At 125, Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ is a tract for our times - Hindustan Times
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At 125, Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ is a tract for our times

Nov 04, 2023 10:47 PM IST

Reading J’Accuse today, we relive Zola’s experience of truth-telling and quest for justice.

Emile Zola, the French writer, is better known for his works of fiction such as Nana as compared to his role as a public intellectual in the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France. The Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) was a political scandal that divided the French Third Republic. Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry, was convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the coast of South America.

For intellectuals like Emile Zola, the real struggle was against intolerance and arbitrary power. PREMIUM
For intellectuals like Emile Zola, the real struggle was against intolerance and arbitrary power.

In March 1896, an application written by Major Ferdinand Esterhazy was discovered to be in handwriting that matched the document that had convicted Dreyfus. Once the truth emerged, the High Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Dreyfus and threw out the evidence on which he had been convicted. Then, on January 13, 1898, appeared in the Paris newspaper L’Aurore, Zola’s famous open letter to the President of France, titled J’Accuse (I Accuse). Zola found himself in direct conflict with French society over the matter of anti-Semitism.

Though he didn’t seem to have much contact with the French Jewish population directly, he was firmly committed to combating prejudice and intolerance against the Jews. J’Accuse became a powerful way to evaluate the structural evils of French society and the State. Consequently, Zola transformed the way intellectuals thought about themselves and their vocation. Zola was lauded for his courage and heroism, and the honour was extended to all those intellectuals who stood up against the fanatic crowds that rallied around the idea of nationalism and appealed for justice for Dreyfus.

It was the moral value of the intellectual as an enlightener and a hero of justice that was at the heart of J’Accuse. Interestingly, the intervention of radical French intellectuals in favour of Dreyfus was symbolised by their resistance against popular opinion. Zola and others were restating that to be an intellectual meant standing up against prejudice, hatred, violence, and injustice, and upholding moral and political values that the crowds rejected.

For intellectuals like Zola, the real struggle was against intolerance and arbitrary power. This was the same battle that Voltaire fought in 1733 (the year his Philosophical Letters was published) and, later, by intellectuals like Albert Camus. It seems with the beginning of the public campaign in favour of Dreyfus, the necessity of re-inventing Voltaire was felt more than ever by the Dreyfusards. Zola understood that intellectuals must confront the “Era of Crowds”, as Gustav Le Bon called it. What he and other French intellectuals learned from the Dreyfus Affair was that the crowd represents essentially an anti-democratic force in service of authoritarian rulers.

In the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, the “intellectual” was portrayed as an individual who was anti-conformist and who dared to go against the current. Zola and those who signed the famous “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” took a position independent of those in power. Such an act of questioning represented the courage to think independently and creatively against the tide. That is why, 125 years since its publication, Zola’s J’accuse continues to be a contemporary document.

Zola’s intervention in the late 19th century French public sphere represented a universal action more than a simple Dreyfusard gesture against anti-Semite rightists. In this sense, the day J’Accuse appeared in L’Aurore (January 13, 1898) and sold 300,000 copies, the intellectual became a self-conscious sociological actor. Zola became a voice of the struggle for equality and justice. Delivering the oration at Zola’s funeral on October 5, 1902, Anatole France said Zola “was a moment in the history of human conscience”.

Zola came to symbolise a social figure that, nearly a century later, Edward Said characterised in his Reith Lectures of 1993 in the following terms: “An individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public… The intellectual does so based on universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously.”

The three main characteristics that Said considered for an intellectual, namely autonomy, independence and secularity, were particularly evident in J’Accuse. For him, the injustice against Dreyfus was wrong, especially because much of the publicity surrounding the Dreyfus Affair came from anti-Semitic groups in France. The moral and political positions Zola expressed in J’Accuse, were probably also the reason why Ludovic Trarieux, one of Dreyfus’ lawyers, decided to found the League of Human Rights in 1898.

Reading J’Accuse today, we relive Zola’s experience of truth-telling and quest for justice. This awareness and questioning, like the search for the truth associated with it, might be difficult to achieve. But they must never be abandoned.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, a dissident Iranian philosopher, is director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace at OP Jindal Global University. The views expressed are personal

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