An enchanting literature

In the first third of XXe century, a literary school shone under the name of wonderful scientist. Drawing on fiction, science and technology, it has nourished the imagination of modernity.

At the borders of so-called fantastic literature and popular science, as it developed in France during the years 1860-1900, a unique literary school was born at the turn of the century. Roughly, it covers the first thirty years of XXe century. It is commonly referred to as wonderful scientist.

Forgotten writers?

It is on this little-known movement that, in an original and solidly structured book, Fleur Hopkins-Lofron focuses. She has undertaken the study of a corpus of several hundred works whose authors, with a few exceptions, seem to have fallen into oblivion.

If the names of Maurice Leblanc (author of the series Arsne Lupinewhose first appearance dates from 1905), by Gaston Leroux (The Mystery of the Yellow Room in 1908, The Ghost of Opra in 1910, then the series of Chri-Bibi begins in 1913) or even Gustave Le Rouge (The Princess of the Air in 1902 or the 18 fascicles of Mysterious Doctor Cornlius published in 1912 and 1913) still enjoy a certain recognition due to television adaptations or republications, the writers considered here do not seem, except for a few amateurs, to represent any great interest.

Who still reads Michel Corday, Andr Couvreur, Augustin Galopin, Gabriel Bernard or even Guy de Taramond? However, the publication of these novels, one could also cite Jean de la Hire and Octave Bliard during the years 1890-1930, is symptomatic of an imagination under construction, drawing simultaneously on fiction, scientific discoveries and the diffusion of contemporary techniques.

Among these authors, polygraphists of all stripes (journalists, serialists, engineers, doctors), one name stands out: that of Maurice Renard (1875-1939), author in 1920 of From the hands of Orlac, brought to the cinema in 1924 by Robert Wiene then in 1935 by Karl Freund with Peter Lorre. It was he who popularized the nologism of wonderful scientist in 1909.

Maurice Renard wants to be the theorist of this literary genre and intends to define the rules of a model which owes a lot H.G. Wells (The Time Machine published in 1895, Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896, The invisible Man in 1897), Edgar Allan Poe (The Truth about the case of Mr. Valdemar, a short story published in 1845) or even J.-H. Rosny an (author of The fire war in 1909 or The mysterious forcein 1913), a little less Jules Verne who died in 1905 and whom he did not recognize among his inspirations, but more Villiers de l'Isle Adam (Future student, in 1886) or Stevenson (The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hydealso published in 1886).

From electricity to polonium

THE wonderful scientistwhich Renard also describes as hypothetical novel, is characterized by the place that science and technology hold in the narrative. Renard wanted to be a writer-experimenter, constructor of plots based on unrealizable experiments (transplantation of a head or hands, xenografts between animal and human, between plant and animal, travel in the fourth dimension, traversing matter), but presented under the aspect of rationality irreproachable.

failing to deploy his plot in an imprecise future, the marvelous scientist imagines the possible consequences of contemporary inventions. Even if these stories abound with crazy and singular machines, as well as devices that have never seen the light of day, they are part of a cultural history of science and technology that began in the middle of the XIXe century, accelerated in the years preceding the First World War, to begin its first mass distribution during the years 1920-1930.

The marvelous scientist bears witness to the imagination stimulated by a stammering electricity, carried by these new media which were the telephone, the TSF or cinema, encouraged by the beginnings of aviation and automobiles and by the scientific discoveries then echoed in the press (X-rays, radium, polonium).

However, unlike the anticipation novel, these inventions (real or fictitious) do not, in the narrative framework, have as their immediate purpose a projection into the future. Little or no prospective dimension, but when pushed to its limits, exacerbated or diverted, science drifts: it leads the protagonists down totally unexpected paths.

If the scientific dimension is the basis on which the plot is developed, what matters most is ala and adventure (there we find the stereotypical features of what is commonly called science). popular literature). In most of these stories, more than a leap into the future, it is a step aside that is offered to the reader. The extraordinary and the supernatural prevail over reason and science.

When witchcraft becomes science

These are narrative processes which, de facto, are part of the continuity of what a fairy tale could be. the magic wand succeeds the X-ray or the radio wave. The paranormal replaces rationality. strangely strange, the parascientific novel, as Renard also refers to it, explores in the present a supernatural in the process of being normalized. The deviance thus mastered is placed outside the norm, constructed precisely from this abnormality which, reversed, then appears as normality.

During the period studied, the marvelous scientist was inspired by new knowledge in ophthalmology, catoptrics, physiological optics, but also pseudoscience. Mr. Homais' scientism was then supplanted by a growing interest in parasciences (hypnosis, telepathy, spiritism, fakirism, rotating tables).

In these stories, often illustrated, the question of panopticism is recurrent. They are greatly inspired by research in instrumental optics and by work on visible and invisible light (discovery of the thermal effect of light, demonstration of infrared and ultraviolet, discovery of radiation). Thus, the arrangement of the discovery of dead and beyond, as Edison (co-founder in 1878 of the Theosophical Society) had envisaged when outlining the project of a spirit phone which would have allowed him to dialogue with the deceased.

History of art, history of science

Based on the theory of scopic regimes (optical, theoretical and practical model, dominant at a given time), the author discerns in the marvelous scientist a desire to extend the domain of the visible field. The published novels attest to a desire to pierce the veil of the visible, to make visible what was hidden from view and thus to bring to light other phenomena. The technical devices imagined allow the passage from the infinitely small to gigantism, from the microbe to the macrobe. They allow an x-ray view after, for example, radium contamination or the development of rear-view devices allowing scenes from the past to be replayed, projected or made visible in the present space. They are part of a long-term narrative, that of the magic mirror of fairy tales, passed through the sieve of physiological optics and astrophysics.

By also questioning the images that abound in these publications (the work includes 80 illustrations, covers, vignettes), Fleur Hopkins-Lofron, art historian, this book, which comes from a thesis in art history, goes beyond the usual limits of the discipline to grant its interest in small imagery, advertising and everything that makes up visual studies. Each major scan of his work (see inside, see beyond, see the reverse) underlines the need for a renewal in the field of art history, in contact with visual cultures, a hitherto little-explored literary field and the archeology of techniques.

In fact, the study of the corpus wonderful scientist participate mutatis mutandis a history of science and technology, an original approach to the perception of this history and the imagination it arouses.