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‘Do you know Brunetière?’


Science and Fiction

Brunetière, 1895. CONNAISSEZ-VOUS BRUNETIÈRE? — “Do you know Brunetière?” — asked literary historian Antoine Compagnon some twenty years ago.1 Needless to say, the question was rhetorical. Ferdinand Brunetière (1849-1906), who contributed to the influential Revue des Deux Mondes starting in the mid-1870s — and later assumed the journal’s directorship — became an “immortal” in 1893. This title, which decorates members of the Académie française, has an anachronistic ring. Consecration also suggests detachment from the world. As such, it is perfectly suited to Brunetière. His writings exemplify the cultural and intellectual conflicts that defined the fin-de-siècle although — and because — they stood at odds with general opinion. Even if they have largely fallen into oblivion, their provocative potential remains as strong as ever. The Third Republic incubated twentieth-century Europe: accelerating industrialization, democracy, mass movements, colonialist projects, nationalism, anti-Semitism, secularism, and more still. Now, at the outset of a new millennium, perhaps Brunetière’s day has come again. At any rate, the world’s problems have persisted: their “immortality” leaves no room for doubt whatsoever.

brunet-slug150BRUNETIÈRE MADE A name for himself as a critic with classical sensibilities, especially by taking issue with the fashionably scandalous naturalism of the times. This school, Brunetière argued, lost itself in a tedious — and uninspiring — attention to matters too coarse to yield anything of refinement, beauty, or insight. Overexcited nervous tissue admits thorough and methodical investigation, but if novels and plays amount to case studies of morbid and pathological states, then the “doctors” who write them have done nothing of value. Brunetière was doctrinaire, but he was doctrinaire along idiosyncratic lines. Although he opposed Émile Zola’s efforts to turn science into art, he also tried his hand at a theory of the evolution of literary genres inspired by Darwinian theory. In the notorious Dreyfus Affair, he held that the accused was guilty; at the same time, he shunned the conspiratorial and bigoted vociferations popular among the luckless officer’s opponents. Almost entirely self-taught, Brunetière commanded respect and inspired revulsion in equal measure in the republic of letters; in keeping with the vagaries of the political climate during the tempestuous Belle Époque, he basked in glory and was showered with opprobrium.2

Science and Religion, which appeared five years before Brunetière converted to Catholicism in 1900, surprised many of his contemporaries. His admiration for the eloquent seventeenth-century theologian Bossuet notwithstanding, Brunetière had counted as a rationalist until this point. If prone to asceticism and pedantry, he ultimately enjoyed the reputation of a freethinker. Indeed, the arguments advanced in the essay at hand — which was written after a visit to the pope in 1894 — do not conform to dogma, even though they advocate the Church’s authority: Brunetière, it seems, arrived at his conclusions by thinking matters through as soberly as possible. There is not the slightest hint of spirituality in the pages to follow. While conducting a vigorous polemic against faith in secular improvement, Science and Religion strikes a balance between age-old moral commandments and the practical demands of modernity. For Brunetière, “science” and “religion” need not count as opposites. To employ a philosophical idiom that is not the author’s own, they admit dialectical resolution.

1. Then…

BY ANY HUMAN measure, science is as old as the stars. One of the earliest learned pursuits, if not the first, was the study of heavenly bodies. The ancient practice has only gained in popularity in the modern world: after millennia of astrology, the Soviet Union launched an unsuspecting dog into orbit, and, about a decade later, the United States put a man on the moon. But even if humans colonized another planet, one thing would not change: no one would really know “what it all means.” Many would rave about the significance of the accomplishment, but their kind already does so about occurrences on earth. Space may be the final frontier, but it is also the first: a boundless expanse that resists the schemes of human intelligence.

Every word that he wrote still holds today: mortal minds can only conceive…the infinite negatively.

Brunetière lived and died before the “space race” invested the heavens with the hopes and dreams of nations and ideologies bent on conquering the world below by way of the firmament above. Every word that he wrote still holds today: mortal minds can only conceive (in fact, the term is a misnomer) the infinite negatively. The receding horizon of the macrocosm mirrors the vanishing point of the microcosm. As human existence moves in a foreign, material element on the earth, so it must where there is no air to breathe at all. By definition, we, as mortal beings, inhabit what Saint Augustine called the “region of unlikeness.” Eternal identities — Platonic forms — can appear only to God.

