Monday, May 25, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Nana'

I believe Nana was my introduction to Zola roughly two decades ago, but I just read the Douglas Parmee translation (pictured). I'd initially read Nana all those years ago because Ayn Rand repeatedly referenced Zola in her book The Romantic Manifesto. I sampled a lot of authors based on references Rand made in that book. It was clear she reviled Zola on every level, meanwhile she had heavy criticisms to make of Tolstoy's philosophy while praising Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz. I ended up reading and enjoying all of them.

My interest in reading Zola arose from how Rand appeared to consider him and Naturalism as the antithesis of Romanticism (and everything decent in the world). Whenever she needed a polar opposite of an "exalted sense of life" or the "larger than life" hero, Zola - or a reference to him - seemed to pop up. For example:
"The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important - as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature - or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre - or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola)..."
One certainly cannot argue with Rand's analysis; Zola's novels are not about palaces or heroic triumph. At bottom, her rejection of Zola is an intellectual version of the reaction many readers likely have: "Yuck!" Rand saw no valid purpose for an author to focus on this kind of subject matter.

Nana is definitely one of Zola's 'yuckier' books in the Cycle. In fact, I'm astonished he was able to publish it in 1880 at all (especially Chapter 13) without ending up in jail for lewdness or some such crime. Unlike many 'shocking' books from the period that have lost their edge over time, the frankness of Nana would shock a good number of people even today. In fact, by doing nothing more than updating the carriages, gas lights, and other 19th Century accouterments, Nana would be just as relevant today - as social satire if nothing else.

For example, it is easy to see Nana as a Anna Nicole Smith or some other similar 'non-celebrity' of recent years. Beyond the anagram of their first names, there are an amazing number of similarities between the two women:
  • A girl of questionable background making a fortune off wealthy (and foolish) men
  • Massive celebrity despite minimal - or no - talent
  • Considerable 'star power' activated by others 
  • An entourage that includes a: sickly son who dies young, lesbian, and little lap-dog
  • Smith's agent/boyfriend could be Fauchery or Labordette (or perhaps even Fontan)
Of course, one could draw parallels between Nana and any infamous/famous female personality of the present, because Nana is ultimately about a directionless bimbo whose crass sexuality casually conquers and destroy everything she touches. I'm sure a weighty academic paper could be written pairing a literary analysis of Nana and today's reality-TV-based popular culture.

But I digress. Taking a more literary view of things, a parallel Zola purposefully drew within the confines of his Cycle was between Nana and Renee Saccard, the second wife of Aristide Rougon Saccard in The Kill. Both women are kept in opulence by men who need them. Both amuse themselves by driving carriages around the Bois de Boulogne. I can't recall Zola mentioning that locale or past-time in any other book in the Cycle. The Bois may have simply been where wealthy female socialites with nothing better to do went in the afternoon, but I find it hard to believe he placed these two characters in the same milieu without intending that we would pick up the parallel. The parallels between the two characters go much deeper, too. Both women are what Zola would consider sexually deviant. Renee has an adulterous affair with her stepson, while Nana is a high-priced and promiscuous prostitute who engages in sadism, bisexuality, and masochism. Both also have affairs with young, effeminate men (Renee with Maxime, Nana with Georges). These parallels cannot all be coincidence.

However, it is the one key difference between the characters than makes the parallels worth noting. Renee - and her fortune - are consumed by her husband Saccard without any particular concern by her lover, Maxime. In fact, the two seem to take a 'bro's before ho's' attitude about Renee's adultery after it becomes known. Nana, in contrast, is victimized by none of her wealthy admirers. In fact, it is she destroys them financially, socially, and/or psychologically. Two even die as a result of her. She "gobbles them up" as Zola phrases it.

