The French are not men

Michael Wood

  • Lettres à la marquise: correspondance inédite avec Marie Arconati Visconti by Alfred Dreyfus, edited by Philippe Oriol
    Grasset, 592 pp, £19.00, March 2017, ISBN 978 2 246 85965 9

The event was ‘foreseeable and scandalous’, a wonderful combination in its way, and we might apply the phrase to many incidents in our world. I didn’t find it in yesterday’s newspaper, though. The historian Marcel Thomas uses it in his remarkable book, published in 1989, on Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man who was the spy that Alfred Dreyfus wasn’t. Thomas is thinking of Esterhazy’s acquittal in 1898. Why would a French military tribunal find a guilty man innocent? What was the point of this ‘ritual theatre’, as Frederick Brown calls it in For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010)? The questions immediately call up another: why would an 1894 tribunal have found an innocent man guilty of the same crime?

The story is complicated but not unintelligible. We just have to immerse ourselves in what Thomas calls a ‘naive form’ of the modern spy story, full of ‘rigorous compartmentalisation, manipulation, sting operations, falsification of documents, planting of delayed-action bombs in the form of carefully elaborated “legends”’. The French secret service, the marvellously named Statistical Section, thought it had found a spy in Dreyfus, and was not going to let a mere lack of evidence, or even probability, get in the way. Like Thomas, Philippe Oriol insists on the manufactured nature of the supposed truths of this history. Chapter titles in his Histoire de l’affaire Dreyfus (2014) include: ‘How one fabricates a guilty man’, ‘How one convicts an innocent man’. Oriol asks whether we can ‘still talk, as one often does concerning this affair, of a “judicial error”? It really is a question of a machination.’

Language itself begins to wobble under the pressure of these activities. Vincent Duclert in L’Affaire Dreyfus (2006) writes of a ‘true document’ that is a ‘false proof’, and also cites the ‘original’ version of a forgery. One of the chief players in the case, Major Du Paty de Clam, whom Thomas describes as ‘half-accomplice and half-dupe of his partners’, reversed this argument by writing of ‘very real indications arising from the traffic in false documents’. What ‘many people know’, as Duclert puts it, is merely what everybody is supposed to think; and when Oriol calls Dreyfus ‘the ideal traitor’ he is ironically adopting the anti-Semite’s point of view: ‘As a Jew, Dreyfus was … the perfect guilty party.’

These sinister fantasies paraded and accepted as realities reached their anti-logical climax in 1899, when, in a climate of growing belief in Dreyfus’s innocence and calls even from those convinced of his guilt for a clarification of the legal case, the unfortunate man was brought back from Devil’s Island for a new trial. He was found guilty again, but ‘with attenuating circumstances’, the chief of which was the fact that he wasn’t guilty. The judges couldn’t actually say this without finding the secret service, Dreyfus’s superior officers and the former minister of war incompetent or much worse, and they weren’t going to do that. The verdict was rendered on 9 September 1899 and ten days later Dreyfus was formally pardoned for what he had not done. A year later an amnesty was declared that let the conspirators off completely. A mollifying general spoke of closing the doors of forgetfulness on the whole show. The celebrated affair was over.

Except that it wasn’t. The doors were nowhere near closing. For those convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt, his acceptance of the pardon was a confession. For those alarmed by the army’s illegalities, the amnesty was a scandal – ‘l’amnistie scélérate’ was one lurid name for it, ‘the scoundrel settlement’. And for many of Dreyfus’s supporters the pardon itself was a betrayal, a ‘dishonour’, some said. In fact, Dreyfus’s own first impulse was to refuse the offer – ‘the right of the innocent man,’ he wrote, ‘is not clemency but justice’ – but he was persuaded he would be better able to fight for his rehabilitation if he was out of prison. He published the following eloquent statement drafted by the Socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, and Joseph Reinach, the first historian of the Dreyfus Affair:

The government of the Republic gives me back my liberty. It is nothing to me without honour. As of today, I shall continue to pursue reparation for the frightful judicial error of which I am still the victim.

I wish the whole of France to know, through a definitive verdict, that I am innocent. My heart will be at peace only when there is no longer a single French citizen who imputes to me the abominable crime committed by another.

The correspondence between Dreyfus and Marie Arconati Visconti, which Oriol has edited, picks up the story at this point. The marquise’s Paris salon, he says, had been the ‘headquarters’ of much pro-Dreyfus activity, but she did not meet the man himself until he was released after his second trial. She was introduced to him by Reinach, and he became a regular jeudiste, a Thursday man, attending her weekly lunchtime salons, which often sound more like seminars. ‘You have no idea how interesting your Thursday lunches are,’ Dreyfus writes. ‘What a marvellous lecture we heard last Thursday.’