Brunetière’s quarrel is with “contemporary positivism,” which fails to recognize what a later idiom would call the structural limitations of human knowledge. “Fact” does not mean “truth,” for one. What is more, the sciences, which mark out fields of endeavor with fewer points of contact than the uninitiated might think, “are incapable — I wouldn’t say of resolving, so much as posing, in fitting manner, the sole questions of import: those concerning the origin of man, the law of his conduct, and his future destiny. The unknowable surrounds us, envelops us, and holds us in its grasp.” The element of human life is obscurity; any light we project comes from one point and extends to another. Even a thousand rays are just line segments on a plane; a further dimension is missing. The fires of human ingenuity may describe figures, like the constellations in the sky, and these figures may suggest meaning, but even a “solar myth” is just that — a myth. First and final causes lie beyond our ken.

The “destiny” to which Brunetière appeals would mean a big picture comprised of isolated perspectives: those of individuals, learned societies, and, indeed, Society writ large. The author commends Leo XIII for seeking such a synthesis. The savants he takes to task do not have a sufficiently broad outlook, for they purchase knowledge by narrowing their focus: anatomists examine anatomy, chemists study chemistry, physicists study physics, etc. What Brunetière says in a related context applies here: such undertakings amount to so many “tautologies” — they map out terrain and fill in blanks, yet content has already been determined formally: the questions asked already presuppose answers of a certain nature. Reliant upon theories and models, the sciences exclude whatever proves incalculable — “mystery” and “grace” in a theological dimension, and “morality” in the realm of human action.

BrunetiereThe criticism Brunetière aims at those who bring “the analogies offered by natural history” to elucidate the life of communities extends to those who would apply such analogies to politics. Socialists, for example, advocate the “extension of state power” to regulate labor, commerce, and justice. This, too, represents a mode of abstraction — engineering that may offer benefits, to be sure, but does not include even a placeholder for spontaneity or surprise. The “science” of guaranteeing social equality yields a castle in the sky, at best, and “tyrannical” intervention in people’s lives, at worst. “[T]he ‘social contract’ is not an insurance contract” — and even if it were, the claims of human beings, ever at odds with each other, could not be processed in advance.

Reason — the vaunted faculty of the eighteenth century, which in turn became the instrument steering the advances of the nineteenth — breaks down wholes into parts. Brunetière acknowledges its analytical merits, but he warns against inferences that fashion new totalities out of the elements coming from disassembled material:

[I]f it’s true that science has sought to replace “religion” for the last hundred years, then science has lost the match — both for the time being and for the foreseeable future. Unable to provide even an initial response to the sole questions of interest, neither science in general nor the individual disciplines — physics, the study of nature, philology, or history — is entitled to what they have claimed for a century: to govern life in the present.

“Individual disciplines” are just that: individual. The unity they project, singly or in combination, is hypothetical. The sciences offer promissory notes, as it were, yet these highly specialized and technical documents do not have inherent, immediate, or universal value; only experts can appreciate their worth, but these same experts are often the first to contest the importance of their peers and forebears’ findings. The gold standard — Truth — does not circulate.

THE SAME HOLDS in matters of religion. “Protestantism surely has ‘reason’ on its side,” but it occupies a comparatively insecure position, for “religion is not philosophy” . As the very name suggests, Protestantism is adversarial and, at the same time, obsessed with its own justification. Forgoing the reassurances of the Church as it has evolved over millennia, “[t]he sinner grows confused, suffers injury, and, to speak with Luther’s words, is engulfed by conscience of his unworthiness, terror before his Judge, and fear of damnation” . In contrast, “‘logic’ speaks for Catholicism” : here, reflective discourse (logos) weighs and evaluates propositions in terms of an overarching set of rules that transcends the hustle and bustle of intellectual commerce and “preoccupation with faith that destroys hope”. Catholicism has deep roots, and its branches stretch high above individual men and women. If it seems to spread darkness at times, one should recall that shade can also provide rest that quickens body and mind.

