Claude Lantier’s Nervous Energy (or doing teaching-led research)

How do you envisage the relationship between teaching and research? It’s the kind of question you might expect to be asked in an academic job interview, but I’ve been musing on it of my own accord in recent weeks, struck by how teaching and research activity interact in unusual and unexpected ways. Zola’s 1886 novel L’Œuvre [The Masterpiece], for example, is a set text on a course I’m currently preparing on fictions of authorship in French culture: the character of the aspiring writer, Pierre Sandoz, can be seen to function for Zola as an ideal vision or ‘scenario’–to use José-Luis Diaz’s term–of authorship in miniature,[1] a mise-en-abyme of the literary process which reflects favourably on Zola’s own creative enterprise (particularly when contrasted with that of the visual artist). zola-1Yet while reading the novel in tandem with my research into the cultural history of shyness, I’ve also begun to notice the extent to which Claude Lantier, an aspiring artist, and the novel’s central protagonist, is characterised by his visceral shyness. Moreover, I’ve noticed the extent to which the text subtly develops theories of shyness, tracing the curious routes by which bashfulness can manifest as brutality, and fear and self-consciousness coexist with aesthetic audacity.

While working on L’Œuvre, I’ve also been grappling with La Rochefoucauld’s moral maxims. Written in the seventeenth century, these eloquent, but elliptical, observations draw our attention to the discontinuity between cause and effect in human behaviour. Propounding a systematic ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, La Rochefoucauld’s rather dispiriting theories tell us to assume the opposite: see selfishness where we think we see selflessness, meanness in generosity, and– as in maxim XI—timidity behind audacity: ‘Passions often engender those which seem contrary to them. Avarice can produce prodigality, and prodigality avarice. One is often firm through weakness, and audacious through timidity’ [my translation]. This genealogical play of opposites is affirmed by the narrative voice in L’Œuvre when, as Claude agrees to let the distraught Christine shelter in his studio, we read that ‘his own sympathy [towards her] angered him, he never normally invited women into his home, he ignored them, treating them all as he would boys, hiding his painful shyness under a boastful display of brutality’ [my translation].

The awareness that shyness can transmute into its opposite is the property not only of the narrator, but also those within the story world. In a passage which exemplifies the complex operations of free indirect discourse, Christine is shown to divine Claude’s psychology in a sudden flash of intuition, which the narrator in turn intuits, then explicates, for the reader. zola-2Watching Claude draw, Christine observes, sympathetically, that ‘there was a slight nervous trembling in him, a constant passion which seemed to bring the pencil to life at the tips of his thin fingers, and which touched her, for a reason she could not fathom. He surely wasn’t nasty, it must be his shyness which rendered him savage. She did not analyse this very exactly, but she sensed it, and she began to feel at ease, as if with a friend’ [my translation].

The unstable fluctuation between Claude’s strength and weakness, his nervous energy and his fits of apathy, form the fundamental drama of L’Œuvre; the tension between shyness and audacity is one manifestation of this. In many ways, the novel dramatises the plight of the creator forced to exist in two spheres, the aesthetic and the social, and the contradictions which arise from this. In the moment of artistic creation, Claude can be bold–and, in a highly symbolic passage in which she finally agrees to pose naked for Claude, so, too, can Christine (subject to a less pathologised, more normalised, ‘womanly’ sense of pudor). zola-3As Christine, muse-like, sits for Claude, the embarrassment which has accompanied their previous encounters, full of stutters and blushes, evaporates. The silence is no longer awkward, but imperative, holding them in a near-holy state of creation, preventing them from tumbling back down into the everyday world of messy social emotions, and sexual desire:

“Both felt that by uttering one single sentence they would be suddenly ashamed. But from time to time she [Christine] opened her clear eyes, fixed them on a vague point in space, and stayed like that for a moment, impenetrable, then closed them, falling back into the nothingness of beautiful marble, with the mysterious and frozen smile of the pose.

Claude, with a gesture, said he had finished; and, gauche again, he knocked over a chair as he quickly turned his back on Christine who, blushing, got up from the divan.” 

Zola 4.jpg

The sitting over, artist and muse, revert, once again, to bumbling human beings, conscious of having committed a faux-pas: the studio has become bedroom again, and Claude is all fingers and thumbs. More broadly, it is Claude’s difficulty with this inevitable, all-too-human, part of being an artist–that of existing in a social context– which is part of the tragedy of L’Œuvre. Claude’s hypersensitivity–of which his savage, wild shyness is one manifestation–may be what makes him a talented, revolutionary, artist, but it also prevents him from moving smoothly between unworldly and worldly domains, from forging a public reputation, from thriving on public critique (as Sandoz does).

In Claude, Zola gestures to the emotional toll taken on the artist, and perhaps also author, in an age of heightened public exposure and bullish professional criticism. Claude’s decline is not related solely to his timidity, but shyness–and the gruff brutality and audacity it is shown, at times, to effect–are characteristics Zola chooses to highlight over and over again in his protagonist. The novel echoes patterns of cause and effect found in La Rochefoucauld’s earlier work, but interweaves them with modern theories of physiology, and a larger narrative about the plight of the individual within the increasingly commercial arts trade. And in doing so, it provides me with a new source to add to my expanding corpus of nineteenth-century ‘shy’ narratives, a new way to think about emotion and the arts, and a welcome bridge between my teaching and research this term.



[1] Cf. Diaz, José-Luis. L’écrivain imaginaire: scénographies auctoriales à l’époque romantique (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007).



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