Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East

Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East

by Jacqueline Rose

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 Known for her far-reaching examinations of psychoanalysis, literature, and politics, Jacqueline Rose has in recent years turned her attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict, one of the most enduring and apparently intractable conflicts of our time. In Proust among the Nations, she takes the development of her thought on this crisis a stage further,


 Known for her far-reaching examinations of psychoanalysis, literature, and politics, Jacqueline Rose has in recent years turned her attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict, one of the most enduring and apparently intractable conflicts of our time. In Proust among the Nations, she takes the development of her thought on this crisis a stage further, revealing it as a distinctly Western problem.

In a radical rereading of the Dreyfus affair through the lens of Marcel Proust in dialogue with Freud, Rose offers a fresh and nuanced account of the rise of Jewish nationalism and the subsequent creation of Israel. Following Proust’s heirs, Beckett and Genet, and a host of Middle Eastern writers, artists, and filmmakers, Rose traces the shifting dynamic of memory and identity across the crucial and ongoing cultural links between Europe and Palestine. A powerful and elegant analysis of the responsibility of writing, Proust among the Nations makes the case for literature as a unique resource for understanding political struggle and gives us new ways to think creatively about the violence in the Middle East.

Editorial Reviews

Leo Bersani
“Jacqueline Rose’s brilliant achievement in her new book is to argue knowledgeably and persuasively for the relevance that reading Proust and Freud has to the violent antagonism opposing Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. This is a compelling work that will provoke much debate.”

Brian Klug
“Rose has an exceptional gift for writing about a moment in the past in such a way as to light up an entire landscape of human experience—always with an eye to our own times and predicaments. In a sense, the Dreyfus trial is her Madeleine episode. As she brings it to mind, a whole host of thoughts and emotions are stirred—including ones we would rather resist, not least on the subject of Israel-Palestine. Proust, Rose argues, wants us ‘to worry to the very edge of our convictions.’ Her book, written with style, insight, erudition, feeling, and flair, gets us to do exactly that.”

Ingrid Wassenaar, author of "Proustian Passions" - Ingrid Wassenaar
“This book pushes at the limits of postcolonialism and deconstructs some of its certainties—to wit, the smugness that smoothes out complexity in order to make it easier to separate victim from oppressor. Rose shows not only that those in the West are the creators of their own version of the Orient, but that the Orient is embedded, however uncomfortably, in the West, and that there are trading pathways that crisscross between Europe and the Middle East, which must at all cost be remembered and maintained. It is exhilarating to read something so bold, that is reaching so urgently for something beyond itself, so strongly anchored, and yet in search of truths somewhere most people refuse to look.”

Proust et les ideologies sociales
 “Deliberately audacious, the work examines the philosophical and mental resources in Proust and links them to issues as surprising as they are difficult, such as the massacre of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon in 1982.”
Times Literary Supplement
“Rose makes a provocative connection between Dreyfus and Jewish nationalism, but she is also careful to point out that she does not make this move in a justificatory or redemptive way. She is at all times aware of the power of fantasy to overtake truth. . . . She places Proust and Freud in dialogue here with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, not in an isolated textual vacuum but as intellectual activists grappling with ambivalence. . . . The scholarship that underpins [this book] shows how close reading can be used rigorously both to retrieve from the archive, and to support a broader argument. . . . Revive[s] Proust as a political writer.”

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Proust among the Nations

From Dreyfus to the Middle East

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-72578-9

Chapter One

Proust among the Nations

So, Monsieur Drumont, what are you going to do with the Jews? <<BERNARD LAZARE, letter to Edouard Drumont>>

In the same way as science is the religion of the positivists, justice is the religion of the Jews. <<LÉON BLUM, Nouvelles conversations de Goethe avec Eckerman>>

And since bad people are armed in every fashion, it is incumbent on the just to do likewise, when justice would otherwise perish. <<MARCEL PROUST, Jean Santeuil>>

