Thursday, 7 February 2013


7th February,1898: opening day of Zola's tumultuous libel trial in Paris after the publication of J'accuse....
Art and Conscience
'Why lie, why not tell the truth?' (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet, 1867)  
Truth appears as a plastic commodity to people in power as it does to most of us in our everyday life. This is one of the reasons we need art, including fiction and history: to correct a short circuit in our moral brains. We despise liars in fiction, and we expect dramatized accounts of real life to be true. 
Manet's 'Olympia', 1863:When our artists give us a Venus, they 'correct' Nature, but Edouard Manet has asked himself, 'Why lie, why not tell the truth?' He has made us acquainted with Olympia, a contemporary girl, the sort of girl we meet every day on the pavements... (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet, 1867). 
Image source: Wikipedia

Truth wouldn't mean so much to any of us if we hadn't been conditioned to think of it as a deity, secular and spiritual, personified as a solid figure, often paired with Justice; without it our human experience would descend to scrabbling about without a compass in primal mud. We are far more worried about whether other people are being truthful than if we are, because we are not in control; our own adjustments of the truth do not count as lies; they are corrections. We have our eye on a greater truth transcending ordinary means, whether it's saving our careers or the peace of mind of someone we love; we think a self-constructed truth, made up of our intentions and deletions, is as valid as the actual truth.  Like successful businessmen and ambitious politicians, we end up feeling that the more virtuous duty is not to be found out.

It is true that a lie can save lives. It is true that a lie can cost lives. Dr David Kelly was a casualty of "reasons of State". Hundreds of badly cared for hospital patients are casualties of institutional lies, and everywhere in government and businesses there are managements inciting or covering up lies and making scapegoats....

A politician's lack of honesty in private life does not necessarily reflect his public probity; there have been plenty of great writers in the moral tradition who were shits at home and we don't stop reading their books. Oscar Wilde made a fatal mistake lying in court, and he is a tragic hero, not a villain. 

The profession had negative connotations as soon as the term "politician" was invented in the 16th centuryShakespeare's characters think of politicians as "vile" and "scurvy", and essentially untruthful "Get thee glass eyes, And like a scurvy politician seem To see the things thou dost not".  Machiavelli was clear that one of the reasons an effective ruler had to be a good liar, was that humanity as a whole, that had to be governed somehow, was full of liars. 

It is hypocritical of us to be surprised that a politician has lied; the real shock is when they do so ineptly; after that, our acceptance that there is no longer a form of accountability, not even a prison term, severe enough to deter the others. Falls from power that used to be so dramatically steep, ending in obscurity, exile or suicide, seem to have trampolines ready, now. We've been conditioned for the inevitable comebacks, either in their former positions as public officials or, in a dizzying turn around of the glass, as well-paid moral instructors to the rest of us on repentance, the art of lying and feeling good about it. 

There seems to be no distinction made in the penalty paid by a despicable lie in private life and a treacherous lie to the nation, under the pretext of reasons of State. Occasionally, the lie falls in both areas. Truth, "aletheia", the disclosure of evidence, is a primary condition of democracy. When a politician lies to justice, he subverts democracy, he breaks his contract with the people he represents. 

A liar found out is an embarrassment, but we understand him as much as we despise him; we do not think he is more obnoxious than his spiteful wife. Revenge is a passion, that, like art, should be done well or not at all. Vengeance should fit the crime and it should make life better afterwards than it was before. Whatever she's really like as a public official and a private person, one of the great achievements of Hillary Clinton has been not to confound the personal with the political.

As children we lie frequently, seeing no distinction between the actual and fantasy worlds, but we are devastated when we catch our parents out in an untruth. Even when they may not be consciously lying, our leaders, in loco parentis, badly read in history, slip readily into emotive language to justify policy they have already set their minds on, like inventing a miasma of evil in "existential" threats, that misidentifies the real enemy and alienates friends.

