition. On the other hand, as passive prisoners of the books in figure 2, they are represented as hopelessly wanting to escape (a character holds the prison's bars dejectedly), a fact that implies that the space of the volumes and the project itself of Les Francais peints par eux-memes is perhaps insufficient and reductive.

The miniaturization of "les Francais" in the illustrations is part of a play on scale that is constant throughout the book. (10) "Les Francais" are often on a smaller scale than the writers and illustrators in the images. When represented along with the books, the size of their figures matches the size that they would have as illustrations in the volumes themselves--as is the case in both figures 1 and 2. The play on scale clearly places them as objects of study, yet they do not have the fixity that could have been expected of them. They seem alive and moving in the images, as if they were figures that walked out of the books and took on a life of their own. The illustrations both support and demolish the taxonomy that classifies "les Francais" in as many types of sub-species. While they represent "les Francais," they at the same time claim the impossibility to represent such a group for lack of a stable referent.

And here too this referent is not only threatened by its constant alterations but also by the specter of its future inexistence. In the tete de page of Balzac's "Monographie du rentier," Grandville drew the specimen of a "rentier" skeleton exhibited among other natural species (see fig. 3). In what seems to be a Museum of Natural History, it is not clear if the "Francais" that we are looking at is a specimen of a living species or if the scene is taking place in a distant future in which the "rentier" is nothing more than a fossil of a now extinct race. The instability of the nomenclature on which Les Francais peints par eux-memes builds itself is constantly represented throughout the volumes, and points at both a volatile social referent and an unsteady national identity. Species of "Francais" abound, yet they seem to always be species in danger or on the verge of becoming endangered. In that context, even the referent "Francais" is unstable.



If we now turn to Balzac's contributions to Les Francais peints par eux-memes, it appears that this question of groups, species, and (r)evolution is also at work. In the Avant-propos of the Comedie humaine, Balzac famously discussed the validity of categories and types, which he regarded as social counterparts to natural species; the text clearly claires that "L'idee premiere de la Comedie humaine [...] vint d'une comparaison entre l'Humanite et l'animalite" (7), adding that the idea of "unite d'un plan de composition" "sera l'eternel honneur de Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, le vainqueur de Cuvier sur ce point de la haute science" (8). Balzac later endorses Geoffroy's conception of animality, arguing that there is "un seul et meme patron" and that "la societe ne faitelle pas de l'homme, suivant les milieux ou son action se deploie, autant d'hommes differents qu'il y a de varietes en zoologie?" (8).

Critics have debated at length over the influences of Geoffroy, Cuvier, and other naturalists on Balzac's works; (11) it is widely known that he read Buffon's works in the early 1820s and subsequently kept himself very well informed of the progress and debates that were happening in the field. The preface of Les Illusions perdues compares social professions to animal species, Le Pere Goriot is dedicated to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and many passages of La Comedie humaine praise Cuvier's power of deduction.

Balzac wrote rive texts for Les Francais peints par eux-memes at about the same time as he was writing the Avant-propos. The idea of social species is quite clearly at work in those panoramic texts as well, in a dynamic that destroys its own taxonomy at the same time as it asserts it. The "type" in Balzac's contributions to Les Francais peints par eux-memes exists as a product of both evolution of les moeurs and fossilization into a social role. The Balzacian texts in the volumes stage the increasingly rapid circulation of capital that goes hand in hand with the unfixable and rapid evolution of les moeurs. The essence of some social types lies in their constant adaptation to the flux of capital that surrounds them; at the other end of the spectrum, it is the very accumulation and petrifaction of wealth that allows for others to exist. When money solidifies, that is when it stops circulating, some types such as the notaire or the rentier come into being as the products of this petrifaction.

"Le notaire" for instance is quite emblematic of the spirit and mood of Les Francais peints par eux-memes and of the type of contributions that Balzac made to the project. He portrays the "notaire" through a metaphor of animal life:
   Le notaire offre l'etrange phenomene de trois incarnations de
   l'insecte; mais au rebours: il a commence par etre un brillant
   papillon, il finit par etre une larve enveloppee de son suaire
   [...]. Cette horrible transformation d'un clerc joyeux, gabbeur,
   ruse, fin, spirituel, goguenard, en notaire, la societe l'accomplit
   lentement; mais, bon gres mal gres, elle fait le notaire ce qu'il
   est. (106)

From the "petit clercs qui fretillent comme des poissons dans un bocal" to the "troisieme clerc" who "rit deja moins que les autres" (109), the evolution of the type cornes to an end once the last degree is finally reached: when becoming officially a "notaire," "il prend ce visage de bois qui le rend plus notaire qu'il n'est" (111). The transformation is complete. The "type" exists in so far as it has been fossilized into one recognizable social role and condition. The "notaire" himself becomes part of a social ecosystem in which he "accouche les coeurs et en Fait sortir des monstres que le grand Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire ne saurait mettre en bocal" (106). He is fossilized as an immobile "type" while actively taking part in a social food chain in which he has a set place, role, and purpose.

