Émile Zola – the Public Intellectual of France | A Discussion on the Leaders of Public Opinions

Author: Zhuorui Fu

“Je n’ai qu’une passion, celle de la lumière, au nom de l’humanité qui a tant souffert et qui a droit au bonheur. Ma protestation enflammée n’est que le cri de mon âme.” – J’Accuse (1898), Émile Zola.

“I only have one passion: the passion for lights, in the name of humanity that has long been suffering but deserves to be joyful. My flaming protests are the screams from my soul.”– I Accuse(1898), Émile Zola.

Zola, picture from internet.

There are various conflicts in the world recently, many of which are led by people with influential opinions in their regions. Technically, we can call these opinion leaders “public intellectuals”, who excel at finding evidence from history and directing social discussion towards a certain way. Public Intellectual as a word can be traced to the era of French Revolution. Throughout France’s history, public intellectuals have lived with their people. The older generation includes Voltaire, who has stirred the myth of Jeanne d’Arc. Some recent ones knows Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant) summited the genre of existentialism. Another famous French public intellectual would be the literature heavyweight Émile Zola. On this occasion I finally finished a book I recommended in many occasions: Madame Zola, a book that documented and analysed the legendary life of the wife of Zola (I spent the whole year to read the book, which is quite ironical itself). Through this feminine book, I also managed to see a more real and finer Zola in his ordinary life. Thus, I am quoting his life and phasing a few anecdotes I know to chat about the meanings of public intellectuals, and to shed lights from history to present. 

Zola and two kids (from his lover, as his wife couldn’t bare children). Pic from internet.

Zola, born in 1840 in Paris, but grew up in Provence. At the beginning, Zola’s family was bourgeoisie, well-to-do enough to give the baby Zola a fine life. However, Zola’s father died young, leaving a shattered family going downhill year by year. When Zola was a child, Zola’s mother moved their home to Paris. Young Zola had to hop around menial jobs to earn a living, while trying to finish his studies, which did not end well. Zola and his childhood friend, the grand painter Paul Cézanne spent too much time enjoying Paris that Zola failed his exams too many times. In one occasion, Zola met the dressmaker future wife Alexandrine Zola, whose career was considered one of the lowest for poor girls of her background. Afterwards, the couple rented a small apartment in Paris. Zola tried different jobs, with one in the custom, which he hated, and one in a small press station. Their life was modest, but Zola clang on his literature dream. He thought, a real gold would eventually be discovered. 

In 1868, the 28-year old Zola published his third work Thérèse Raquin, finally digging a small fame in the literature world. In the next 10 years, Zola published L’Assommoir(1876), Germinal(1885), L’Œuvre(1886), which all became the classics of classics. A decade of sowing in the dark shot him a one-night fame. The publishing fees and commissions for play adaptation of his works made him a super-rich man. His dressmaker family gradually became the gilded “bourgeoisie” of the bourgeoisie Parisian community. The couple also moved their small apartment in Paris to a completely rebuilt mansion called Médan in suburban Paris. 

Zola’s books are renowned for certain things: the description of the low life of non-bourgeoisies in the Second Empire. Their fates were prescribed with sorrow, in comparison with the advantages of the prestigious. Zola’s wife came from poor background, so his work is filled with a transcendental compassion towards these proletariat. He blends psychology in his writings, which becomes the fundamental reference of “Naturalism”, versus the prior romanticism started by the rich. Zola knows humanity and the bitterness of being in the bottom part of this “humanity”. 

Zola’s era was the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Empire. It was the important Belle Époque of new century in 1900s, right after the waves of industrialisation showered France. Railways were built, converting hidden suburbs and seaside beaches to the hideaways for the rich. In the same time, France also engaged in too many wars, especially with Prussia. France was not a socialist country at all at the time. The new rich sharpened their teeth and sucked the blood from their employees. Such situation was commonly observed in the work of Balzac, Flaubert alike. Although the rich created haute-couture, most of the poor girls at the time were still dying young because of illness and poor living condition.  

The military destroyed the sword of Alfred Dreyfus, an act that symbolises the removal of military rank of Dreyfus. Pic from internet.

In 1894, the raging Dreyfus Affair burned in France and overseas. Dreyfus was a French-Jewish soldier stationed in the French-Prussian border Alsace. He was mistakenly sentenced as the infiltrator of Prussia by the French military department. Although the army quickly found out that this was a wrong sentence, the powerful military oversight decided to withhold the decision. In 1898, the army confirmed the spy status of Dreyfus and sent him to prison in Île du Diable. 

Émile Zola obtained evidence from journalist Georges Picquart and the wife of Alfred Dreyfus. He decided to speak out the truth. After several rounds of failed protests, Zola published the emotional I Accuse – A Letter to the President of the Republic(J’Accuse) on newspaper L’Aurore on January the 13th. Each sentence of the letter started with “I accuse…”, followed with the specific name of every single military officer and his wrongdoings in this event. As the newsboys touted the newspaper in the morning of Paris, this letter became a mega bomb in circulation. France was gorged by this enormous scandal. In Paris, wife could divorce the husband because she had different opinions on the Dreyfus Affair. Some supported Dreyfus. Most people thought Dreyfus as the ugly Jewish traitor and Zola the filthy pig of his kind. Zola fell from the holy position of a well-respected literature giant to a criminal that people wanted to kill. Zola could not go on street with protection, because wherever he went, there were people screaming “Death for Zola! (A mort!)”

