The Human Beast

Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2006.


Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.

I take that term, the human beast, from my idol, Emile Zola, who published a novel entitled The Human Beast in 1888, just 29 years after Darwin’s The Origin of Species broke the stunning news that Homo sapiens–or Homo loquax, as I call him–was not created by God in his own image but was precisely that, a beast, not different in any essential way from snakes with fangs or orangutangs . . . or kangaroos. . . or the fang-proof mongoose. Darwin’s doctrine, Evolution, leapt from the pages of a scientific monograph into every level of society in Europe and America with sensational suddenness. It created a sheerly dividing line between the God-fearing bourgeoisie who were appalled, and those people of sweetness and light whose business it was to look down at the bourgeosie from a great height. Today, of course, we call these superior people intellectuals, but intellectual didn’t exist as a noun until Clemenceau applied it to Zola and Anatole France in 1896 during the Dreyfus Case. Zola’s intellect was as sweetly enlightened as they made them. He was in with the in-crowd. Evenings he spent where the in-crowd went, namely, the CafĂ© Guerbois, along with Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Nadar, and le tout Paris boheme. He took his cues from the in-crowd’s views, namely, Academic art was bad, Impressionism was good, and Homo sapiens had descended from the monkeys in the trees. Human beasts? I’ll give you human beasts! Zola’s aforementioned novel of that name, La Bete Humaine in French, is a story of four murderers, a woman and three men, who work down at track level on the Paris-Le Havre railroad line, each closing in on a different victim, each with a different motive, including the case of a handsome young passenger train engineer with a compulsion . . . to make love to women and then kill them. With that, Zola crowned himself as the first scientific novelist, a “naturalist,” to use his term, studying the human fauna.

National Endowment for the Humanities