Marie Peyrat was born into politics and married into money. Her father, Alfred, was a senator who coined the once famous phrase ‘Clericalism, that’s the enemy.’ She married Gianmartino Arconati Visconti in 1873 – Victor Hugo was one of the witnesses at the wedding. She was 33 at the time, her husband was 34. He died three years later, leaving her an immense fortune. She spent much of it on education, founding chairs at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, buying the contents of a scholar’s library for the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, and at her death left the rest of her money to the University of Paris. And she ran her salon – two salons, in fact, one on Tuesdays for art collectors and museum directors, and one on Thursdays for politicians and professors. Dreyfus, as we have seen, was a member of the second group, along with Reinach, Jaurès, the historian Gabriel Monod and others.

Dreyfus and the marquise corresponded from 1899 until 1923, the year of her death. Dreyfus himself died in 1935. Oriol prints 895 of their letters, and gives dates and summaries for many more. The writers discuss the weather and each other’s health – ‘I am sorry to hear about your rheumatism’, ‘I hope your neuralgia is not giving you too much trouble’, ‘I’m sorry to hear you are ill again’ and so on – and talk above all about contemporary politics, including Dreyfus’s continuing case. The German emperor is a constant, noxious problem, there are concerns about what Russia is doing in the Far East and what France is doing in Morocco. At home, the great question is the separation of church and state, voted on in 1905.

The marquise is ardently anti-clerical, and likes to let herself go on the subject: ‘Note that those who are complaining now are the same people who would slit our throats tomorrow if they were in charge’; ‘The moment they can’t persecute anyone, they consider themselves martyrs’; ‘If our country does not get rid of ultramontanism and monks, France in the 20th century will be what Paraguay was in the 18th: a Jesuit farm’; ‘When the Church is all-powerful, she burns her enemies, while the Republic is content merely to give them a shower.’ The marquise says she is not a pacified or appeased person, une apaisée, and that’s putting it mildly.

Charles Maurras, the notorious founder of the right-wing magazine L’Action française, called her ‘one of the powers of the Huguenot-Métèque state … whose great fortune is at the disposition of everything that works towards the death of France’. None of her letters, or of those of Dreyfus, carries anything like the extraordinary pile of gloating prejudice revealed in those few words: Protestants, Jews, parliament, money, republic – all so much contamination of what used to be France. It is true, though, that time, age and distaste for the hard left brought the marquise closer to Maurras than she would have cared to think she was. In spite of her married name, she came not to like the idea of foreigners (Belgians, Italians, Germans, Jews and ‘Yellow’ people) taking over French jobs. She hated pacifism, and thought Jaurès should be shot for opposing the war with Germany – Charles Péguy thought he should be guillotined for the same reason.

Neither meant to go beyond metaphor, and we can hardly blame them for Jaurès’s assassination in 1914. But we can think again about the life of words, as Geoffrey Hill’s poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy eloquently invites us to do. ‘Did Péguy kill Jaurès?’ is Hill’s question. ‘Must men stand by what they write?’ Or women? His note to the poem now sounds more ambiguous to me than it once did. Hill writes that Péguy ‘was calling for [Jaurès’s] blood: figuratively, it must be said; though a young madman, who may or may not have been oversusceptible to metaphor, almost immediately shot Jaurès through the head’. I used to wonder how figurative the call was; and I was sure the killer was not moved by a metaphor. Now I wonder about the afterlife of the call, since it was answered, whatever the callers intended, and even if the killer was following a quite different inspiration. I don’t mean I want to prosecute the callers; just to hold on to the questions of language and meaning that remain when we have sensibly taken care of all matters of direct consequence and responsibility. It is not as if the metaphors and the murder inhabit different worlds. Kinship is not causality, and sometimes we have to acknowledge our relatives.

It was the fashion at one time to deprecate the man Dreyfus as not quite up to the drama of his case: not charismatic enough for the historical occasion. The unfairness of this view is clear. It’s bad enough being unjustly imprisoned without having to be a romantic hero. The disadvantage of this qualification, though, is that it seems to concede the greyness in the character, albeit without finding it a problem. Recent work on Dreyfus seeks to do away with this. The ‘real life’ that Laurent Greilsamer wants to recount in La Vraie vie du Capitaine Dreyfus (2014) is the one the man’s unadmiring supporters can’t see; and both Oriol in his history and Duclert in his biography, Alfred Dreyfus: l’honneur d’un patriote (2016), are also devoted to this rescue. The mission is very successful, and is confirmed by many intelligent and thoughtful letters to the marquise (just as it was announced earlier by Dreyfus’s memoir, Five Years of My Life, and previous collections of his letters).

