La Bete Humaine (or the beast in the machine…)

La Bete Humaine is a story by the French writer, Emile Zola, published in 1890. The book has been turned into a film on several occasions. Notably, by Jean Renoir in 1938. A number of themes int he book and film are interesting – not least the overbearing presence, both mechanical and systemic, of the railway…

The main characters of the story are Roubaud, the deputy station master at Le Havre, his wife Séverine, and Jacques Lantier. Lantier is an engine driver on the line and the “human beast” of the title. He has a hereditary madness and has, several times in his life, wanted to murder women. The story is part of the Rougon-Macquart series of novels.

Animal Instincts

The explicit reference to animal instincts in the title would have been especially upsetting to the refined sensibilities of the 19C. Polite society considered its behaviour to be governed by moral sentiments defined by the moral absolutes of religious belief. In this context, it was upsetting for polite society to have the animal instincts of its conventional behaviour progressively laid bare by the discoveries of science and psychology.

The major figures in this story are Darwin, Charcot and Freud.

Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” and “Theory of Evolution” debunked the idea that human beings are a special and separate part of the natural world. This insight has always been a problem for religious creationists. Accordingly, human behaviour could be described entirely in the terms usually applied to the physical appetites of the animal kingdom. These appetites have nearly always chosen so as to describe nature as “red in tooth-and-claw.” No room for empathy there then.

Moral sentiments, understood as the defining characteristic of an elevated human sensibility, were subsequently exposed as a convenient veil that obscured the more obviously cynical and venal parts of human interaction.

Charcot (the “inventor” of psychology) applied systematic medical investigation, diagnosis, and therapy, to patients who displayed “abnormal” behavior. Charcot was determined to link psychology and neurological disorder to an anatomically specific and identifiable (and therefore curable) pathology.

Interestingly, Charcot was house doctor at the Salpetriere Hospital, Paris. This hospital had originally been a gun-poweder factory and prison. It became the women’s prison in Paris. In practical terms this meant that most of its inmates were women whose social behaviour and sexuality were misaligned with prevailing norms.

The medical, psychological and traumatic therapeutic treatments pioneered at the hospital were entirely consistent with medicine’s normative functions as described by Michel Foucault.


By the end of the 19C, Freud had begun to understand that the link between psychological neurosis and anatomical pathology (as desired by Charcot) could not be substantiated. Even today, it is incredibly difficult to link particular behavioural issues with specific forms of brain trauma. Psychology has a long and terrible history of attempting to map the brain. Inevitably, this leads to surgical intervention as a means to modify problematic behaviour. Labotomy, anyone?

In the circumstances, Freud conceptualised the possibility of a hidden subconscious pathology that underpinned neuroses. This had to be revealed, or drawn out, through therapeutic interrogation and over a long period. This was called psychoanalysis.

The association between animal instinct and subconscious desire, within the context of late 19C polite society, is what Zola is investigating. Of course, what Zola is describing is also a widespread political and social anxiety about inconsistent forms of behaviour.

Man and Machine (the engine driver)

The building-blocks of industrial capitalism are money, people and machinery. These resources are deployed according to efficient and economical principles of the division, specialisation, and integration of labour. The increasing mechanisation of industrial process raised efficiency by increasing speed. In the circumstances, the cadence of the human operative was increasingly defined by the machine.

The engine driver became an exemplar of a new kind of human-mechanical interface. The particular responsibilities attaching to the “correct” workings of the railway locomotive were mythologised in the tragedy of Casey Jones.

Weirdly, when a steam engine is being driven “hard” the whistle can be mistaken for a woman screaming…

Industry Economy and Society

The productive potential of the industrial worker became leveraged up through the association of money and engineering. This was a cause of some anxiety to political and social elites at the end of the 19C. The aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war provided, for  France, a period of introspection and soul-searching. The received wisdom was that French military defeat had been a consequence of moral delinquency and physical enfeeblement of French society. Nothing to do with poor military leadership then

Ideas from political-economy and Darwinism were therefore combined into a sociology based on the Nietzschean doctrine of relentless struggle (if it doesn’t kill you; it makes you stronger). The evident truth of this perception was increasingly identified in the widespread debauchery and criminality of the underclass.

Sex-Crime and Murder

It was entirely appropriate that, against this background of generalised anxiety, the widespread interest in criminality  should express itself  in the media reporting of “faits divers.”

The most extreme (and fascinating) of these crimes has always been the brutal and violent murder of young women. Often, underscored by a sexual motive. Sadly, there has always seemed to be a lot of that about. In Britain we have long been obsessed with the unsolved “Jack the Ripper” mysteries. Co-incidentally, these murders occurred almost at the same time as Zola was writing his novel…

A bit later, the post-impressionist artist, Walter Sickert, began painting a series of “kitchen-sink” pictures of squalid bed-sits in Camden. These pictures purport to show the victim of a brutal murder…

For better or worse, these kinds of story, and the visual culture (paintings, engravings and photographs) of their presentation became a fully integrated element of the developing spectacular of late 19C society.

Jean Renoir

It was entirely appropriate that the French film director should revisit Zola’s themes during the 1930s. The aftermath of WW1 saw the emergence, across Europe, of popular-front politics. In many cases, the policy choices of these mass-mouvements were defined in relation to the social-darwinist anxieties mentioned above.

The poster for Renoir’s film recasts the protagonists in melodrama where the woman is hysterical (mad) with desire (Charcot and Freud again) and the man’s physical supremacy multiplied by mechanical power and exacerbated  by the railway engine. You can see all this in the poster image, above.

The speeding train is unstoppable, like the tragic narrative of these protagonists.

Mechanical and Model Societies

In conclusion, its worth noting that the moral  benefits of industrialisation, mechanisation, and automation, are often called into question. Along with the usual problems of alienation, the structures of industrial specialisations are thought to atomise indiduals and to reduce empathetic feeling.

Feelings of moral separation, and superiority, are the first signs of bureaucratic despotism. In the end, the path to utopia will not be automated. Nor will it run on rails…

The implicit message of Zola and Renoir is that the machine, by its scale and power, is both beautiful and brutal…

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