Protests with Parasols

Michael Wood

  • Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East by Jacqueline Rose
    Chicago, 239 pp, £22.50, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 72578 9

‘Profonde Albertine’, the narrator writes close to the end of Proust’s novel. By ‘deep’ – profonde – he means ‘unreachable’. She was mostly that when she was alive, and has assumed this quality as a permanent attribute now that she is dead. But he can still be tortured by his memories of all he didn’t know, for a while at least: ‘For, after death, Time leaves the body, and the memories … are effaced from her who no longer exists and soon will be from him whom at present they still torture.’ Does that ‘soon’ express a wish or a regret? Does the narrator know? We are not going to hear much more from him, since he is only a page away from his last words. All he can really say about Albertine is ancient and obvious and rather beautiful: that he used to watch her sleep and that she is dead. ‘Profonde Albertine, que je voyais dormir et qui était morte.’

Was she deep? At an earlier stage the narrator thought not, took Albertine as a welcome representative of a not ‘too intellectual atmosphere’, and explained that she would not have understood the pages he would one day write. But that was the trick. ‘Had she been capable of understanding them, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them.’ The formulation is elegant, but is it true? What can the narrator really know of Albertine if for him depth is just a name for mystery?

Jacqueline’s Rose’s novel Albertine (2001) doesn’t answer this question but it does answer the previous one, and it takes the sentence about Albertine and her non-understanding of the narrator’s pages as one of its epigraphs. It shows us Albertine’s depths, or rather creates an Albertine whose depths become to some degree imaginable, but who is still a sufficiently Proustian character to be much wiser about other people than she is about herself. It is narrated, in alternating sequences, by Albertine and her friend Andrée, and of course the suffering narrator is at the centre of everyone’s attention, as he would want to be. We see him ‘huddled inside the panic of his safety’, which makes him a good match for Albertine, whose recklessness is a quest for ‘panic before its time’. She understands that her misbehaviour is all that matters as far as the narrator is concerned, that his love for her feeds on suspicion, even on the idea of crime. ‘He didn’t just want to live dangerously … Whatever the cost, whatever the evidence, there had to be a sexual crime. Perhaps that was why, oddly and foolishly enough, I felt so safe … When he was in this frame of mind, he wanted me guilty or nothing.’

Albertine, an orphan, wants to escape from her aunt’s vulgar idea of social success, but not from society. That is where she hopes the narrator will lead her, into ‘his great grand world’, but he doesn’t, he keeps her imprisoned in his apartment. This doesn’t daunt her at first. She can invent games for that as for any other condition, and for much of the novel she is able to enjoy her own sleek intelligence and sense of control. Even at the end, about to die in a riding accident, she imagines winning a last round against her captor: ‘If I fall there will be no impact, no danger, there will be no fall at all. Danger only comes, I can see his pale face and his dark eyes widening with disbelief as I say it, to those who choose to stay behind.’

Albertine is not a sequel to A la recherche du temps perdu, and Rose is not in competition with Proust. It is a subtle and various insertion, and she is writing a commentary in the form of a (very good) novel. This is to say that Proust’s thought (although not that of the narrator in his many deluded moments) is her guide, which is precisely the role Proust plays in her new book and the reason he appears in its title. He teaches us, Rose says, that ‘what matters is that you somewhere know the mobility of your own soul,’ a condition that Rose’s Albertine enacts on every page. Albertine is not a political novel, not even a novel about sexual politics; but it is about someone ‘who was already, even as a girl, weaving her own web, turning herself into the accomplished craftswoman of her fate’. Proust among the Nations concerns the historical fates we have woven for ourselves as we strive, in all kinds of ways, to deny or freeze the mobility of our souls.