Edouard Manet Nana 1877
Her public image is the title character of the musical play that makes her famous: the blond Venus. More accurate is the image of the 'golden fly' that her on-again off-again journalist friend Fauchery creates, describing her as:
"...a tart, the offspring of four or five generations of alcoholics, her blood tainted by a long heredity of deep poverty and drink, which in her case had taken the form of unhinging the nervous balance of her sexuality...a tall and lovely girl with a magnificently sensual body, like a plant flourishing on a dung-heap, she was avenging the poor, underprivileged wretches from whom she'd sprung...She would carry this pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy. She was turning into a force of nature and, without any intention on her part, a ferment of destruction; between her plump white thighs, Paris was being corrupted and thrown into chaos..."
The gold of the fly described is not the color of precious metal, but the color of dung. She rises from the squalor of the lower classes, covered in corruption and despoiling everything she touches.

To start: it's extremely rare to find a female character of this kind in period literature that is not a victim. Nana is never depicted as a good girl tragically making her way in a world set against her (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Nancy from Great Expectations). She is a morally bankrupt, acquisitive conqueror, who controls everyone around her by means of her sexuality. Zola makes this clear in graphic language throughout the novel, but also in his scene setting. At the horse race in Chapter 11, the Empress is present but it is Nana who rules the scene. At a formal ball thrown by the Muffats, she exerts influence over everyone without being present. The guests even 'dance to her tune' at one point when a song from "The Blond Venus" is played.

The Varietes theatre, where much action in Nana takes place
Despite the power of the titular character, Nana is not a feminist novel nor the titillating history of a man-eating bitch. Zola does describe Nana as a man-eater, but he always makes it clear her course of destruction is unintended. She has no thought of hurting people any more than she has a concern about them once they are hurt. In fact, Zola's tone as a narrator drips with contempt for Nana. He constantly calls out her stupidity, lack of taste, non-existent talent, and social ineptitude, all while insisting that she is a "good sort of girl". Cruel and destructive, shallow and self-centered, Zola nevertheless doesn't give Nana the psychological depth to be a villain.

As another brick in the wall of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle depicting a family in Second Empire France, Nana was first brought forward by Zola in L'Assommoir. There Zola gives an ample view of the dung pile from which Nana rises. By the end of the book, she is a promiscuous teenage girl well on her way to being the young woman we meet in Nana. In a bit of foreshadowing, Nana unknowingly causes her father to have a tragic accident that leads to the disintegration and destruction of her entire family. Even here, Nana is as deadly as Typhoid Mary and as unaware of what she does.

In terms of the heredity that Zola seeks to explore, Nana possesses several of the Rougon-Macquart traits which, mixed in her, provide yet another permutation of the disease of the family. Her love of luxury matches that of Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Antoine Macquart, or Aristide Saccard. She has an insatiable desire for material possessions, but she draws no particular pleasure from them. As soon as she acquires one thing, she loses interest in it and wants something else. One could also say that Nana has her mother and grandmother's work ethic as she labors for what she wants, albeit not in a way usually credited as honest work.

During the middle portion of the book, Nana even comes close to following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother in supporting a deadbeat and/or abusive husband/lover. She sells herself on the street to make money to support the rogue actor Fontan, who beats her. However, this doesn't last long. Nana eventually upends this cycle of women supporting worthless men. For most of the novel, the men support Nana without getting much more than abuse in return. I'm curious whether Zola realized this role-reversal had occurred in his novel. Part of me believes that, in his zeal to portray Nana's corruption, he didn't realize he had Nana acting against her heredity!

More broadly, Nana also continues a pattern to be found in several of the novels about Gervaise's children: foreshadowing of the fall of the Empire. As in La Bete Humaine and Germinal, the novel ends with omens of disaster. In this case, the wake of a prostitute is juxtaposed with the declaration of war against the Prussia, a war that will hasten the end of the Empire. As a novel, Nana is showing us the corruption of the aristocracy of the late Empire: the fecklessness of monied aristocrats such as la Faloise and Vandeuvres, the recklessness of financier Steiner, the Muffat's veneer of respectability, and the cynical grasping of the Mignon's. Even the thrills of the horse race in chapter 11 sit atop a deep undercurrent of fraud and graft.

