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6 Judgments of Paris
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lui, vaincu à Sedan, dans une catastrophe qu'il devinait immense, finissant un monde . . .
Émile Zola, La Débâcle

and he, defeated at Sedan, in an immense catastrophe, ending a world . . .

In the many forms taken by the reconfiguration of fin-de-siècle Paris, no writer better than Émile Zola illuminates the complex process of representational change.[4] Immensely prolific and most probably the best-known writer of the period, Zola undertook to rewrite the city as the century drew to a close. From La Débâcle in 1892 to Paris six years later, the novelist traced a route from the old Paris to the new, from the haussmannized Paris of the Second Empire to the metropolis of the Third Republic and beyond, to a vision of the twentieth century. In works that radically reconstrued the relationship of place and idea, Zola reformulated the connection between writer and space. He re-viewed the tie between the writers of Paris and the space that was their setting, their inspiration, and even their raison d'être. From Hugo, Balzac, and Vallès, who spoke from and to Paris as the place of revolution par excellence, the writer qua intellectual that Zola epitomized spoke from no place and addressed every place. Site no longer anchored the exemplary intellectual in anything like the way that the city of revolution fixed and directed the urban novelist early in the century. From La Curée and La Débâcle to Paris and the


Quatre Évangiles, Zola moved steadily to separate revolution from Paris.

La Débâcle is Zola's narrative of the Terrible Year. Where La Curée, written at the very moment of transition from the Second Empire to the Third Republic, straddles regimes, La Débâcle is unambiguously retrospective, coming as it does twenty years after the cataclysmic events that brought an end to the regime the writer had taken as his subject—the social and natural history of a family under the Second Empire. A year later Zola completed the family narrative with Le Docteur Pascal, but La Débâcle effectively terminated the social narrative. In this, his last judgment, Zola takes the final measure and ultimate representation of the regime around which the saga of the Rougon-Macquart family coheres. For La Débâcle fulfills the premises of the earlier works. The collapse of the Second Empire, Zola had already affirmed in 1871, is necessary to the very conception of the cycle. La Curée leads to La Débâcle as inexorably as the coup d'état of December 1851 brings the defeat of France in September 1870 and the massacre of Paris the following spring. The catastrophe and ruin that La Curée visits upon Renee Saccard are extended in La Débâcle to the city as a whole when Paris is thrown to the hounds of the German and Versaillais troops.

Debacle signifies more than the rout of French troops at Sedan on the eastern front. Within Zola's imaginative construction of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, the military defeat of France ends the regime without ending the narrative. The new regime dictates the fall of Paris, the fall of the revolutionary Paris incarnated in the Commune. Napoléon III is only the titular head of a recent regime of doubtful legitimacy. His abdication and exile finish the empire, but they cannot found the republic. As the true king of nineteenth-century France, Paris must be deposed to institute the republic. Another execution is in order.

Yet, obviously, France is inconceivable without Paris. Too many metaphors, too many images, and too many texts over several centuries insist upon the inextricability of city and country. Revolution sets Paris apart, but the end of the century rejects rather than embraces revolution. In 1870-71, the act of political and social formation takes place against, rather than for, the Revolution. The Commune realizes the hopes but also the fears of 1848, and its fate is the same. Once again, in a savagely ironic twist, a republic takes it upon itself to crush


revolution. Where Notre-Dame de Paris and Quatrevingt-treize imprint the Revolution on the city-text, La Débâcle effaces the Revolution from that same text. For Hugo's politics of transcendence in Quatrevingttreize, which merge revolution into a vast progression of history, Zola substitutes a politics of "naturalization" by subsuming the political into the eternal cycles of birth, growth, and death.[5] However different their modes of presentation and their understanding of literature, Hugo and Zola alike write political novels that set politics apart from the social and moral responsibilities of everyday life.

La Curée and La Débâcle are linked by more than the particulars of plot or setting or family interactions that tie all the novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. The exceptionally dense network of metaphors and images woven around Paris creates a specific intertextuality for these two novels. Zola's concern with disease and health, and his preoccupation with the reciprocal influence of heredity and milieu on individual and societal behavior, structure the entire novel cycle. But these novels of Paris give especial prominence to the tropes of disease, fever, debauchery, and madness to characterize not only the society and the individual but also, very pointedly, the rebellious city and its inhabitants. Whether at the top of Second Empire society in La Curée o r with the drifting population of malcontents in La Débâcle, Paris suffers from a malady that contaminates all of France. Renee Saccard is the sacrificial victim in La Curée, but the city continues the hunt, oblivious to the portents of the day of judgment that must surely come.