In her book on the Dreyfus Affair, The Man on Devil’s Island (2010), Ruth Harris insists that no ‘dark teleology’ links the 1890s in France with the years between the two world wars. ‘There is no straight line that can be drawn from the conflicts of the Fin de Siècle to the emergence of fascism in the 1930s,’ she writes; elsewhere, that the affair was ‘no dress rehearsal’ for later developments. At first glance this insistence is puzzling. The line from the violent anti-semitism of the older century to the anti-Jewish laws of the next seems pretty straight and we may remember that Madeleine Lévy, the granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, died in Auschwitz. Pétain himself, we learn in Proust among the Nations, personally intervened to make the provisions of the Statut des Juifs harsher. Rose also tells us that as late as 1980, a French prime minister, Raymond Barre, could regret the bombing of a synagogue in terms that suggested that Jews were not French and were guilty – of being Jewish if nothing else. ‘A hateful attack,’ he said, ‘which wanted to strike at the Jews who were in that synagogue, and which struck innocent French people who were crossing the street.’

But our puzzlement shouldn’t last. The Dreyfus Affair (and other ‘conflicts of the Fin de Siècle’) had many faces and the final, if long delayed result of Dreyfus’s rigged prosecution was his rehabilitation, a victory for justice and not for rabid nationalism. Proust himself, rather heartlessly we may feel, thought Dreyfus was lucky, because he was the victim of an error, and errors, unlike old age, bereavements and what Proust called the intermittences of the heart, can be corrected. In a rather different register I have spoken to people whose families, desperate to leave Eastern Europe in the interwar years, chose France because it was a place where mistakes could be acknowledged.

And yet. Rose reminds us that Léon Blum thought Jews in France were still at risk in the 1930s, and had not understood the dangers that faced them, either earlier or later. ‘They remained the proffered victims, as much of a victorious anti-Dreyfusism as of triumphant fascism.’ Rose herself sums up this difficult matter impeccably: ‘Ultimately, the Dreyfus Affair was a defeat for anti-semitism. Dreyfus ended up freed and reinstated. Prejudice was finally trumped by the law. Blum himself would become the first Jewish prime minister of France … But Blum’s fears for French Jews, under the threat of an incipient fascism, would turn out to be hideously justified.’

If the line from the start of the affair, from its very existence, let’s say, rather than its resolution, seems to run pretty straight to Vichy, it is not because of any teleology but because of the failure of the institutions that rehabilitated Dreyfus to survive the 1930s. This is one of the saddest aspects of Harris’s book and her own sorrow is palpable. The current theory of the French right – in, say, Monique Delcroix’s Dreyfus, Esterhazy: Réfutation de la Vulgate (2000) – is that Dreyfus may have been innocent but the Dreyfusards were certainly guilty: guilty of an incontinent, triumphant secularism that ruined everything cherishable and distinctive about la vieille France. They were guilty, in other words, because they won; because they are the modern state. Harris offers a persuasive counter-story. They weren’t guilty but they weren’t unified, they lost the democratic thread, or they lost the loyalty of their compatriots. ‘The Dreyfusards began to see each other as liars, traitors and reprobates,’ she writes. ‘Fracture lines and incoherences’ among them left their very values stranded, and there were plenty of other values competing for the space. If Vichy seems to follow directly from the Dreyfus Affair this is because of what happened but not because of what had to happen. To see a destiny here is to pretend the French had no options, to erase too many chosen crimes, and to forget too many missed chances and acts of genuine dissent.

The connection between the world of Dreyfus and several later worlds, notably the Middle East as we see it today, is one of Rose’s chief themes, so she may seem to be at odds with Harris, and perhaps she is in wanting to look so hard at the continuities. But only in this respect. Her book makes a passionate case against inevitability, against all views of history that erase the alternative pathways of the past. ‘Because of Dreyfus, therefore Israel,’ the argument goes, as Rose reminds us. Perhaps this is right, in spirit if not literally, and this is what Rose suggests when she returns to the phrase. ‘The story … is not without some truth; what happened in France at the turn of the century was in many ways the forerunner of Vichy.’

Theodor Herzl wrote about the Dreyfus case for a German newspaper, and according to legend, became a Zionist because of his shock at the scene of Dreyfus’s degradation. There could be no assimilation or emancipation of Jews in the country of others, he concluded. These terms, we should note, mean a whole range of possibilities, from legal and professional equality to assimilation as we now understand it. Dreyfus himself, we might say, believed in the very thing his case seemed to disprove. And Herzl – the legend, like so many legends, is a little stylised, since he had arrived at his views before the degradation of Dreyfus, indeed before the news broke of Dreyfus’s arrest – was saying this equality was impossible with or without the Dreyfus case, or whatever its result.

