Monday, January 16, 2017

Free Will And Zola's Therese Raquin


I recently finished reading Zola's Therese Raquin, which was, among other things, a lurid, repetitive slog, but interesting and compelling too, so I kept at it.

There's a lot that can be said about it, but I'll just comment on one thing--Zola's delusion, sent forth in his Preface, which is, really, an Afterwords, written in response to criticism that his book is pornographic, that he's in effect conducting a scientific study of conflicting temperaments set in explosive situations. And his after-the-fact prefatory thesis is that morality is irrelevant to his project, that, in fact, it's outside it since his characters have no free will, their courses of action predetermined by the confluence of heredity and environment operating in the circumstances. 

This view is similar to Sam Harris's argument against free will in his The Illusion Of Free Will. Our actions are simply a series of links in a causal chain of events over which we never had or have any say. In fact, they occur in a zone and by factors that have zero to do with our say. And, so, as given by Harris's title, our certain sense that we are making willed choices is but an illusion, a false belief. Zola in his Preface says as much is his own terms. 

For example, and broad brushing the story with the broadest of  brushes, Therese by virtue of the her African/Algerian's mother's blood flowing through her is innately passionate and fiery but has repressed that due to the formative and stifling influence of Madame Raquin. Therese is repressed to the point of inhumanly squelched passivity. 

All that repression finds inescapable release when she meets Laurent, who Camille just happens to bump into and bring home. 

Laurent, drawn to her in virtue of his felt apprehension of her attraction to him, must have her as she must have him. And so, as they must, they have each other in a burning, insatiable, sexually compulsive affair until practical obstructions prevent their meeting. Their ardor burns in the denial of their flesh until they must murder Camille to put all obstruction aside. And they do. 

By their natures, however, their murder staunches their lust, the drive of which ineluctably becomes perverted in their mounting abuse of each other. That perversion takes a variety of turns, including sadomasochism in Laurent's constant beating of Therese at her purposeful goading him, and including an attempted escape into sheer degeneracy by each of them. Zola presents each perverse turn as inevitably flowing from the previous one until, as it must be, Therese and Laurent, unbeknownst to each other, independently decide to kill the other.   

Zola in his Preface says no moral judgment ought bear on their actions, that he lost himself in meticulously examining and dissecting them the way a doctor might lose any sense of the outside world in examining and dissecting a corpse. They are "human animals" whose animal natures he was intent on minutely disclosing through the means of his heavily and precisely detailed story. They have no souls, he says; they have no guilt. Guilt is an irrelevant category. Zola wants his novel to be, we might say, a simulated empiricist exercise in scientific determinism, what then came to be called naturalism in fiction.

But, I'd argue, Therese Raquin is incoherent in these terms. It's impossible to strip guilt out of the novel and have it make any sense. There's no other material way to account for the (over the top, repeated and repeated to a numbing fault) real and symbolic suffering, despair, occasional loss of sanity, pervading hallucinatory visions of Camille, mutual ongoing recrimination, mutually inflicted torture, terror, descent into degeneracy, sadomasochism, obsession and compulsion, nor account for the permanence of Camille's burning scar on Laurent's neck, nor for the imagery of burning and fevered flesh, nor of cages, vaults and imprisonment, let alone all the other ways Zola depicts Therese's and Laurent's suffering and infliction of such horrid suffering on each other.  

We need ask: why all this human suffering and horror if no guilt, if the characters' actions merely are the reflexive results of their natures and their environments in any contingent situation, as Zola has it in his Preface? 

My answer is that Zola is wrong, just as Sam Harris is wrong. 

Our "illusion" of free will is not a false belief. It is a shared order of subjective reality every bit as real as  material cause and effect. We live significantly with we make out of free will. We cannot hold a coherent conception of ourselves without it. We build ordered societies out of it. We erect vast and towering intellectual structures out of it. We feel it in ourselves so deeply as to lie to ourselves in denying its reality, so deeply as to escape into unsustainable, attenuated, inhuman  abstraction in denying its reality. And so, similarly, Therese Raquin read without having read Zola's afterwards Preface undoubtedly leads to our understanding of lacerating guilt for crime as a predominant theme in it.

After all, finally, and always, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

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