Proust in the Courtroom

About halfway through Jean Santeuil—Proust's autobiographical novel, precursor to À la recherche—the eponymous hero is sitting in the Chamber listening to a debate about the Armenian massacre of 1894. The discussion has just ended. France will do nothing. Whereupon, the deputy Couzon rises to his feet to excoriate his fellow ministers. (He is modeled on Jean Jaurès, future leader of the French Socialist Party.) In uproar, the Chamber bays at him to be silent. When the president reminds him that he must limit his remarks to a response to the previous speaker, he replies: "Let me assure you, if I have to wait an hour for this clamour to subside, I intend to exert my right to the full." "You have just assassinated two hundred thousand Christians," he then declares. "We are going to tell the people, and the people, whom you have taught to use a rifle, will avenge them." The ensuing frenzy is "indescribable": "Such words have never before been pronounced in a French Chamber," the minister of agriculture proclaims. "Jean understood," writes Proust, "that Couzon had been driven to speak by that feeling for Justice which at times overtook him completely like a form of inspiration."

Watching Couzon, Jean is overcome with excitement. His heart pounds. As Couzon, on his short ungainly legs, hastens to the dispatch box with no grace (the French word is disgracieusement), Jean feels that "no human body has ever expressed such dignity and grandeur." When the deputies rattle their desks, he wants to kill them, to stone them, as he once wanted to "massacre"—his word—the police for abusing their power by roughing up a young, vulnerable thief. There is no limit to what he imagines himself doing to those who would stifle justice—justice whose voice he describes as "palpitating" and "ready to sing." In Proust's vocabulary, justice is an inspiration, a song, and a beating heart. But this lyrical vision of justice does not blind Proust to its ruthless dimension. When justice is threatened, it must take up arms by whatever means. To those who argue that it is precisely by disregarding the question of means that justice is most likely to perish, the narrator observes that justice would never have won any of its victories had the great revolutionaries of history been so cautious.

It is not customary to associate Proust with such forms of passion. We tend not to imagine him most obviously sitting in the corridors of power, cheering on—at least inside his head—a deputy pleading on behalf of a massacred people; nor indulging in fantasies of political violence, and justifying such violence in the name of such a people who have been abandoned by France, indeed by the whole of Europe and the rest of the world. A twenty-first century reader might also be surprised to discover, in this sequence which was omitted from the first published edition of Jean Santeuil, a reference to the Armenian massacre at all. Today we tend to associate such an event with what has come to be known, no less controversially, as the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an event to which today's political powers have also gone to great lengths to turn a blind eye. But it will be my argument throughout this book that Proust not only inhabits this world, vibrantly and urgently, at numerous points throughout his writing, but that in doing so, he can help us understand some of the deepest, most persistently difficult components of our contemporary political world. Just how many of our current preoccupations can we watch unfolding in this episode? From the right to speak out, to the legitimate means for redressing injustice (Couzon might today be accused of incitement: "the people, whom you have taught to use a rifle, will avenge them"), to national and ethnic violence, to our responsibility for the sufferings of others in seemingly remote parts of the globe. The young Jean feels these concerns in his body—he breaks out in a sweat and then falls back in his seat, happy and smiling, when Couzon has finished speaking, unclenching the fists with which he had imagined himself pummeling these raucous, cruelly indifferent ministers. Only the rules of the Chamber prevent him from bursting into applause.

At its most simple, for Proust, politics is always a question of passion. There is no dividing line between the trials of the world and of the mind. In the earliest pages of À la recherche, the narrator runs a line from his horror at the cruel teasing dealt his beloved grandmother by his great aunt (whom he wants to beat as a consequence) to what he knows will become in adulthood an even crueler indifference to human suffering: "all these things were of the sort to which, in later years, one can grow so accustomed as to smile at them and to take the persecutor's side resolutely and cheerfully enough to persuade oneself that it is not wholly persecution." Later he will describe our indifference to the suffering we inflict on others as "the terrible and most lasting form of cruelty." Proust may believe in justice, he may, as it were, be on the side of the angels, but he is no innocent. He knows his own potential for violence. Indeed, in the Armenian episode, he describes it with something akin to relish. Being on the side of justice and knowing one's own cruelty—the two are unlikely companions which do not often sit together in the political vocabularies of our time. Those who proclaim the justice of their cause do not normally wish to taint that cause with the complex, often ugly, vagaries of the heart. I would suggest, however, that in politics the rhetoric of innocence is deadly. One of the things I will be arguing in what follows is that there is much to be gained from a way of seeing that does not require those struggling for a better world to persuade themselves that they have done no wrong or to believe in their own inner perfection.