Still, even if we accept the ‘because of Dreyfus’ argument, there could be many different Israels of the therefore, and not just the one we have had since the late 1970s. And Rose bravely offers us a quite distinct formulation: ‘Because of Dreyfus, therefore justice, or rather the struggle for justice, crucially for the Jews, a universal and endless affair.’ This is not to say, as is sometimes said, that Jews have a feeling for justice that is lacking in others. It is to say that a longing for justice would be the noblest and most generous legacy a persecuted people could seek to foster, and very different from the legitimate and understandable but more exclusive desire to be a nation. It is in this sense that Blum, cited by Rose, could assert that just as ‘science is the religion of the positivists, justice is the religion of the Jews.’ Rose connects this remark to the comment made much later by S. Yizhar, the author of the amazing Khirbet Khizeh, a short novel about the evacuation of Arab villages in 1948, only recently translated into English.[*] Yizhar says ‘dispossession’ is ‘a question that touches and binds every Jew’, and that recognition of the ‘historic injustice’ done to the Palestinians needs to be bound ‘into the very core of what it means to be a Jew’.

Rose opens her book with the diary Dreyfus kept on Devil’s Island, later published as Five Years of My Life. It is one of the ironies of the affair, as Marcel Thomas pointed out some time ago, that Dreyfus was less informed than most people of the developments in his case, and the title of Thomas’s book, L’Affaire sans Dreyfus (1961), does not, as it seems to, subtract the man from the affair but reminds us of his absence from it until its later stages. But however little Dreyfus knew about what was happening in France, he knew something had gone wrong with what he thought was the sanity of his world. ‘Until now,’ he writes, ‘I have worshipped reason, I have believed there was logic in things and events, I have believed in human justice!’ But now: ‘Oh, what a breaking down of all my beliefs and of all sound reason.’ (‘J’avais jusqu’à présent le culte de la raison, je croyais à la logique des choses et des événements, je croyais enfin à la justice humaine!’ ‘Hélas! quel effondrement de toutes mes croyances, de toute ma saine raison.’) Dreyfus also says that he had trouble finding room in his mind for anything that was bizarre or extravagant: ‘Tout ce qui était bizarre, extravagant, avait de la peine à entrer dans ma cervelle.’ Rose draws our attention to the word ‘worship’ (culte) and the insistence on reason, and wonders whether such thinking ‘might not be a type of folly in itself’. The suggestion runs all the way through her book, beginning with the reminder that ‘Dreyfus and Freud are contemporaries,’ and the proposition that ‘we have much to learn from this coincidence,’ especially in relation to our ‘need to understand, rather than to judge or expel, the forces of unreason that inhabit every human mind’. Rose adds, in a guess that has the force of an epigrammatic truth, that Dreyfus himself would not have had any time for psychoanalysis, could not have come to see ‘that reason is never more endangered than when it refuses to countenance anything other than reason itself’.

But what instruments of understanding do we have, apart from reason? We have its unreasonable cousin intuition, and various other ways of sensing what is going on. But do they yield understanding, as distinct from what feels like occult knowledge? One of the remarkable things about Rose’s book is that she doesn’t shirk this question. Indeed it is central to her project. The mind is full of what it doesn’t want to know, and it quite reasonably refuses this knowledge, because it will often be painful. ‘What we cannot bear to remember is the worst of who we are.’ And if psychoanalysis is right to believe that ‘only the patient has somewhere the knowledge he or she most needs to own,’ it is also true that this may be precisely the kind of knowledge – bizarre and extravagant, perhaps – that we, like Dreyfus, have most trouble finding room for. But there is another form of reason that knows how to live with at least some glimpses of this knowledge, and it can’t be worshipped in any classic, Cartesian way because it always fails to go beyond glimpses. ‘Only a duped ego,’ Rose says, ‘will try to master the complex life of the mind.’ This doesn’t mean we should ignore the complex life of the mind, only that we should forget about mastery.