Part of this foreshadowing is that, unlike many of the novels in the Cycle, Nana follows an upward arc. This is similar to Germinal, only more pronounced. In Germinal, Etienne ends up better off than he was at the start; a joyous conclusion given the usual fates of Zola's main characters. Nana's success is total. The comet of her celebrity is astounding and lifts her so high that she leaves the confines of Paris (and the novel). While her physical end is hideous, one can hardly see her story as tragic (at least as far as she herself is concerned). For the aristocracy she pollutes, she is a disaster.

Another pattern from the Cycle brought to the fore in Nana is the near inability for the Rougon-Macquart family to propagate itself in the final generation. Aristide gives birth to the effete Maxime and the violent Victor. Sidonie Rougon has an illegitimate child who dies young in The Dream. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, there are the dead-ends of Desiree Mouret and Serge's stillborn child. Claude Lantier's son is deformed and dies young in The Masterpiece. Similarly, Nana's illegitimate, mentally backwards, and sickly son Louis dies young. She also has a miscarriage. The poisons of the family heredity seem to be burning out its ability to continue the line, much as the corruption of the Empire itself brings about its demise.

Nana is an incredible read, a story where a vast cast of characters is given over the the documenting of decay, a society of privilege and aristocracy rotting from the inside out. Douglas Parmee's translation is wonderfully readable, and I have to admit I chuckled wondering what was going through his mind while translating something like Chapter 13 ("For this, I studied French and became a translator?"). This is one of the very best novels in the Cycle, a great place to get a feel for Zola as a writer, and one of the novels in the Cycle that has definite relevance today. Highly recommended.

But wear boots while reading it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 5: Implications for the United States

To conclude this five-part post, those who are concerned about combating terrorism should not allow themselves to be led into Islamophobic beliefs. Islamophobia is the dead end of bigotry. In the case of terrorism, such bigotry is a form of self-sedation that gives a person permission to sit on the sidelines and demonize a group of people rather than tackling terrorism.

Bigotry and racism are appealing to some because they provide a way to express fear without admitting one is afraid. However, the history of civilization shows that bigotry and racism have never once solved a challenge faced by mankind or led to anything positive. In fact, such thinking usually makes things worse by muddying the water with a cloud of hate, injustice, and emotionalism.

So to effectively defeat terrorism, we must resist Islamophobia. We must remember that terrorists have varied backgrounds and agendas. While it is true that most of today’s high profile terrorism is committed by Muslims, it is also true that most of it is committed by men and by heterosexuals. It makes no sense to attempt fighting terrorism by vilifying Muslims, men, or heterosexuals.

In terms of implications for the United States, if we need to be on our guard against anything related to terrorism, it is the poison of theocracy. Theocracy can encourage terrorism, because it allows:
Fundamentalist thought to move from the fringe into a position of power
Religious intolerance to drive national policy
Violence to become an acceptable means of influence

The US has a theocratic Christian fringe. While it is a long way from having the power of the extreme Islam that plagues the Middle East, the insistence of evangelical Christians and the far right that the United States is a ‘Christian country’ is a step in the direction of theocracy. There is ultimately little difference between a country that holds one religion in esteem over others so that that religion influences policy for all citizens, regardless of their faith, and a theocracy.

The Founding Fathers were not as devout as today’s evangelicals. However, even if they were, that devotion had little influence on their thinking related to the founding of the United States. While they made theological references (e.g., referring to a ‘Creator’, etc.), in action they built a massive wall between religion and government through the policy of separation of church and state. Even if the United States was founded on Christian morals, it was founded in such a way as to prevent Christian faith from influencing our country’s development. Despite their beliefs, the Founding Fathers chose to set up the United States as a rational and secular country based on laws, not faith.

