Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Beyond the Bourse: Zola, Empire, and the Jews

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Beyond the Bourse: Zola, Empire, and the Jews

Article excerpt

Puis, apercevant du monde a sa gauche, deux hommes et une femme, il eut l'idee de les questionner. Mais, a son approche, la femme s'enfuit, les hommes l'ecarterent du geste, menacants; et il en vit d'autres, et tous l'evitaient, filaient entre les broussailles, comme des betes rampantes et sournoises, vetus sordidement, d'une salete sans nom, avec des faces louches de bandits. Alors, en remarquant que les morts, derriere ce vilain monde, n'avaient plus de souliers, les pieds nus et blemes, il finit par comprendre que c'etaient la de ces rodeurs qui suivaient les armees allemandes, des detrousseurs de cadavres, toute une basse juiverie de proie, venue a la suite de l'invasion.

In 1892 when it was published, this forbidding literary tableau depicting the corpse-strewn aftermath of France's 1870 defeat by the Germans would have felt familiar in more ways than one. The apocalyptic tenor of the description suited the hand-wringing with which the loss that cost France its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been received. To readers of Edouard Drumont's best-selling 1886 anti-Semitic treatise La France juive, the passage also inevitably recalled a central argument of Drumont's polemic, one he had not invented but that he probably did more than anyone to propagate: namely, that the Franco-Prussian War had unleashed on France a hoard of German Jews bent on exploiting their host country. Spurious though it was, this narrative could draw reinforcement from the very real emigration toward the center of France of the approximately 10,000 Jews who chose French citizenship upon Germany's 1871 annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. Settling primarily in Paris, these displaced French Jews keyed resentment among their new neighbors (Lindemann 209). The resulting myth of Judeo-Germanic invasion gained sufficient currency that even Emile Zola gave it some measure of credence--a fact evinced by the passage above, drawn from his novel La Debacle chronicling the final collapse of the Second Empire in the mud of Sedan (742-43).

Such an occasional brush by Zola with Drumontian conspiracy theory explains why Theodor Adorno could once remark that "no matter how energetically Zola, the defender of Captain Dreyfus, fought against hatred of the Jews, elements can be found in his own works which could be classed as identical with official anti-Semitism" (147). Adorno perhaps overdramatizes the case, but not by much. How is it that so eloquent and renowned a foe of anti-Semitism as Zola continued to populate his novels with coarse Jewish stereotypes, even after he had taken his impassioned public stances in support of French Jews? How, for instance, could Zola declare so sensibly in his 1902 novel about the Dreyfus Affair, Verite, that "il n'y avait pas de question juive, il n'y avait que la question de l'argent entasse," only immediately to proffer as archetypally vampirical a Jew as the predatory financier Baron Nathan, with his "nez epais" and his "yeux de proie enfonces sous de profondes arcades sourcilieres" (68-69)? Why this schizophrenic rhythm of exoneration and indictment?

Zola's famous biological determinism offers an answer. In "Pour les juifs," an 1896 article published in Le Figaro, Zola takes anti-Semites to task for denouncing Jewish avarice--but not because he considers the accusation untrue. Of the Jews' supposed "besoin du lucre" and "amour de l'argent," Zola declares flatly that "tout cela est vrai." The abruptness of the concession to anti-Semitic discourse functions rhetorically to contrast the implied banality of these observations with the depth of Zola's impending diagnosis. <

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