Rupert Christiansen S Tales Of The New
Babylon Essay, Research Paper
Zola s La D b cle, first planned in 1868, was the penultimate chapter in Les Rougon-Macquart. Warfare was something Zola had always meant to give full play in Les Rougon-Macquart, and his 1868 scheme had provided for a novel that will have the military world as its framework ; an episode in [Napoleon III s] Italian campaign. But after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War, this installment acquired special significance. What had originally been envisaged as one tale among others came to be seen as the denouncement of the entire saga. Zola decided almost immediately to recount in La D b cle not only the virtual annihilation of half the Army of the Rhine but the bungled opportunities, political maneuvers, and missed cues that brought about this disaster.
The two-month Paris Commune ensued when the Republicans of Paris staged a bloodless revolution and proclaimed the establishment of the Third Republic shortly after this fall of the Loius Napoleon. As far as Marx was concerned, he felt that at the Commune was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions and its majority was in no wise socialist nor could it be. However Marx emphasised that its great social measure was its own existence.
In this essay I will discuss La D b cle, and Zola s apparent lecturing tone. For while Zola exposed many social sores he had never previously attempted to put forward ideas for healing them. I will discuss how Zola felt that it was not the Prussians who brought down the Second Empire, but the corrupt society of France, and its epicentre, Paris. This will bring me onto the Paris Commune, where I will introduce Marx s theories into the fold.
The research and documentation carried out in preparation for La D b cle was immensely in depth, and although overburdened with the sheer weight of the documentary material, Zola took great care not to lose sight of the individual in the vast panorama. Conscious of the danger of having the two armies emerge as his heroes, he constructed the novel in such a way as to protect the individuality of several dozen characters through whose eyes the action would be seen : each character represents one tat d me psychologique of the France of the day . He did this by ascribing to each of these characters a national trait: the pleasure-seeking France, the despairing France, France the volatile enthusiast, France doomed to disaster.
These characters would thus symbolize types who, by their thoughts and actions, would reveal the roles played by the various national characteristics in the debacle. This, Zola thought, was also a genuinely scientific way in which to study the causes of the French collapse and the destruction of the Second Empire.
The narrative if logically divided into three sections, but by subdividing each section into eight chapters Zola aimed for a symmetry quite out of harmony with the haphazard events he describes. More in keeping with the subject matter is his deployment of the ever-roving eye, the constantly changing view and the diversity of opinion and reaction devices aimed at imparting a totality of understanding of an incredibly confused engagement.
The two heroes of La D b cle, Jean Macquart and Maurice Levassuer, symbolize the contradictory qualities of France itself. Jean is conservative and sensible, courageous and industrious, while Maurice is intelligent, egoistic, volatile and frivolous. When the two men establish a profound and unbreakable friendship, the symbolism is complete.
Here, surely, was the spirit of brotherhood which had existed in the early days of the world Maurice could here his own humanity in the sounds of Jean s heartbeats.
The symbolism personified in Jean and Maurice continues through to the end of the novel. While the disparate qualities of the French character are welded together for the common good, all goes well. But when the intellectual, reckless Maurice escapes from Jean s steadying influence, the parting is disastrous. Maurice joins the rebellious Communards, thus threatening the nation with overthrow and ultimate destruction, and it is Jean s fate to be his executioner. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Commune, Zola saw conservatism, not revolution, as the answer to France s problems at the time. The killing of Maurice by Jean was the final, symbolic act in the drama of national survival.