On the 18th of July in 1898, Zola was fined 3,000 francs and one year in prison for “libelling”.  On the same day, friends recommended Zola to leave France to escape from the prison sentence. Zola rushed home to farewell his wife and fled to London over the drowning night of Paris. 

Zola was disconnected from the complicated Dreyfus Affair for a short time, but the event had not yet to its peak maturation. 

Up to this point, my readers would well observe that, a true public intellectual that can both influence discussions and own professional accolades takes years to mature. It requires the strong understanding of one’s profession and the utmost quality of his or her work. Had Zola been afraid of the entanglement of Dreyfus Affair or stopped pursuing truth, his name would have not shined in books we read 100 years later. 

In the countries I am familiar with, the number of true intellectuals that can influence social discussions or political discussions can be counted using fingers. For example, Thomas Paine’s Common Senselargely encouraged the British colony’s moral and attitudes to rebel against the British heavy taxes. Since then, Thomas Paine never stopped criticising the powerful yet brutal rule of Robespierre or writing The Age of Reason, which supported the existence of divinity but denied the Bible as a holy work. His action was hated by the previous British, American, and French supporters of him. Afterwards, he badmouthed Napoleon as a hypocrite. Thomas Paine died in poverty. No luxuries from being in the government or being in the celebrations from the crowd. 

Public Intellectual as a word in China has a more negative connotation. P.I. as a word became popular due to a vote of “The 50 Most Influential Public Intellectual in China” started by the popular newspaperSouthern Metropolis Dailyin 2004. In the following years, blogs were just starting to become popular, so public discussions were dominated by the “professionals” of certain topics. “Popular” hashtags and headlines inundated the intellectual space. However, most of the works published the time lacked quality and research fundamentally. At the time, “intellectuals” enjoyed criticising the “undemocratic” practices of Chinese mainland regime, citing the more “advanced” regime advantages of Hong Kong, Taiwan alike. Some of the criticisms were unnecessary and for the sake of criticising only. As China became more economically powerful and its national identity strengthening, such criticisms covered with “democratic” skin were no longer popular. Since, the image of a “public intellectual” went into the bottom of an abyss. Nevertheless, the reason that Chinese public intellectuals fell off the centre place is fundamentally due to the lack of quality of their works and the excessive criticisms that are often one-sided.  

Not only Chinese “public intellectuals” are facing challenges, but also the ones in France, where the word of P.I. truly originates. One controversial case would be Bernard Henry Lévy, whose academic works have long drawn criticisms. In one case, his works were find citing a fake philosopher “Botul”. It seems that the other export of France, fashion, has overshadowed the once-powerful intellectual stimulations. Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent replaced the people of Left Bank to draw attentions of the world. When most of the people talk about France today, they would probably think or romance, Louis Vuitton, Sophie Marceau, wine, instead of the rigidity of French intellectual debates. 

During the Affair, Zola was mocked as the “King of Pigs” (top right corner). Pic from internet.

Lens goes back to Zola and Dreyfus Affair.

In 1899, after one year since the brewing of Dreyfus Affair, Zola felt that he had done everything for the cause, so he decided to return to Paris from London. On 29thof September in 1902, Zola and his wife were found poisoned with carbon in their apartment. They were both urgently sent to the hospital. Madame Zola was saved, but our beloved Zola left the world forever. His last book was still unfished. Four years after Zola’s death, Dreyfus was found innocent and retrieved his army rank on the 12thof July in 1906. 

Zola’s death has always been controversial, but the evidence at the time could not prove it a murder. In 1953, a chimney worker Henri Buronfosse admitted on his deathbed that he and some others had blocked the chimney of Zola’s apartment, leading him to die out of “accidental” carbon poisoning.   

Dreyfus Affair built the French media and stimulated the case where “media supervises the government”. It also proves to the world that enduring success and belief in truth can be built by a real public intellectual. Before Dreyfus Affair, Zola was a successful person in his time and enjoyed his life with his wife, lover, and two children. However, the affair destroyed the materialistic gains of him. He was pretty much murdered at the end due to the affair. How can such “public intellectual” not touch the heart of people?

If my dear readers have the chance, you can read some works of Zola. Zola’s works are never full of stringent criticisms but filled with tearful descriptions about the people that are at the bottom of our society. His naturalism shapes humanity. 

In comparison with today, many articles, tweets, and events, have seen unprecedented tractions; however, the logics of these works sometimes fell short. Emotions drove these works, which pretended to be rational but not. In many conflicts of the world, people also went with emotions and fragmented information instead of fair debates from both sides. The unprofessionalism of public discussions challenges the bottom line of many industries. 

For this, I can only go back to what I say all the time, as long as people are happy. But to grow a country, it requires people with true knowledge and strength. Wish every nation or institution to have more intellectuals like Zola. 

中文版请看此处:爱弥尔•左拉——法国的文豪公知 | 论舆论的领旗手

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Madame Zola,Evelyn Block-Dano, 1997.






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