As such, the United States never was a ‘Christian country’ and it can never become one without perverting the principles upon which our nation was built. We should be happy about this, because the sharp clarity in separating church and state is what has kept the United States free of the toxic extremist influences and religious wars that have plagued other countries.

To preserve that separation, the law of the land must prevail in any question between law and faith. Disagreeing with a law on religious grounds is not justification for flouting it or being exempted from it, because this places religion above law. That can never be allowed in a country that values freedom of religion and, more importantly, freedom from religion. Americans are citizens first and religious entities second. However, the increased desire of evangelicals and far right thinkers to place their religion above the law is opening a Pandora’s box that could turn the wall between church and state into a tattered scrim.

All Americans must decide which they value more: American liberal democracy or their religious precepts. And the decision most have reached is clear: Americans repeatedly reject using one religion as the sole foundation for legislation and candidates who run for national offices on such platforms invariably do poorly.

However, extremists do not have a history of allowing free will to stand in their way. Continued failures at the ballot box and harsh responses from society to wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing ‘religious freedom laws’ could eventually lead some extremists to use fear, intimidation, and violence as a way to break down the wall between church and state and enforce their religious views on others. In short, theocratic beliefs and mindsets can open the door to terrorism in the United States just as they can elsewhere.

In this context, abortion clinic bombings and repellent protests at the funerals of soldiers could be either the stench of a fading orthodoxy or the first sparks of a new breed of homegrown terrorist activity. Hopefully it is not the latter, but we can only avoid such an outcome if we hold true to our principles as Americans.

To bring the theme of these posts full circle, let’s suppose that the terrorist movement described above does in fact arise. It would be incorrect and bigoted to refer to such people as ‘evangelical terrorists’ or ‘Christian terrorists’, even if the majority of those who are part of the movement are Christian evangelicals. We would have to recognize that not all Christian evangelicals are prone to such violence. To combat such terrorism, we must avoid losing focus by demonizing a group of people. Vilifying Christians in this example would be pointless, just as Islamophobia is a waste of time in dealing with the terrorism of the world today.

Hopefully, as the world grows more interconnected through trade pacts, the Internet, porous borders, reduced racial tribalism, and a shrugging off of nationalism, we will see Islamophobia – and all forms of bigotry and racism - disappear. However, as writers like those in The New Criterion make clear, the lessons of history are not easily learned and we have a long way to go.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 4: The Cause of Terrorism in the Middle East

In the previous post of this series, I wrote that one problem with an Islamophobic response to terrorism is that it makes demonizing a group of people the focus of discussion, rather than the real causes of terrorism. As a next step it seems reasonable to offer up what I believe the real causes of terrorism are and, if I believe Islam isn’t the root cause, explain why so much of it seems to spring from the Middle East.

To locate the real causes of terrorism, we first need to revisit what it is. The word ‘terrorism’ is thrown around far too freely in today’s emotionally charged political outbursts. It’s almost reached a point where any violent criminal is labeled a terrorist. This only feeds the hysteria around terrorism and makes it more difficult for people to think about it rationally. So, paraphrasing the FBI definition, terrorism is:
1. A violent act which is both dangerous to human life and breaks the law, and
2. Is committed with the following objectives: a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or c) to affect the conduct of a government

An act of terrorism is therefore a violent, criminal act that is undertaken for purposes of forcing a group of people or a government to act in a certain way, often towards a political end desired by the terrorist. Applying this definition to several high-profile events helps clarify what is and is not terrorism:
The Unabomber: A campaign of murder and violence to disrupt technological development for reasons outlined in a manifesto. Meets both parts of the FBI definition; it’s terrorism.
The Boston Marathon bombing: Some suggest an Islamic group was behind this but, even if one was, no one – not even the perpetrators – cited a political motivation for the bombing. As a result, it doesn’t meet the second part of the FBI definition. It’s a hideous act of violence, but it is not terrorism.
9/11: This disaster was part of an ongoing effort by al-Qaeda to strike fear into the US and coerce us into changing our foreign policy. That fact – not the depravity of the plotters or the death toll – is what makes this terrorism.
The Fort Hood shooting: This shooting was not committed as part of a political agenda. Therefore, while it’s a national tragedy it is not terrorism.
The Parliament Hill shootings: The shooter left a videotape explaining that he committed these crimes to protest Canada’s Middle East policy. Again, it’s the violence paired with a clear political motive that makes this terrorism.