This progressive fossilization is far from being rare in the texts that compose Les Francais peints par eux-memes. In Balzac's sections, the progressive petrifaction of individuals into social types is almost a constant fact. (12) Money accompanies the evolution from one state to the next for each of the Balzacian figures; this is more than ever the case with the financial figure par excellence, "le rentier."

And yet the "Monographie du rentier" is quite an atypical text, both in relation to Balzac's contributions and insofar as it relates to the complete work of Les Francais peints par eux-memes. The illustrations are also very different from the rest of the book, and break its conventions in many ways. The text itself is organized clearly and exclusively as a parody of a naturalist's book, pretending to gather scientific information from the most famous naturalists of the time. It is satiric in many ways, and contrary to the "notaire" or the "epicier," it is clearly humoristic from beginning to end. The narrator openly takes a sarcastic point of view on his subject, while ironically pointing at the naturalist approach that characterizes so many components of Les Francais peints par eux-memes--including Balzac's texts themselves. The very beginning reads:
   Rentier. Anthropomorphe selon Linne, Mammifere selon Cuvier, Genre
   de l'ordre des Parisiens, Famille des Actionnaires, tribu des
   Ganaches, le Civis inermis des anciens, decouvert par l'abbe
   Terray, observe par Silhouette, maintenu par Turgot et Necker
   [...]. Le rentier s'eleve entre cinq a six pieds de hauteur, ses
   mouvements sont generalement lents, mais la nature attentive a la
   conservation des especes freles l'a pourvu d'omnibus a l'aide
   desquels la plupart des Rentiers se transportent d'un point a un
   autre de l'atmosphere parisienne, au-dela de laquelle ils ne vivent
   pas. Transplante hors de la banlieue, le Rentier deperit et meurt
   [...]. Sa face pale et souvent bulbeuse est sans caractere, ce qui
   est un caractere. Les yeux peu actifs offrent le regard eteint des
   poissons quand ils ne nagent plus, etendus sur le persil de
   l'etalage chez Chevet. Les cheveux sont rares, la chair est
   filandreuse; les organes sont paresseux. Les rentiers possedent des
   proprietes narcotiques extremement precieuses pour le gouvernement
   qui, depuis 25 ans, s'est efforce de propager cette espece: il est
   en effet difficile aux individus de la Tribu des Artistes, genre
   indomptable qui leur fait la guerre, de ne pas s'endormir en
   ecoutant un rentier dont la lenteur communicative, l'air stupide,
   et l'idiome depourvu de toute signifiance sont hebetants. La
   science a du chercher les causes de cette propriete. (1-2)

Balzac adds later that the most famous researchers have not found "malgre leurs essais, les moindres rudiments de la pensee" (2). The "rentier" is here described through a variety of natural metaphors, all involving immobility and fixity: they mainly evoke plants ("transplante," "face bulbeuse," "chair filandreuse," "proprietes narcotiques") and slow or even dead animais ("ses mouvements sont lents" "regard eteint des poissons"). A few lines later, the unavoidable metaphor of the fossil appears this time quite clearly: "Cuvier n'a trouve aucun vestige de ce genre dans les gypses qui nous ont conserve tant d'animaux antediluviens" (3).

Here more than for any other figure, money becomes the ground into which the type fossilizes. The passivity and apparent inactivity of the "rentier" probably called for such a metaphor. The humor and witty ironic tone in which the text is written is yet quite atypical. As far as the illustrations are concerned, "Le rentier" is also very different from the other sections of the volumes; indeed, when the vignettes of Les Francais peints par eux-memes are always as neutral as possible (the "Notaire" front pages are a good example of this neutrality), those of the "Monographie du rentier" are much closer to caricature, and very tightly follow the text.

The rentier in Gavarni's tete de page illustration is duly classified between the "Grue" and the "Oie," two animals that are not (perhaps unfairly) particularly known for their intelligence and vivacity. The play on scale is reversed in that image: the "Francais" represented here is far from being a miniature. It is, on the contrary, hypertrophied when compared to the visitor admiring him. Beyond the obvious satire of the print lies a deeper questioning and uneasiness. When would this scene be taking place, if the "rentier" is no more than a dead specimen relegated to the ranks of long dead fossils? Is that visitor a historian from the future, looking puzzlingly at an extinct species? Between History and sciences, the texts and images of the "Monographie du rentier" stage a latent anxiety about the path of progress and of history. (13) The social type in Les Francais peints par eux-memes is the focal point of numerous anxieties. Types abound, types exist, types structure society, says the whole project of the volumes. L'habit fait le moine, surely. And), et it does not, for how could it when "l'argent et l'or" "autrefois dans les coffres [...] brillent sur toutes les tables" (Janin, vi). The more asserted it is, the more dubious the notion of type becomes. The paradigms of thought unearthed by natural sciences are a way to think about both the past and the future, and to interrogate the path of "l'evolution dans les moeurs." This fast paced evolution prompted Janin to describe the social sphere as undergoing a series of "revolutions" not unlike the natural catastrophes that, Cuvier imagined, could have caused the extinction of several species.