That day of judgment comes in La Débâcle. Thus the early descriptions of the emperor in La Curée and in the companion study of the Second Empire government, Son Excellence Eugène Rougon, reveal a man who walks with difficulty, his mouth opening weakly, a man with a half-extinguished eye and a dissolved, vague face. La Débâcle darkens the already somber picture of human dissolution. In the emperor who suffers from kidney stones and dysentery and flees into exile after surrendering to the Prussians, the reader recognizes the hesitant walk, the "dead eye," the "heavy eyelids," the "ravaged face" (84, 197, 312) of this man who has become no more than "a shadow of an emperor" (68). Similarly, La Débâcle realizes the destiny of Paris that is implied in La Curée as the city succumbs to the fever and folly adumbrated in the earlier work.[6]


La Débâcle chronicles the improbable friendship across class lines of the stolid peasant Jean Macquart, corporal in the French army, and Maurice Levasseur, one of his men, a bourgeois who, after the defeat at Sedan, returns to the besieged capital and sides with the Communards. As luck and the novelist would have it, Jean, who rejoins the regular French army that attacks the insurgent Communards, kills Maurice. For the peasant to rebuild the country, the Parisian must die, and the city must die with him. In the logic of the peasant close to the land that justifies the novel, "the rotten limb" (576) has to be lopped off in order for the organism to live. The vast enterprise of reconstitution of the country, in the literal as well as symbolic sense, cannot occur in Paris. To start that rebuilding, Jean Macquart quits the still smoldering city to return to the south that his family had left at the beginning of the Second Empire, "walking toward the future, toward the great and arduous task of rebuilding a whole France" (582).

The familiar associations of Paris—with a woman, with weakness, with intelligence—come together in La Débâcle to doom both Maurice and the city that he embodies and represents. Maurice "has his letters," having taken his law degree in Paris, and is, in contrast to the uneducated Jean, a "monsieur." Weak physically and temperamentally (25), Maurice is further endowed with a "woman's nervousness" (191).[7] France will be rebuilt by unambiguously masculine men, who, like Jean, come from and return to the country. So strongly is Maurice presented as an outgrowth, an emanation, of the city's own madness and fevers that the distinction between the man and the city all but disappears.[8] From the interpretive register of disease, La Débâcle moves to another, even stronger one in Christian allegory. In an image familiar from La Curée, the Paris of the Second Empire appears as Sodom and Gomorrah (562), the conflagration of Paris constitutes a holocaust (541, 576), the nation is "crucified" (576), and the "city of hell" (575) expiates its faults. To be sure, the biblical language is closely associated with the characters in the novel. But Zola's frequent recourse to free indirect discourse blurs the distinction between character and narrator. He assigns the images of disease, destruction, and punishment to individuals and also incorporates them into the narrative descriptions. We can never be sure just who is responsible for the images and metaphors or where they are to be applied as the point of view slides between narrator, character, and description.


The Commune thus deals the final blow to the Second Empire of Napoléon III and to the whole century that sprang from the first Napoléon. Maurice is the last, corrupt offspring of the empire. To the grandfather, the resounding victories of the Grand Army; to the grandson, the devastating defeat at Sedan and the depravity of the Commune. As Napoléon III perverts the legacy of Napoléon I, so too Maurice dishonors his inheritance. "This degeneration of his race . . . explained how the victorious France of the grandfathers could become the defeated country of the grandsons" (365). The military glories of the empire are evoked with ever greater poignancy as the defeats multiply (25, 71-73, 365). Notably, all of these defeats cohere for Zola in the destruction of the Vendôme Column. In the moment Maurice pauses to remember the litany of imperial victories from his grandfather's tales (541). The reader at the time most likely paused as well, to ponder the psychological investment in topography, an investment deepened by the intertexts that had accumulated over the century, from Hugo's original ode to his final protest against the demolition in "Les deux trophées" in L'Année terrible. With the sunset that ends the novel, a "bloody sun," the "sun of Austerlitz," sets for good, never to rise again. Nor will Victor Hugo write an ode to the restored Vendôme Column, to predict the rebirth of the Napoléonic eagle, or to enjoin the "eaglets" left behind, as Hugo called his generation, to keep the faith. As in Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo calls upon the French to resolve their quarrels as he resolves his antitheses: "Versailles has the parish, and Paris the commune. / Yet above them both, France is one."[9]

Yet, even as Jean Macquart looks at the sun setting over the city in flames in  La Débâcle, he sees, or rather intuits, another dawn in preparation: "It was the definite rejuvenation of eternal nature . . ., the renewal promised to everyone who hopes and works, the tree that puts out. a strong new limb once the rotten branch . . . has been cut off"(581). The "new limb" cannot grow in the old Paris, in the degenerate Paris of the Second Empire where the revolutionary insurrection "grew naturally" (533). Somehow the ashes of the old city will fertilize the earth for a new city, a city without revolution. La Débâcle intimates a narrative of regrowth even as it recounts a drama of destruction and defeat. The Second Empire, in Zola's vision, destroys revolutionary Paris, not with the coup d'état of its beginning but in the apocalypse of its end. Politics recede before this vision of


a future that will come from the earth itself. The eternal cycles ordained by nature overcome the social institutions or political arrangements devised by humans.

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6 Judgments of Paris
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