Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416
Vercors addresses the inconclusiveness of the law defining murder as the illegal killing of a human being without in any way defining a human being. His novel does not resolve the problem, but it does alert readers to the generally ignored existence of it, embracing, among other contexts, the questions of euthanasia and cruelty to animals.
The English title is taken from an English version of Matthew 7:16-20 (“You shall know them by their fruits . . .”), a parable likening false prophets and wrongdoers to plants producing bad fruit. The title has to be skewed a bit to reflect the novel, so that the allusion is to the recognition of human beings by specific traits or qualities. Curiously, the novel’s courtroom debate includes an anthropological acceptance of Piltdown Man, which was exposed as a hoax in the year following the novel’s publication—the year, in fact, during which the English translation was published. This fact lends irony, unintended or otherwise, to the English title, a hoaxer being akin to a false prophet.
Vercors’ title is, literally, “the denatured animals.” Animals, the judge in the story surmises, are at one with nature; they cannot question it. The human being, in questioning nature, becomes separate from it. The human and nature are two: before the schism, animal; after the schism, human or denatured animal. This schisme, or arrachement (wrench, wrenching) is presented in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Phénomène humain (1955; The Phenomenon of Man, 1959) as “hominisation,” an evolutionary leap from the “biosphere” to the “noosphere”— that is, from instinctive animal existence to conscious human existence. The inverse proportionalism of instinct to consciousness-as-intelligence is fictively measured in Vercors’ novel Sylva (1961; English translation, 1962), in which a vixen is transformed into a woman and suffers losses of her vulpine instincts in proportion to her transitional development of human intelligence.
Vercors’ thesis in the science fiction of You Shall Know Them and Sylva is stated explicitly in the earlier novel in the form of an epigraph by his character Templemore: “All man’s troubles arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.” The thesis extends the resistance to human misdirection and degeneration, which marks his World War II novels, beginning with Le Silence de la mer (1942; The Silence of the Sea, 1944). As a fighter in the French Resistance, Jean Bruller took his pseudonym from a forested Alpine plateau that was a center of that movement.
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