There are a few occasions when his complete seriousness seems a bit of a liability and there is a nice moment of comic doubt, when he has to apologise to the marquise for offering a book to her with a dedication that was ‘too short’. ‘He was neither placid nor insensitive,’ Oriol says in his introduction to the letters. ‘He was not an idiot. He was just a grave and severe man.’ The anger in the letters suggests a more passionate person. His patience and his courage are enormous, especially when compared with the attention-seeking antics of so many of his enemies and supporters.

Quite apart from their discussions of Dreyfus’s case, both correspondents are withering about domestic politics, which they see as an arena of weakness and compromise. They are ardent republicans – Robespierre was one of the marquise’s great heroes. Dreyfus sounds like Conrad when he writes of colonial adventures: ‘Scratch the varnish of civilisation the centuries have covered us with, and primitive man reappears.’ He is sympathetic to socialism as long as it doesn’t go all the way to class struggle, and is in favour of proportional representation and a minimum wage.

And yet democracy as they paint it looks lamentable. ‘Ah, what an age of cowardice we live in!’ the marquise writes. The word veulerie recurs, meaning ‘weakness, apathy, lack of will’. The marquise quotes Voltaire – ‘One of the greatest misfortunes of decent people is that they are cowards. They groan, keep quiet, have supper and forget’ – and offers a brilliant aphorism of her own: ‘If Aristotle provided a good definition of man in calling him a “political animal”, the French are not men, they are artists.’

Of course this climate had its effect on the case – mainly that of slowing everything down. In September 1905 – six years after the pardon – Dreyfus is hoping that the next two months will allow him to ‘reach the goal of my life’, to be ‘delivered from this nightmare’. In January 1906 he reminds his friend that the inquiry was completed in July 1904 but the report has still not been formally submitted. ‘What are they afraid of? Of the truth finally unveiled? This stupidity is unheard of, and not just morally stupid but perhaps even more stupid politically.’ The rehabilitation finally occurred in July 1906. Dreyfus received the Légion d’Honneur the same month, and rejoined the army in October. He retired the following year, but re-enlisted in 1917 and fought at Verdun.

*

A twin event that occurred after Dreyfus’s reinstatement – the attempt on his life and the non-trial that ensued – remains curiously underdiscussed in the literature of the case. ‘Who remembers,’ Greilsamer asks, ‘that the man deported to Devil’s Island was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1908?’ What happened was that Dreyfus, deeply grateful for Zola’s defence of him in his article ‘J’accuse’ and other works, and for his being a firm friend in the years after his release, decided to attend the ceremony accompanying the transfer of the writer’s ashes to the Pantheon. Not everyone thought his attendance was a good idea, but the writer’s widow, Alexandrine, finally agreed. During the service a man called Louis Grégori shot twice at Dreyfus, but managed only to wound him in the arm. Grégori was an ex-teacher, ex-soldier and ex-journalist who thought the army was being insulted by the consecration of Zola; right-wing nationalists admired his gesture as ‘very French’.

Grégori’s trial involved a whole circus of displacements. There were those who wished to use it to retry Dreyfus, and those who wished to celebrate a heroic act of violence; none, it seemed, wished to consider the actual case of attempted homicide. Dreyfus himself, on legal advice, took a back seat in order not to inflame public opinion. Grégori claimed that what he sought was a ‘revision of the revision’ of Dreyfus’s original sentence, and that he was shooting not at a man but at a movement. He had no hatred for Commandant Dreyfus, he said, but only for ‘Dreyfusism and its work’. This could mean many things but at its broadest it meant, as Ruth Harris says in The Man on Devil’s Island (2010), a devotion to truth and justice as distinct from tradition and honour.

After what Oriol describes as a ‘relatively moderate’ plea by the prosecution, and an attempt by the defence to get back to the old Dreyfus case, the jury took twenty minutes to decide that Grégori was not guilty of any of the four charges levelled against him: there was no attempted murder; no premeditation of such an attempt; he had not wounded or struck Dreyfus; he had not premeditated such wounding or blows. No wonder Dreyfus told the marquise that the verdict was ‘imbécile’, saying a few days later that it was hard to imagine a jury ‘declaring that a materially established fact didn’t exist’. He then said: ‘Let’s move on, it’s too sad.’