The absence of major female characters is not surprising in a war novel. Passion, in this seven-week conflict, is reserved for killing and self-survival. Even the civilian women have their softness temporarily frozen, as with Sylvine, who lures a spy to his death. The spy is Goliath, her former lover and the father of her child; but fond memories and old loyalties now have no place in her heart. The local guerrillas seize Goliath in her home and after a mock trial bleed him to death, while they all watch. Sylvine s child watches, too:
Throughout the trial, Sylivine had not stirred. She had simply stood there waiting, her face rigid, her thoughts elsewhere, preoccupied with the obsession, which, for the past two days, had completely dominated her She put [the bucket] down and, as she straightened her back again, her eyes once more met Goliath s. In the wretched man s gaze was a last entreaty, the expression of a man who does not want to die. But she felt no trace of womanly pity; at that moment, all she desired was his death
At times, La D b cle assumes the weight of a military manual in its dissection of the French defeat. The reasons for the easy Prussian victory had for twenty years been the subject of intense discussion and any intelligent comment on the rout was bound to excite public interest. There was also the ever present layman s suspicion about the way the army was run, for although it was protected from public scrutiny by the usual brass-bound secrecy, scandals emerged from time to time to give plenty of cause for alarm. Zola s patient analysis diagnosed that the Franco-Prussian War was not lost on the battlefield; France s entire social fabric ill-designed, rotten, and torn by greed, corruption and ineptitude was at fault.
Rupert Christiansen s Tales of the New Babylon would certainly support Zola s theory, as it paints a picture of Paris which envisages all of the above in a society which seems thirsty for entertainment, and in which thrives immorality and dissolution:
a culture which was not anxious to ask profound questions of itself or to light the scorching flame of moral idealism. What Paris craved was amusement: craved it obsessively The result was Chaos, chaos everywhere , as a columnist mourned in his review of the events of 1869.
We are told of a country ruled by a limp, egoistic man, Loius Napoleon, who was constantly being struck down by illness. He was married to a woman who was outrageously tactless and downright rude , who he reputedly cheated on with countless mistresses. The immorality of Paris was manifested in what intellectuals referred to as the city of universal prostitution ; with over 200 registered brothels, 3,500 registered prostitutes and the number of part-timers or casuals was estimated by the police in 1869 as around 30,000. The medical term alcoholism originated in Paris in 1865, and around the same time 12% of the population were illiterate. It was this inner decay, along with the sheer arrogance and inflated egoism of the Second Empire that was to bring it down, according to Zola. It was as if the Prussian army was expected to just stand there and fall down like toy soldiers. Zola was heavily criticized for his denigration and belittling of the French, however he responded publicly by saying:
In writing this book I believe I acted as a moralist and a patriot. I exposed the faults and failings of our dear country. I revealed the mistakes made in the course of that terrible war of 1870, so that they might serve as a lesson to us I have the satisfaction and the conviction of having written a book calculated to raise out soldiers spirits: it is a book of courage and revival, a book insisting on the need for revenge
When Zola was writing La D b cle, it must have been difficult to resist leaning to one side or another in the chapters on the Communard uprising, but here again the novelist has no illusions. The Communards were composed of idealists and men of great qualities, but their ranks were so shot through with self-seeking freebooters and cynical troublemakers that their cause was in jeopardy from the start. Zola reported all of this, for that is what he had observed himself. The novelist s primary emotion during those final, hysterical, bloody days of the Commune was one of profound sadness at all the bestial violence, regardless of the side responsible. The sadness remained locked away for twenty years, to emerge with such riveting recall in La D b cle.
Marx paid particular attention to the Paris Commune. The two-month period did not result from any planned action and at no time benefited from the leadership of any individual or organization with a coherent programme. Significantly, however, a third of the elected members were manual workers and most of those were among the third who were activists in the French branch of the First International (a union made up of English and French industrial workers). Marx felt that the measures of the Commune, remarkable for their sagacity and moderation, could only be such as were compatible with the state of a besieged town Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. The Commune was neither created for inspired by the International: it was not even, in a strict sense, socialist in its doctrines, unless a dictatorship of any popular elected committee in itself constitutes a socialist phenomenon. Workmen, soldiers, writers, painters, foreign exiles of mildly liberal views, bohemians and adventurers of every description were swept up in a common revolutionary wave.
