The intellectual status of Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair
In 1881, La loi sur la liberté de la presse permitted the publication of political subversive imagery. This omnipresent press provided a platform for political illustrations and ‘ubiquitous imagery’ from the political sphere to the everyday, notably during the Dreyfus Affair (Everton, 2012: 388).
Émile Zola, the most established novelist of this period, projected himself into mass media to contest the battle of injustice against Alfred Dreyfus. His main persuasive and polemic rhetoric was the open letter ‘J’accuse…!’, addressed to President Felix Faure and published in L’Aurore on 13 January 1898, which accused the government and military of a miscarriage of justice. Zola’s involvement was viewed as betraying his nation, with Doumerc describing his political action as ‘son engagement dans l’affaire a choisi de trahir sa patrie’ (2007. ‘J’accuse…!’ was widely read and brought vast publicity to the Affair, proving to be one of the greatest works of writing.
Zola’s literature was often overlooked for its preaching and scandalous nature. Nevertheless, he has been universally described as having a ‘fierce passion for the truth’ (BBC, 2017). This passion is illuminated during his attempt to exonerate Dreyfus, a Jewish officer convicted for allegedly passing military secrets onto the Germans in 1899.
The Dreyfus Affair split the nation between the Dreyfusards, a group of left-wing intellectuals and anti-military, and the Anti-Dreyfusards, a group of nationalistic, anti-Semitic conservatives. Anti-Dreyfusard artists published caricatures of Zola as a porcine figure in attempt to discredit his intellectual status, whilst also labelling Dreyfus as a traitor and turning him into a national symbol of evil. Such caricatures contributed to the intensification of anti-Semitism during the Affair.
Musée des Horreurs
Musée des Horreurs is a publication of fifty-one coloured lithographical posters featuring those connected to the Dreyfus Affair such as Dreyfusards, Republican leaders and Jews. They were published in weekly subscriptions but prohibited by the government in 1900. These illustrations have been described by Hyman as ‘a powerful creative addition to the standard anti-Semitic iconography and to political propaganda in general’ (1989: 97). It is true that these drawings differ from other subversive imagery, as the artist draws human faces onto unpleasant animal bodies. Under the alias of Victor Lenepveu, he described his posters as a ‘panthéon des monstres’ (Doumerc, 2007). Indeed, his imagination led him to actively participate in sharing his anti-Semitic views during this period and portray beastly representations of those involved in the Affair.
Illustrations alike were published in mass media to expose the opposing identities and beliefs of Dreyfusard supporters and opponents. As Doumerc states, Lenepveu wanted to illuminate ‘l’immoralité de la cause Dreyfusard’ (2007). Hence Lenepveu represented these characters as beastly and animalistic figures to express the immorality of those seeking to acquit Dreyfus, during a period when such caricatures of bestiality were created for mass consumption. As Everton writes, these illustrations were ‘intended to direct their viewers’ perception and comprehension of the affair’ (2012: 389). Thus, political iconography like Lenepveu’s significantly influenced the political observations of the Affair.
Le Roi des Porcs
Under this title, Zola is condemned as the ruler of grotesque and slovenly animals. Lenepveu further disgraces Zola to a swinish status by merging his face to a pig’s body. Kleeblatt describes this imagery as having ‘a caricatural yet naturalistic reading’ to Zola’s face (1993: 56). This can be identified in the realistic and undistorted imitation of Zola’s hair, beard and glasses. However, with the body of a fat, malodourous pig with a tail and trotters, Lenepveu destructs the intellectual vision of Zola by replacing it with a beastly, contemptuous figure.
Zola is illustrated painting brown liquid from a pot of ‘caca international’ onto the map of France, which represents the tarnishing of his nation with foreign excrement (‘caca’ being slang for excrement). The ‘caca international’ could be representing those who supported the Dreyfus Affair. Guieu states that ‘international’ can be interpreted as a ‘code word for anyone considered as anti-French’, which visibly included the Jewish community, given they were deemed as ‘stateless’ during this period in France (2008:3). Thus, Lenepveu is emphasising how the immoral nature of Jews, and those connected to the Affair, were actively spoiling the reputation of France.
Even though Zola’s intellectual status appears somewhat acknowledged in this illustration, Lenepveu incorporates his novels in an undesirable light to discredit his literary works. Kleeblatt believes the image of Zola sitting on top of his literature offers the novels a ‘trashy’ nature (1993: 57). This is demonstrated as Nana, Germinal and L’oeuvre are squashed underneath his bottom in a chamber pot, an object most commonly used for urination and defecation. Hence, the association of his novels with faeces and dirt denounces his literature as worthless.
