Zola’s The Squares: City, Country and Work

In the Introduction to Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille by Denis Hollier (trans. Betsy Wing; MIT 1989) there are some interesting remarks:

“In 1867, Emilie Zola, a young journalist, dedicated one of his articles to the upcoming inauguration of a public space. The piece is entitled ‘The Squares.’ It begins: ‘The gates to the new Parmentier square, built on the site of the former Popincourt slaughterhouse, will soon be opened to the public.’ Then come two pages of sarcasm directed at the absurdity of urban landscaping, where lawns try to recall nature for consumptive city dwellers. ‘It looks like a bit of nature that did something wrong and was put in prison.’ A square is not a museum, but it too is a place for soft expenditure, it is an enclave through whose gates Parisian workers escape the implacable law of labor: they take the air (regenerate their lungs just as do the museum visitors observed by Bataille). For lack of an animal they kill time.” (xv)

“Despite his sarcastic remarks about squares, a mere detail in Haussmann’s overall plan, Zola is vigorously in favor of the modernization of Paris. […] In the modern city, the capital of the world of work, everyone is busy. Everything found there has its function, a physiological justification. […] Zola is allergic to the squares because the city takes its rest there, or, more precisely, because these idleness preserves are urban. Not that Zola is opposed to stopping work (workers have a right to recreation), but he is opposed to this happening in the city. If one is not working one should leave.” (xvi)

Although I’ve read more of Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo and Spanish author Emilia Pardo Bazán (both influenced by Zola) than Zola himself, I was reminded of the role of the country in the French writer’s Germinal (a great read) where the forest serves as a safe space for organizing against the evils of mine-work. Given that nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century reactions unfolded against industrialization and mechanization rather than against urbanization proper (e.g. see Lewis Mumford), it makes sense to see authors of that time upholding such a strict city-country dichotomy instead of seeing (as some have suggested) capitalist industrialization as a first step toward capitalist urbanization (much easier in hindsight)–in both cases, of course, the city and the country are part of an evolving and dynamic relationship, which renders Zola’s view on squares somewhat humorous if not also absurd from today’s perspective.

“if one is not working one should leave”–I’m not sure how well this statement represents Zola’s view, but it certainly supports a reifying perspective on city and country that itself anticipates the post-war uneven development of leisure and work spaces taken on by Lefebvre (e.g. The Production of Space).