Note that even the few examples of terrorism listed above were not all committed by Muslims, nor was religion even the primary motive. Politics, and in the case of the Parliament Hill shootings, mental illness were the main issues. So even from these few cases, it’s clear that to broadly cite religion as the motive for terrorism - which is what Islamophobes do – is totally incorrect.

The fact is that different terrorists are formed by different forces, and then propelled in different directions by their objectives. Most often terrorists are formed by a combination of toxic forces: religious zealotry, political extremism, mental illness, racial/ethnic intolerance, alienation, support for tyranny, etc. These individual beliefs – not an ethnic background or religion – are what fuel the decision to trade passionate activism and protest for bombs and guns. This further clarifies why it is ridiculous to dump any act of terrorism at the doorstep of a religious group and why the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is idiotic (see also the discussion in the prior post of this series).

So we’ve broadly established the motivations for terrorism and identified that there is no single explanation as to what causes it. However, this does nothing to explain why most of today’s terrorists are Muslims. Why isn’t there an African version of al-Qaeda? Why don’t Christians engage in terrorism? The answers are that there is and they do. Boko Haram takes Islamic State as its role model in Nigeria, and Christians bomb abortion clinics in the US. However, one would (rightly) counter that despite these examples there is no denying the majority of today’s terrorism is hatched by Muslims. Why is this?

To start, let’s review some of the worst examples of religious-based terror, holy wars, and violence:
The Roman Empire – State religion persecuted and killed Christians
The Inquisition – The Catholic Church tortured and killed ‘heretics’
The Crusades – The Catholic Church waged holy wars against Muslims
Nazi Germany – An atheist state devised an ‘ultimate solution’ for Jews
The Soviet Union – An atheist state persecuted people of all religions
Islamic State – Muslim jihadists kill those who resist their brand of Islam
All of these examples have many causes beyond religion. Also, as with the recent acts of terrorism outlined previously, no one religion is behind them all. What they do share is that they were enabled by a particular religion (or anti-religion) being enshrined within government.

Similarly, the Middle East is made up of countries where one form of religion imposes itself on all via government authority. I would suggest that it is not religion itself, but the institutionalization of religion in government (i.e., theocracy) that explains the disproportionately high frequency of terrorism enacted by Muslims. This also explains why there are relatively few acts of terrorism enacted by today’s Christians; there are no Christian theocracies. That said, we have crystal clear hints of what Christian theocracy would look like today based on the death penalty laws enacted against homosexuals in several African countries thanks to the influence of Christian evangelists.

The Spanish Inquisition
Proof that Christian theocracy is just as capable of depravity as Muslim theocracy can be found in history. The Inquisition, the Wars of Religion in Europe, and the Crusades demonstrate how - when enshrined in government - Christianity engages in holy wars and violence with a rabid blood lust that makes jihadists of the Islamic State look half-hearted by comparison. Christian versions of jihad and terrorism were so bad that people fled by the thousands from Europe to the New World. Once here, they founded a country that explicitly kept religion out of government in order to prevent a Christian theocracy from occurring in the US (a founding principle today’s Christian extremists and ultra-conservatives eagerly work to destroy).

In the end, I’m not positioning theocracy as the sole cause of terrorism, in the Middle East or elsewhere. It’s also most likely true that theocracy, mixed with inequitable social structures, political tyranny, racial prejudice and other toxic forces are the roots of terrorism. However, it does seem likely that theocracy helps explain why today’s terrorism seems to take root more easily in the Muslim World.