Instead of “losing heretics forever,” Catholicism, with its scholastic debates — and even its inquisitions — seeks to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff and incorporate only practices and views that have withstood sustained scrutiny. The progressive cleansing of souls in the afterlife has a correlate in the purification of thought on earth. Likewise, the syncretic aspects of the Church — which opponents fault for its legions of saints and innumerable relics — attests to an attitude of “reconciliation” that would find a place for all and sundry in the “many… mansions” of the Lord’s house. The rock this house is built on is revelation, the age-old foundation of the Bible. “Whatever it may be, something in the history of the ‘people of God’ is not found in the history of any other people.” Accordingly, this history — in which Jews and Gentiles alike acknowledge a higher order and calling — must stand at both the beginning and at the end of all reflection on individual and communal life. Brunetière suggests that those who hope for a technical, man-made solution to the world’s problems are idolators before a golden calf.

2. …and Now

INASMUCH AS BRUNETIÈRE appeals to timeless principles instead of mutable facts, what he wrote over a hundred years ago “applies” (in the jargon of our times) even now. Some of the “failures” he enumerates count as self-evident — to the extent that they receive any attention at all. Philology, for example, epitomizes academic vainglory, and therefore obsolescence. The “hard sciences” continue to receive honors, yet largely to the extent that their discoveries lend themselves to practical use. Observation of the Higgs Boson has failed to move worlds. And when an evolutionary biologist like Richard Dawkins claims to debunk the “God delusion,” his non-argument hardly warrants discussion. However illusory “God” may be, the Deity is a social, anthropological, and historical given; dogmatic denial is bad science, if not mortal sin.

The signs of scientific bankruptcy are clearer than ever [but] the evidence remains hidden because the portents are only growing in number and frequency.

Indeed, the signs of scientific bankruptcy are clearer than ever. Ironically, the evidence remains hidden because the portents are only growing in number and frequency. In contrast to the nineteenth century, when positivism promised further findings that would yield a coherent totality one day, overflowing data is now crowding out the little that remains of the “spirit” of our age. The universe, we are told, is expanding; this is the otherworldly correlate of mounting inflation and “obesity,” as Jean Baudrillard would say.3, 2008), 23, which describes “monstrous conformity to empty space… deformity by excess of conformity….This strange obesity is no longer that of a protective layer of fat nor the neurotic one of depression. It is neither the compensatory obesity of the underdeveloped nor the alimentary one of the overnourished. Paradoxically, it is a mode of disappearance for the body. The secret rule that delimits the sphere of the body has disappeared. The secret form of the mirror, by which the body watches over itself and its image, is abolished, yielding to the unrestrained redundancy of a living organism. No more limits, no more transcendence: it is as if the body was no longer opposed to an external world, but sought to digest space in its own appearance.”] “Black holes” or “dark matter” somewhere beyond the planet’s atmosphere hardly suggest relief from all the gas, whether it’s methane or cloud technology, that clogs the air below. Meanwhile — and with an intensity that all but destroys one’s ability to pause and appreciate the scale of the phenomenon — a host of hypermediated, automatic connections has descended upon the globe. Swollenness and bloating, both literal and figural, are omnipresent.

Positivism may be dated, but positivity is not.4 The matter is hardly as gladsome as it may sound: the signals, impulses, and images that bombard a guileless yet complicit humanity have a deracinating effect far more profound than the innovations that, in Max Weber’s phrase, “disenchanted” the world when modernity was young. Computerized, automated technology works factitious magic to prevent the relevant questions from even being posed; it is hard to concentrate for long enough even to think. Advertising pops up everywhere in the perpetually distended internet, offering countless products and services claiming to fix any problem at all — whether physical, psychic, or economic. One can check police records, credit history, family genealogy, or current events just like that, yet none of this information provides an anchor for being. Social media enable one to make more “friends” in the course of an afternoon than people used to have over a whole lifetime. Helpful suggestions based on browsing history lure online shoppers deeper and deeper down a wormhole of mutually reinforcing narcissism and consumerism. Notoriously, chat rooms and digital forums act as echo chambers for buttressing views already held. Facebook offers no alternative to “liking” a post besides scrolling on to the next one to see if it suits the fancy of the modern-day scriba indoctus better.5

