Bernard and Zola….

No, they probably never met, but…..

….from quite an early age, Bernard had worshipped romantisme – in art as in literature. Indeed writing was young Claude’s over-riding passion, although one that was sadly not endorsed by his parents as worthy of a career. Only much later in life, did he achieve recognition for his (scientific) writing, through his election to fauteuil 29 of the Académie Française.

Meanwhile, art and literature had moved from romantisme, through réalisme and into the naturaliste movement promoted enthusiastically by Emile Zola.  In the 1870’s, a third-year medical student, Henry Céard made the decision to give up his medical course and instead pursue his passion for literature and literary criticism with Emile Zola in the fertile Groupe de Médan.

Soon after Bernard’s death in 1878, Céard (who would almost certainly have attended some of Bernard’s lectures) presented his master, Zola with a copy of  the ‘Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine’. Here Bernard had expressed inter alia his insistence that if the elements/conditions of an experiment were truly constant, then the results should also be the same, however many times the experiment was repeated (scientists had for centuries invoked vitalisme as the supernatural force which explained inconsistent experimental results). Bernard also emphasized the difference between a simple observation (which had limited scientific value) and a true experiment (induced observation).

Emile Zola, always interested in the progress of science, took these notions to his literary heart. He insisted that Bernard’s principles could be directly applied to the observation and understanding of human behaviour, and to the experimental manipulation of characters and their situations in naturaliste literature.

In heaven, Bernard would surely have blushed with pride at this further accolade from one of France’s most prestigious writers.  If you want to know more, then do read Zola’s Le roman expérimentale (available through Amazon in English translation as ‘the Experimental Novel’). Zola’s interpretation and use of Bernard’s principles have been widely challenged, but his ideas make for fascinating reading!


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