Émile Zola to France’s Young Generation (1893)

“Science promised the truth, and it is questionable if happiness can be made out of facts” — Émile Zola on the fin de siècle and all new dreams of strength and heroism in New York Times June 11, 1893.



The Existing Tendency Toward, Mysticism Declared to be Only a Natural and Temporary Reaction Against Positivism Carried Too Far by Himself and His School in the Fields of Literature and the Arts—He Says that Work is the Only and Sufficient Source of Content.

Paris, May 20. —The annual banquet of the Students’ Association was held last night at the Hotel Moderne. Émile Zola presided and made a speech, which was received with frequent applause by the 150 members, active and honorary, who were present. His address, almost entire, follows:

“He who is among young men is not only in the best and pleasantest of company, but is sure of having auditors full of sympathy, before whom, in the desire to be loved and understood, he can open his heart freely.

“I, alas! am at the age when regret at being no longer young makes itself felt, when one is occupied especially with those who will soon push him aside. It is they who will condemn or continue his work. With them begins the future, and I sometimes wonder, not without anxiety, what of that which we have brought to pass they will keep and what they will cast aside. It is for them to decide, for the future is theirs. That is why I closely study the mental tendencies of the young men of to-day and read with attention their journals and reviews, trying thus to understand the new spirit that animates our schools and to see where you are going, you who are to be the intelligence and the will of to-morrow.

“In this, no doubt, there is something of egotism. I am like a man who has built a house to shelter his old age and who is anxious to know what the weather will be and whether he has made his house strong enough to withstand the coming tempests. I do not, indeed believe that any man’s work is eternal or decisive. The greatest must resign themselves to the idea of being only a moment in humanity’s ceaseless growth. But is it a small thing to have been, even for an hour, the hearer of a generation’s countersign? And since no one can stop literary progress any more than other forms of evolution, each of us must see with resignation the birth and growth of those who will replace him, who will efface, perhaps, even his memory.

Henry de Groux, Zola aux outrages, 1898
Zola insulted, 1898 painting by Henri Degroux, Zola facing the hatred of the masses in the events of the Dreyfus affair

“I do not deny that my old spirit of combativeness impells me, now and then, when my work is attacked, to angry resistance, yet as I face the new century I feel more of curiosity than or antagonism, more of ardent sympathy than of personal disquietude. If I and my generation are really of no other use than to till with our dry bones a break in the road over which they will march to the light, we, having done even that, will not have perished quite uselessly.

I hear frequently enough that positivism is at the point of death…

“I hear frequently enough that positivism is at the point of death, that naturalism is dead already, nay science confesses its powerlessness to give the moral peace and the happiness it promised. Of course, I shall not attempt to solve the grave problems thus suggested. Learning is not mine, and I have no authority to speak for science or for philosophy. I am, as you know, only a writer of stories, one who has divined a little now and then, and whose only competency is that which comes from having observed much and worked much. It is merely as a witness that I am going to tell you what my generation—the men who are fifty years old and whom you will soon be calling ancestors!— really were, or, rather, what they wished to be.

“When the Salon in the Champ de Mare was opened the other day, I was impressed by certain peculiarities in the pictures displayed there. People say one Salon is like another. That is untrue. The evolution is slow, but how striking would be the contrast if the pictures of years ago could be placed beside those of to-day:

“I well remember the last academic and romantic exhibitions—in 1863, perhaps. The triumph of le plein air had not come: the general tune was one of bitumen, of indistinctness, of studio half-shadows. Fifteen years later, after the influence of Manet—subject then of endless discussion—had conquered the world of art, there were other exhibitions. These, too, I remember well, in them clear and open sunshine gave the note. Everything was flooded with light, and solicitude for the true made each frame a window widely open upon nature. To-day, after fifteen more years, I notice, mingling with the same clear limpidity, a kind of mysterious haze. There is still all of the old intention to paint with sharp definition, but reality is deformed, the figures are strangely elongated, and a yearning for character and the new carries the artist into the land of dreams.