Thanks to the feedback loop of a wired existence, human beings feed data to machines that are becoming smarter and smarter. Whether people are becoming dumber or not, they are certainly in thrall of something that would have qualified as wholly alien — practically extraterrestrial — mere decades ago. In the age of “Google,” carbon-based organisms spend a good part of waking life amidst disembodied, viral doubles. Thanks to television and Hollywood, the host proliferates every day, like a biblical plague. “Virtual reality” proves harder and harder to escape — as does its “really real” effects. Even people in the so-called developing world, without all the lures and blandishments of Silicon Valley, are prey to globalized market forces coordinated by these same imposturous instruments; their invasive power far exceeds the potential of yesteryear’s colonialist administrations, which still relied on paperwork and postage stamps to function.

A vanishingly small number of elites may enjoy — and even take Calvinist pride in — the rewards offered by such a flexible system of enterprise. Many more, incapable of picturing anything else, may disport themselves in a fool’s paradise of pornography and punditry. Yet a teeming mass of humanity comes away empty-handed from towering modern-day pyramids and graven images. It is regrettable, but not wholly inexplicable, when entrepreneurs of another stripe — terrorists — conjure up the power of the Deity in the form that first made mankind aware of something immeasurably greater than itself: destruction so senseless it can only come from the Author of the World, with the power to make and unmake life. The denial of any and all kinds of salutary negativity in doses — rest, idleness, and unproductivity — engenders nihilism.

When Brunetière wrote [in 1895] that ‘battle looms,’ he was not exaggerating. Two World Wars, if nothing else, should have proven as much…

When Brunetière wrote that “battle looms,” he was not exaggerating. Two World Wars, if nothing else, should have proven as much; the struggles for national liberation that emerged when European empires collapsed have dotted the globe with expanding theaters of conflict. The economic and cultural imperialism of gung-ho American capitalism has begotten a market that can operate perfectly well without its creator. Fundamentalism has only flourished in response to “progress” (including, not too long ago, the “scientific socialism” espoused by the Soviet Union). Such starry-eyed atavism — along with doomed efforts to combat it — guarantees more and more altars of human sacrifice. Meanwhile, “interactive” software induces passivity far more deadening than the “opiate of the masses” derided by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century secularists.

The fictions of contemporary science are at least as dull as any of the novels Brunetière faulted for lack of vision. Logic speaks for the Church, if only because the alternative is schizophrenia: catatonic stupor or hyperactivity. With so many demiurges generating pixelated fireworks for entertainment and — supposedly — instruction, the wise would do well to look beyond their computer screens. Almost all the lights one sees in the sky may have burned out long ago, but their soft glow, even if it means nothing at all, has already lasted an eternity in comparison to the glare engulfing our planet. Religion is like gravity: without it, everything flies off — and often sooner than later — into the void.

Erik Butler has translated numerous works from modern European languages, including Léon Bloy’s Diasagreeable Tales and Oskar Panizza’s The Pig in Poetic, Mythological, and Moral-Historical Perspective. He is also the author of The Bellum Grammatical and the Rise of European Literature, Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film, The Rise of the Vampire — and the translator of Brunetière’s Science and Religion, published by The Fortnightly Review in our series of Odd Volumes. This essay forms the translator’s introduction to that work.

See also: Irving Babbit on Brunetière (Atlantic, April 1907).


  1. Antoine Compagnon, Connaissez-vous Brunetière: Enquête sur un antidreyfusard et ses amis (Paris: Seuil, 1997).
  2. For a lively account of the author’s life and (mis)fortunes, see Elton Hocking, Ferdinand Brunetière: The Evolution of a Critic (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1936).
  3.  E.g., Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Phil Beitchman (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e
  4. Cf. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 1-8.
  5. Evidently, a “dislike” feature is in the course of development; significantly, however, it will not express disapproval so much as commiseration: “disliking” news of a breakup or death, for instance.
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