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Proust and Dreyfus

In an excerpt from the newly translated Gaslight, by German writer Joachim Kalka, an examination of how the scandal that rocked France bled into European literature

Joachim Kalka
June 05, 2017
(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900;  Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)Gaslight
(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)Gaslight
(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900;  Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)Gaslight
(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)(Clockwise from top left: Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1899; photo: William M. Vander Weyde, ca. 1900; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin; The Library of Congress, ca. 1910-1915; Britannica; Dreyfus and his family, The Library of Congress.)Gaslight

The Dreyfus affair was an event with European, indeed global resonance. Chekhov and Mark Twain wrote about it. In the Swabian backwater of Hemmingen, Baroness Spitzemberg, the widow of Württemberg’s envoy to Berlin, noted in her famous diary after Dreyfus’s second conviction in 1899: “It is incredible how the question has whipped up feelings even in the lowest classes: Often the farmers come to the post office late in the evening to pick up the local papers and read the news of the trial, rather than waiting to get them in the morning.” The discussions in Germany and Austria were a complex subject unto themselves. The astonishing spectacle of Wilhelm Liebknecht, doyen of German social democracy, publishing a series of harsh anti-Dreyfusard articles in young Karl Kraus’s journal Die Fackel can be put down to a mistrust of the liberal press and the fear that the German Reich might use the affair as an excuse to take a hard line toward a discredited France.

A little book published in 1935 still gives what may be the best sense of what the Dreyfus affair was and how it felt. It is called Souvenirs Sur L’Affaire, and its author is Léon Blum. Readers may know him as the great French statesman who succeeded Jean Jaurès as one of the leading figures of French socialism, a man whose name is now associated chiefly with the Popular Front governments between 1936 and 1938. The front populaire achieved several epochal social reforms, introducing such things as paid vacations. An elderly worker once wrote to Blum to thank him for the opportunity to see the sea once in his life.

After France was defeated during World War II, Blum openly opposed right-wing collaborationists and called on the socialists to respond with resistance; when the Vichy regime tried him in February 1942, he and his co-defendants pulled off such an impressive and elegant defense that the trial was ultimately called off—strikingly echoing the acquittal of the Communist Dimitroff in the Reichstag fire trial. Blum’s life was spared because he and several other prominent figures were kept as hostages until the end of the war to be used as security in the event of negotiations with the Allies.

Born in 1872, Blum experienced the Dreyfus affair as a young lawyer and writer; the drama seems to have played a crucial role in politicizing him, alongside his encounter with Jean Jaurès, which itself was closely bound up with the affair. One of the most fascinating features of his account is the description of the first weeks and months after the affair truly got underway, when it was unclear how the most prominent journalists and “intellectuals” would position themselves: Who would take Dreyfus’ side, who would refuse their support, who would dither? The profound disappointments and pleasant surprises of these weeks made Blum conclude that in a genuine crisis people’s reactions can never be predicted from their previous behavior. His account of the Dreyfus affair has the charm of a youthful memory, preserved still fresh in energetic, naïve immediacy, yet joined with the sad, dignified reflections of a man who has turned to skepticism. Though rigorous in their pursuit of truth, his Souvenirs are highly intimate, a fragment of an unwritten autobiography. He evokes the figures of his youth, his initiation into politics. The result is profoundly moving.

In the year 1935, with Europe’s greatest catastrophe looming, a politician and homme de lettres meditates on the great event of his youth, which for a time thrust all other questions into the background, even eclipsing everyday life for the committed champions of Dreyfus’ innocence. Blum was prompted to set pen to paper by the death of Dreyfus that same year; long since rehabilitated, he had been readmitted to the army with full honors and served in World War I as a lieutenant colonel, commanding an artillery unit. But above and beyond the specific occasion, Blum was inspired by a profound disquiet. He immersed himself in his memories to delight in the freshness of his own youth and commemorate vanished comrades in arms. But the true, hidden endeavor implicit in this labor of memory was one that he clearly felt unable to master.