‘Psychoanalysis proper begins, one could argue, with two insights whose relationship will then colour the whole of psychoanalysis to come: the mind is divided, but the boundaries between one part of the mind and another are strangely porous.’ At first Freud seems to have thought that parts of the mind could be got rid of. Later he understood that ‘the foreign body will not be expelled.’ This is because it is not a foreign body, only our not wanting to know it has made it one. The political resonance of this arrangement is horribly clear, and Rose is writing these words in a chapter called ‘Partition, Proust and Palestine’.

What is Proust doing in that alliterative embrace? I have already suggested that he is Rose’s guide to the velleities of the shifting self, but we see now that he is also the great scholar of unmasterly reason. He shares the honours with Freud – ‘it is almost impossible to tell them apart’ – but Rose says he is ‘always one step ahead’ of Freud when it comes to ‘the logic of projection’, while his ‘depiction of the multiple identities and varieties of the homosexual makes Freud’s account of the complexity of human sexuality seem truly tame in comparison’.

Proust has the ability, like no other writer, I would say, to portray the most rigid social divisions at the same time as he puts us as readers at an oblique angle to them, so that they also seem, at the very moment we think we have grasped them, refracted by the light, to start shimmering and then dissolve.

He requires us ‘to question our certainties no less than his own, to worry to the very edge of our convictions’. And this worry is what Rose would like to see in place of all the false confidence and vigorous denial we find ‘among the nations’. She may, as I have said, show a striking sympathy for the grounds of this bluster – for the fear and shame at its heart – but she is not going to accept the bluster at face value or as the best or only response to a threatening internal or external condition.

Her first chapter, published in part in this paper, offers a lucid account of the Dreyfus Affair itself, and its long-term if not inevitable consequences.[†] She evokes the passion for justice displayed by the young protagonist of Proust’s Jean Santeuil in the weirdly coloured moral climate of late 19th-century France. She has some fine pages on La Revue blanche, a literary magazine that became a staunch and lucid defender of the principles sabotaged by the continued prosecution of Dreyfus – ‘the Revue dismantled one by one the shibboleths of French nationhood’ – and valuably reminds us that ‘anti-semitism always belongs in time. There is a bedrock, but it takes a historical crisis, flush with the needs of the moment, to go looking for it and bring it to life.’

The alliterative second chapter explores, via Proust and Freud, various notions, usually rather cruel, of partition, in the mind and in the historical world. Rose stresses the reservations inhabiting George Eliot’s version of Zionism – ‘An individual man, to be harmoniously great, must belong to a nation … if not in actual existence yet existing in the past, in memory, as a departed, invisible, beloved ideal, once a reality, and perhaps to be restored’ – and makes very clear that she is not rejecting the idea of a homeland, nor denying ‘the urgency of the need for the Jewish people, nor the legitimacy of their national aspirations’. But partitions are not solutions, and they tend to become more than makeshift. Rose’s chapter ends with an evocation of poems by Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish that ‘allow something to rise to the surface, unsettling the surface boundaries of the world’. We see such unsettling perfectly in Amichai’s poem ‘Jerusalem’:

We have put up many flags,
They have put up many flags.
To make us think they’re happy,
To make them think that we’re happy.

The image leads us directly to questions of representation and the difficulties of memory. What does putting up the flags make us think about ourselves and our happiness? Can we recall why or when we became so keen on putting them up? ‘Why is it so hard,’ Rose asks, ‘for nations and for people to remember what they have done?’ We have already seen part of the answer. ‘There is a resistance to memory inside memory itself.’ And this is where we need to take very seriously her distinction between connecting and equating: a distinction that returns us to the matter of inevitability and choice that arose in relation to Dreyfus and Vichy. She will not ‘equate Nazism with the war of 1948’. She says (twice) that ‘there can be no equation between the industrial genocide of the Jews and the ethnic transfer of the Palestinians.’ But sufferers can think of the sufferings of others, and that is what Yizhar does in his great book. The point here is to remember, and Rose finds an eloquent incarnation of sympathetic memory in Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. A Palestinian in 1948 ‘makes the mental journey to Nazi Europe’, imagining that he is seeing Jews rather than Palestinians rounded up and put on trains in Galilee – ‘he knows there were no trains in Galilee’ – ‘as if to say: you cannot think of, still less relive, the history of 1948 without thinking of the Jews.’ ‘This is far more than a plea for empathy,’ Rose says. ‘This is not a claim for symmetry of suffering, but … a leap of identification and a call for historic accountability that implicates us all.’