Despite the clear-cut classification of the entire work of Les Francais peints par eux-memes, despite the taxonomy towards which it strives, both texts and images work against a stable view of both society and nation. The "Encyclopedie morale" here has a very different project from its esteemed ancestor: if Diderot and D'Alembert's motive was to classify and "exposer l'enchainement des connaissances humaines" (1), the volumes of Les Francais peints par eux-memes do not function as a system. In a sense, they mimic the fragmentation of modern life, escaping any attempt of categorization into a given and circumscribed genre.

Ultimately, capitalism not only accompanies but also triggers the loss of boundaries that both Janin and Balzac observe; the circulation of "l'argent et l'or" is in their view more of a menace to national identity rather than the initiating cause of a national ideal, as contemporary historians and sociologists have persuasively argued--I am thinking in particular of Anderson's Imagined Communities, which claims that Nationalism is a product of modernity and ultimately results from the rise of Capitalism (39-48). As both Balzac and Janin cling to the notion of social type, they simultaneously describe the incessant turmoil caused by the successive "revolution[s] dans les moeurs," a turmoil that ultimately results from the increasing circulation of capital. The taxonomies that they create and rely upon build a system of orientation in contemporary society--the project "maps" French society by giving a layout of its social types and circles--while at the same time destroying the possibility of such a system, and ultimately of orientation itself.

Department of French and Francophone Studies

Bryn Mawr College


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Prendergast, Christopher. Paris and the Nineteenth Century. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992.

Sommerset, Richard. "Transformism, Evolution, and Romanticism." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 29. 1-2 (Fall-Winter 2000): 1-20.

--. "The Naturalist in Balzac: The Relative Influence of Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire." French Forum 27. 1 (Winter 2002): 81-111.


(1.) Much has been written about nineteenth-century French naturalists, the 1830 querelle des analogues between Cuvier and Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire often occupying the foreground of discussions on the topic (Appel). Frequently at stake in these historical enquiries is the relationship between the French naturalists' theories and Darwin's subsequent evolutionary thought. Both Geoffroy and his predecessor Lamarck have traditionally been placed in the proto-evolutionist camp, Geoffroy because he was convinced of an "unite de plan de composition" shared by all species, and Lamarck because of his theory of Transformisme, which argued for an inherent tendency of living things to become gradually more complex. In Lamarck's own words, "Qui est-ce qui ne voit pas [...] les resuhats tres-marques de la tendance du mouvement organique, a developper et composer l'organlsation [...]?" (Lamarck 48-9). In that perspective, Cuvier has often been cast as the conservative fixiste resisting the idea of change and of the transmutation of species, a view that several critics have recently showed to be quite partial.

(2.) Dorinda Outram's work on the subject exposes the prejudices that Cuvier has suffered from many historical enquiries on the debate. In 2000, Richard Sommerset summarized the problem in an article entitled "Transformism, Evolution, and Romanticism" that goes back to William Coleman's 1969 book on Cuvier, where the naturalist was described as "unable to support [...] the basic idea of change" (Coleman 174). Sommerset shows that many Historians have indeed abusively cast Lamarck and Geoffroy as proto-evolutionists and Cuvier as a conservative "fixist"; such a dichotomized approach, Sommerset argues, overlooks important facts about Cuvier's theory. For although Lamarck did argue for a "tendency to complexification" of "le vivant," this tendency was restricted to "species-level discontinuity on the Chain of Being" and "contingent historical processes therefore ha[d] no influence on the overall shape of le vivant" (Sommerset 6). In contrast, Sommerset follows Foucault in showing that Cuvier's division of species into four irreducible and stable branches in fact breaks the old model of the Great Chain of Being as an overalL structure framing any individual species transformation. The querelle des analogues that was prompted by Geoffroy's theory of a single plan de composition is similarly too often analyzed as a confrontation between Cuvier's fixism and Geoffroy's evolutionism, since the latter's argument in fact keeps the Chain of Being model, an idea "itself based on an essential continuity throughout the animal kingdom" (Sommerset, 8). In other words, both Lamarck and Geoffroy's theories differ extensively from evolutionism, since they restricted drastically the role of historical contingency, placing it as they did within the limits of the Great Chain of Being model.