Part 5 of this Five-Part Post (“Implications for the United States”) will be added soon.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

First 5K Run

Heading into the finish
I have kept running since I started over the Christmas holidays (excepting a week or two where the temperature never rose above the single digits and the wind chill was well below zero). Running has become a lot more enjoyable than I expected it would be. Not that there aren't some days where I groan at the idea of getting out there, but it is a nice way to make sure I get outside more. As the weather has improved, it's great to be outside and running is one more way to do that. Running has also proved to be a great way to enhance cardiovascular fitness, and it helps me calm my mind and face the day with positive energy. I've even noticed that my legs have become harder (i.e., stronger) and my sense of physical balance is improving a lot.

It was slow going at first, but I'm now running close to two miles each time I go out. This is an important goal, because the train station is two miles away from our house. So, if I can do two miles, then I could sometimes run home from the train station instead of taking the bus. That would increase the number of runs I do each week in a convenient way and further increase my endurance.

Over the past few months, I've learned a lot about running. Pacing is really important. It's easy to burn out by running too hard, too fast. Breathing is key, too. Of course, it's kind of hard to succeed at anything if you stop breathing! However, in running I had a tendency to gulp air or breath shallow. It's important to pay attention to breathing and keep it as natural as possible. That is very similar to what some people do in meditation.

This weekend, the work all paid off. I ran my first 5K run and completed it in 31 minutes! Quite a milestone since I ran almost the entire race (very little walking), even though it was a longer course than I'd ever attempted before. So I suppose I need to find ways to keep pushing myself.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Germinal'

After almost exactly a year, I have returned for what may be the home stretch of my project of reading Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle in the order in which Zola intended them to be read. I began this project back in summer of 2010, not long after I started Zen Throw Down, and have written posts about each novel as I've read it. There are also posts on the blog related to available translations, the family tree of the Rougon-Macquart, etc. It's definitely been a long term effort!

Germinal is the sixteenth book in Zola's ordering of the Rougon-Macquart novels, and it is one of the better-known books to English-speaking audiences. Germinal picks up the story of Etienne Lantier, continuing the chronicle begun in the thirteenth novel (the infamous L'Assommoir) of the alcoholic laundress Gervaise Macquart Coupeau and her offspring. Zola first introduced Etienne in L'Assommoir as one of Gervaise's illegitimate children with Auguste Lantier. Gervaise and Lantier moved to Paris to escape the physical abuse and manipulation of her father, but Lantier soon abandons Gervaise and the family. Etienne is eventually sent away to earn money as a laborer while Gervaise sinks into alcohol-drenched poverty and prostitution.

In Germinal, Etienne is in his twenties and unemployed due to a massive economic slump throughout France. He is wandering the countryside, starving and desperately looking for work. Late at night, Etienne arrives at a cluster of mining villages and manages to land a job in a mine called Le Voreux which, according to the notes, means 'voracious'. In this way, we are introduced to the other focus of Germinal: industry and, specifically, mining. Just as each Rougon-Macquart novel tends to focus on one character of the family, so each novel focuses on one aspect of French society during the Second Empire. Here it is the working classes in heavy industry. The novel weaves a large and engrossing cast of characters with multiple plot lines to give us an insider's view of this world and of a horrific strike that erupts when the miners are pushed too far.

While references to other members of the Rougon-Macquart family are virtually non-existent in Germinal, we slowly learn how Etienne fits into Zola's theme of heredity. Most obviously, he has inherited his mother and grandmother's work ethic. This leads him to become one of the best workers in the mine. However, Etienne also carries a muted form of several darker Macquart traits. First, he possesses hints of the bloodlust that turned his brother Jacques into a serial killer (see La Bete Humaine). Etienne is not a serial killer nor a violent man but, in his rivalry with the lout Chaval, Etienne wrestles with murderous urges. For example, in part 6, chapter 2, Etienne brawls with Chaval. During the brawl, "a dreadful voice rising from deep inside him deafened him. It came from the pit of his stomach, and throbbed like a hammer inside his head, shrieking its frenzied lust for murder, its need to taste blood...and he fought down this hereditary evil, shivering desperately like a crazed lover teetering on the brink of rape." While this echoing of Jacques' mental issues doesn't rise even to the level of subplot in Germinal, it recurs with increasing intensity until the last chapters of the book. Its presence also suggests alternate ways of interpreting Etienne's motivations throughout, including his instigation of the strike against the owners of the mine.

