Pearson on Deleuze and Weismann


Interesting conversation concerning Emile Zola, Weismann, entropy/negentropy, and the theme of the ‘crack’ in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, from Keith Ansell Pearson’s Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze:

In the crucial chapter of the novel Doctor Pascal (the final book in a cycle of twenty) entitled ‘The Genealogical Tree’ Zola has the doctor lay out before himself and the young woman Clotilde the entire genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquart family in order to present her with a ‘terrible lesson in life’. But this tree stretches beyond and over this particular family, encompassing the strata of races and civilizations from the dawn of time to the present and branching out endlessly into unknown futures. This is the ‘whole monstrous florescence of the human tree’. Moreover, this genealogy is presented in the terms of a highly complex, erratic, and unpredictable monstrous descent, a descent subject, to deploy Deleuze’s later terms, to perpetual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Zola is imaginative in depicting the unfolding of this tree in terms of a complicated entanglement of sickness and health, of death and renewal, a vitality of life that is caught up in destruction, decay, and degeneration. For example, Pascal asks: once the floodgates have been opened by the overflowing river of life (creative evolution as monstrous) and as detected by the emergent science of heredity (as the science of difference and repetition), then is it possible to say that among the weeds and flowers on the bank, there also mingles and floats by—gold? This is, says Pascal, a world ‘beyond good and evil’. The chapter concludes by asking whether it is necessary to burn the tree of genealogy or whether this can be a matter of the future in its affair. 

In the novel Zola presents Dr. Pascal’s work on the new science of heredity moving through Darwin’s confused theory of pangenesis, the peri-genesis of Ernst Haeckel (whose works were avidly read by Nietzsche), the eugenics of Galton (also read by Nietzsche), finally arriving at the intuition of Weismann’s major thesis on the continuity of the germ-plasm in which a portion of this ‘delicate’ and ‘complex’ substance is held in reserve and passed on without variation or mutation from generation to generation. Pascal, however, does not stop there, which is what makes his case especially interesting. He propounds his own theory, which he calls the ‘failure of cells theory’, which consists in granting a high degree of freedom and novelty to plasmic evolution. It is not atavism that Pascal privileges but ‘perpetual change’, the change that denotes an ‘increasing transformation, due to the transmitted strength and effort, that perturbation which imbues matter with life, and which is, indeed, life itself in an abstract sense’. In short, there is no plasmic finality and it is at this point that Zola is able to resist the biological nihilism of Weismann’s continuity thesis. It is in terms of such a nihilism that Wesimann is appropriated in Hardy’s tragic fiction where the anomalous and the aberrant (the ‘unfit’) are not allowed to survive but must face extermination (Tess, Jude, etc.). This biological nihilism amounts, in short, to repetition without difference, to the eternal return of the same, since the germ-plasm is posited as evolving completely independently of perturbations (Deleuze’s ‘crack’) and free of the endogenous powers of the organism itself which may exert an influence on  the character of evolution. 

In Deleuze’s reading of Zola, Weismann’s distinction between the two plasms, soma and germ, operates as a distinction between a love or a body that dies and a movement that creatively ‘evolves’ through germinal intensity. This is a movement from the organized body of the organism to the ‘body without organs’ which involves the release of singularities and intensities from entropic containment. But the two exist in implication and complication; this is life and death lived and died from ‘within the folds’ or ‘on the train’ as in Zola’s La Bete Humaine (published 1890 as the seventeenth of the twenty novels that make up the Rougon-Macquart cycle), where the machines function as the pure death instinct: ‘The instincts or temperaments no longer occupy the essential position. They swarm about and within the train, but the train itself is the epic representation of the death instinct’. In the novel the train is undoubtedly depicted in terms of the demonic power of the death drive:

the train was passing, in all of its stormy violence, as if it might sweep away everything that lay in its path… It was like some huge body, a giant creature laid out on the ground… past it went, mechanical, triumphant, hurtling towards the future with mathematical rigor, determinedly oblivious to the rest of human life on either side, life unseen and yet perennial, with its eternal passions and its eternal crimes.

Unlike the murder of the husband in Therese Raquin, committed by Therese and Laurent simply because he stands in their way and is inconvenient, Zola’s aim in La Bete Humaine was to link murder with an ancient hereditary impulse buried in the sedimented layers of civilization, to show the ‘caveman’ dwelling deep within the civilized man of modernity, as he put it in a letter to a Dutch journalist. In the novel the hereditary ‘crack’ is not simply a matter of ill-health, but is said to be involved in those ‘sudden loses of control’ that lie deep within our being like ‘fractures, holes’ through which the self seeks escape, losing itself ‘in the midst of a kind of thick haze that bent everything out of shape’. At such moments as these, where the self is no longer the master of its own body but the obedient servant of its muscles and the ‘rabid beast within’ it is cast into paying back an ancient debt: 

paying for the others, for the fathers and grandfathers who had drunk, for the generations of drunkards, of whose blood he was the corrupt issue… paying the price for gradual poisoning, of a relapse into the primitive savagery that was dragging him back into the forest.

To the extent that Zola’s novel, with its stress on a hereditary regression and atavistic instincts, anticipates both Freud’s conception of death and his positioning of the death drive is indeed remarkable. On Deleuze’s reading, however, the complicated investment of the erotic instincts in destructive ones—Zola’s novel was read in the precise terms of this complication on its publication—expresses not simply the noise of primal instincts caught up in an involution but rather the silent echoes of a repetition that drives us ever forward and upward. This is why for him the key actor or agent is the train itself (a field of action, a body without organs distributing intensities and producing transformations). The train is a creation of modern civilization, but is also the crack which derails it, making sure that it is the ‘great health’ which lives on in humanity (the dissolutions of the novel, it should be noted, take place against the backdrop of the dying days of the Second Empire). Michael Serres is incisive in detecting in Zola’s epic series of novels with its cycles of destruction, waste, dispersion, irreversible ebbing towards death, disorder, and degeneration, revolving around in La Bete Humaine a veritable thermodynamics of the train, an ‘epic of entropy’. Such an insight, however, discloses on Deleuze’s reading only half the story. Deleuze’s conception of the germinal life aims to demonstrate that entropy is never the final word. Thermodynamics needs to be linked up with good sense since they share the same characteristics: the single direction from the most to least differentiated, from the singular to the regular, so orientating ‘the arrow time from the past to the future, according to this determination’.

In his reading of the literature, therefore, Deleuze is proposing a vital reworking of heredity, in which it is shown that it is not heredity that passes through the crack, which would fix desire to a morbid ancestry, but that heredity is the crack itself. Hence the claim: ‘In its truest sense, the crack is not a crossing for a morbid heredity; it is alone the hereditary and the morbid in its entirety. For Deleuze everything depends on grasping the significance of this paradox, confusing this heredity for its vehicle, that is, the ‘confusion of what is transmitted with its transmission’ (the transmission which transmits only itself). This is what he means when he declares the ‘germen’ to be the crack and nothing but the crack.



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