Emile Zola’s J’accuse!still holds a great standing in contemporary French culture, despite beingpublished 120 years ago.
Being reputed as he was, the influence of the openletter contesting political and judicial misjustice and corruption in regardsto the Dreyfus affair, during which an Jewish Alsatian was accused of relaying aconfidential bordereau to the Germans, cannot be understated; not only did it communicatethe injustice towards the individual he believed to be innocent, but Zolaexposed the scale of injustice surrounding Jews in France at the time asconstitutional, and its perceived impact upon France’s core values andreputation. This text will discuss Zola’s attempts to evoke change in the firstand final sections of J’accuse! throughreferences to morality and myth, patriotism and responsibility, which,combined, result in the persuasive and impactful piece that ultimately led toDreyfus’s 1906 rehabilitation. Certainly a key contender, if not the main cause, of Alfred Dreyfus’sincrimination is the historical representation of Jews in French culture. Onlygranted true French nationality in 1789, the Jews of France suffered antisemitismfrom both sides of the political spectrum, often stereotyped as bourgeois andcapitalist, and misaligned with the patriotic values of France.
As indicated byZola, the press, having been liberated by the introduction of new legislationin 1881, contributed to further alienation of the French Jewish community. Asput by Rothstein 1’From the start this was essential to the way his accusers shaped the evidenceand judged his character.’ In order to overcome this obstacle in acquittingDrefus, Zola focusses strongly on the morality of the situation, asserting thatthe captain was indeed innocent, “Je ne veux pas être complice.
Mes nuits seraient hantées par le spectre del’innocent qui expie là-bas, dans la plus affreuse des tortures, un crime qu’iln’a pas commis.” The emphasis of soon-to-be lost humanity not onlyprompts urgency but defies the widespread cultural prejudice towards Jews, whowere viewed as inferior by many. Indeed, Zola contrasts this with adehumanising of those that sought to maintain the biased social order throughrallying for Esterhazy, who Zola maintains was culpable. In his words, “Je ne les connais pas, je ne les aijamais vus, je n’ai contre eux ni rancune ni haine. Ils ne sont pour moi que desentités, des espirits de malfaisance sociale.” The writer disassociatesthem from society, and alludes to ‘entités,’ whose inclusion is significant,given the almost mythical origin of antisemitism in French society.
In hisarticle ‘”En Famille”: The Dreyfus Affair and Its Myths’,2Marrus argues that the country had been fuelling the affair with long-lived mythsaligned with antisemetic vision, particularly proliferated as a consequence ofthe recent polemics involving the Union Générale. He states “for every perceivedill in society, the anti-Semites has a story and an explanation… thearch-antisemite Edouard Drumont made it clear, in La Libre Parole, how a litany of other stories pointed inexorablyto the Jewish captain’s (Dreyfus) guilt.” One could perceive Zola’s referencesto these negative entities, combined with consistent imagery of dark and light,as rhetoric to counteract the influence of such myths, and playing on France’s susceptibilityto affiliate demographics with negative intentions and images.
This is particularly crucial to the efficacy of the letter,as it introduces the concern for the fate of, not solely Dreyfus, but the PresidentFaure, to whom Zola addressed it, and France itself. Zola introduces this motifof a mark, or stain that will taint the president’s reputation, and that of theRepublic, which continues throughout the text. This is furthermore highlightedby the contrast of the ‘étoile’ seen in the first extract that represents the presidencyand France’s elite position compared to its neighbours and rivals, to the ‘souillure’that will tarnish the so emphatically stated, otherwise unblemished historicalrepresentations of the time. France’s implication is furthermore condemned byZola as he asserts the weakness that the divide will bring to the country. In ‘Whythe Dreyfus Affair Matters’3,Louis Begley analyses the social ramifications of such a divisive moment forFrench politics. He argues that the choice of either supporting those in poweror an individual one believes to be innocent reduces the national sense of securityand faith in the constitution within the population, and therefore the perceivedstrength of a less than ideally unified nation to France’s rivals. Needless tosay, this would be an immense concern to those in power given to pressure ofthe Franco-Prussian tensions following the war, and Zola certainly makes us ofthe importance of national reputation to his advantage in his words “Et c’estfini, la France a sur la joue cette souillure, l’histoire écrira que c’est sousvotre présidence qu’un tel crime social a pu être commis.” Here, the convincinguse of the future tense and another use of the repeated word ‘crime’ disgracethe military and government, particularly in relation to Esterhazy’s acquittal.