Rose closes her book with a chapter on Beckett and Genet that brings us back to Proust, because Beckett wrote a remarkable essay on Proust, and because Genet claimed he became a writer through reading, in prison, one long Proustian sentence. Both writers, in Rose’s words, ‘force us to the limits of what can be spoken and thought’, take us to some terminal-seeming place in language, which if it isn’t the end, can only be the beginning of something we haven’t imagined yet. She has a wonderful comment on Genet’s reading of Proust, which leads us into a dark old world of social antics that may still cast their protracted shadows. The sentence Genet read in prison, thinking, ‘Now I’m calm, I know I’m going to go from one marvel to another,’ was this one, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation:

My mother, when it was a question of our having M de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the ex-ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the house-tops the name of everyone he knew, however slightly, was a vulgar show-off whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as – to use his own epithet – a ‘pestilent’ fellow.

We might think that only a writer, or an about-to-be writer, could care about this sentence, since its chief interest seems to be the wily meanderings of its grammar. But the diction is interesting too, with all its transferred assumptions and aspersions. And if Genet couldn’t have seen the comedy Proust is offering here – in the previous volume his narrator has presented Cottard as an idiot and Charles Swann as the most discreet of men, driven to name-dropping only by his desire to impress the woman he loves and her terrible crowd of friends – he saw something else, and this is what Rose brilliantly sees him seeing:

The sentence that blows Genet’s mind, his induction into the world of Proust, is a sentence about social caste. What it reveals beneath, or rather through, the social veneer is perfectly vicious … But what the sentence contains, what it slowly but surely glides toward through the twists and turns of Proust’s famous syntax, is the stench of the Jew (‘puant’ is the last word). Genet most likely will not have registered Swann’s Jewishness from these lines, but he will undoubtedly have picked up the whiff of the social outsider.

And what a whiff. Rose notes that neither of the Proust translations we have goes for the literal translation of puant: ‘stinking’. James Grieve has ‘rank outsider’ where Scott Moncrieff has ‘pestilent’. It’s true that ‘rank’ is a fine choice if we pay attention to its meaning as something other than an intensifier. But the French really is violent, and even if we take the word as the narrator’s father’s attribution rather than an actual quotation from the dreadful Norpois, it’s still part of an implicit argument on Proust’s part about how crude polite people can be. Or how deep shallowness can get.

At one amazing moment in A la recherche du temps perdu Proust has the Duchesse de Guermantes regret the advances afforded to socially aspiring ladies who knew that being against Dreyfus (and for the army) was the right thing in many of the best circles. Just because they have ‘death to the Jews’ written on their parasols, she says, one has to keep running into ‘people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid’. Rose points out that the Scott Moncrieff translation has ‘Down with the Jews’, as if Proust were not supposed to be so rough. She continues: ‘Proust was, however, being precise … This was the cry in the streets at Dreyfus’s court martial, outside Zola’s trial, and then across the whole of France – even if having the words inscribed on society ladies’ parasols is his unique, and somewhat surreal, embellishment.’

The embellishment is also an instance of Mme de Guermantes’s wit. It shows how far she will go to be funny, but also reveals, as if in a kind of cartoon, an opportunistic anti-semitism, stupid rather than frightening in itself, but deeply sinister when you think of the conditions that provided the opportunity. There is a handsome little book called Les Cent Plus Belles Images de l’Affaire Dreyfus (2006) which contains one disgusting anti-semitic caricature after another, fascinating historical evidence, but all of them uglier than we can want to believe. The irony of the title is unintentional – the book is part of a series called Les Cent Plus Belles Images de … – but it makes you think.

[*] Yizhar’s books were discussed by Gabriel Piterberg in the LRB of 26 February 2009.

[†] ‘J’accuse: Dreyfus in Our Time’ appeared in the LRB of 21 April 2010.