“These stages in the history of painting seem to me to offer a perfect illustration of those through which ideas have passed. The writers of my generation—who only continued the work of illustrious predecessors—also endeavored to open wide windows upon nature, to see everything and to tell it all. We swore by science alone, were enveloped in it, lived in it, breathing the air of the epoch. I confess that, by trying to bring into the domain of letters the scientist’s rigidity of method, I proved myself a narrow sectary, but who does not, while the battle is on, go further than is useful, and, who, when victorious, does not compromise his Victory by undue insistence? After all, I regret nothing. I still believe in the passion that wills and acts. And what enthusiasms and what hopes were ours! To have all knowledge, all power, ell conquests, and through truth to rebuild humanity, higher and happier!

“Now it is you, the youth of to-day, who come upon the scene. But “youth“ is a vague word, profound as the sea. Who is it, and who has the right to speak in its name? I am forced to ascribe to you the ideas given you by common report. If the ideas are not those entertained by all or even the most of you, I. must ask pardon in advance and lay the blame for my mistakes upon informants who have told me, not the truth about you, but what they desire should be true.

Science, however, is to be a thing quite apart from faith

“It is said, then, that your generation has broken away from ours, that you no longer put your hope in science. Instead, and to avoid the great moral and social dangers which, in your opinion, are the result of so doing, you have resolved to throw yourselves back into the past and from the débris of dead beliefs to make a living one. There is, I am aware, no question of a complete divorce from science. You accept the recent conquests over nature and even purpose to enlarge them. Proven verities you would reconcile with the ancient dogmas. Science, however, is to be a thing quite apart from faith, and is to be relegated to its old position, that of a simple exercise for the intelligence, an inquiry permissible only while it retrains from touching the supernatural, the Beyond. For science, I hear, has done its work and cannot repeople the sky it has made empty nor give happiness to the souls from whom it has taken their naїve peace. So let science be modest, since it cannot acquire all knowledge by a single effort, cannot make everybody rich, nor heal all maladies. No one has yet quite dared to bid youth throw away its books and desert its masters, but already there are saints and prophets who go about exalting the virtue of Ignorance and the serenity of the simpleminded, preaching humanity’s need, so old and everwise is it, to be born again in the prehistoric village, to start once more from the position occupied by our ancestors when they had hardly struggled up out of the dirt and before there was any society or any knowledge.

“These are the things I hear.

“I do not deny that we are traversing a crisis; that there is a revolt from the feverish toil whose ambition was to know all and tell all. It was expected that science, after ruining the old world, would make a new one modeled upon our conceptions of justice and happiness. It has done nothing of the kind, and there are impatient denials that content follows knowledge. No action escapes reaction. We are reeling the fatigues of a long journey, and not a few are sitting by tile roadside, in despair because the interminable plain still stretches on in front. They even regret that, instead of coming so far, they did not lie down in a field and sleep beneath the stars. Why advance toward an ever-distant goal—why learn at all if everything cannot be learned? The child’s pure simplicity and his ignorant joys are better. And so science, having promised happiness, ends before our eyes in failure!

Science promised the truth, and it is questionable if happiness can be made out of facts

“Did science over promise happiness? I do not think so. Science promised the truth, and it is questionable if happiness can be made out of facts. To be content with them, even for a day, one must possess a stoicism, an absolute unselfishness, a serenity of intelligence possible only to the highest minds. Therefore a despairing cry goes up from suffering humanity. How, it asks, can we live without delusions and illusions? If there is not, somewhere, a world where justice reigns, where the wicked are punished and the good rewarded, how endure the abominations of human existence? Nature is unjust and cruel; science ends in the monstrous law of the survival of the Strongest. Reasoning thus, recoiling from realities as yet ill explained, they seek a dream, put confidence in the out-of-sight, and hope to satisfy in the Beyond their yearning for fraternity and justice.