It appears the most brutal political illustrations promulgated in the press were of Dreyfus. It is interesting that Lenepveu chose to combine Dreyfus with the body of a hydra, a many-headed serpent and an infamously deceptive creature with mythological symbolism. Such imagery of a sea monster that could regrow heads demonises and ridicules Dreyfus’ character, and Jews as an entity, who were often portrayed in this treacherous light in newspapers such as La Libre Parole and La Croix. Hyman also writes that anti-Semitic imagery like this intended to ‘demean Dreyfus’, such as anti-Dreyfusard art portraying him as a ‘modern Judas’ (1989: 97). Hence the deceitful and evil nature of this snake appears representative of Dreyfus’ alleged betrayal, one not dissimilar to the disloyalty Judas showed Jesus.
Additionally, the detail in this hydra-like iconography, such as the clawed feet and the six snake heads hissing behind Dreyfus, stresses the existence of anti-Semitism and the belief that the Jewish community were traitorous. Further, the body of the monster has been penetrated by a sword, with the bold letters Le Traitre, which symbolises the hatred towards Dreyfus and Jews in general. Doumerc underlines that ‘cet animal représente dans la tradition chrétienne le pèche’ (2007) in the belief that the Christian symbolism of a snake traditionally embodies malevolence. Lenepveu is thus manipulating the target audience on account of their religion, highlighting how illustrations were used to shape public perception of the Affair.
Evidently, the freedom of the press had a significant influence in France with the explosion of widely available subversive propaganda during the Dreyfus Affair. The existence of engaging imagery was captivating, and as Guieu argues, the aim was to ‘invite a gut reaction from the man in the street’ (2008: 4). The existence of such prominent and prolific anti-Semitic iconography against Dreyfus and his supporters was shocking, exposing how close to the surface anti-Semitism was during this period. Likewise, it is interesting that Zola became such a target of anti-Jewish iconography by associating himself with Dreyfus and believing in his innocence. Despite the criticism and mockery that Zola received as a beastly and swinish figure in political caricatures, Zola’s intellectual engagement was not hindered by these illustrations. If anything, it energised the public and political discourse surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, especially with ‘J’accuse…!’ being one of the first works to initiate public engagement in political and social affairs in France.
Lenepveu, V. (1898-1900) Le Roi des Porcs, Musée des Horreurs.
Lenepveu, V. (1898-1900) Le Traitre, Musée des Horreurs.
BBC. (2007) Blood, Sex and Money by Emile Zola – BBC Radio 4.
Davies, S. (2015) Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne – book review: A piping-hot tale of literature on trial in an age of hypocrisy, The Independent [Online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/zola-and-the-victorians-by-eileen-horne-book-review-a-piping-hot-tale-of-literature-on-trial-in-an-a6774706.html [Accessed: 1 November 2018]
Doumerc, V. (2007) L’antisémitisme au Cœur de l’Affaire Dreyfus. L’histoire par l’image [Online]. Available at: https://www.histoire-image.org/fr/etudes/antisemitisme-coeur-affaire-dreyfus [Accessed: 1 November 2018]
Everton, E. (2012) Scenes of Perception and Revelation: Gender and Truth in Antidreyfusard Caricature, French Historical Studies, Vol. 35 (2), pp. 381 – 417.
Guieu, J. (2008) Caricatures: The Visual Impact of the Dreyfus Affair, video transcript, Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair, Vol. 1, pp. 1- 5.
Hyman, P. The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 61 (1), pp. 88-109.
Jones, D. (2011) “A Beastly Affair”: Visual Representations of Animality and the Politics of the Dreyfus Affair, Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 46 (1), pp. 35-62.
Kleeblatt, Norman. (1993) Merde! The caricatural attack against Emile Zola, Art Journal, Vol. 52 (3), pp. 54 – 58.
Lethbridge, R. (2016) Rethinking Zola and Cezanne: Biography, politics and art criticism, Journal of European Studies, Vol. 46 (2), pp. 126-142.
Ponty, J. (1974) La presse quotidienne et l’affaire Dreyfus en 1898-1899. Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine, Vol. 22 (2), pp. 193-220.
Sachs, M. (2010) Émile Zola’s Last Word: Vérité and the Dreyfus Affair, Romance Quarterly, Vol. 45 (4), pp. 203-2010.