I'm really on a latter-1800s kick at the moment: I finished Huysmans' The Damned last week, Zola's Germinal yesterday and just today began Turgenev's Fathers & Sons. Another way of putting it is that I'm catching up on some classics, but really, it's just this period that's having a huge effect on me. One of the major themes of the period (and these three novels do a great job of covering the disparate attitudes) is the struggle between the dawning age of science, mechanization and industry and the fading world of religion, metaphysics and romanticism.
It almost seemed for a while...well, let's face it, for most of the 20th century, that the scientific age of modernism had definitively triumphed. The world wars, communism, the rise of the technological era: for a large part of the world that romantic, metaphysical age had long since passed into history. Now I don't know if this is just a curiously American thing, but in reading these novels (as well as other bits of research) and following current events you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that we have thoroughly sloughed off the skin of the pre-industrial era. Sure, we're technologically advanced, but we're also ridiculously religious and too many people have failed to accept the non-divine revelations even of Darwin.
There is the other possibility that we've completed a circle and the scientific, progressive attitudes and successes they have brought have been turned upside-down by those who fear the soulless-ness of our modern (some might say post-modern, i don't know) age. There's a deep yearning for some return to metaphysics, some sort of spiritualism that pervades this place and I fail to be able to determine the source(s) of it. In the meantime I find myself running aghast towards other ages to find analogues, examples of this happening in the past to understand the cycles, why this is all repeating itself. For the most part things always repeat themselves and all the early religious systems recognized this (particularly the Hindu/Vedic systems), but twas all destroyed by the linearity of Christianity...
Before I ramble off into the moonlight, the original intent of this post was to write about Germinal, but I don't think any succinct reply is possible with regard to such a dense, overpowering masterpiece. The truths it contains remain relevant in our age, which says as much about Zola's awareness and ability to convey his time as it says about the failings of the industrial systems that have uplifted some segments of the world's population. Maybe the truth behind these novels lay in the dystopia of the present, the possibility of the future and the romance of an idealized past (made possible by our selective memories and amazing ability to forget). Our myths retain their power because our lives cycle, maybe spiraling ever so slightly outward, but always treading close enough to the old, worn paths that it's impossible to lose them. We try desperately to create anew without the ability to truly move away and that's why we, as a people, as a civilization, remain perpetually torn at this event horizon.