Monday, June 15, 2009

Wishful thinking

Dystopias are a common enough discussion in literature. With dystopian literature found in a wide variety of genres, presenting futures where each highlights one potentially prophetic aspect of modern society, it's easy to forget that another type of book exists as well: that of wishful thinking. I can think of no better example than "Truth", by Émile Zola.

"Truth" is loosely based on Zola's own experiences in the Dreyfus affair, in that it highlights anti-Semitism in [the then] modern French society. The first three quarters of this large book is about anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church's influence in France at the time. It's hard not to walk away from the book with a clear image of Zola's own personal views of religion and education. The book centers around Marc and his desire to see secularism triumph against the evils of religion. The last quarter of the book displays Marc's (aka Zola's) wishes. While these 150 pages are entirely unnecessary for the book, they shed quite a bit of light on Zola's own wishful thinking. He takes the reader years into the unnamed future and rough estimates suggest it ends well into the early 20th century. Zola's desire to name the future he'd like is clear: he declares that the legislature "finally" voted for a complete separation of church and state, decades into the book. The translator then notes that this is indeed Zola's wishful thinking, for as of the translation (1902-3), such laws have not yet passed though the translator adds that it "has never appeared more likely than it does now". Zola doesn't leave it at that and goes further:
Why did he speak of the Jews? Anti-Semitism was dead--to such a degree, indeed, that the new generation failed to understand what was meant when people accused the Jews of every crime. [p. 542]

That once filthy print had been quite transformed by the new spirit, which had raised its readers both morally and intellectually. ... The Press will, indeed, become a most admirable instrument of education when it is no longer, as now, in the hands of political and financial bandits, bent on debasing and plundering their readers. [p. 564]
On the one hand, reading Zola's thoughts at the time are enlightening. Aside from his blatant political views, his Dreyfus style ideals are showcased in the form of his mirror character, Marc. Yet by setting to print what he hoped would occur, Zola ultimately serves rather as dystopian books do: the truth to his words casts an ugly light on what readers know actually occurred around the time the book ends. In the end, even wishful thinking and Utopia bring the modern reader the gloom of a dystopia novel.

8 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the short stories I've read by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. "The Yellow Wallpaper" may be best known and doesn't fit this pattern, but the super-utopian "Cottagette" left me with a weird tinge of sadness at her naïveté, while at the same time admiring her in many ways.
    A man proposes to a woman on the condition that she--wait for it--stop cooking: "Your work s quite too good to lose; it is a beautiful and distinctive art, and I don't want you to let it go. What would you think of me if I gave up my hard long years of writing for the easy competence of a well-paid cook!"

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  2. Interesting comment that Zola's utopia becomes a dystopia by implication. Two related examples come to mind. One of my favorite books is "The Family Moskat" by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It takes place in Warsaw and ends in 1939. Singer never mentions what happens afterwards, but he doesn't have to, and by leaving it to the reader to fill that in, not only is it much more effective, but as a result, the omission plays as big a role in the novel as that which is included. Similarly, I'm reading a book now on the history of Yiddish as a language. I am now at a point in the book in which most of the scholars under consideration were born in the 1880's. As the author discusses each one, he gives their birth and death dates in parentheses. All of the death dates range from 1939-1944, with most in the 1941-2 range. He never mentions this, but he doesn't have to, and it has a striking effect on your understanding of what happened to the scholarship at that time.

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  3. With all my background in French, Zola is one writer I have no experience with whatsoever. I suspect this might not be the book to start with but if I do decide to do a Zola project I'll definitely include it.

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  4. This one doesn't sound like it would be up my alley (make that allée), but I have an extremely lackadaisical Zola project going. So far, I've only read Thérèse Raquin and Nana. Truth might end up closer to the bottom of the pile.

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  5. It's hard to imagine the sort of courage Zola showed as he helped to expose the corruption behond the Dreyfus affair. In light of the recent shooting at the Holocaust museum in Washington, it's sad to see that even a century later we're still plagued with the same societal issues.

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  6. Thanks for this great post. Other people have already commented more intelligently than I can since I have not read Zola in years but I appreciate your thoughts.

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  7. Your review reminds me how patchy my reading has been - I don't think I've read anything by Zola. You have written a very eloquent description of this book, but would it be a good place to start reading Zola I wonder? I shall investigate further

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  8. For all readers interested in reading Zola, I would not recommend this last novel as a starting point. While a fascinating study, no doubt, it is overlong and lacks the concise punch some of Zola's other novels have. I do recommend readers interested in antisemitism and those wanting to read Zola beyond the well-respected bunch check "Truth" out but it's definitely not the book to start with. I can recommend "L'Assommoir" as a good "first" but as I have not read Zola's earlier works, it could be there are better places to start. Either way, "Truth" serves best as Zola's last novel, a book less impressive than others but very interesting in its own way.

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