NICE, February 6, 1898.
. . . You write that you are annoyed with Zola, and here everyone has a feeling as though a new, better Zola had arisen. In his trial he has been cleansed as though in turpentine from grease-spots, and now shines before the French in his true brilliance. There is a purity and moral elevation that was not suspected in him. You should follow the whole scandal from the very beginning. The degradation of Dreyfus, whether it was just or not, made on all (you were of the number I remember) a painful and depressing impression. It was noticed that at the time of the sentence Dreyfus behaved like a decent well-disciplined officer, while those present at the sentence, the journalists for instance, shouted at him, “Hold your tongue, Judas,”— that is, behaved badly and indecently. Everyone came back from the sentence dissatisfied and with a troubled conscience. Dreyfus’ counsel Demange, an honest man, who even during the preliminary stages of the trial felt that something shifty was being done behind the scenes, was particularly dissatisfied — and then the experts who, to convince themselves that they had not made a mistake, kept talking of nothing but Dreyfus, of his being guilty, and kept wandering all over Paris! . . .
Of the experts one turned out to be mad, the author of a monstrously absurd project; two were eccentric creatures.
People could not help talking of the Intelligence Department at the War Office, that military consistory which is employed in hunting for spies and reading other people’s letters; it began to be said that the head of that Department, Sandhen, was suffering from progressive paralysis; Paty de Clam has shown himself to be something after the style of Tausch of Berlin; Picquart suddenly took his departure mysteriously, causing a lot of talk. All at once a series of gross judicial blunders came to light. By degrees people became convinced that Dreyfus had been condemned on the strength of a secret document, which had been shown neither to the accused man nor his defending counsel, and decent law-abiding people saw in this a fundamental breach of justice. If the latter were the work not simply of Wilhelm, but of the centre of the solar system, it ought to have been shown to Demange. All sorts of guesses were made as to the contents of this letter, the most impossible stories circulated. Dreyfus was an officer, the military were suspect; Dreyfus was a Jew, the Jews were suspect. People began talking about militarism, about the Jews. Such utterly disreputable people as Drumont held up their heads; little by little they stirred up a regular pother on a substratum of anti-semitism, on a substratum that smelt of the shambles. When something is wrong with us we look for the causes outside ourselves, and readily find them. “It’s the Frenchman’s nastiness, it’s the Jews’, it’s Wilhelm’s.” Capital, brimstone, the freemasons, the Syndicate, the Jesuits — they are all bogeys, but how they relieve our uneasiness! They are of course a bad sign. Since the French have begun talking about the Jews, about the Syndicate, it shows they are feeling uncomfortable, that there is a worm gnawing at them, that they feel the need of these bogeys to soothe their over-excited conscience.
Then this Esterhazy, a duellist, in the style of Turgenev’s duellists, an insolent ruffian, who had long been an object of suspicion, and was not respected by his comrades; the striking resemblance of his handwriting with that of the bordereau, the Uhlan’s letters, his threats which for some reason he does not carry out; finally the judgment, utterly mysterious, strangely deciding that the bordereau was written in Esterhazy’s handwriting but not by his hand! . . . And the gas has been continually accumulating, there has come to be a feeling of acute tension, of overwhelming oppression. The fighting in the court was a purely nervous manifestation, simply the hysterical result of that tension, and Zola’s letter and his trial are a manifestation of the same kind. What would you have? The best people, always in advance of the nation, were bound to be the first to raise an agitation — and so it has been. The first to speak was Scherer-Kestner, of whom Frenchmen who know him intimately (according to Kovalevsky) say that he is a “sword-blade,” so spotless and without blemish is he. The second is Zola, and now he is being tried.
Yes, Zola is not Voltaire, and we are none of us Voltaires, but there are in life conjunctions of circumstances when the reproach that we are not Voltaires is least of all appropriate. Think of Korolenko, who defended the Multanovsky natives and saved them from penal servitude. Dr. Haas is not a Voltaire either, and yet his wonderful life has been well spent up to the end.
I am well acquainted with the case from the stenographers’ report, which is utterly different from what is in the newspapers, and I have a clear view of Zola. The chief point is that he is sincere — that is, he bases his judgments simply on what he sees, and not on phantoms like the others. And sincere people can be mistaken, no doubt of it, but such mistakes do less harm than calculated insincerity, prejudgments, or political considerations. Let Dreyfus be guilty, and Zola is still right, since it is the duty of writers not to accuse, not to prosecute, but to champion even the guilty once they have been condemned and are enduring punishment. I shall be told: “What of the political position? The interests of the State?” But great writers and artists ought to take part in politics only so far as they have to protect themselves from politics. There are plenty of accusers, prosecutors, and gendarmes without them, and in any case, the role of Paul suits them better than that of Saul. Whatever the verdict may be, Zola will anyway experience a vivid delight after the trial, his old age will be a fine old age, and he will die with a conscience at peace, or at any rate greatly solaced. The French are very sick. They clutch at every word of comfort and at every genuine reproach coming to them from outside. That is why Bernstein’s letter and our Zakrevsky’s article (which was read here in the Novosti) have had such a great success here, and why they are so disgusted by abuse of Zola, such as the gutter press, which they despise, flings at him every day. However neurotic Zola may be, still he stands before the court of French common sense, and the French love him for it and are proud of him, even though they do applaud the Generals who, in the simplicity of their hearts, scare them first with the honour of the army, then with war. . . .
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