Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Zola's Philosemitism: From L'argent to Verite

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Zola's Philosemitism: From L'argent to Verite

Article excerpt

Scholars have spilled a great deal of ink over antisemitism, analyzing its causes and effects, its history and its politics. But very little attention has been paid to philosemitism--the defense, admiration, and love of Jews--which often accompanies its seeming opposite. (1) As the first European country to grant the Jews full civil rights in the eighteenth century, France has long stood as a beacon of philosemitism. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading statesmen, thinkers, and writers have rallied around the Jews and fought for their political and social equality. No figure incarnates this posture more than Emile Zola, who risked his name, his fortune, and perhaps even his life to defend a Jew wrongly accused of treason in the 1890s. And yet, several years before defending Dreyfus, Zola published a novel, L'Argent (1891), with undeniably antisemitic overtones.

In what follows, I want to trace Zola's itinerary from L'Argent to his final novel, Verite (1903), about the Dreyfus Affair, an itinerary that critics have characterized as a progression away from prejudice. I want to complicate this narrative by revealing the ambivalence that subtends both Zola's early antisemitism and his later philosemitism. My goal is not to call into question Zola's foie during the Dreyfus Affair, which was nothing short of heroic, but rather to analyze the deeper meaning of his magnanimity. What did Jews signify for Zola in the 1890s? What drove him first to attack and then to defend them? And why were his hostility and sympathy for Jews so inextricably linked? At stake is not only a better understanding of French attitudes toward Jews at this crucial historical moment, but also a better understanding of the ideologies of liberalism, universalism, republicanism, secularism, and socialism that have long represented France's unique contribution to the fight against antisemitism.

L'Argent takes place in and around the Bourse, the Paris Stock Exchange, and describes the efforts of Aristide Saccard to launch a Catholic bank, La Banque Universelle, with the goal of investing in the Near East. Inspired by his neighbor, the engineer Hamelin, who has spent time in the Levant, Saccard funds a series of improvements in transportation, mining, and other industries in the Holy Land with the eventual goal of providing the Pope with a prosperous refuge should nascent Italian nationalism require the transfer of the Holy See. It is unclear whether the opportunistic Saccard feels the same level of religious devotion as Hamelin, but he exploits the Catholic angle in order to lure capital from pious speculators, declining aristocrats, and other investors frustrated by the dominance of La Haute Banque, otherwise referred to in the novel as La Banque Juive. At first, Saccard's energetic marketing succeeds in boosting the bank's share price to dizzying heights, but soon his overweening ambitions and illegal maneuvers drive La Banque Universelle to ruin. Its demise is hastened by the efforts of the all-powerful Jewish banker Gundermann, who sees in Saccard a rival and who short sells shares in the Universelle when the bank is vulnerable. Saccard uses the bank's own cash reserves to buy back its falling shares in a quixotic attempt to halt the tumble, but thereby seals the bank's doom. The novel ends with the total collapse of La Banque Universelle, its worthless shares bought up by other Jewish speculators at bargain-basement prices, leading to the utter ruin of its many Catholic shareholders.

To begin to understand the novel's complex depiction of Jews, I want to start on the surface of the text, with the viciously antisemitic rants that punctuate it. Even a casual reader of the novel cannot help but be struck by the hostility of the diatribes that make up for in vitriol what they lack in originality: "L'empire est vendu aux juifs, aux sales juifs," Saccard fulminates. "Tout notre argent est condamne a tomber entre leurs pattes crochues" (244). …

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