“This despairing appeal for happiness, rising on every side, moves me infinitely. Already music has responded to it, literature is trying to satisfy the new thirst, and art is changing to show its sympathy. It is the reaction against naturalism, which is, they say, dead and buried. At any rate the movement is undeniable. It is felt in all the manifestations of mind, and unless it is taken into account, studied, and explained the outlook for the morrow is hopeless.

I, being an old and rugged Positivist, see in all this only a halt in the march ahead

“I, being an old and rugged Positivist, see in all this only a halt in the march ahead. Indeed, it is not even that, for our libraries, laboratories, amphitheatres, and schools are not deserted. What reassures me most is the fact that the social ground is unchanged. For a new art to flourish, for a new belief to give humanity a new direction, there must be a new soil for them to germinate and grow in. Ours is still the democratic soil whence the century rose. Faiths are not resuscitated, and only a mythology can be made of a dead religion. The next century will affirm this one. What I will concede is that in literature we brought the horizon too near, and, personally, I regret having endeavored to limit art to proved verities.

“The new men, by re-extending the horizon, have regained possession of the unknown and the mysterious, and they have done well. Between the truths acquired through science, which are not to be shaken, and the truths to be conquered to-morrow from the unknown, which in their turn will become immovable, there is a land of doubt and inquiry. This land belongs as much to literature as to science. Into it we can go as pioneers, doing the work of precursors and interpreting, according to our talents, its unknown forces. The ideal is only the unexplained. It is well enough to invent solutions for the unknown, but we have no right to put in question, and so deny, facts already verified. As science advances the ideal retreats, and it seems to me that this slow conquest, though we have the melancholy certitude of never knowing all, gives life its only reason, its only joy.

“In these troublous days youth is told to believe, but nobody tells it exactly what to believe. Believe, they say, Tor the sake of the happiness that comes from believing, and, most especially, believe in order that you may learn to believe. The advice is not bad in itself. It is certainly a great joy to repose upon the assurance given by any faith, no matter what. The difficulty is that one cannot believe by willing to do so. Faith is a wind that blows where it listeth, and there only.

“In conclusion, let me offer you a creed–the creed of work. Young men, work! I am aware that no counsel could be more banal. In every school, at the end of every term, it is given to every boy, and every boy hears it with indifference; but let me, who have never been anything except a worker, tell you the reward I have gained from the long toil whose effort has filled my life. The world was harsh to me at first; I have known poverty and despair. Later my existence was a battle, and even now the fight goes on and my work is questioned, contradicted, insulted. Through it all, my support has been incessant work, regular, daily, for an end never forgotten. How often have I seated myself at my table, tortured by some great pain, physical or moral! And each time, after the first minutes of agony, my task has proved a solace, has given me strength to continue the struggle and await the morrow.

to believe that dreaming of strength gives force—we have all seen to what disasters these things lead

“Work is the law of the world, the guide that leads organized matter to its unknown goal. Life has no other reason for being, and each of us is here only to perform his task and disappear. Calm comes to the most tortured if they will accept and complete the task they find under their hands. This, to be sure, is only an empirical way to live an honest and almost tranquil life, but is it nothing to acquire moral health, and by solving through work the question of how to secure on earth the greatest happiness, thus escape from the danger of the dream?

“I have always distrusted chimeras. Illusion is bad for a man or a people; it puts an end to effort, it blinds, it is the vanity of the weak. To remain among legends, to contemn realities, to believe that dreaming of strength gives force—we have all seen to what disasters these things lead. Men are told to look aloft, to believe in a superior power, to exalt themselves into the ideal. Such advice seems to me impious. The only strong men are the men who work. Work alone gives courage and faith; it alone is the pacificator and the liberator.”


      Title image: Émile Zola, painting by Édouard Manet, Musée d’Orsay. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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