Marx, in the name of the International, published an address which he proclaimed that the moment for analysis and criticism had passed.
After giving a swift and vivid account of the events which led to the creation of the Commune, of its rise and fall, he acclaimed it as the first open and defiant manifestation in history of the strength and idealism of the working class the first pitched battle which it had fought against its oppressors before the eyes of the whole world, an act forcing all its false friends, the radical bourgeoisie, the democrats and humanitarians, to show themselves in their true colours, as enemies to the ultimate ends for which it was prepared to live and die.
He went further than this: he recognized the replacement of the bourgeois state by the Commune as that transitional form of social structure by passing through which alone the workers could gain their ultimate emancipation. The doctrine of the Communist Manifesto asserted that the immediate end of the revolution was not to destroy, but to seize the state ( the proletariat will centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state ) and make use of it to liquidate the enemy. While he approved many measures of the Commune, he blamed it for not being ruthless and radical enough: nor did he believe in its aim of creating immediate social and economical equality. Right can never be higher , he wrote some years afterwards, than the economic structure of society and the cultural development thereby determined. These cannot be transformed overnight. The Commune was the first spontaneous rising of the workers in their capacity as workers, however was not directly inspired by Marx. He regarded it, indeed, as a political blunder. Before there had been many scattered streams of socialist thought and action; but this rising, with its world repercussions, the great effect which it was bound to have upon the workers of all lands, was the first event of the new era. The men who had died in it and for it were the first martyrs of international socialism; their blood would be the seed of the new proletarian faith: whatever the tragic faults and shortcomings of the Commune. By coming forward to pay them homage, Marx achieved what he intended to achieve: he helped to create a heroic legend of socialism. Engels regarded the Commune as the closest realization to date of the Utopia he and Marx envisaged.
Yet if the Commune was not a socialist revolution, Marx neverthless emphasized that its great social measure was its own existence . Far from being seen as a dogmatic model or formula for revolutionary governments of the future, the Commune, for Marx, was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.
During the furore of the Commune in the final section of La D b cle, the burning of Paris is seen as a sacrificial fire. In spite of the death of Maurice, the vision of a nation about to be reborn gives Zola a hopeful note on which to end his novel, and it becomes clear that his whole purpose has been to lead up to this climax. On the last page he gives Jean s reflections as he looks out over the smoking city.
As night slowly settled down upon the burning city, it seemed to him that a new dawn was already beginning to break. True, this was the end of everything, an accumulation of disasters, decreed by fate, such as no other nation had experienced: a succession of defeats, whole provinces lost, a huge indemnity to be paid, a terrible civil war drowned in blood, entire districts filled with nothing but dead people, money and honour exhausted, a whole world to be rebuilt!
Zola s tone and attitude throughout the book is said to be heavily influenced by the fact that he had become a father. The status of father is often felt to carry with it that of educator; and besides, having children gave him a concern for the future of France such as had never filled him to the same extent before. Zola had a clear message in La D b cle, that of teaching France its wrongs, which was misinterpreted by many at the time.
* A Dictionary of Marxist Thought-Bottomore, Harris, Kiernan, Miliband-Blackwell, 1983
* Emile Zola-F. W. J. Hemmings-Oxford University Press, 1966
* Garden of Zola-Emile Zola and his Novels For English Readers
Graham King-Barrie and Jenkins, 1978
* Karl Marx-Isaiah Berlin-Harper Collins, 1995
* La D b cle-Emile Zola-Elek Books, 1968
* Marx For Beginners-Rius-Icon Books, 1998
* Tales of the New Babylon-Rupert Christiansen-Minerva, 1996
* The Communist Manifesto-Karl Marx-Penguin Classics, 1996
* The Life and Times of Emile Zola-F. W. J. Hemmings-Elek Books, 1977
* The Paris Commune: The View From The Left-Eugene Schulkind-Blackwell, 1972
* Zola: A Life-Frederick Brown-Papermac, 1997