Homage to Zola
Homage to Zola ¹
Speech delivered at Médan, 1 October 1933, on the occasion of the 31st death anniversary of Émile Zola (1840-1902).
translated by Alexander Jacob
“Men are mystics of death whom one should mistrust”
Thinking of Zola we remain somewhat disturbed by his work; he is still too close to us for us to judge him well; I mean in his intentions. He speaks of things that are familiar to us … It would have been pleasant if they had changed a little.
Allow us a small personal memory. At the Exposition of 1900, we were still quite young, but we retained the quite vivid memory nevertheless that this was an enormous brutality. Feet especially, feet everywhere, and dust, in clouds so thick that one could touch them. Interminable people marched past, pounding, crushing the Exposition, and then this moving walkway which creaked up to the gallery of machines, full, for the first time, of torturous metals, colossal threats, catastrophes waiting to happen. Modern life was beginning.
Since that time, it has not been better. Since L’assommoir it has not been better. Things have remained at the same state with some variations. Had Zola worked too well for his successors? Or did the ones who came after fear Naturalism? Maybe.
Today, Zola’s Naturalism, with the means that we possess to instruct ourselves, becomes almost impossible. One would not leave prison if one recounted life as one knows it, beginning with one’s own. I mean such as one has understood it for twenty years. Zola already needed some heroism to show the men of his time some gay images of reality. The reality today would not be allowed to anybody. For us, therefore, symbols and dreams! All the transpositions that the law does not yet reach! For, finally, it is in symbols and dreams that we spend nine-tenths of our life, since the nine-tenths of existence, that is, of vital pleasure, are unknown or prohibited to us. The dreams too will be hunted down one day or the other. It is a dictatorship that we deserve.
The position of man in the middle of his cluster of laws, customs, desires, knotted suppressed instincts has become so dangerous, so artificial, so arbitrary, so tragic and so grotesque at the same time that literature was never so easy to conceive as at present, but also more difficult to bear. We are surrounded by entire countries of shell-shocked idiots, the least shock precipitates them into never-ending murderous convulsions.
So we have arrived at the end of twenty centuries of high civilisation and, nevertheless, no regime could resist two months of truth. I mean the Marxist society as well as our bourgeois and Fascist societies.
In fact, man cannot persist in any of these social forms, entirely brutal, completely masochist, without the violence of a permanent and increasingly massive, repeated, frenetic lie, “totalitarian” as it is termed. Deprived of this constraint, our societies would collapse into the worst anarchy. Hitler is not the last word, we shall perhaps see more epileptic phenomena yet, here. Naturalism, in these conditions, whether it wishes or not, becomes political. One kills it. Happy those whom Caligula’s horse governed!
The dictatorial mouths everywhere are met at present by the innumerable addicts of alcohol – from the monotony of daily tasks – , the myriad repressed, all smothered in an immense sadomasochist narcissism, all deriving from researches, experiments, and social sincerity. People talk to me too much about youth, the evil is deeper than youth! In fact, I see in youth only a mobilisation of desires for apéritifs, sports, automobiles and shows, nothing new. The young, at least as regards ideas, for the most part, lag behind the gossiping, money-grubbing, homicidal R.A.T.s In this context, to remain fair, let us note that the youth does not exist in the Romantic sense that we still lend to this word. From the age of ten the destiny of man seems quite fixed in its emotive sources; after this period, we exist only through insipid, increasingly less sincere and more theatrical repetitions. Perhaps, after all, the “civilisations” will suffer the same fate? Ours seems to be quite concentrated in an incurable militant psychosis. We live only for this sort of destructive repetitions. When we observe from what rancid prejudices, what rotten nonsense the absolute fanaticism of millions of so-called evolved individuals, instructed in the best schools of Europe, can be nourished we are certainly authorised to ask ourselves if the instinct of death in man, in his societies, does not already definitively dominate the instinct of life. German, French, Chinese, Wallachian. Dictatorships or not. Nothing but pretexts to keep playing, to the death.
I would like to explain everything through the malign defensive reactions of capitalism or extreme misery. But things are not so simple or as significant. Neither profound misery nor police oppression justifies these mass rushes towards extreme, aggressive, ecstatic nationalisms of entire countries. One can certainly explain things in this manner to the faithful who are already quite convinced in advance, the same people to whom was explained twelve months ago the imminent, unmistakable arrival of Communism in Germany. But the taste for wars and massacres could not have for its essential source the appetite for conquest, power, and benefits of the ruling classes. Everything has been said, exposed, in this matter without anybody having been disgusted. The present unanimous sadism proceeds above all from a desire for nothingness profoundly installed in man, and especially in the masses, a sort of almost irresistible amorous unanimous impatience for death. With coquetry of course and a thousand denials, but the tropism is there, and so much more powerful in that it is perfectly secret and silent.
Now the governments have got into the habit of their sinister peoples, they are well adapted to them. They dread any change in their psychology. They wish to know only puppets, contract assassins, ready-made victims. Liberals, Marxists, Fascists are in accord only on one point: soldiers! Nothing more and nothing less. In fact, they would be able to make people absolutely peaceful. If our masters have arrived at this tacit practical agreement, it is perhaps because after all the soul of man has been definitively crystallised in this suicidal form.