Etienne also has a weakness for alcohol. Again, the trait is much muted compared to other characters from the Rougon-Macquart family and is not a key plot point. However, during the miners march, Etienne repeatedly urges the mob to refrain from damaging property or harming anyone until a canteen full of gin is ransacked. Etienne and the starved mob drink it all. "Gradually his eyes because bloodshot with the unhealthy intoxication of a starving man, and his teeth seemed to stand out like the fangs of a wolf between his ashen lips." Drunk, he ends up "launching his men to attack the pump which he had saved just a few hours earlier." This physical intoxication, combined with an intoxication from the power of the mob, leads him to lose control of himself and the strike. Though whether anyone can truly control an enraged mob like this is another question raised by Zola's narrative.

Third and finally, Etienne has flashes of the impractical dreamer. Like many members of the Rougon-Macquart family, he builds castles in the sky which he cannot bring to reality. Yet again, this trait is muted in Etienne, for he is definitely a man of action. Throughout the strike he propels his visions forward in a way that was impossible for his brother Claude (The Masterpiece). From this standpoint, it is interesting to parallel Etienne (a Macquart) with Aristide Saccard (a Rougon). Both have lofty ambitions, and both achieve a mixture of success and failure. On the debit side, Aristide is the perpetrator of a ponzi scheme and a financial market meltdown, while Etienne's strike leads to death and disaster. At the same time, Aristide achieves his ultimate goal of attaining a wealthy lifestyle, and Zola makes it clear that Etienne's strike has sown the seeds for more impactful resistance in the future.

Nicolas Toussaint Charlet Interior of a Coal-Miner's Hut 1829
Which brings us to the question we're left with at the novel's conclusion: what should be our final assessment of Etienne and the miners' strike he incites? Unlike many of the Rougon-Macquart family, Etienne is neither an amoral villain, an impotent dreamer, or a psychologically broken person. He plans the strike based on a sense of justice. From his first descent into Le Voreaux, he is appalled at the working conditions, the risk of death, and the backbreaking labor the miners are subjected to for a level of pay that barely keeps them alive. At the same time, he is repelled by the petty rivalries and promiscuity of the miners, and his distaste grows throughout the novel as he furthers his education on a steady diet of opposition journals and radical philosophy. So he possesses a moral compass, and his actions are driven by it.

However, as the strike progresses, things become a little blurred. As Etienne's role catapults him to a position of leadership and respect within the community, self-interest becomes an increasingly important factor in his choices. He takes pride in his popularity among the miners, and his actions are sometimes focused on preserving this popularity. As the chances the strike will lead to victory become more unlikely, Etienne continues to mesmerize the miners with speeches about the end of the capitalists and the rise of the workers. He dreams of making a career as an agitator around workers' rights, and often judges the strike in terms of how it might aide him in attaining this goal just as much as its benefit to the miners. One could even argue that by spinning dreams of equality for the miners, Etienne makes it impossible for them to rationally assess their chances. This view is supported by the presence of the new priest in the mining village, who utters nutty prophecies of the miners rising to bring God back to France in some undefined religious revolution. It's impossible not to view these clueless rantings as a parallel to Etienne's naive idealism. While the mine is repeatedly described a devouring people, Etienne's predatory trait and ulterior motives hint that he is exploiting the situation - and the miners - himself.