A lie can cost lives. Dr David Kelly was a casualty of "reasons of State". Hundreds of badly cared for hospital patients are casualties of institutional lies, and everywhere in government and businesses there are managements inciting or covering up lies and making scapegoats....
On 13th January, 1898, Emile Zola, best-selling literary scourge of bourgeoisie and government hypocrisy, published J'accuse, history’s most famous open letter, in defence of the wrongfully imprisoned Jewish army officer Dreyfus, in which he accused the French military of an antisemitic perversion of justice to cover up a spy scandal. He demanded an enquiry in "broad daylight" to reveal the truth.

Most of his polemic, that reads like a warning to the 20th century, has not dated. The crimes of which he accused the government, of lying to the public, twisting public opinion, poisoning "the small and the humble", stirring "the passions of reactionism and intolerance", arranging false evidence of expert witnesses in court and "an abominable press campaign", are still depressingly familiar

Zola's article was given its dramatic first-person title by L'Aurore's editor, Clemenceau, invoking the personal prestige of France's most famous contemporary novelist, the voice of a free-born man declaring war on tyranny. The Manchester Guardian reported: "It was a heroic act. M. Zola had everything to lose — the popularity which he has earned by years of toil and upon which as a novelist he has to depend for a livelihood, and even his personal liberty. On the other hand, he had nothing to gain but the satisfaction of having repaired a judicial error and rescued an innocent man from a horrible captivity." (Manchester Guardian, 24 February 1898).

Within two weeks of the publication of J'accuse in the newspaper L'Aurore, edited by Clemenceau, 'le tigre' of French republican politics and future leader during the First World War, Zola was prosecuted by the government for libel, and on 23 February, after a trial described at the time by the Manchester Guardian as "a mockery of justice", he was condemned to the highest penalty of a year's imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 francs. There was a further humiliation when he was removed from the Légion d'honneur.  

He avoided hearing his final sentence at a second trial in July by fleeing to England, where he stayed in exile until June 1899, returning when he saw signs that "truth was marching on", with the government's collapse under pressure from the Dreyfusards, and the appointment of a more sympathetic president

Zola's prime objective, the retrial of Dreyfus, was ordered at last. Zola died in 1902, and four years later, Dreyfus was officially exonerated. As a symbol of the nation's cleared conscience, Zola was re-instated as a hero of France and his ashes were transferred to the Panthéon. Looking at reality through Zola's eyes, the march of truth against the army of lies and injustice never stops.

  "I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness" (Zola, J'accuse).
Glass vase "Les hommes noirs" by Émile Gallé and Victor Prouvé, engraved with monstrous mutations coming out of the darkness of human nature, displayed in Paris at the 1900 Exposition Universelle
Image source: Wikipedia Commons.
Gallé, as committed to social causes as he was to experimental decorative art, based on his close observation of nature and mastery of modern technology, risked the profits of his successful glass and ceramics manufacturing business by using his art works to publicly denounce the fanaticism, prejudices and lies that had scapegoated the innocent Jewish army officer, Dreyfus and smeared the nation. French society was polarized around the issue, that became a struggle for the soul of the Third Republic, that artists and intellectuals like Gallé, Zola and Clemenceau (an admirer of Impressionism) fought for with self-sacrificing courage. 

Standing forlornly among the evil figures on the vase is a male figure symbolizing Truth. Gallé and Zola did not think of Truth and Beauty as abstract slogans for selling their books and decorative objects to anxiously self-improving consumers, nor as grand allegorical figures, but as manifestations of contemporary human virtues and vices, ideas and impulses. 

The moral difficulty for any popular writer or artist whose target is the fashionable and avaricious middle-classes, obsessed with making money and making themselves look good, is that they are his chief customers, on whom he is dependent to make a living. The more hypocritical the audience are, the better for the artist. When they pop up in a novel, sex and money are addictive entertainments rather than subjects for moral improvement; whenever they recognize themselves, individuals may adjust the mirror held up to nature if they don't like their reflection. Libel suits are as often filed to appease personal vanity or re-varnish a lie, as to uncover the truth.