One can obtain everything from an animal through gentleness and reason, while the great mass enthusiasms, the durable frenzies of the crowds are almost always stimulated, provoked, maintained by stupidity and brutality. Zola did not at all have to envisage the same social problems, presented especially in this despotic form, in his work. The faith in science, at that time quite new, made the writers of his epoch think of a certain social faith, of a reason to be “optimistic”. Zola believed in virtue, he thought of horrifying the guilty man but not of making him desperate. We know today that the victim always demands martyrdom and more. Do we still have the right, without stupidity, to represent any Providence in our writings? It was necessary to have a robust faith. Everything becomes more tragic and more irremediable the more one penetrates into the destiny of man. Let one cease imagining it and live it such as it really is …One will discover it. One does not yet wish to admit.it. If our music turns to the tragic, it is because it has its reasons. The words of today, like our music, go much farther than at the time of Zola. We work at present through sensibility and not through analysis, in short, “from inside”. Our words reach as far as the instincts and sometimes touch them, but, at the same time, we have learnt that there our power has stopped, and forever.
Our Coupeau no longer drinks as much as the first. He has been educated … He babbles much more. His “delirium” is a standard office with thirteen telephones. He gives orders to the world. He does not like women. He is a brave man too. He is abundantly decorated.
In man’s game, the instinct of death, the silent instinct, is perhaps decidedly well placed, alongside egoism. It takes the place of the zero of roulette. The casino always gains. Death also. The law of numbers works for it. It is an impeccable law. Everything that we undertake, in one way or the other, stumbles over it and turns to hatred, to the sinister, to ridicule. One should be gifted in a rather bizarre manner to talk of anything else than death in times when on land, sea, in the air, at present and in the future, it is a question of only that. I know that one can still go to dance the musette at the cemetery and speak of love in the slaughterhouse, the comic author retains his chances, but it is just a consolation.
When we have become normal, in the sense that our civilisations understand and desire it and soon demand it, I think that we shall finally explode also with wickedness. We will have been left with only the instinct for destruction to divert ourselves with. It is that which is cultivated from school and that one maintains throughout what is still called life. Nine lines of crime, one of boredom. We will all die together, with pleasure altogether, in a world that we will have taken fifty centuries to barbwire with constraints and anxieties.
It is perhaps time to render a supreme homage to Émile Zola on the eve of an immense disaster, yet another. It is no longer a question of imitating or following him. We have obviously neither the gift nor the power, nor the faith which the great spiritual movements create. Would he, in turn, have the power to judge us? We have learnt about strange things about souls since he departed.
The street of Man is a one-way one, death maintains all the cafés, it is the belote of “blood” which attracts and detains us.
Zola’s work resembles for us, in some aspects, the very solid work of Pasteur, still so alive, in two or three essential points. In both these men, transposed, we find the same meticulous technique of creation, the same concern for experimental probity and above all the same formidable power of demonstration, in the case of Zola in an epic form. That would be too much for our epoch. Much liberalism was required to support the Dreyfus affair. We are far from that time, in spite of all academics.
According to certain traditions, I should perhaps end my little talk on a tone of good will, optimism. But what can we hope of Naturalism in the conditions in which we find ourselves? Everything and nothing. Rather more nothing, for the spiritual conflicts irritate the masses too closely nowadays to be tolerated for a long time. Doubt is in the process of disappearing from this world. It is killed along with the men who doubt. This is quite certain.
“Whenever I hear the word ‘spirit’ uttered around me I spit!”, a recent dictator warned us who was, for that very reason, adulated. One wonders what this sub-gorilla may do if one speaks to him of “Naturalism”?
Since Zola the nightmare which surrounded man has not only become well-defined but it has become official. To the degree that the “gods” become more powerful they become also more ferocious, more jealous and more stupid. They become organised. What to tell them? One is no longer understood.
The Naturalist school will have done its task fully, I think, the moment that it is prohibited in every country of the world.
That was its fate.
 Speech delivered at Médan, 1 October 1933, on the occasion of the 31st death anniversary of Émile Zola (1840-1902). The text was first published by Robert Denoël in 1936 in Apologie de Mort à crédit, and more recently in Céline et l’actualité littéraire (1932-1957), ed. Jean-Pierre Dauphin and Henri Godard, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976, as well as in Études françaises, Vol.39, no.2, 2003, p. 87-91.
 L’Assomoir (1877) was the seventh novel in his twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. It is a depiction of the misery of the Parisian working classes.
 Zola’s literary style, generally called ‘Naturalism’, focussed on the harsher realities of social life as well as their underlying causes.
 Those with the “rapport d’atelier territorial” (territorial workshop report) certification.
 Coupeau is the second husband of the laundry woman, Gervaise, in Zola’s L’Assomoir. Though he begins as a teetotaller, he gradually becomes an alcoholic and finally loses all interest in Gervaise as well as in life.
 A French card game.
 The sentence “Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning” (when I hear ‘culture’ … I unlock my Browning) is mistakenly attributed to Hermann Göring and actually occurs in a play by Hanns Johst, Schlageter (1933) which was written for Hitler’s 44th birthday. In the play it is spoken by a friend of the proto-Nazi martyr Albert Leo Schlageter who declares that he would prefer to fight than to discuss culture.