To this day it seems an impossible endeavor: to find a convincing explanation for the hatred, intransigent and immune to reason and scruple, with which the right persecuted Dreyfus even after his innocence became evident. Blum powerfully depicts the Dreyfusards’ incredulous astonishment, their stupefaction when, quite early on, they seemed to have reached their goal, convinced that now that the truth was on the table, the nation would allow its “lost son” a triumphant return from exile—and instead found themselves faced with a wall of cold resistance. Reflecting on the anti-Dreyfusards’ boundless aggression, Blum gingerly asked: “What drove them? What guided them? Even today, 35 years later, as I reflect on this past with mature, cool rationality, it seems to me that I still lack certain elements for a solution to this question.” In 1935, this question was posed in the long shadow of the catastrophe whose distant overture the Dreyfus affair would prove to have been—with its dark menace, it posed once again the shabby, monstrous, manifest, and unfathomable riddle of nationalist furor and anti-Semitism. One shivers to read the first mention of the Dreyfus affair in the diaries of Harry Graf Kessler. The entry from Jan. 28, 1898, records remarks made by the art historian Julius Meier-Graefe, including the following: that the Dreyfus affair was “a little practical lesson in political science expressly for the Jews.”

“ ‘You know … why they can’t produce the proofs of Dreyfus’ guilt. Apparently it’s because he’s the lover of the War Minister’s wife, that’s what people are saying on the sly.’ ‘Ah! I thought it was the Prime Minister’s wife.’ ” A scrap of conversation, brimming with supercilious malice, from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—specifically, the long scene set at the salon of the Duchesse de Guermantes, where Dreyfus is the main topic of conversation. Readers of the Recherche are well aware that the affair plays a significant role in the novel, but the events made an even deeper impression on Proust than his monumental novel reveals. In Blum’s book, Proust appears for a moment in the procession of dedicated young people who met daily to plan ways of bringing about a retrial. The two had been classmates at the Lycée Condorcet; in her famous memoir, Monsieur Proust, Céleste Albaret recalls how he once spoke proudly of his class at school, many of whose members went on to achieve prominence—we were, he said, referring to Blum as well, “une jolie petite troupe.” Elsewhere, Céleste speaks of Proust’s great admiration for the intelligence and warm heart of his boyhood friend.

Monsieur Proust also includes several passages about the Dreyfus affair. “‘It was terrible,’ he said. … ‘Even Father was an anti-Dreyfusite, and we had a row. I didn’t speak to him for a week.’ He”—that is, Proust—“never told me what his mother, who was Jewish, thought. … It was just his humanity, his great love of truth.” C’était uniquement l’humanité, avec son grand amour de la verité. She also writes: “You might have expected him to be timid, to be anxious to keep out of such conflicts, but he told me how he threw himself into the struggle and went to all the court hearings.”

In fact, Proust performed an extremely important task for the Dreyfusards: He went to the reluctant Anatole France, whose fame as a writer lent great weight to his opinion and ultimately persuaded him to sign the so-called “Manifesto of the Intellectuals,” which appeared in L’Aurore the day after Zola’s “J’accuse.” The epithet “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” was mockingly coined by one of Dreyfus’ most emphatic detractors, Maurice Barrès; indeed, the very term “intellectual,” so familiar to us, is a product of the polemics that swirled around the Dreyfus affair.

The colossal novel In Search of Lost Time, this “bafflingly rich and convoluted construct,” as Adorno wrote in his appreciative“Short Commentaries on Proust,” this cathédrale inachevée, as Proust himself called it, is famous for building incredibly long arcs of tension and development, ascendancy and downfall, intimation and disclosure, clarification and new riddles, extending over thousands of pages, everything doubly reflected by the evocation of memory as the crucial arbiter of knowledge. Yet the details in Recherche have an irreducible significance. The novel sheds an ironic light on this focus on details as a caprice of the writer Bergotte; when he wants to praise a work, he always singles out a specific detail, usually an utterly marginal one. When the conversation turns to a certain book, he says: “There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” Or: “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!” This has great aesthetic plausibility—after all, what do we remember about novels in the end? At the same time, it is conceived as a comic detail itself. Yet once we have read the Recherche, we know that, in a serious turn of events, Bergotte will die at an art exhibition in front of Vermeer’s famous painting Gezicht op Delft, swept away by his fascination with one tiny detail, the “little patch of yellow wall”: “That’s how I ought to have written,” he thinks as he dies.

