It is a useful coincidence that the 119th anniversary of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse occurs exactly a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. As viewed by the greater French writer, Anatole France, the trumped-up Alfred Dreyfus case (Zola risked his career writing in support of the Jewish artillery captain) was all about the creation of “false facts” towards political ends.
The Dreyfus Affair, as it’s inevitably styled, roiled France at the turn of the twentieth century, exposing a brutal French dialectic, pitting the often anti-semitic and anti-Republican Establishment against those who came to be called, mostly derisively, “intellectuals.” The upshot, following two trials and the rehabilitation of Dreyfus after it became irrefutable that he had been framed by anti-semites (never mind that the culprits were still regarded as heroic and never prosecuted), was the 1905 Law Concerning the Separation of Church and State, an anti-dialectic at the state level, now enshrined in the French constitution and rigorously enforced as official laicité. Of particular interest, especially given my theory of justice as nostalgia for an Edenic paradise,* is Anatole France’s “Crainquebille,” a short story (available in translation here) that some readers say grew out of the author’s almost obsessive interest in the Dreyfus case.
Unlike the army captain, who never flagged in his stoic patriotism and dignity, an Other who would be Establishment, Crainquebille is dirt poor, a street-hawker who knows his place, which is compliant and humble. He lives in a closet, with chestnut sacks as bedclothes. One morning, his regular customer, a sour cobbler on the rue Montmartre, decides to buy some of his leeks, “the asparagus of the poor.” She takes the stalks into her shop to get Craniquebille’s money, but is distracted by a customer of her own. As Crainquebille waits at his cart, he causes a traffic jam. Police Constable Matra, Agent 64, tells him to move along, and Crainquebille explains that he is waiting to get paid. Inasmuch as he regards civil authority as godlike, he is anxious about talking back in this way, but “does not understand that the enjoyment of an individual right does not excuse one from the fulfillment of his social duty.” Twice more, the police officer tells him to move along. Tearing at his hair under his cap, in “despair more than rebellion” Crainquebille hollers: “But I told you I’m waiting for my money! Just my bloody luck! God help me!”
Agent 64 takes this personally, “and as, for him, all insults took on a traditional form, regular, sacred, ritual and, so to say, liturgical,” he hears it as, “Death to the pigs!” (“Mort aux vaches!”) He arrests Crainquebille, who realizes that he said no such thing, but accepts that he must have done so insofar as an agent of the state says he did. Although an educated passerby, a prominent physician and officer of the Legion of Honour, intervenes to contradict the officer and testifies for the accused at the trial, Crainquebille is convicted, never mind that the courtroom is reduced to laughter when Agent 64 contends that the physician – whose surname, Matthieu, happens to be the first name of Dreyfus’s brother, an ardent advocate in Alfred’s defence – also yelled, “Death to the pigs.” Crainquebille is sentenced to two weeks in jail and a 50-franc fine, which latter is paid by an anonymous patron (presumably Dr. Matthieu).
The disdain for “intellectualism” as against custom and ritual (in the Dreyfus affair, the artistic community against the bourgeois establishment and its church) is satirized twice more. In a section entitled “Apology for Mr. Justice Bourriche” (the trial judge), a lawyer argues that facts are dangerous sophistry and perfidious enemies of civil justice and military justice. Mr. Justice Bourriche is too much of a jurist for his decisions to depend on reason and science, given that these would be subject to eternal dispute. He bases his rulings on blind dogma and the foundation of tradition, such that they are equal in authority with those of the Church. His judgments are canonical, ex cathedra.
Humanity (justice) doesn’t enter into it. It is not Matras the man who makes the accusation against Crainquebille, but a number, Agent 64, and numbers are incorruptible, “pure idea.” “Justice is force,” finally; all society depends on this. (Arguably, this is true even of earthly “paradisal” justice, if we use Eden as a model.) Otherwise, it has no power to impose itself. Society, law and order, are incommensurate with empathy or compassion. Justice is “administered with fixed rules and not with shuddering flesh and intelligent clarity. Above all, it does not ask to be just; as justice, it has no need, and I will tell you that the idea of a just justice could take root only in the mind of an anarchist.” As with Dreyfus, les raisons d’état (state interests) trump individual rights and freedoms.
Crainquebille finds prison cozy – clean, nicely designed, with regular meals. While incarcerated his only concern is for his pushcart, his living. He is otherwise content: “Just as a little boy who goes to catechism recognizes that he is guilty of the sin of Eve, this poor old man believed himself guilty of having mysteriously [mystiquement] offended Agent 64. His arrest has taught him that he had cried ‘Death to the pigs!,’ so he must have cried ‘Death to the pigs!’ … He had been transported to a supernatural world. His conviction at law was his apocalypse.” Under both religious and secular law, sin and crime, human suffering is not just a part of God’s and Caesar’s plan, but a matter of ecstasy. And at the apocalypse, we are redeemed by absolute justice from the grip of mortal law. We must be patient.
The coup de grâce, of course, is that if prison has become a sort of substitute paradise, a reconstituted, poetic vision of justice for Crainquebille, there is no going back. After his release, all is ironic nostalgia. As an ex-convict, he has lost his customers and is sleeping in his cart. In his attempts at Paradise regained, which is to say another arrest and jail-term, he seeks out a gendarme and deliberately hollers “Death to the pigs,” dealing this time with no Agent 64 but a world-weary cynic, who simply tells him to move on. Crainquebille is stranded outside the barred gates of Eden, constituted as a prison cell. His “free will” is ironically more circumscribed than ever, just as we find it to be in a world where increasing technocracy, and sometimes our own political choices, constantly impinge on the freedom they pretend to improve.
Thus are the lies at the heart of injustice normalized, or even made to seem perfect justice, lies “factualized” – something to keep in mind in light of the political sea-change seven days from now.
* See, e.g., last week’s post, here, and the related posts and materials mentioned there, as well as the Justice page of this website.
**If you’d like to be notified of each new posting, let me know via the “contact” page and I’ll put you on my e-mail list.**