In 1898 Proust attended the trial of Zola, charged with libel after the appearance of his famous open letter to President Félix Faure, known today under the title "J'Accuse"—it was a stroke of genius of the editor of L'Aurore, the paper in which it appeared, to splay these words in a bold headline across the front page. Zola had written the letter in response to the acquittal of Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a low-life womanizing swindler, who had been uncovered by Colonel Georges Picquart as the true author of the bordereau, or missive, that had precipitated the Affair. The missive, discovered in a wastepaper basket at the German Embassy in Paris by a cleaner working for French intelligence, revealed that classified military information was being passed from France to Germany. Wrongly—willfully as it turned out—it had been attributed to the young Jewish artillery captain, the rising star at the General Staffheadquarters of the French army, Alfred Dreyfus. To put it most simply, Dreyfus had been framed. In 1894, he was convicted of treason, court-martialed, and deported to Devil's Island, the tiniest of three tiny Iles de Salut, or Salvation Islands, offthe coast of French Guiana, where the climate was so intense that deportation there was considered a death sentence. By the time of Zola's trial, he had already been languishing on the island for three years, in conditions that can fairly be described as inhuman. It almost killed him. He would remain there for another two years until he was brought home for his 1899 retrial, where he would be reconvicted "with extenuating circumstances" by a court set up by the army to vindicate itself. Given that by then everyone knew he was innocent, this was a conviction in many ways more shocking than that of 1894. Today the case is known as one of the most famous miscarriages of justice in history. Dreyfus was pardoned in September 1899 and then fully exonerated and reinstated in the army in 1906, earning a Légion d'Honneur for combat in the First World War (although his experience came close to destroying him and he was a broken man).

Zola was sparked into his famous protest when Esterhazy walked clear. As the world watched the events in France with growing dismay, Zola, along with the rapidly expanding number of Dreyfusards, had believed that the inevitable conviction of Esterhazy would be the beginning of redemption. Dreyfus would be granted the retrial that would exonerate his name and set him free. Instead, it was a whitewash for Esterhazy and for the army. In fact, Esterhazy had himself requested the court-martial, so confident was he of acquittal.

By the time of Zola's letter, Hubert-Joseph Henry, the main forger of the documents against Dreyfus, had been exposed and cut his throat in prison. As well as perjuring himself at the original trial by falsely claiming inside knowledge of Dreyfus's treason and forging the main incriminating document ("le faux Henry"), he had led the General Staffwitch hunt against Picquart, who was now imprisoned in a fortress pending a formal investigation into his conduct. The suicide of Henry was a turning point in the Affair. Zola, who had originally shown little interest in Dreyfus, was tapping into a new surge of opinion that Dreyfus must surely be innocent, although even after Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, this was not the majority opinion across France. Zola knew, however, that by charging a military tribunal with having knowingly acquitted a criminal (Esterhazy), he was himself courting a charge of criminal libel, a prospect he welcomed with enthusiasm: "Let there be an inquest in the full light of day!" he ended his letter, "I am waiting." He also knew that, as the question of what the tribunal knew or did not know would be virtually impossible to settle in law, he was almost certain to be found guilty. "It is impossible," writes Louis Begley in his recent study of the Affair, "to overstate Zola's courage."