(3.) Cuvier reached this conclusion after analyzing the bones of the famous Ohio fossils. It is known today that the fossils in question were in fact mammoths' bones, but when Cuvier discussed them they were believed to be those of elephants. Cuvier was the first scientist to conclude that this was not the case, and that the bones belonged to another species that was now extinct. In the text, he talks about an "espece eteinte," or "perdue."

(4.) This is not to say, of course, that Lamarck's Transformisme and Geoffroy's "unite du plan de composition" were not highly influential on the contemporary depictions of French society at the time, including in Les Francais peints par eux-memes. Balzac in particular was very interested in Geoffroy's theory, as the Avant-propos of La Comedie humaine amply proves; his "Monographie du rentier" in Les Francais peints par eux-memes even mentions Geoffroy explicitly. But since Cuvier's catastrophism developed the ideas of natural revolutions foLlowed by species' extinctions, his theory is more relevant to this present study of the early nineteenth-century social anxieties that related to political turmoil and upheavals.

(5.) Of course Cuvier's catastrophism is part of his argument against the transmutation of species; extinction explained change without involving biological evolution, focusing solely as it did on environmental "revolutions."

(6.) Christopher Prendergast remarks that the same can be said about Haussmann's Paris and more generally about nineteenth-century panoptic approaches to public spaces and policies. He argues that we are accustomed to understand this era's classifications and regimentations of spaces and social types as "a story of imposed surveillance and mastery," while these processes also "presided over [the] opposite," that is to say an "increasing illegibility [...] in which 'identity,' psychic and social, would come to be perceived as uncertain and problematical" (10). The same dynamic presides over the panoramic project of Les Francais peints par eux-memes: its classifications are at the root of its taxonomic instability.

(7.) Janin sums up the Ancien Regime social sphere as a "monde a part, courbe sous le regard du Prince" (vii), and whose hierarchical order was (perhaps reassuringly) dependent on this gaze. As this dependence has disappeared, the mapping of social customs and types becomes impossible: "Plus la societe francaise s'est trouvee divisee et plus l'etude des moeurs est devenue difficile. Ce grand royaume a ete tranche en autant de petites republiques" (ix). The shared authorship is thus a formal response to the fragmentation of the referent that it describes.

(8.) What constitutes a "type" in Les Francais peints par eux-memes is far from being evident. Most of the characters are named after their professions: "le garcon de cafe," "l'usurier," "la loueuse de chaise." But some are designated through their leisure and pastimes: "le viveur," "le pecheur des bords de Seine," "le joueur de boules." There are also types that correspond to more indistinct categories such as "l'ame meconnue," "l'ami des artistes,""la mere d'actrice."

(9.) The subtitle "Encyclopedie morale" clearly stands in relation and in opposition to the reference in the genre, Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopedie, which was written and organized by specialists (the title even specified "par une societe de gens de lettres").

(10.) This happens primarily in each volume's title page, and in the tables of content.

(11.) Richard Sommerset's 2002 article in French Forum summarizes the successive positions of different generations of critics on the subject, going from Helene d'Also's 1934 paper, in which she dismissed Balzac's early praises of Cuvier in La Comedie humaine, to later and more moderate accounts that sought to include both Cuvier and Geoffroy as strong influences over Balzac's texts. Foucault's 1966 Les Mots et les choses, by challenging the traditional view of Cuvier as a fixist, changed the terms of the debate on Balzac's sources of inspiration as well. Cuvier's impact on the novelist then became the center of more critical attention than Geoffroy's. Sommerset himself remarks that "this sort of consideration can tell us about his [Balzac's] writerly ways of adapting various scientific methodologies to give his created world a scientific air, but it cannot tell us anything about his way of constructing the world of organic, or social beings" (107). Likewise, ,ny focus here is not to pick one naturalist over the other as a privileged influence on Balzac's contributions to Les Francais peints par eux-memes, but rather to look at the ways in which the texts subvert ironically the same taxonomies that they seek to build by making use of contemporary scientific models.

(12.) In "L'epicier," which opens the volumes of Francais peints par eux-memes, the same dynamic is at work. The text ends on these words: "Il rentra dans sa boutique comme le pigeon de La Fontaine dans son nid, en disant son grand proverbe: je suis comme le lierre, je meurs off je m'attache!" (7).

(13.) The scientists in the next vignette (see fig. 6) seem to belong to the present, since they use fashionable techniques of the time: phrenologists, chemists, and physicians are represented looking for any kind of activity in the brain of the "rentier," and by their puzzled looks it seems that they are finding none. Curiously, while the brains and heads of "rentiers" are here represented in a scale consistent with the size of the scientists, the savant in the background is holding a sort of preserve with a whole "rentier" conserved in it, giving the social figure a more classic status of object of study.
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Title Annotation:Honore de Balzac and Jules Janin
Author:De Tholozany, Pauline
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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