In the Recherche, Jewishness is both a structure and a telling detail. The novel has a great number of characters whose Jewish ancestry is a crucial trait, such as the banking family Israel, and two central characters are chiefly characterized through their Jewishness: indirectly, Swann, the most important character alongside the narrator, and the enigmatically desirable Albertine; and directly, Bloch. Bloch is the most interesting character in this context, and he may be the one for whom the narrator secretly harbors the most affection (though he admires Swann as a role model). Bloch is gauche and forward, he has passionate views, he tries to do everything especially well, he provokes, he loves music, he gets on people’s nerves. His first appearance as the narrator’s friend, still a schoolboy here, almost at the beginning of “Combray,” is marked by a vignette that thematizes Jewishness for the first time in the novel. Due to his eccentric behavior, “Bloch was not invited to the house again.”

At first he had been well-received there. It is true that my grandfather made out that, whenever I formed a strong attachment to any one of my friends and brought him home with me, that friend was invariably a Jew; to which he would not have objected on principle—indeed his own friend Swann was of Jewish extraction—had he not found that the Jews whom I chose as friends were not usually of the best type. And so whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming the “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains,” singing the tune alone, of course, to an “um-ti-tum-ti-tum, tra-la”; but I used to be afraid that my friend would recognize it and be able to reconstruct the words.

Before seeing them, merely on hearing their names, about which, as often as not, there was nothing particularly Hebraic, he would divine not only the Jewish origin of such of my friends as might indeed be Jewish, but even at times some skeleton in their family cupboard.

“And what’s the name of this friend of yours who is coming this evening?”

“Dumont, Grandpapa.”

“Dumont! Oh, I don’t like the sound of that.” And he would sing:

Archers, be on your guard!

Watch without rest, without sound.

And then, after a few adroit questions on points of detail, he would call out “On guard! On guard!” Or, if it were the victim himself who had already arrived, and had been unwittingly obliged, by subtle interrogation, to admit his origins, then my grandfather, to show us that he had no longer any doubts, would merely look at us, humming under his breath the air of

What! do you hither guide the feet Of this timid Israelite?

(The little leitmotif of what one might call old-fashioned jovial anti-Semitism makes it clear, in passing, why someone like Bloch would have a brusque and clumsy manner.)

In a famous scene, comical, yet somehow also moving in its depiction of a minor humiliation, Bloch commits a faux pas at the salon of the Marquise de Villeparisis.

Bloch rose, and in his turn came over to look at the flowers which Mme de Villeparisis was painting. … [He] wanted to express his admiration in an appropriate gesture, but only succeeded in knocking over the glass containing the spray of apple blossom with his elbow, and all the water was spilled on the carpet.

“You really have a fairy’s touch,” the historian said to the Marquise; having his back turned to me at that moment, he had not noticed Bloch’s clumsiness.

But Bloch took the remark as a jibe at him, and to cover his shame with a piece of insolence, retorted: “It’s not of the slightest importance; I’m not wet.”

Shame, and the brashness that attempts to disguise shame. … On the beach of the now-fashionable spa town of Balbec, the narrator and his friend Saint-Loup hear, in passing, a loud voice from inside a tent ranting against the “swarm of Jews” that has descended upon Balbec in the tone of the most vulgar anti-Semitism and using classic anti-Semitic phrases (“I am not in principle irremediably hostile to the Jewish race, but here there is a plethora of them.”) “The man,” we then learn, “who thus inveighed against Israel emerged at last from the tent, and we raised our eyes to behold this anti-Semite. It was my old friend Bloch.” Bloch, a passionate Dreyfusard, avidly follows, like the author himself, all the affair’s court proceedings. Proust writes:

. . . he would come away so enamoured of everything that had happened in court that when he returned home in the evening he longed to immerse himself again in the thrilling drama and would hurry out to a restaurant frequented by both parties in search of friends with whom he would go over the day’s proceedings interminably and make up, by a supper ordered in an imperious tone which gave him the illusion of power, for the hunger and exhaustion of a day begun so early and unbroken by any interval for lunch.

I wish to add only that the anti-Semitic hatred to which Charlus subjects Bloch seems to be nourished by a vague infatuation.

The Dreyfus affair has a wealth of consequences in the Recherche. Odette climbs the social ladder by organizing an anti-Dreyfusard salon. The foolish Duc de Guermantes is very much against Dreyfus until a chance encounter with “three clever ladies” turns him into a resolute Dreyfusard. Dreyfus’ most energetic supporter, next to Bloch, is the opportunistic, part ludicrous, part sinister Madame Verdurin, who carefully uses her partisan stance to strategically expand her influence and thus her salon.

