Asked what the most influential work of the twentieth century was, some 130 curators and journalists answered, more or less unanimously, Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. Duchamp of course knew the absurdity of this piece which was simply a urinal turned upside down and signed R. Mutt. In 2009, “the most influential American artist since Andy Warhol,” the artist representing America at the Venice Biennale that year, was said to be Bruce Nauman.He’s a neo-Duchampian; that is, a conceptualist, as his attempt “to redefine [or reconceive] art, ex nihilo, every day,” as Duchamp supposedly did with every work, suggests.In this supposed creation ex nihilo,even God couldn’t create the cosmos out of nothing but needed something to start with, some material to “create into,” as D.W. Winnicott puts it, the very purpose of art is up for grabs.No stable definition of art is possible; it keeps changing when we talk about “art.”
Art has unavoidably become an anxiety-arousing, tormenting, and doubtful idea, an idea lacking any clear and significant meaning, which is the point Nauman and Duchamp unwittingly make because, in the modern Age of Anxiety, art must be invested in, informed by, and convey anxiety to be convincingly modern, and with that to have credibility as art even if we don’t know what art is.It is a point made concisely by Harold Rosenberg’s conception of the modern work of art as an “anxious object.” Thus, Picasso dismisses Blanche’s art because it lacks anxiety and is interested in Cézanne’s art because it is charged with anxiety.Anxiety, rather than beauty, is the preferred “theme” of art in modernity.But to be charged with anxiety means that art is threatened at its foundation, to refer to May’s words: that it can become nothing raising the suspicion that it may in fact be nothing, that anxiety is not a firm foundation for art; that anxiety can crumble art, leaving it in ontological ruins, next to nothing, as it were.
Anxiety is dangerous, poisonous, and there is no antidote of beauty to protect us from it.Beauty is a sham in modernity, as Picasso says or, as Barnett Newman says, echoing Picasso, “The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty” which is why it cannot inoculate us against anxiety, which was one of beauty’s traditional functions.Beauty is a constructive counterforce against the insidious destructiveness of anxiety, even though there must be a trace of anxiety in it, the “something strange” proverbially evident in its “proportions” for it to work its healing magic, as well as to bring it to expressive life.
Ezra Pound’s famous dictum “Make it new!” has been reduced to absurdity by Duchamp and Nauman, for nothing can be made new from their nihilistic perspective: anxiety’s threat of “imminent non-being,” to again use May’s words, weakens art’s will to be, so that it feels crippled to itself and is unable to function as what Winnicott calls a mode of “creative apperception” of being, as it traditionally did.Anxiety cripples, narrows, and finally chokes off creativity; that’s Nauman’s problem, and it was also Duchamp’s: they were choking on nothingness.It may be the general problem of art in the Age of Anxiety which is why the new movements that rapidly follow each other, each claiming to be more “advanced” than its predecessor, seem like art’s death throes.It is not simply that making art in the Age of Anxiety means that the artist must have what Robert Jay Lifton calls a “protean style,” what he calls, “a series of explorations of the self in which one tries out various involvements and commitments…and shifts from them, leaves them for new ones at relatively minimal psychological cost” to outwit anxiety, but rather suggests that he lacks any self to explore.Art’s anxious attempt to define itself seems Sisyphean: it has no self to define.
Art falls back on concepts to give itself an intellectual identity, but the concepts are often too trivial to be called seriously intellectual.They need not have much intellectual consequence and substance, as Sol LeWitt says, but are more like straw men on which to hang the “idea of art.”Thus, art comes to have a ghostly conceptual existence, which is, in effect, to be nonexistent—the decadent ironical condition of ultramodern “art”; endgame modern art.Conceptual art is the flawed shadow of the grandeur that art once was.Anxiety is intrinsic to modernity; and in modernity, anxiety is intrinsic to art; and since anxiety raises doubts about existence, it raises doubts about art’s existence.Anxiety becomes self-doubt, corroding art from within and eroding its staying power: What staying power does an art based on a “ludicrously simple idea,” to use LeWitt’s words, have?It becomes ontologically problematic, defensively projecting its self-doubt as black humor and mocking irony, characteristics of Duchamp’s and Nauman’s work and conceptualism in general.One might say that conceptualism is art’s reified self-doubt, a sort of pseudo-art struggling to manage anxiety by suggesting that it’s a bad joke life plays on art.
But it is conceptualism that is a bad joke on art and the life of the mind. If the “core anxiety of the human condition” is “fear of annihilation”—“catastrophic loss, aphanisis,” involving “deprivation of all possible instruments of pleasure and therefore of existence”—then conceptualism is an utterly pleasurable art and thus an artistic catastrophe.If one of art’s tasks is to make matter resonate pleasurably, finally conveying what Clement Greenberg calls the “plenitude of presence,” inseparable from aesthetic exaltation, then in dematerializing art; that is, depriving it of a material medium and material significance (as though that automatically gives it “conceptual” significance), art loses one of its major reasons for being, confirming our worst fears about the anhedonic and, with that anti-life and finally nihilistic attitude of conceptualism, the existence-devaluing effects of progressively deepening anxiety.Conceptualism is not only an art of deprivation but an art that deprives us of art—an anti-art, as has been said, and thus, as I would say, an insane art, and with that a catastrophe for art.
It is no longer clear where art is advancing to and what it means to speak of the advance of art. Modern art has been thought of as advancing beyond traditional art, but the advance of anxiety comes at great artistic as well as psychological cost.It has increasingly come to look like an emotional and aesthetic step backward rather than forward.If anxiety is the emotional core of modernity and the task of modern art is to express anxiety, then what Baudelaire called “modern beauty”—a contradiction in terms, as Picasso and Newman imply—must be fraught with anxiety.How can beauty that is filled with anxiety—which has a distorting effect on life, making it seem horrifying; which is responsible for the “horror of life” that Baudelaire experienced as the unconscious underside of modern consciousness and for the distortions through which the horror makes itself felt (the horrifying distortions of many of Picasso’s figures and typical of modern art in general)—be taken seriously as beauty, which is one of the few glories and sanities of life?
Traditional beauty contains, metabolizes, and neutralizes anxiety, distilling its energy into the “something strange” in beauty, as I have suggested. Modern beauty cannot perform this transformative function, which is why it is a distorted idea of beauty and why the strangeness in traditional beauty has become the distortion of modern beauty.Or rather why in modernity we have come to believe that distortion is beautiful, a consequence of the psychological fact that we are all unconsciously subject to the distorting effect of anxiety that has become universal in modernity.We have become accustomed to distortion in modernity, for the existence-shaking anxiety it arouses, the subjective sense of impending catastrophe that is modernity’s greatest psychological cost.It inevitably distorts our experience of the life world, and with that our sense of beauty.Modernization feels apocalyptic, for it destroys the old security without offering any new security, the permanent revolution that modernization has been said to be is hardly a secure base for existence which is why modern art is necessarily anxious.
Just as Tertullian said, “Credo qui absurdum,” so today we say, “I believe in art because it is absurd”—not the absurdity of being God and man in one as Christ was for Tertullian, but the greater absurdity of the oneness of nonexistence and existence.Just as there are hollow men, as T.S. Eliot said, so there are hollow artists, artists whose work is “meaningless/As wind in dry grass/Or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar”—which brings to mind Nauman’s studio, a “dead land.”Mapping the Studio/(Fat Chance for John Cage) of 2001 is a frank admission of art’s bankruptcy and sterility.It is the perversely grand climax of conceptualism.Nauman’s studio is an empty space strewn with debris.It is a wasteland of nonart—not simply anti-art or the absence of art or ironic “artlessness,” but a desert in which art cannot grow; in which there is not even a mirage, let alone oasis, of art, only a blankness in which art has no place; in which art can no longer be felt, imagined, and thought; an existential vacuum in which art is inconceivable, an existential vacuum that is abhorrent because it bespeaks Nauman’s vacuousness, his sense of the vacuousness of art.Art is merely a matter of chance, and every chance event is regarded as art, which means that art is a game of chance in the void.The life world to which art once responded has become a death world to which there can be no response.Everything has fallen silent in Nauman’s studio, but it is not the silence in which the heavenly music of artistic spheres can be heard but the hollow silence of futility.
Nauman has in effect been “wasted” by anxiety:the conceptual studio has become a wasteland because he has been overwhelmed by anxiety, including the anxiety aroused by always having to make art new, the paralyzing anxiety of having to redefine art every day.Nauman’s barren studio—no longer a womb in which art can be created, but the vast desolation that comes from being at a complete loss—is the fitting climax of modern art, art that tries to make the creative best of anxiety but is constantly anxious about what art is so that it cannot help but make the worst kind of art: chance art—if one wants to call it art and regard chance as creative.The trivialization of art by treating it merely as a matter of chance amounts to its self-defeat.Anxiety about art leads one to regard it as a matter of chance, sparing one the trouble of having to work to make it, and with that the skill and devotion necessary to make it work as art: to have a transformational effect on the engaged viewer, altering his consciousness for the better, which means making him more sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of things and the emotional nuances of experience than he could ever be with his everyday consciousness. This chance art can best be seen in the art of “found objects where artists simply pick things up off the street and arrange them, color them or simply let them sit in a room with a provocative title affixed. Without a doubt, this is the legacy of Duchamps which apexed in the 1960s with the work of Warhol who took everyday “found” objects such as soup cans and Brillo boxes and turned them into “art.” Warhol’s greatness, then, can only be measured in his view that the beauty of the world which used to be man’s respite from his fear of war, destructive nature and social unrest is in the mundane. Seek beauty where it is overlooked, in effect.
Anxiety has a devastating, hollowing effect on art and life, as Nauman’s studio shows.His anxious attempt to redefine art is the self-destructive climax of Cézanne’s anxiety and Van Gogh’s self-torment.Anxiety and self-torment are always apocalyptic, always involve the expectation, unconscious or conscious, of apocalypse; that is, the destruction of the world and the self by mysterious forces beyond our control.Nauman makes Cézanne’s and Van Gogh’s implicit apocalypticism explicit.(Apocalypticism is the opposite of mysticism, in which things come together rather than fall apart, harmoniously integrate into a cosmic whole rather than disintegrate into a chaos of bizarre fragments.In literature, this can be seen in the works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the “magic realists” who make supernatural occurrences, natural. The art of Cézanne and Van Gogh is informed by the conflict between apocalypticism and mysticism which is why it is so “touchy” and tense, all the more so because the conflict is unresolved; their images seem oddly distorted and almost fragmented, but hold together precariously, as though uncannily balanced and, in fact, is so anxiety-arousing that it cannot be resolved.Their art is dialectically paralyzed, which makes it perversely dramatic, as all modern beauty is.)
It is apocalyptic anxiety that destroys the studio.It becomes the antiaesthetic space not only of anti-art, but also of anti-creativity and anti-nature.The studio of nature in which Cézanne and Van Gogh worked, hoping to find in eternal nature a vitalizing alternative to devitalizing modern anxiety, has become Nauman’s pseudostudio: nothing, certainly nothing natural, can exist in it, suggesting that existence has become a meaningless concept.Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance for John Cage) acknowledges art’s and the pseudoconceptual artist’s suicide under the spell of anxiety.Run into the ground by its obsession with anxiety, art has become self-limiting and demoralized.It hasbecome incapable of metabolizing existence, distilling its aesthetic nutrients for the emotional better thus has lost human purpose, unless its unwitting purpose is to show that, in the modern Age of Anxiety, art is unable to offer the “consolation and exaltation” it once offered, which are the words Picasso used when he admitted that he lacked “the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the word,” calling himself a “public entertainer” instead.Let us recall that Picasso’s cubism was regarded as the first conceptual art.
From: Rethinking Cormac McCarthy
The Counselor: Your Honor, I Object!
I have had the good fortune of receiving a copy of the shooting script of Cormac McCarthy’s newest work, The Counselor. I use the term good fortune only in reference to my getting a copy, not for reading it. Publicity for the filmed version (directed by Ridley Scott) states that it is McCarthy’s first screenplay, even though, by his own admission, screenplays for The Road and No Country for Old Men were started and possibly completed in the 1980s along with The Gardener’s Son in 1976. Perhaps calling it his “first” is a sort of pre-emptive apology for its amateurish plot, pacing and dialogue. Scott has rounded up a passel of big name stars like Bardem, Penelope Cruz and other Scott-faithfuls. They better bring their best game to this one. It is a dismal affair where all of McCarthy’s weaknesses as a writer come forward like a street gang at two in the morning while you’re going for an insomnia inspired walk. On page 4 we have:
Laura: I want you to touch it.
Counselor: God. Are you wet?
Counselor: You really are?
Laura: Yes. Ooh. Baby.
Counselor: God. You’re sopping. [Men, when was the last time you told your female partner that her sex organ was “sopping?”]
Laura: God. Slow. Slow. God. How do you know how to do that?
Counselor: From hanging out with really nasty girls.
Laura: You’ve ruined me. You know that.
Counselor: I hope so. God. You have the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom. [Men, when was the last time you put the words “pussy” and “Christendom” in the same sentence?]
On page 7:
Laura: I want you to stick your finger up me and find my spot and push on it.
Counselor: Jesus. Right now? [Men, when was the last time you heard a woman under 70 refer to her “G-spot?”]
On page 57:
REINER Very nice car. Not a V-12 but a better car than the 308. Which was an embarrassment for a Ferrari. Westray had one and he said that it wouldn’t pull a greasy string out of a cat’s ass. His metaphor. Is that a metaphor? Anyway, this was a while back. Not that long. We’d been getting it on for a while and we care back one night – we were staying up at Cloud croft – and we drove out on the golf course and parked and we’re sitting there talking and for no particular reason that I could see she lifts herself up and slides off her knickers and hands them to me and gets out of the car. I asked her what she was doing and she puts her finger to her lips. Like the car is listening. And then she says: I’m going to fuck your car. Jesus. She tells me to leave the door open. Turns out she wants the domelight on. So she goes around and climbs up on the hood of the Ferrari and pulls her dress up around her waist and spreads herself across the windshield in front of me with no panties on and begins to rub herself on the glass. Don’t even think I’m making this up. You cant make this up. I mean, she was a dancer, right? In Argentina? She danced at the opera thing down there. I’ve seen the clippings. And she does this full split and starts rubbing herself up and down on the glass and she’s lying on the roof of the car and she looks down over the side to see if I’m watching. Like, no, I’m sitting there reading my e-mail. And she gestures to me to crank down the window and she leans in and kisses me. Upside down. And then she tells me that she’s going to come. And I thought, well, I’m losing my fucking mind. That’s what’s happening here. It was like one of those catfish things. One of those bottom feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium. Sucking its way up the glass. It was just. I don’t know. It was just… Hallucinatory. You see a thing like that, it changes you.
It gets worse, if you can believe that, but I refuse to overindulge. I’m afraid that Mr. McCarthy, so renowned for his extensive research on his subjects, has used internet porn sites this time around. There are more misogynistic jokes, utterances and situations in this script than there are scalps in Blood Meridian. As for plot, it moves along at the pace of The Sunset Limited: the blather at the kitchen table, not the train. For the entire first 58 pages, there is no action, just table/desk talk between the counselor, an attorney, and various ne’er do well drug people: bankers, dealers, women in prison and drug lords. This is the same cast we see in No Country for Old Men, in other words.
There is plenty of McCarthyian philosophizing going on so that characters who might not be able to state a cogent sentence if their lives depended on it come up with, “Forgiveness. People as a group can love or hate or admire or malign. But there’s no such thing as collective forgiveness.” Just typical barroom talk between a lawyer and a hired killer. Can you name another film where the characters pontificate in such verbiage?
And McCarthy’s “humor” abounds: There is a five minute uninterrupted speech where one character tells another the story of a friend of his who could not speak English wanting to ask a girl in a dance club to dance. They tell him to say, “I Want. To. Eat. Your. Pussy.” He introduces himself to said beauty and says the phrase with a heavy accent. She notices that his friends “across the room” are laughing and elbowing each other so she accepts, takes him outside to her limo and has sex with him for twenty minutes. His English-speaking friend sees the success of the maneuver and pretends he cannot speak English and says the same accented phrase to one of her friends. Her boyfriend emerges from the men’s room just as he says, “Pussy” and clobbers him so badly that he needs to be hospitalized. We are supposed to laugh. We do not. I would suggest that this is Humor in a Country for Old Men, Very Old Men.
Even “funnier” is the scene where a non-Catholic party girl enters a confessional and proceeds to “confess” to the priest about her lesbian affair with her sister after the priest has indicated that he cannot take confession from a non-Catholic. He runs out, “hurrying up the aisle, blessing himself.” She calls after him, “’Wait! I wasn’t finished!’ The women waiting to go to the confession [sic] are confused, horrified. One of them blesses herself.” Imagine the writer of Outer Dark writing this. I cannot.
Interestingly (and thankfully), McCarthy has abandoned the affectations of apostrophe-less spelling and Spanish dialogue appears no more frequently than one would find in a shopping mall in St. Louis. We get no proselytizing of the grandeur of Old Mexico told in Spanish to characters with an eighth grade education. We get no Nietzsche from a hard-scrabble farmer chasing a mule in Chihuahua. Just a pile of potty mouth dialogue from women who are as lifelike as zombies, although I’m beginning to believe that McCarthy simply detests women so much that he cannot write about them without this hatred peeping out from behind the curtain.
Anyone who has read a screenplay that was actually the basis of a successfully produced film will note how unlike either a novel or a stage play it is. When I taught tennis years ago, I would tell my students to watch a professional match by watching the players, not the ball as most fans do. Watch the legs, the racket preparation, the bend of the knees, the eye on the ball stance. That is how one comes to understand the game itself. Watch a movie but do not watch the plot. Camera angles shift roughly every three to five seconds. Scenery, setting, time of day and most importantly, action make up most of a successful film. Not dialogue. Novels are nothing but words, lots of them. Plays have fewer words but are still word heavy. Screenplays on a page generally are very sparse as to dialogue. A film depends on visuals not speeches and thus, most good screenplays are quite boring to read because so little is said and so much depends on the talents of the film crew from the director on down and the actors ability to visually create thought and emotion. The Counselor reads more like a cross between a novel and a play. At roughly 120 pages, it seems designed for filmdom because screenplays generally take a minute a page on average on the screen. McCarthy has conceded this by having his piece seem to fit the almost iron-clad Hollywood proposition that films need to be two hours long. What he completely fails to realize in this script is that his 120 pages are almost all filled top to bottom with dialogue at roughly three times the quantity of an average screenplay. To somehow make this wordfest into a visual art form would require at least six hours of screen time unless they just film actors talking at each other as the audience dozes off as in The Sunset Limited and The Stonemason. Not since Von Stroheim’s masterful Greed based on Frank Norris’s fabulous novel, McTeague, has anyone attempted such an unsellable running time. (Greed ran 9 ½ hours in the silent era and was eventually cut down to a more tenable four hours and then just two hours.) Of course, McCarthy is not suggesting his “film” run longer than two hours; he is simply unaware that it would run much longer if it ran at all. He attempts quite ineffectively to add action by use of his vividly violent imagination.
To outdo his absurd cattle gun killing machine from No Country for Old Men, we have a motorized garrote. McCarthy has managed to invent (in his mind, at least) a noose that can be slipped over the victim’s neck that keeps tightening by a small battery operated motor until the head of said victim is detached. Then, it continues to tighten until it self-destructs. Even 007 never had one of these things in the most lame of all the James Bond movies. The idea of a circle continuously reducing its circumference until it “implodes” must have come from a bout of heavy drinking with those physicist types that seem to feel a comradeship with McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute where such mind puzzles must abound. How do we bend space? How small is the point at an intersection of two lines? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How do I get out of here and hang with a bunch of guys who got laid in high school instead of rubbing the numbers off their slide rules? I would further suggest that much of the gross bawdy talk and mindless humor we find in The Counselor would leave these graybeards rolling on their laboratory floors. As for the rest of us?
He has also devised an “ingenious” method of smuggling contraband across the US-Mexico border (a place the author cannot leave be for even a minute.) He has the smuggler use a septic disposal truck. How brilliant. Everyone knows that no self-respecting border guard would want to search a tanker truck full of human waste. This plan puts the Manhattan Project to shame. Who would ever question the driver of a tanker truck loaded with feces going from Mexico to Texas? It must happen every day. Texans may not be fond of Mexicans crossing their thousand mile border but they welcome their stool by the truckload.
If Ridley Scott et al can turn this piece into a sellable film, he needs to be congratulated. McCarthy has already been paid so he won’t be losing any sleep. I won’t issue a spoiler alert and then continue to criticize this script to shreds. It is not a task I enjoy but I am duty bound to myself at least to speak the truth as I see it. Anyone who is familiar with the magnificent essays of George Orwell must remember his “Shooting an Elephant.” It is a piece that remains with someone his whole life. I had an inspired high school English teacher who had us read this. Its effect never left me. The once colossal and powerful beast has been struck down by a bullet. As it lies there, it gasps its last, it shudders, it heaves. It dies slowly, glacierly. The page literally trembles in one’s hands. This death is emblematic of all great things that have fallen, whether they be kings, palaces, empires or gifted writers. Orwell convinces us that it is a terrible thing to witness. It is.
From: Emile Zola: A Life for American Readers
The year was 1888. Zola was forty-eight years old.He was filled with vigor and life.Something new had entered his world.Shortly after Mme.Zola had hired Jeanne Rozerot, a young seamstress to work in her household, she became Zola’s mistress.His love for this young and beautiful girl was real and profound.Flagrant delictum was not Zola’s way.When it came to Jeanne Rozerot, however, her gentleness and her youth were irresistible.It was because of her that he was to experience a rejuvenation.As for Jeanne Rozerot, she remained in the background, always.She lived on his love alone.
Zola’s wife discovered the liaison three years later, after receiving an anonymous letter.Outraged at first, her anger turned to pain and finally she came to accept the relationship.Her husband could come and go freely to the apartment he had rented for his mistress on 66 rue Saint-Lazare.In time, Jeanne Rozerot brought Zola the joy he had never known and for which he had longed for so many years: a daughter, Denise, and a son, Jacques.
Serenity and fulfillment came on an emotional as well as mental level.A successful writer acknowledged throughout France and the world, Zola expressed his new found hope and joy in The Dream, a fairytale novel, quite unlike any other work in The Rougon-Macquart series.An orphan, Angélique was adopted by tender and loving people of modest circumstances.She dreams of marrying a prince charming and has faith in miracles.Although her parents try to dissuade her from believing in her dreams, the incredible does come true.Angélique marries her prince and lives happily ever after.The Dream did not sell well.It was, however, made into an opera (the libretto was written by Louis Gallet and the music composed by Alfred Bruneau) and performed in 1891 with relative success.
The busy years sped by.In 1891 Zola was elected president of the Société des Gens de Lettres, a well deserved honor.The eighteenth volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, Money, was published.Among the many events and experiences that filled Zola’s life at theis time, one, in particular is worthy of mention.A questionnaire was submitted to Zola, as well as to other men of letters, by the journalist Jules Huret, asking whether Naturalism was still a vigorous literary school: “Is Naturalism sick? Is it dead?”Paul Alexis who was in the southern part of France telegraphed his now famous answer: “NATURALISM NOT DEAD.”As for Huysmans, his reply was categorical: “We are done with Naturalism….Masturbation has been novelized.”Zola’s answer was less extreme.“Naturalism finished?...Possibly.We have been a dominant force for a large part of the century; we have nothing to complain of; we stand resplendent in this nineteenth century with respect to the evolution of ideas and, therefore, we do not fear posterity.”1
Whether Naturalism was dead or not, Zola was to pursue his literary ventures.An ambitious novel, The Debacle is about the Franco-Prussian War (1870).“It isn’t war alone,” Zola wrote, “it is the collapse of a dynasty, the breakdown of an epoch.”
As usual, Zola did his thorough research work.He visited the terrain on which some of the battles were fought: went from Rheims to Sedan on foot, taking the same roads used by the Seventh Corps; interviewed the peasants in the nearby cottages, and spent an entire week in the area at Sedan.
A military novel of sorts, The Debacle delineates sequences of the Imperial battalions as they march to their doom.Scenes of advancing and retreating armies are handled so that the reader feels the movement and pulsations of thousands of anxious men.There are close-ups, too, of the foot soldiers, the franc-tireur, the stretcher bearer.When Napoleon III undertook to fight the Germans and Bismarck, the minister of William I of Prussia, he had underestimated the strength, discipline, and organization of his enemy.Although the Imperial Army was impressive in number, its failure to call up reserves on time, its lack of organization in handling armament and in bringing them speedily to the front, its officers’ inability to command large troops, ended in a catastrophe.Bismarck’s Prussian forces, superbly trained and accustomed to the terrain, took the initiative.Marshals Mac-Mahon and Bazaine were defeated.The French army, consisting of one hundred thousand troops, capitulated at Sedan (Sept. 2, 1870).Napoleon III was taken prisoner on the battlefield.His entire campaign was marked by vacillation: an inability to take a stand on important issues; weakness in the face of pressure.The physical pain he suffered from kidney stones was also an important factor in his defeat.The misfortunes hovering over France were not yet over with the military debacle.2
The harrowing events suffered during the Civil War which followed are described by Zola in vivid and abrasive terms.The Republican Gambetta, member of the government for National Defense, inflamed the French with feelings of Patriotism and he convinced many to continue the resistance against the foe.To no avail.Paris was forced to yield in 1871.Thiers, elected president of the Republic by the National Assembly, negotiated the peace treaty of Frankfurt (May 10, 1871) with the Germans, which was then proclaimed at Versailles (Jan. 18, 1871).Peace in France itself, however, was not forthcoming.Riots broke out in Paris; fighting between the Communards, the proletarian government group occupying the Hôtel de Ville, and Thiers’ government, which resided at Versailles, was vicious.The struggle for power ushered in what is commonly alluded to as “Red Weeks.”In May, 1871, fifteen thousand people were executed.The Tuileries Palace, the City Hall, and the Cour des Comptes were burned.The descriptions of the ravages perpetrated by man, the cruelties suffered by soldiers, politicians, and innocent victims are rendered in explicit terms as the novel marches to its dramatic climax: from chaos to destruction.The conclusion is a positive one, Zola implies: the French terrain is rich; its earth is fertile; humanity has a future—it requires the reorganization and rebuilding of a country.
The sales of The Debacle surpassed even Zola’s expectations.They were colossal.Zola, however, was growing tired of the Rougon-Macquart series and decided to conclude, as planned, with Doctor Pascal, a volume that explains and defends “the entire group of nineteen novels” in which Zola’s “literary passion had been satisfied.”3
Doctor Pascal, a physician who has spent his entire life helping humankind, by fighting ignorance and prejudice, and disinterested in pecuniary matters, was also fascinated with the subject of heredity and devoted long hours to an indepth study of it.He explains to his beloved Clotilde, the genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquart family.He analyzes its various members who have made up this complex network of human beings.Doctor Pascal believes in progress: science and proper economic conditions will improve a country’s health.He practices “serotherapy,” that is, the injection of serums to fight disease.In his research work he ponders the possibility of discovering the sex of a fetus after conception.Would answers to this mystery ever be known?Dr. Pascal’s inquiries are clothed in humility in contrast to the arrogant attitudes of other searchers who are convinced that man will one day dominate and overpower nature.To work in harmony with cosmic forces, through science, is Dr. Pascal’s way.
Dr. Pascal lives his beautiful and ideal love with Clotilde.The question of marriage never arises since their relationship is profound and fulfilling.His sudden death from heart failure, just before the birth of his son, does not allow him to experience complete fulfillment.With his death, and era comes to an end.But with his son’s birth a new generation comes into being—hopefully more humane.