One of the controversial writings by Emile is the novel “Lourdes” about the conflict of faith and naturalism that took stage in the famous pilgrimage place Lourdes, France. Since reading the novel I felt compelled to have a chat him and to confront him with the controversy aroused by this novel. I tried contacting him many times, but he seemed very busy and was traveling around France.
Then, during my trip to Lourdes in August, I heard that Emile was there amid the thousands of pilgrims coming from around the world. I was so surprised that he came here, knowing his reputation as the founder of a new literary movement ‘Le Naturisme’, return to nature, an extreme form of realism which explains everything based on natural causes rather than supernatural or divine causes.
Eager to find him, I went around asking people about him, but it wasn’t easy. Everyone had their own interest to come here, and certainly celebrity searching wasn’t their favorite interest. With a bit of luck though, after a long search I saw him in a small crowd of singing and dancing pilgrims, nearby the Grotto by the Gave de Pau river.
He seemed to be having a good time there and was friendly and approachable. After a ‘Bonjour’ exchange, and a polite ‘may I talk to you’ he agreed for a chat there at the bank of Gave de Pau river. I couldn’t believe it, my head exploded with the imagination of the praises and rewards I would get from the publisher of ‘stenote’.
I then hastily opened the discussion:
“Monsieur, this time Lourdes appears very far developed compared with the time of Bernadette Soubirous. Lourdes was a greenery village with a few hundred people, far from any frequented highway during Bernadette’s time. Now, look, there is a beautiful basilica at the centre, and the wild Massabielle grotto where Santa Maria appeared is now beautifully decorated with flowers, and there are many nice hotels and restaurants surrounding the site. ”
“Indeed, in my book I wrote about the contracts between Lourdes now and Bernadette’s house at Rue des Petits Floses which has been kept the same as the original. It is a simple wretched looking house in a gloomy neighborhood, with a mournful facades in which never a window opens. Inside the house it is like a low dark chamber, the walls, with their decaying, damped stained plaster falling off bits by bits, were full of cracks, and turning dirty black like the ceiling. Yes this is the room, all come from here, three beds for seven people of the Soubirous family filling this small space. All of them lived here without air, without light, almost without bread! What frightful misery! What lowly, pity-awaking poverty!”
“It is inevitable that people criticize the modern Lourdes on the shrine’s relationship with modern market practices, commercialization. Some five million pilgrims from around the world visit Lourdes every year, making it the second most-visited city in France after Paris. There is a concern that by becoming a religious shrine that catered to a mass audience, the commercialized activities surrounding the pilgrimage undermine the holiness of the site.”
Emile, citing his book:
“But, really, I must say that members of a religious community ought not to keep hotels. No, no, it isn’t right. Ought not those Blue Sisters, those Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, to have confined themselves to their real functions, the manufacture of wafers for sacramental purposes, and the repairing and washing of church linen?
Instead of that, however they had tranformed their convent into a vast hostelry, where ladies who came to Lourdes unaccompanied found separate rooms and were able to take their meals either in privacy or in the general dining room. Everything was certainly very clean, very well organized and very inexpensive, thanks to the thousands advantages which the sisters enjoyed; in fact no hotel in Lourdes did so much business.”
“Because of its modern formation, there are even allegations that Lourdes has become a Disneyland for the adults. Come to think about it, the boulevards and gardens look like those in a Disney town, the Rosary Basilica can be compared with Cinderella castle, the Ave Maria procession can be compared with “Happiness is here” carnival in Disneyland, and the candle lights prayer can be compared with the firework at Disneyland. “
“The Disneyland in Hong Kong has its own special train to its secluded location in Lantau island. The whole train is decorated with Mickey Mouse images inside out, painted with Mickey’s face. The seating are arranged like a family room so the passengers can feel cozy. The windows are in Mickey’s shape, the handholds for the standing passengers are in the shape of Mickeys’s ears, and the interior is decorated with Mickey, Donald and Goofy statues. So you feel “Disneyed” even before you arrive at the theme park.
In a way, the Church also used the railway in innovative ways as they sought to augment the number of pilgrims coming to Lourdes. They coordinated special trains for pilgrimages, designed compartments to transport sick and disabled pilgrims, and secured reduction in prices of 20 to 30 percent for third class tickets.
As I wrote in my book, these trains to Lourdes were the rolling hospitals of disease at its last stage, of human sufferings rushing for the hope of cure, furiously seeking consolation between attacks of increased severity, with the ever present threat of death – death hastened, supervening under awful conditions, amidst the mob-like scramble.”
“You joined a train to Lourdes that time to see for yourself the condition in the train and based on this experience you wrote in your book the suffering, passion and hope of the pilgrims. The pain, anxiety and death are real experience you encountered in the train.”
“Yes, for instance Elise Rouquet was a real 18 years old girl, she had lupus which had preyed on her nose and mouth. Ulceration had spread, and was hourly spreading- in short all the hideous peculiarities of this terrible disease were in full process of development. She covered her entire face with a black scarf to hide the disease. She could eat only tiny pieces of bread, cautiously slipping it into her poor shapeless mouth. When she uncovered her face to eat, people could see her face with the gaping cavities which seemed to be the face of death. Everyone in the carriage had turned pale at sight of the awful apparition. And the same thought ascended from all those hope-inflated souls. Ah Blessed Virgin, Powerful Virgin, what a miracle indeed if such an ill were cured!”
“Then, as you wrote in the book, Elise Rouquet thinking it was useless to go to the piscinas to bathe the frightful sore which was eating away her face had contended herself by employing the water of the fountain as a lotion, every two hours since her arrival that morning. Doctor Bonamy who advised her to continue using water as a lotion and to return everyday for further examination, after sometime noticed that there were signs of improvement in this case- that was beyond doubt. It had become evident that the lupus that was eating away her face, was showing signs of cure.