At one point, the narrator of the Recherche says of himself: “I who have just fought several duels unafraid on account of the Dreyfus case . . .” This sounds very engagé, but in keeping with Proust’s characteristic techniques, the narrator mentions this duel only in the context of his notorious fear of fresh, cold air—to which he dared expose himself back in the day of his early morning duels. This recalls a remark Proust made about the only duel which he himself fought. It was a pistol duel (neither of the combatants was a swordsman) with the literary dandy Jean Lorrain, who had written an insolent and personally insulting review of Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et Les Jours. Proust supposedly claimed that the only thing that frightened him about the duel was the thought of failing to show up punctually for an appointment so early in the morning.

These are trivial ironies. But Proust’s treatment of the Dreyfus affair in the Recherche follows this ironic principle to such a degree that it reveals the higher truth in the work of art—and a conscious practice on the part of the author. From a naïve point of view, nothing would have been more obvious than for Proust, the passionate Dreyfusard, to devise the roles in his novel in such a way that the characters’ partisan stance for or against Dreyfus would show the degree of sympathy they are supposed to enjoy. But here the words of Karl Kraus hold par excellence: “It doesn’t matter whether an opinion is correct; it always matters who holds it.” One might add that no single sentence of the Recherche reveals a truth that can be isolated; everything is true only in its context, and these contexts are extremely complex. All the same, there is perhaps no concept that Proust treats with more dignity than that of the truth. His irony is not an isolated device; it is an instrument for depicting the dialectic of the universal (the ethical truth) and the particular (human life and its truth).

The invocation of a very particular fate that combines consciousness of ineluctable uniqueness with a commitment to universal values such as truth and justice often appears as a signature of Jewishness in the modern era, and repeatedly as the self-definition of Jewish thinkers in the Enlightenment; the defense of these universal truths appears as the special mission of a Judaism that insists, all the same, on adhering to its exceptionalism. The calm refusal to convert to Christianity, as affirmed by Moses Mendelssohn with great dignity in the face of Lavater’s agitated impertinence, upholds both the particular and the commitment to the universal truths of the Enlightenment.

In this Jewishness, which is committed equally to the truth of the universal and the particular, one glimpses for a moment a signature of modern literature. That sounds like a very sweeping claim, but I invite you to think about it for a moment. There is a general consensus that, undeniably, the three most important canonical writers of world literature in the first half of the 20th century are Proust, Joyce, and Kafka (the jury is still out on the second half). Incidentally, these three canonical chefs d’oeuvre of modernism—if I might change the pace with a digression—are linked by a peculiar affinity to half-sleep, to the zone between dream and waking that is marked simultaneously by the perturbation of longing and nightmares and by a nervous over-alertness. One need only think of the Recherche, a colossal work launched by a hallucinatory first sentence: “For a long time I would go to bed early.”

These early bedtimes of childhood, this waiting for mother and sleep, this concentrated reflection on the day that has passed, and this eavesdropping on the world of the adults, corresponds to a passage at the end of Ulysses, the endless-seeming inner monologue of Molly Bloom as she lies in bed, half-awake and half-dreaming, the stream of consciousness of the unfaithful Penelope, the mother goddess, humanity in half-sleep (a half-sleep that will plunge to immense depths in Finnegans Wake). And it would be easy to compile a Kafka anthology with passages like the one that begins The Metamorphosis: “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.” This collection would contain the “Country Doctor’s” bedside visit, where he himself is laid in the sick man’s bed while the village school’s choir sing “an utterly simple tune” with the words: “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us, if he doesn’t, kill him dead! Only a doctor, only a doctor.” The arc extends to “The Judgment,” in which the son brings his father to bed and, just before the old man rises up to pass the death sentence on his son, we hear the beautiful, uncanny words: “Am I well covered-up?” And all this would cast a special light on the beginning of The Trial, where the words “Someone must have slandered Josef K.” open the morning scene in which K., “from his pillow,” is gazing into a window across the way when a stranger steps into his room. “‘Who are you?’ asked K., and immediately sat halfway up in bed.”

