Note on Zola and heredity
How should we read Zola today?
Reading his Nana, I was struck by a scene in which the corrupt journalist Fauchery writes an article attacking the well-connected courtesan at the center of the novel, and the Second Empire culture by association:
“Entitled The Golden Fly, it was the story of a girl descended from four or five generations of drunkards, her blood tainted by an accumulated inheritance of poverty and drink, which in her case had taken the form of a nervous derangement of the sexual instinct. She had grown up in the slums, in the gutters of Paris; and now… she was avenging the paupers and the outcasts of whom she was the product. With her, the rottenness that was allowed to ferment among the lower classes was rising to the surface and rotting the aristocracy.”
It’s a sticky passage, brushing up uncomfortably against Zola’s own interest in heredity. Nana’s story lies in the twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle; her parents drank themselves to death in l’Assommoir, and heredity plays a role in the characters’ lives- not as inescapable fate, but certainly something. The Rougons have inherited- let’s say a tendency- which Zola describes elsewhere as, “their ravenous appetite… that rushes upon enjoyment”, caused by, “the slow succession of accidents pertaining to the nerves or the blood (either-or?) which befall a race after the first organic lesion, and according to environment, determine in each individual member of the line those feelings, desires, and passions”.
At first read, this is uncomfortable-making, dredging up images of sterilization and slanders against “Mongoloids” and Kallikaks. And yet, Zola’s fascination with heredity comes from a common nineteenth century liberal sympathy for those paupers and outcasts. Each member of the line has been dealt a rotten hand they’re struggling to escape. If Alexander Berdiaev is right that “man is the being who surmounts and transcends himself”, the Rougons are still struggling to become men. Zola seemingly wants us just to witness their uphill struggle and grow colder towards a society that isolates the poor in hovels than towards the poor themselves.
Similarly, Nana’s sexuality is a destructive force, but she’s not really a villain. She’s more childlike than malicious and her promiscuity is linked to her empathetic nature, also inherited from her mother; both her legs and heart are open. She is, of course, cashing in on her beauty, but Zola sees the whole society as greedily “rushing upon enjoyment” and certainly a character that grew up in dire poverty (l’Assommoir) can hardly be faulted for wanting to make a nice nest for herself. The well-heeled men that dash themselves against her rocks, ruining themselves financially or socially, are the real imbeciles of the novel.
We’ve rightly condemned eugenics, so we shudder a bit at the suggestion that heredity plays a role in shaping our lives. But does that make it false? If liberals are people who recognize the strikes against the poor, should they recognize genetic strikes too? Or would they be best to learn from the eugenic past and go no further in this direction? I’ve no answer. The best I can suggest is that, if heredity plays a negative role in life, perhaps the only worthwhile liberal approach would be to give individuals the tools to improve their own outcomes for themselves, instead of using tools from the outside to “improve” those people for society’s benefit.