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Émile Zola: Haunted by military matters

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Émile Zola: Selections on war

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Émile Zola
From Truth (1902)
Translated by Ernest A. Vizetelly

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Doloir, who had been for several years in the employment of Darras, the mayor and building contractor, was a fairly good workman – one who occasionally drank a drop too much…But above everything else three years of barrack life had left an ineffaceable mark on Doloir. He had quitted the army in a transport of delight at his deliverance, freely cursing the disgusting and hateful calling in which one ceased to be a man. But ever since that time he had been continually living his three years’ service afresh; not a day passed but some recollection of it came to him. With his hand spoilt as it were by the rifle he had carried, he had found his trowel heavy, and returned to work in a spiritless fashion, like one who was no longer accustomed to toil, but whose will was broken and whose body had become used to long spells of idleness, such as those which intervened between the hours of military exercise. To become once again the excellent workman that he had been previously was quite impossible.

Besides, he was haunted by military matters, to which he was always referring apropos of any subject that presented itself.

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At that time considerations of patriotism influenced the whole of our education system in France. The country asked us merely for soldiers, the army was like a temple, a sanctuary, that army which had remained waiting with arms grounded for thirty years, and which had devoured thousands of millions of francs! And thus we have been turned into a warrior France instead of becoming a France of progress, truth, justice, and peace, such as alone could have helped us to save the world…

The highest role and the noblest in a nascent democracy is that of the poor and scorned elementary schoolmaster, appointed to teach the humble, to train them to be happy citizens, the builders of the future City of Justice and Peace. Marc felt it was so, and he suddenly realised the exact sense of his mission, his apostleship of Truth, that fervent passion to acquire Truth, certain and positive, then cry it aloud and teach it to all, which had ever possessed him.

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There was no possibility of real amelioration, liberation, and happiness otherwise than by truth – that is, by knowledge of the conditions in which mankind exists and progresses. All the craving for knowledge as a means for rapid attainment to health and peace bore within itself its method of free expansion, science ceasing to be a dead letter, and becoming a source of life, an excitant of temperament and character…

And yes, so long as the passion for knowledge merely for its own sake should become keener and keener in a social system which was all falsehood and injustice, it would only add to existing ruins. It was necessary that science should tend towards justice, and bring to the future city of fraternity a moral system of liberty and peace.

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