Elise Rouquet, now that the sore was healing, then bought herself a pocket mirror, a large round one, in which she did not weary contemplating herself, finding herself quite pretty and verifying from minute to minute the progress of her cure with a gayness which, now that her monstrous face was becoming human again, made her purse her lips and try a variety of smiles.
However, Monsieur, you saw and wrote about this cure of lupus, yet you denied that it was a miracle. You even refused to look at her the healing of her face closely as suggested by doctor Bonamy, and said: ’To me she is still ugly.’ How could you deny it?”
“ As I wrote in the Preface of the book, I will admit that I came across some instances of real cure. Many cases of nervous disorders have undoubtedly been cured, and there also have been other cures which may perhaps be attributed to errors of diagnosis on the part of the doctors who attended the patients so cured. These cures are based on ignorance of the medical profession.
As doctor Chassaigne said our most learned medical men suspect many of these sores to be nervous origin. Yes, they are discovering that complaints of these kinds are often simply due to bad nutrition of skin. These questions are still so imperfectly studied and understood ! And some medical men are also beginning to prove that the faith which heals can even cure sores, certain forms of lupus among others. However science is vain, it is a sea of uncertainty. ”
“You came to Lourdes to examine the miracle phenomenon in a skeptical point of view, however you unexpectedly observed three miracles in a single trip, while for most of the people we cannot hear even one miracle or apparent miracle in a few trips.
You wrote about those miracles in detail, besides Elise Rouquet there was this young peasant girl Sophie Couteau who came back to visit Lourdes after she was cured the year before. She suffered for three years from a horrid open sore on her foot, it was swollen and quite deformed. The foot had to be kept bandaged because there was always a lot of nasty matter coming from it. The doctor who made a cut in it, so as to see the inside, said that he should be obliged to take out a piece of the bone; and that, sure enough would have made her lame for life.
But she was suddenly cured by bathing her foot in the piscina, where the bandages fell off, and her foot was entirely restored to a healthy condition.”
“I investigated this case thoroughly. I was told there were three or four ladies living in Lourdes who could guarantee the facts as stated by Clementine Trove, Sophie’s real name. I looked up those ladies.
But no one could vouch for anything, no one had seen anything, and no where was I able to find any corroboration of the girl’s story. Yet the little girl did not look like a liar, and I believe that she was fully convinced of the miraculous nature of her cure. It is the facts themselves which lie.”
“There is another case that you observed, the cure of Marie Lebranchu, you named her as La Grivotte in your book. The 36 years old lady suffered from severe pulmonary tuberculosis for two years, and had reached the terminal stages of this disease. “
Emile, citing his book:
“La Grivotte was weeping hot tears because they would not bathe her at the piscina. They said she was with a wasting disease, and they could not dip somebody like that into the cold water. So she had been wearing herself out for half an hour in telling them that they were only grieving the Blessed Virgin, for she believed she would be cured. She was beginning to cause a scandal till one of the chaplains approached and endeavoured to calm her. Then after receiving Father Fourcade’s express permission, she had been obliged to insist and beg and sob in order prevail upon them to do so.
And then it had all happened as she had previously said it would. She had not been immersed in the icy water for 3 minutes- all perspiring as she was with her consumptive rattle-before she had felt strength returning into her like a whipstroke lashing her whole body. And then flaming excitement possessed her; radiant, stamping her feet, she was unable to keep still. On the previous night she was seen lying on the carriage seat, annihilated, coughing and spitting blood, with her face of ashen hue.”
“ At the end of your book you wrote that La Grivotte had relapsed into her mortal disease dying on the train back to home, implying that the cure was neither permanent nor supernatural, but rather a case of autosuggestion in an hysterical religious atmosphere.
Yet you remained in communication with the woman long after her recovery, and were perfectly aware that there had been no relapse. She actually lived in perfect health until 1920.
Dr. Boissarie, or Dr. Bonamy in your book, the President of the Medical Bureau, questioned you as to the honesty of your account, pointing out that you had said that you had come to Lourdes to make an impartial investigation.”
“I replied to Dr. Boissarie that being an artist I could do whatever I liked with my writing. I wrote to express my view about this religion of human suffering, the redemption by pain, weeping humanity desperate with anguish, like some despairing invalid, irrevocably invalid, and whom only a miracle could save.”
“Almost 7,000 cures have been documented at the waters of Lourdes. The Church has vigorously investigated all these cases and validated a mere 67 of them. These 67 were also authenticated as miracles by the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL).
All three miracles that you observed, of Clementine Trove (Sophie Couteau in your book), Marie Lemarchand (Elise Rouquet) and Marie Lebranchu (La Griovote), all are included in the 67 approved miracles by the Church and CMIL.”
“The Lourdes miracles can neither be proved nor denied. In none of the miracles that I observed was I able to discover any real proof for or against the miraculous nature of the cure. Even were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”
“Monsieur, I must say that despite your belief, the novel has captured very well the human compassion, the tragedy, the hope and drama of the sick, the cured and not cured pilgrims. The exhibition of the desperate and despairing sufferers who, abandoned by science and by man, address themselves to a higher Power in the hope of relief. Here, the Lourdes phenomenon was very well written and observed, the book shows Lourdes under every aspect. There are about one hundred characters you wrote, sick persons, pilgrims, priests, nuns, nurses, they all come to life in your words.
Then, may I ask you a last question, did Sophie really tell : ‘I hadn’t brought many bandages for my foot with me, so it was very kind of the Blessed Virgin to cure me on the first day, as I should have run out of linen on the morrow.”
Emile just smiled…..
This is an imaginary interview in memory of Emile Zola.