Given that the major was deemed innocent by the same handwriting analysis uponwhich Dreyfus was incriminated, the military’s corruption was clear, and Zola’shints at such culpability lead to discussion of responsibility.Particularly within the first extract, the text utilisesboth flattery and tones of urgency to instil a feeling of responsibility withinthe intended reader, the president. The assertion of the government’s role toassure justice and wellbeing for its citizens is maintained through bothflattery and a condemning of the affair.
At the summit of his introduction, Zolademonstrates that it is the task of none other than “le premier magistrat dupays” to resolve the travesty, here intensified by the words “je la crierai, cette vérité, de toute la force dema révolte d’honnête homme. Pour votre honneur, je suis convaincu que vous l’ignorez.”This idea of honesty is particularly effective given the patriotic linksto truth and freedom in the early lines of the introduction; compared to thewords “basses calomnies”, Zola repositions the two opposing sides of those condemningor supporting Dreyfus to parties of right and wrong, the powerful government againstthe slanderous bias of the press. Motifs of light and exposure assure thereader that the revelation of truth is inevitable and imment, and furtherconnotes morality. Empowered through the tactical flattery and consistentrespect with which Zola addresses the president, the writer further strengthensthe obligation to contest the false verdict through personifying the core valueof truth: “Je le répète avec une certitude plus véhémente : la vérité est enmarche et rien ne l’arrêtera.
” Furtheremphasising the urgency and power, also notably seen in the words “elle s’yamasse, elle y prend une force telle d’explosion, que le jour où elle éclate,elle fait tout sauter avec elle”, Zola makes no mistake in relaying the powerof the truth, regardless of whether it is supported by the military orgovernment and it is this that makes the letter so profoundly impactful. It can therefore be concluded that Zola’s rhetoric, makinguse of historical notions of Jewish identity and representation to reflect uponantisemites, remind the president, and the French public, that the Dreyfusaffair and its implications were truly severe and required urgent attention;not only was the fate of an innocent man at stake, but that of the country.Zola asserted how directly the two were connected, denouncing injustice anddemanding the transparency and moral decency of the military and the governmentat the time. J’accuse! provoked arenewed debate, but also drew the attention of other countries, and has sincebecome a staple in political history, the term being used in discussion of suchpolemical figures as Donald Trump4and Paul Stegers5, inreaction to the actions of Germany in 1915 by Richard Grelling and even modernpop culture references. It follows that the impact of Emile Zola’s most famouswork cannot be understated. Bibliography Begley, Louis, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, Yale University Press, (2007)Degrelle, Léon, J’accuse M. Segers : j’accuse le ministreSegers d’être un cumulard, un bankster, un pilard d’épargne et un lache, (1938)Marrus, Michael R, ‘« En Famille » The Dreyfus Affairand its Myths’, French Politics andSociety, Vol.
12, No.4, Commemorating 50 Years of Women’s Suffrage (2007) p.81Rothstein, Edward, ‘A Century Old Court Case That StillResonates’, The New York Times, (2007)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/arts/design/17drey.html?pagewanted=1=1Accessed 14/01/2018 1 EdwardRothstein ‘A Century Old Court Case That Still Resonates’, The New York Times,2007 http://www.nytimes.
com/2007/10/17/arts/design/17drey.html?pagewanted=1=1Accessed 14/01/20182 MichaelR Marrus, ‘”En Famille” : The Dreyfus Affair and Its Myths’, FrenchPolitics and Society, Vol. 12, No.4, Commemorating 50 Years of Women’sSuffrage, 2007, p. 813Louis Begley, ‘Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters’ Yale University Press, 20074 PeterBaker’s reaction to the sacking of Comey, June 20175Leon Degrelle, ‘J’accuse’, 1938