We have not left the hallucinated world that surrounds the whole Dreyfus Affair. ‘This man is innocent’ applied to Grégori doesn’t mean he is innocent or that anyone thinks he is. It means many people like the thought of what he was guilty of. The strangest thing perhaps is not the violent ‘translation’ of the sense of an act, but the idea of its happening in a law court; of the law itself becoming the language of nationalist fantasy. Much earlier in the long story, Gabriel Monod had written: ‘As long as good can officially be called evil and evil good, innocence crime and crime innocence, no appeasement will be possible in France.’ Of course anything can be called by another name, even and especially that of its opposite, and often is. But Monod’s argument goes further. What happens when this is official policy? Since the army (and the nation) can’t be wrong, the function of language is no longer to hook on to the world, in Wittgenstein’s image, but to make whole segments of the world disappear. And since for the opponents of this view the army must be wrong (and the nation must be different), even the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ become slogans rather than ideals, markers of adherence to one team rather than another.

Dreyfus himself analyses the situation well in a letter. Discussing an item in the criminal code, he says the law is clear ‘if one examines it sensibly’. ‘But that is an interpretation,’ he continues, ‘and as with all interpretations, adding a little bad faith and a lot of casuistry, one can arrive at exactly the opposite meaning.’ The marquise herself says that her work as a historian has taught her that ‘the study of pure history is a school of absolute scepticism,’ but that is further than Dreyfus is going. His implication, I think, points not towards scepticism or relativism but towards caution and an examination of the details and contexts of particular acts of interpretation. An alertness to bad faith or casuistry, our own or that of others, might well get us closer to truth and justice than grand proclamations of our love for those abstractions.

The phrase ‘all interpretations’ should give us further pause, though. What if alternative readings of a proposition arise not from voluntary contributions like bad faith but from larger unexamined inferences or an unspoken backstory? After Dreyfus had been publicly stripped of his rank and status in 1894, the official army telegram said: ‘When the parade was over, Dreyfus insisted on his innocence and shouted “Vive la France!”’ The newspaper Le Matin reported this as ‘Dreyfus expressed no regret, confessed to nothing.’ The first text describes verbal actions, and requires no interpretation beyond our understanding the description, although of course we can draw any conclusions we like, including fiercely negative ones. The second text is not intelligible unless we assume Dreyfus is guilty. If the paper wanted to suggest that Dreyfus claimed to be innocent because he was innocent, it would have said something else. This is not an unusual employment of language: we rely on such implied understandings all the time. Oriol’s use of the words ‘ideal’ (‘the ideal traitor’) and ‘perfect’ (‘the perfect guilty party’) function in just this way. We have to know what he doesn’t mean. But we may need to examine our habit of interpretation more closely when something other than a touch of irony is at stake, and when we don’t know as much as we should about the machinery, or the machination.

I was struck by a question Oriol quotes from the newspaper Le Journal, which was reviewing the case while Dreyfus was still on Devil’s Island: ‘Who is going to believe that these officers [Dreyfus’s judges in 1894] could, without proofs, have inflicted the most defamatory penalty on one of their own?’ It’s a good question, and would have been a better one if it had not been followed by the suggestion that to believe in Dreyfus’s innocence was to be part of a Jewish conspiracy. But both remarks silently declare their dependence on whole realms of assumption. We might rephrase the question more generally. Who do you have to be to believe X? And what else are you likely to believe if you do? The truth does not become damaged or unavailable in such a context, but it does become entangled and contingent, and it may require a lot of work.

Some of that work will have to be speculative. The symmetrical errors I started this piece with, the foreseeable and scandalous criss-crossing of innocence and guilt, found an appropriate if shabby epilogue in Esterhazy’s confession in 1899 that he had indeed given the Germans the secret information Dreyfus was supposed to have passed on. This was the literal truth, but according to Esterhazy, it did not prove that Dreyfus was innocent, only that he had not written the incriminating document. And Esterhazy was in any case, he said, working under the orders of the French secret service, a real French spy pretending to be a German spy. As far as I know, no serious scholar believes this story, and I don’t believe it either. But why don’t we believe it?

Marcel Thomas describes the story as ‘flattering but implausible’, a ‘myth’ and a ‘scenario’, and says ‘no document, no testimony allows us to take this fable seriously.’ But, barring mistakes, there would be no document or testimony if the story were true, so this empirical lack cannot be the basis of our conviction. The Dreyfus Affair teaches us, among many other things, that evidence is easily faked, and that when the fakes don’t work or you don’t want to use them, you can plead national security: you can claim to have documents you can’t show. There is a real difference between a document that isn’t produced and one that doesn’t exist, and that is what I mean by saying the truth is not damaged in this perspective. But we have to ask who can see or certify this difference, who controls its display, and what sort of model of probability or prejudice we are going to use in the absence of facts. ‘As for those who have made themselves my executioners,’ Dreyfus wrote in his diary while still on Devil’s Island, ‘ah, I leave their consciences to them as judges when the light is shed, when the truth is revealed, for sooner or later, everything in life is revealed.’ Not quite everything, perhaps.