Writers and artists are found among the biggest liars, compounded by self-righteousness - but not Zola. With commercial success, an artist may become assimilated by the bourgeoisie without realizing it. Even the humanitarian causes to which he lends his name are carefully selected to add lustre and not injure him. Zola was one of those who in a long career kept the clarity of his youthful vision and courage of his convictions. He wasn't scared of personal discomfort. He believed that active involvement and protest about the times he lived in was an essential part of being an artist: " I am here to live out loud". ("Je viens vivre tout haut", from The Experimental Novel, 1880.) Keeping quiet about human rights violations is to collude with them.

Art and Friendship
"It is humanity that interests me" (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet, 1867)  
Thirty years before he risked his own safety and reputation in the Dreyfus case, Zola had taken up his pen in another passionate public defence, in this case of the painter Manet, whose early works were misunderstood and condemned by the art establishment for their alla prima style and shockingly realistic subject-matter. For Zola they represented a new analytical truth in art. 

As a Realist writer, Zola dismissed preconceived and philosophically pompous ideas about absolute beauty with his charcteristic sweeping rhetoric - "It is humanity that interests me" - and argued that all kinds of artistic interpretation of reality were valid, contributing to a vast and varied "epic of human creation." 

As a novelist, Zola subjugated his characters to his theories, but as an art critic, as respectful of the painter's craft as of his own but freed of self-conscious dogma, he put sympathetic comprehension of human individuality first. 
The Salon frequently rejected Manet's paintings for exhibition throughout the 1860s. In 1867, Manet mounted his own exhibition opposite the Exposition Universelle from which his work was excluded. 

To support him, Zola republished his prescient essay 'A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet', originally written for the journal La Revue du XIXe siècle the previous year, in response to the Salon's rejection of the Spanish-influenced 'Le Fifre', in which he declared that Manet's new manner of painting was the art of the future. "He speaks in a language which is composed of simplicity and truth....The whole of the artist's personality consists in the way his eye functions: he sees things in terms of light, colour and masses...Don't expect anything of him except a truthful and literal interpretation." (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet,1867).

"An analytical painter": detail of Manet's portrait of Zola (1868) in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art 
Symbols of an intellectual and artistic friendship are in the still-life details of the background to Manet’s portrait of Émile Zola, painted in gratitude to the writer for his support. The blue-covered brochure itself is visible behind the inkpot and quill, the instruments of the writer's profession; of the pictures on the wall, 'Olympia' was Zola’s favourite of Manet’s works, and the one which, along with 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' (later fictionalized as 'Plein Air' in the 1886 novel L'œuvre), had aroused most bourgeois and critical outrage; the Velasquez engraving emphasizes their shared admiration for the great Spanish painter; and the Japanese print acknowledges the crucial influence of Far Eastern art on 19 century European aesthetics and painting techniques. In his essay, Zola had identifed the similarity in Manet's style and Japanese "in their strange elegance and magnificent bold patches of colour".
Paul Alexis reading a manuscript to Zola, oil painting (1869 -70) by Cézanne.
Image source: Wikipedia
Alexis, who wrote his own biography of Zola (Notes d'un ami, 1882) was such a deeply committed follower of the elder writer, that he was called Zola's shadow; Cézanne catches the disciple-guru relationship in their poses. All three men came from Aix-en-Provence; Cézanne and Zola, only a year apart in age, had been friends since boyhood. Sadly, their close friendship was not proof against the demands of their separate vocations, and was broken off when they were in their late forties by Cézanne, personally betrayed, he felt, by Zola drawing him from life in the character of the painter, Lantier, in L'œuvre (1886), whose life and relationships are destroyed by his obsessive artistic temperament, tainted with inherited madness.

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