Emile Zola, Poet of the Human Condition

10/09/2013 08:21 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The scene is Zola's house in Médan.

Forty kilometers from Paris, on the pretty grounds that he called his "desert," the big house, flanked by two towers, where he wrote much of his cycle of novels, Les Rougon-Macquart.

There, as every year on the first Sunday in October, the "friends of Zola," who are also the friends of Alfred Dreyfus, make their pilgrimage. It's been so long, you see, that the two men are, in the mind of those who revere their twin memory, like a single soul inhabiting two bodies with different names.

This year, Pierre Bergé, chairman of the Zola house and the Dreyfus museum, asked me to give the keynote address.

My predecessors at the rostrum include Henri Barbusse and Louis Aragon, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, journalists, and filmmakers. It would be impractical to name them all, given their number, but they form a chain that, for a century, except for the war years, has never been broken.

Should I speak of the Dreyfus Affair, then? Of truth on the march? Of Zola, the first intellectual? Of the man who, if he did not invent the term, at least gave it substance, and who, in so doing, took every risk, absolutely every one, and was rewarded with insults, lynching, a formal trial, banishment and exile, more lynching, and, at the end, death in a smoke-filled Paris apartment? That is the usual topic. And the result is that, in the records of this pilgrimage, there are great speeches, including those of François Mitterrand and Pierre Mendès France, that cover it definitively.

No. Together with Pierre Bergé, a friend of writers living and dead, without whom Giono, Cocteau, Mac Orlan, and Zola himself would be a little more dead than they are today, I chose to honor the novelist.

Paul Morand and Roger Nimier thought him vulgar.

Paul Nizan found that his workers were not heroic enough.

Léon Bloy, in his detestable essay "Je m'accuse" (I Accuse Myself, 1900), described him as a "cretin from the Pyrenees" and an "ass-wiping latrine messiah."

And the surrealists tended to lump him with Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, their bêtes noires.

In opposition to whom was Céline, the great Céline, who, speaking at Médan 80 years ago, declared that no one was ever better than Zola at painting the darkness of man, the death that always wins in the end, and the terrible convulsions dawning on the horizon.

In opposition to whom was Joyce--yes, Joyce, who would go on the write Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, who had read Zola, praised him, interpreted his work, and who, at the time he wrote Dubliners (1914), felt so close to him, so inspired by his knowledge of men and their societies, that he confessed to his publisher a fear of being described as the "Irish Zola."

In opposition to whom was Proust, who, sharing his passion for Manet and his taste for novelistic heredity, puts into the mouth of Oriane de Guermantes words that, for close readers of Remembrance of Things Past, sounded like a riposte to the cliché of a critic ceaselessly repeating the same inanities: "Zola is not a realist; he's a poet."

Not to mention Stéphane Mallarmé, author of Vers et prose (Verse and Prose), the apostle of an impeccable, unstained literature, the priest of a religion that seems the exact opposite of naturalism, who was "thunderstruck" (as he described himself in a telegram to Zola) by the "sublimity" of the "feat" of thought and, especially, of literature (today we might say the "event" or the "performance") represented by the publication of "J'accuse."

It is that Zola whom I defend.

It is the novelist who sent his L'Assommoir to Flaubert with this inscription, "With disdain for taste."

It is the fighting writer who wasn't afraid to give his first book the title Mes Haines (My Hatreds) and who, in a letter to a friend, had the temerity to write that the future belonged to those who "struck the hardest and had the best aim," to those "whose fists are powerful enough" to "shut the mouths" of the rascals.

It is the metaphysical genius who, a half-century before Freud and Bataille, recounted more accurately than anyone else the tricks and traps of the flesh, its dark and accursed side. Ah, the "swath of dirty rags and nameless debris" left by the beautiful Nana along her path of charm and disgrace!

It is that other "seer" about whom bodies that have gone mad (and that always end up taking power over souls) might say, "I is another," like Jacques Lantier in The Human Beast who, before he murders Séverine, is surprised to hear the snorting of a pig before realizing that it is himself he hears!

And -- against all of the forms of positivism and scientism to which critics have too often attempted to reduce the author of a body of work that strove to "open the way for scholars" and not the other way around, against the twin illusion of reactionaries in the mold of Charles Maurras, on the one hand, and worshippers of progress, on the other -- it is the prodigious painter of a society dominated by evil machines -- gigantic furnaces, monstrous boilers, mine tunnels that swallow up entire chunks of humanity, great stores that burn, consume, and spit back their daily pound of flesh, twisted networks of pipes, the belly and bowels of the city.

Zola versus the human comedy and its magic carnival.

Zola versus all romanticisms and their elegiac visions of our common destiny.

Could we say that Zola was one of the great poets--one of the greatest, for his lucidity and inspiration--of that split (others would go on to call it a pit, a chasm, or abyss) at the center of the human condition?

That is what I said in Médan.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy