When it comes to French literature and history I am a little out of my depth. The reason for this, I suspect, is that I was put off French literature by the people who tried to introduce it to me. It’s the old familiar story shared by people who say that they have been put off classics or science in high school, except that it was not school who spoiled French literature for me. It was a handful of pretentious people I briefly knew socially. There is an element of snobbishness to this story – probably on both sides.
There is no element of snobbishness in J’Accuse. Zola’s letter is an elegant and eloquent expression of his intolerance towards an establishment who believes that blaming a scapegoat for the treason committed in its own ranks is acceptable. An establishment who believes that bullying and perverting the course of justice is a an acceptable course of action to preserve its role in society. It is by taking into account the deceit and power of this establishment, which through a web of lies condemned an innocent Alfred Dreyfus to a penal colony, that I am impressed by Zola. Not by his outrage against the establishment. I’m impressed by the risk he took to publicly denounce the wrong that was done against Dreyfus.
Of course, I am aware of Zola’s personal legal battle that followed the publication of J’Accuse and the efforts of the Dreyfusards to appeal against Dreyfus’ sentence, and it was somewhat humbling to read the text which is so seminal in the rift in French society that ensued from the arrogance of an establishment that seemed to have forgotten the principles of equality and liberty on which it was supposed to have been founded.