This little digression is intended less to demonstrate that surprising connections can be drawn between disparate works than to recall that this ubiquitous half-sleep lies precisely between the radical individuality of the dream and the universally binding nature of waking reality. At first glance, the Jewishness that links these canonic writers also seems to have disparate traits. In Kafka’s work, the strong impression of Jewishness is undeniable, yet it is difficult to pin down. Though Kafka scholarship has long since moved past the postwar stage in which the author’s work was supposed to represent one great allegory of Judaism, no one would deny that Kafka is emphatically to be regarded as a Jewish author. And Joyce? Well, the hero of his magnum opus is a Jew, of course; the Odysseus of the world-spanning Dublin day in Ulysses is a little ad man by the name of Leopold Bloom. On Bloomsday in 1984, Wolfgang Hildesheimer gave a beautiful speech in his honor: “The Jewishness of Mr. Bloom.” The book does begin with a reincarnation of the autobiographical protagonist from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, but this Irish-Catholic-anti-Catholic stand-in for the author is relegated to the role of Telemachus.

In the case of Proust, the question about the “Jewishness” of the work is provocative. He loved his mother above all else; in the Recherche, he gave Jewishness a structural function that rendered it as one of the great tormented, productive, mysteriously fascinating manifestations of the outsider, like homosexuality and like artistic inspiration. But wasn’t he actually a Christian? Isn’t the term that he himself used for the Recherche—an uncompleted cathedral—more than an architectural fantasy, rather something approaching a confession of faith? It is an extremely difficult question. It is probably impossible to definitively determine whether Proust’s aesthetics lean toward religious forms merely due to the magic of tradition and—despite all his sardonic skepticism about society—to his profound respect for cultural heritage.

How to interpret Proust’s letter to Jacques Rivière from February 1914, in which he refers to his novel as a “dogmatic work” in the service of “TRUTH”? What does it mean when the author, facing death, writes to the pious poet Francis Jammes and asks him to pray to St. Joseph to ease his dying? Is it evidence of his own profound piety, is it an additional indication of Proust’s great, affectionate courtesy toward his friends, is it a humble metaphor? Proust asked for a rosary to be placed in his hands on his deathbed—though Céleste Albaret forgot it in the end. However, it was a very specific rosary, an object of memory, saturated with friendship, a present from the sarcastic Lucie Faure. What did this object mean to him? What is the meaning of the churches that the narrator loves so deeply in the Recherche? When the steeple of Saint-Hilaire looms on the horizon as a delicate line, it is as though a fingernail had scratched it in the sky because the painter was “anxious to give to such a landscape, to so pure a piece of nature, this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence.” Art and human existence appear as the truly meaningful forms of religion.

When the Recherche is juxtaposed with the actual experience of the Dreyfus affair, the artistic insistence on the mystery of individual existence might seem like a retreat from the moral imperative of public political commitment. But we do well to trust to Proust’s logic, the higher “commitment.” Faithfulness to universal values is expressed in a radical loyalty to the unfathomable uniqueness of the individual human being.

During the affair, Maurice Barrès accused the Dreyfusards of being infatuated by abstractions such as truth and justice. “The Dreyfus affair is an orgy of metaphysicians. They judge everything abstractly. We judge everything with respect to France.” We live in a time in which the automatic appeal to the interests of a nation—its security, its stature, its sphere of influence—makes international law irrelevant. (Here, incidentally, it would be worth repeating Hegel’s question “Who thinks abstractly?”) To me, it seems indisputable that modern literature, especially Proust, contains an ongoing covert discourse about the dialectic of the universal and the particular. Proust’s art fuses them together. The fact that there is no simple resolution to this dialectic, and that the much-admired Swann turns out to be extremely naïve in his increasing inability to judge things except with relation to the Dreyfus affair, is a skeptical conclusion, but its particularity, in turn, lies in its passionateness.


Excerpted from Gaslight by Joachim Kalka, translated by Isabel Farco Cole. Copyright © 2013, 2017 by Berenberg Verlag, Berlin. Translation copyright © 2017 by Isabel Fargo Cole.

Joachim Kalka is an essayist, literary critic, and translator of authors such as Martin Amis, Angela Carter, G.K. Chesterton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Christopher Isherwood, and Gilbert Sorrentino. He lives in Leipzig, Germany.