So is Etienne a hero or a villain? A liberator or an exploiter? A beacon of hope or a fool? Is he both and neither? It's true that Etienne has many honorable and positive characteristics, but he also lets his ideas carry him away without thinking of the consequences. Even in the face of warnings from veteran tavern-keeper Rasseneur that Etienne is playing into the hands of the owners and that the miners will be deeply hurt by the strike, Etienne continues. By the time Rasseneur's predictions come true in horrifying form, it is too late to turn back. While Etienne's cause is just, his execution is misguided and is later undone to a degree by self-interest.

From the broader standpoint of the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola has repeatedly included exposition from the characters to the effect that destruction is necessary to progress. Whether it is the razing of homes to make way for the new Paris (The Kill), small businesspeople being crushed by the rise of the large department store (The Ladies' Paradise), the realities of economic speculation (Money), attaining power in politics (His Excellency Eugene Rougon), or political revolution (The Fortune of the Rougons), the victor's path is strewn with the bodies of victims both intended and unintended. As such, while the strike is a humiliating failure for the miners and inflicts deep loss on all of them, it succeeds in laying the groundwork for future success. Etienne uses their misery to drive his own success, though again not in a wholly premeditated, amoral manner. At the same time, the last several pages of the novel describe spring arriving with language that describes the miners as newly born plants rising from under the earth and into the light. It's a hopeful note, but it's also a grim image that has the miners buried in a graveyard for the living.

We are also given indications that the strike inflicts a wound upon the society that condones the exploitation of the miners. Further, Cecile's death provides a specific instance of how the strike has not left the wealthy unscathed. It is even hinted that the government of the Empire is affected. In this way, the end of Germinal like the end of La Bete Humaine includes foreshadowing of the Empire's fall.

Zola is too much of a realist to write a clear-cut victory. For example, the miners' march finishes with the wealthy characters finally able to sit down to an interrupted dinner, an image that initially suggests the march has made no impression on them at all. Ultimately, the strike may be neither a victory nor a defeat. The miners are painted as neither morally superior to nor inferior to the owners; Zola inserts plenty commentary from his characters suggesting the miners simply want to be the wealthy themselves, not eliminate inequity. This makes it impossible to view them as saintly underdogs. Similarly, Etienne may be neither a hero nor a villain. He is simply a person, borne of the mix of hereditary traits alchemizing with the situation he faces (which is the entire point of Zola's Cycle). That said, Etienne's story ends on an upward arc which is fairly rare in the Cycle, especially from the Lantier branch.

Gerard Depardieu as Maheu in the critically acclaimed
1993 film adaptation of Germinal
About this edition of the book: I read the Oxford University Press translation by Peter Collier. While the introduction by Robert Lethbridge is twenty pages of palaver, Collier's translation is wonderful. He captures Zola's manner of showing versus telling, especially in conveying the miserable existence of the miners of Le Voreaux. Though this, we are again reminded how talented and committed Zola is as a writer compared to the melodramatic cotton candy of many English-speaking writers with a social agenda (e.g., Dickens, Gaskell, Stowe, etc.). Zola never takes the easy way out by creating obvious villains against which he sets saintly protagonists; he is merciless with his reader. While the first two-thirds of Germinal is stunning in it's stark depiction of poverty, it is when the strike spirals out of control and crashes towards defeat that Zola uses the horror of the miners' lives to draw the reader into an emotional - and ultimately literal - abyss. This is all the more impactful because we can't truly pick many of these characters to identify with on their own merits. The ravenous mine itself is the true - and mindless - antagonist for all the characters, whether they work in it or attempt to make money from it. Collier's translation conveys these subtleties which I'm assuming, with good reason I think, were part of the original French.

Germinal is a powerfully written novel about the lives of miners in the late nineteenth century. It is a novel about social justice, but one that does not rely on religion or easy answers to paint its portrait of a large cast of characters caught up in the turmoil of social change. It's required reading for anyone interested in the social writing of the period.