cherchez the lobster: modernist analogy

To discover the source of the philosophy of analogy in the 19th century, cherchez le homard.

In 1822, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire published his General Considerations on Vertebrae in which he announced the law of analogies – that is, he announced that living beings could be considered to have analogous organs or organic plans when such organs or plans were connected according to the same order. To show this, he took the lobster as an example. When we consider the lobster’s body plan by imagining the beast horizontal to the ground, we get one sense of the order of those connections – but if we imagine them “swimming on their sides”, our dissection of the lobster shows that the order of its organs are analogous to those of vertebrates. This, in turn, shows that we have a false view of the how the lobster moves – if he moves in a way that seems, from our perspective, right side up, from the perspective of the ‘law of connections’ he is moving on his side. “What our law of connections demands absolutely is that all the organs, in the interior as well as the exterior of the animal, be in the same relations with regard to one another; but it is indifferent in itself that the cavity containing them lies on the ground by applying one or the other of its surfaces.”[translation in Hervé Le Guyader, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: a visionary naturalist]

Geoffry Saint-Hilaire’s law of connections – or law of analogues – entered into the mainstream of biology after being contested by Cuvier in a famous debate in 1830. On the one hand, within biology, his work was taken up by Robert Owen, who developed his own law of homology of body plans, taking it to be evidence for the history of connections between different species – a point that was picked up by Darwin - and on the other hand, the notion that you could manipulate an image to find analogies to other images was taken up by literature. Balzac thought that Saint-Hilaire’s laws could be applied to the Comedie Humaine, and gave him credit in his preface, from which I quote the Victorian translation:

“The idea originated in a comparison between Humanity and Animality.

It is a mistake to suppose that the great dispute which has lately
made a stir, between Cuvier and Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, arose from a
scientific innovation. Unity of structure, under other names, had
occupied the greatest minds during the two previous centuries. As we
read the extraordinary writings of the mystics who studied the
sciences in their relation to infinity, such as Swedenborg, Saint-
Martin, and others, and the works of the greatest authors on Natural
History--Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., we detect in the
”monads” of Leibnitz, in the “organic molecules” of Buffon, in the
”vegetative force” of Needham, in the correlation of similar organs of
Charles Bonnet--who in 1760 was so bold as to write, "Animals vegetate
as plants do"--we detect, I say, the rudiments of the great law of
Self for Self, which lies at the root of /Unity of Plan/. There is but
one Animal. The Creator works on a single model for every organized
being. "The Animal" is elementary, and takes its external form, or, to
be accurate, the differences in its form, from the environment in
which it is obliged to develop. Zoological species are the result of
these differences. The announcement and defence of this system, which
is indeed in harmony with our preconceived ideas of Divine Power, will
be the eternal glory of Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier's victorious
opponent on this point of higher science, whose triumph was hailed by
Goethe in the last article he wrote.”

Balzac assimilates Geoffroy’s discovery to the theme of physiology – the tableau of the city, or nation. Yet in fact the law of connections has a deeper poetic power, in that it wipes away the impression we gain unconsciously from our first degree analogies – for instance, that we know the upside and downside of a lobster by eye, having a sense that all creatures walk upright – by a deeper, dissecting vision to the connection of the organs underneath – which gives us body plans that we don’t recognize at first, such as the creature that walks on its side.

This vision is actually more pertinent to the way Balzac’s Human Comedy plays itself out, where the law of connections underneath appearances often propel the plots – plots that are the ‘Reverse side of History’. Balzac’s acknowledgment of Swedenborg is more pertinent to his achievement than the Enlightenment physiologies. As we know, it was also pertinent to Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences. In a letter to his friend, the Fourierist Alphonse Toussenel, Baudelaire wrote:

“I have said for a long time that the poet is sovereignly intelligent, that he is the supreme intelligence, - and that the imagination is the most scientific of faculties because it alone understands the universal analogie, or what a mystic would call correspondence.”

Baudelaire’s successor in the field of the law of connections is surely Mallarme. In Mallarme’s poem, “The demon of analogy”, the poet walks down the street imagining a wing gliding over a stringed instrument and the words “the penultimate is dead.” At a certain point, after playing with the words and then letting them ‘err’ upon his lips, he sees an image of his hand making a caressing motion, as though he were about to play the stringed instrument, reflected in a window, which, to his freshened gaze as he tears himself away from the toils of the line, reveals itself as the window of a shop selling old stringed instruments, which are hung up on the walls, and having, as a décor, potted palms scattered on the floor, under the branches of which old stuffed birds are displayed. “I fled, bizarre, a person condemned to bear, probably, the mourning for the inexplicable Penultimate” The image of the person fleeing from his mirrored semblable is heightened by the use of the word ‘personne’, which, of course, means nobody when used with the negation of the verb. The negation of the fleeing leaves us with the man and his image, a nobody, fleetingly impressed upon the shop of a seller of old instruments such as you may find down some crooked street in Paris. The doubles in this moment are such as one comes upon wandering the city street – such was Freud’s experience, related in his essay, The Uncanny.

Tomorrow, I will extend this meditation to Roger Caillois and Roland Barthes. Enough for the morning!