I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre. Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit. Well, even shit ain’t so bad.
The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors. He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it. His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!” But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave. Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.
During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community. There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer: the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits. The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:
The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility. This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.
“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.
“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”
We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers. There’s an irony for you. The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant. Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin. What do we see? The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why? To feed the workers in the cities. The tangled historical logic of it all! The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve. And starve they did, by the millions.
Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers! Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:
Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.
The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries. No need to move too quickly.
And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait. “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice. I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant. Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out? Something that’s such a routine part of the job. Why waste the energy? No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role. I thought, “I’m with the peasant!” Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…