Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Five notable books on Dreyfus and the Belle Epoque

Ruth Harris is the author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. A fellow and tutor at Oxford University, she has written widely on topics in French history, cultural history, women’s history, and the history of medicine.

Her latest book is Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, Harris discussed five books on Dreyfus and the Belle Epoque, including:
The Dreyfus Affair: J’accuse and other writings
by Emile Zola

Before we talk about this open letter, can you remind us who Emile Zola was and why he was such an important literary figure?

Emile Zola was basically the father and the greatest protagonist of naturalism in letters. The reason he’s so interesting is that he has been sanctified as the ultimate hero of Truth and Justice. But actually for the Dreyfusards, he was a very ambiguous champion. He was considered by many lovers of French literature to be the ultimate pornographer for novels that described sexuality and violence, and was consequently vilified for having introduced all kinds of reductive, scientific and experimental ideas into fiction. His belief in the power of heredity and milieu focused attention on deterministic forces and undermined the potency of free will in human action. Moreover, his own personal morality worried many Dreyfusards. He famously had two homes – one containing his childless wife and the other his mistress and two children.

Please tell us about J’accuse.

This is an open letter he wrote in 1898 in the newspaper L’Aurore, just after the real culprit in the Dreyfus affair, Esterhazy, was acquitted of spying. J’accuse is an extraordinary polemic in which he deployed all his formidable literary talent. In it he accuses the military of a cover-up and cites a number of individuals. What’s interesting about the letter is that it does have a number of errors. Zola wasn’t particularly concerned with the details and was, in fact, rather a late convert to the Dreyfusard cause.

More than 300,000 copies of J’accuse were printed, so many that it caused a paper shortage in the capital. It caused a great storm and almost immediately Zola is charged with defamation. He is found guilty and has to escape into exile in England. But it’s at this moment that the Dreyfus affair really takes off, and reveals its peculiarly combustible mixture of literary polemic, popular journalism and the mass public agitation. It’s very interesting that Zola, a man who’s famous for depicting crowd scenes, goes to his trial and is surrounded by people who are trying to attack him. He’s amazed because he finds himself no longer writing about the unthinking nature of group activity, but becoming the sacrificial victim in a mob scene. Frightened to death, he calls them “the cannibals” and realises that demagoguery and anti-Semitism are real dangers to democracy. Zola is distinguished among the Dreyfusards because at the centre of his advocacy is a real struggle against anti-Semitism – for many this is not the case. He had anti-Semitic traces in his writing prior to the affair, but he came to reject it profoundly and work towards a cure for this malady in French society.
Read about another book Harris tagged at The Browser.

The Page 99 Test: Ruth Harris's Dreyfus.

--Marshal Zeringue