How can the novel enable us to think in ways that other forms of knowledge production cannot and what does that allow us to understand about the world?
French novelist Émile Zola famously conceived of the novel as a laboratory: a space to experiment with characters, treated as human subjects, and discover truths about humanity and society. This course takes seriously the idea that the novel constitutes a kind of laboratory that enables us to apprehend things about humankind that cannot be understood save through the experience of reading fiction. The novel allows us to know what we cannot know, to experience what we haven’t experienced, and in so doing, sheds light on parts of ourselves that we might otherwise want to leave hidden and unexamined: the inhumanity that is just as much a part of our humanity as the humane. Where the social sciences and hard sciences produce empirical data, the novel produces experience and holds open a space of possibility between the world as it is and the world as it might be. By reading a broad range of novels from the past century, you will hone your critical analytical and interpretative skills as a reader and come away with a better understanding of the (in)humanity behind the mass production, mass consumption, mass war, and mass death that led to the twentieth century shattering what humanity had been and making us what we are today.
We will approach these questions through the lens of French literature because France has a particularly rich philosophical tradition and likes to put forward a narrative of itself as the inventor of some of the most important ideas that have shaped human history: from Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” to the Enlightenment’s foundational concepts of human rights, equality, and democracy as conceived of by thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Tocqueville, to Sartre and Camus’s elaborations of freedom and ethical responsibility. France has, alongside philosophy, always had a literary tradition that has also grappled with and worked through pressing existential and political questions, and this literature’s way of thinking and elaborating concepts is markedly different from philosophy’s way of doing so. By examining a specifically French corpus of texts, we will be better able to appreciate what is properly a literary form of thought in the larger context of a nation that grounds its sense of national identity in the ideas it has contributed to humanity.