Naturalism through Emile Zola’s eyes

Among all the ‘isms’, Naturalism was one such wave that swept through the philosophical, cultural, literary universe of the late nineteenth century, Emile Zola being the principle vocal advocate of it. Naturalism, of which Zola is considered the father, stems from a pragmatist concern with the primacy of scientific interest over supernaturalism. With the heyday of realism and the emergence of early genres of modernism at the end of the century, naturalism thrived to commence as highly controversial. In contemporary philosophy, the term ‘naturalism’ does not hold an unambiguous stance. Every field of reality should be investigated by scientific endeavours, proposes naturalism. Reality is saturated by nature, and is devoid of any supernatural facet.

The last two centuries are witnesses to many surprising turn of events in philosophy. The increment in the growth of pragmatism and realism has been a devilish alteration of the philosophical understandings of all the strands of life. To much understanding, naturalism is a harsher and an exaggerated adaptation of realism. It is asserted by the adherents of naturalism, that the universe is governed by natural laws. Naturalism in itself covers a broad spectrum. An attempt for any adjudication of understanding the term ‘naturalism’, goes in vain. It is interpreted differently by different philosophers and the disagreement of the term’s usage is considered from an affirmative perspective. There are philosophers who have slight inclination towards naturalism while a school of philosophers uphold stronger naturalist commitments. A staunch indoctrinated formulation of naturalism is referred to as metaphysical naturalism, while a less radical stance of measuring naturalism by considering the methods of investigating reality without pivoting on the question as to whether naturalism is true in the robust metaphysical sense, is called methodological naturalism. The ontological component of naturalism makes the concern of reality being nullified of myths and mystics, its cornerstone.

For the naturalists, the paradigm of nature is the only existing reality. It maintains that nature consists of spatio-temporal physical substance and the no-physical or quasi-physical substances can either supervene upon or reduce to physical account. Naturalism asserts that through systematic observation and experimentation, reality can be ascertained. The significance of the naturalistic commitments does not restrict itself only to philosophy, rather the hinging on naturalist ontological precepts and naturalist methodological principles of psychology, social science, science, and literature, is quite prominent.

Emile Zola, the cardinal figure of French naturalism, endeavoured to incorporate naturalism in literature. A prolific writer, essayist, novelist and critic of erudite stature, Zola, in his essay ‘The Experimental Novel’ attempted to justify the implementation of scientific and experimental methods into the novelistic practice. The foundation of Zola’s arguments in ‘The Experimental Novel’ is Claude Bernard’s essay ‘Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Experimental’. What Bernard ventured was that the study of inanimate bodies in physics and chemistry has a scientific and naturalistic pivot, which should be embodied in the physiological and medicinal facets. Essentially, Zola esteemed Bernard’s theory as a symptom of an intellectual burgeoning. Zola elongated the naturalism of Bernard’s thesis to the realm of literature, thereby promoting the fictitious novel into an advancement of scientific rationale. The hecatomb of prose style and depth of characterisation for an exhaustive illustration of the observable, extraneous world, is a possible depiction of naturalism in literature. Literary critics often outline certain idiosyncrasies for inferring a piece of literature to be naturalistic. Zola’s resolution is to keep naturalism, the pedestal of a novel and to burst the little bubble of illusive idealism. The ideal novel saturated with supernaturalism, myths and mystics, when revolutionised into a naturalistic novel, encompasses a deterministic plot of decline or degeneration and the attenuation of the ideal and romanticised heroic characters into a flawed web of merits and imperfections. As Phillippe Hamon said, “ aesthetic of normative neutralization”. The squalid and lurid aspects of the novel are given weighty heed: the human behaviour and experience are instinctual and the characters are distracted by perverted drives. Zola’s objective was to present life with a crucial extent of verisimilitude consolidated with the sordidness of nature and life.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge would be farcical, if nature does not possess objectivity, regularity and unity. Naturalism propounds that nature is absolutely comprehensible. Naturalism repudiates the reality beyond nature; there is nothing beyond, nothing ‘other than’, no ‘other world’ of being.

Emile Zola

What are the causes of Naturalism?

Every system of philosophy ought to furnish accountability for its own emergence, it is suggested. So does naturalism. It is fascinating to an exorbitant degree to cogitate on the course of the vague dawn of naturalism to its conspicuous formulation. The conflict of naturalism and supernaturalism was never as stark as it is now. The ratio between naturalism and supernaturalism has taken many courses and many shapes.

It is quite beguiling to wonder that if man is himself a part of the world, then why is he supposed to adjust to it? He is devoid of any innate knowledge of the world and thus lacks any preformed adjustments. He familiarises himself with the ways of the world by experience and he does it both wrongly and rightly. Inevitably a man ingrains ideas about the reality of the world, life and death, the origin of the world or the sanctions of good and evil. And to introduce a new and different interpretation to his already moulded elucidation, is to incur a strife in his mind. History holds account of all the times when man was exposed to a reality he had not conformed to and how arduous it was for him to embrace it. The acceptance of naturalism has been a controversial phenomenon because it tried to efface the bubble of the sweet illusion of idealism, to undertake which man considers an ordeal.

The concept of naturalism and supernaturalism is always contextual of time in human history. The cognitive revolution of homo sapiens blessed men with the power of imagined reality. Man’s cognition devised him with the privilege of imagining something which is unreal, supernatural and mythical. The commencement of religions, the concept of paranormal beings, the mythical stories are nothing but the by-products of man’s imagined reality. These unrealistic aspects of our imagined reality have been at loggerheads with naturalism until the recent past, but have triumphed since the late eighteenth century, once the scientific advancement started making rapid progress.

If we look at naturalism, not as a school of philosophy but as an abstract entity, we can infer that naturalism is something which man understands or perceives to be natural about his life, irrespective of the fact if it is at all an objective reality. No wonder, until Galileo substantiated the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun, naturalism for the people would suggest that the sun revolves around the earth. Likewise, until Newton unearthed gravity, the then naturalistic view would incur the presence of a gargantuan magnet at the centre of the earth. By an effort we fall back on a dimmer, closely knit world of supernaturalism, unreal magic, and religious myths and eradicate from our minds the world of law and measurement assimilated by science. Inevitably, in the past naturalism and supernaturalism did have a subtle divergence of understanding. Naturalism was hesitating, vague and ambiguous, which over the course of history of human evolution, rose to a clear prominence and as an epitome of objective clarity.

It is wondrous to learn that the human civilisation has inculcated herculean advancements in the field of science and probably this scientific boom, is a major influence to the buoyant status of Naturalism. The more the civilisation progresses towards scientific endeavours, the more the idea of supernaturalism is refuted, making naturalism take the upper hand. New methods, increasing rationale, growing experimental temperament, the zeal to question and speculate things, have fulfilled the call of naturalism. Naturalism involves an insight into events, a strong suspicion of the systematic and quasi-mechanical linkages of all changes, an appreciation of the conditions and nature of human behaviour. Such an outlook is scarcely thinkable apart from science and truth.

As Emile Zola says, “ Truth is on the march, nothing will stop it.”

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.