Zola's trial was the high spot of fin-de-sièle Parisian political and cultural life. Indeed, it is not going too far to describe it as a type of literary salon, a caricatured microcosm of the upper-class drawing room that plays so crucial a part in À la recherche. Proust would have been at home there. Joseph Reinach was the author of a nine-volume study, Histoire de l'Affaire Dreyfus, in many ways still unsurpassed to this day—Proust was an admirer, in one of his letters to Reinach praising "your beautiful history of the Affair." This is how Reinach described the scene: "Never had such a numerous, more passionately agitated, crowd invaded the Assizes chamber. Lawyers were piled on top of each other, some clinging to the high ramparts surrounding the reserved enclosure or to the window sills; and mingling with them, crushed to suffocation point, in the emotion of the spectacle absorbing the whole world's attention, elegant ladies, journalists, officers, men of leisure, actors, 'Everybody who was anybody—all, the cream, of Paris.'" The world of the salons, we could say, minus the luxury and comfort, as if we were staring, somewhat sadistically, at the members of Parisian high society trampling all over each other, or with their faces—a little like a Francis Bacon painting—crushed and distorted against a window pane. Jean attends the trial with his friend Durrieux. They arrive first thing each morning with a few sandwiches, a small flask of coffee, and remain, "fasting, excited, emotionally on edge [passionné]" until five o'clock in the evening. In Jean's eyes, they are two fifteenth-century Florentines or Athenians, "or any of those whose burning preoccupation it is to play a part in the thrilling events [affaires passionnées] of the city." Jean sees himself as a dedicated man of the polis. Proust's own word—twice—is "passionné." This makes Jean Santeuil unexpectedly something of a throwback to true, Athenian citizenship as envisioned by Hannah Arendt. There can be no greater passion than public life.

It may be hard today to imagine such intensity of engagement—as Tony Judt has eloquently argued, the idea of the political collective has become a type of debased currency in our time. But in late nineteenth-century France, the Dreyfus Affair raised public life to the pitch of frenzy. Proust was not alone. "The coups de théâtre," Reinach wrote of the Zola trial, "one after the other without interruption, sparked intense emotion, passions, so fermented, were roused to madness.... Brains pounded with the fever." For the Dreyfusards, the Affair unleashed a type of joy, made life, in the words of Léon Blum looking back in 1935, not just "tolerable, but happy." The intense value that living acquired at the time could be measured by the fact that "life, for me, for my friends, no longer counted," so willing were they to be sacrificed in the cause of truth and justice. Émile Durkheim, the famous sociologist, and Charles Péguy, influential poet and essayist, saw it as a moment of "conscience humaine" (the French conscience is both consciousness and conscience) that introduced into political life a new level of moral seriousness. It was a view shared by Tolstoy. According to Reinach, he sent his greetings to France, congratulating it on its "great fortune" that such a crisis was presenting itself to the nation, a unique opportunity, unrivaled since the Reformation, to give politics a moral hue. All these writers were bearing witness to a momentous, even monstrous, collision of public affect: a belief in human justice and the rule of law, set against the corruption of army and government and a hatred of untold viciousness against the Jew.

Proust was directly involved. Within a week of his letter appearing in L'Aurore, Zola received hundreds of signatures to his petition for a reopening of the case: "We the undersigned, protesting against the violation of legal process at the 1894 trial, against the iniquities surrounding the Esterhazy affair, persist in demanding Revision." The signatures were collected by a group of young writers that included Fernand Gregh, Elie and Daniel Halévy, André Rivoire, Jacques Bizet, and Marcel Proust. "When I think," he writes to the Comtesse de Noailles in 1906, slightly embellishing his memory, "that I organised the first list for L'Aurore to ask for a revision of the trial." Proust, alongside his mother but against his brother and his father, was a committed Dreyfusard. "Tell them I have not deceived them about the Affair," he writes to his mother at the time of the second trial, following Dreyfus's reconviction. If Dreyfus were a traitor, the judges would not have imposed such a mild sentence: "Extenuating circumstances" he insists, were "the obvious and vile admission of their own doubts." Like a political pundit calculating odds on election results, he observed with satisfaction in September 1899 that le Matin "is coming round to our side."

At moments—although this is of course not the whole story—writing for Proust appears to take on the character of a political task. Dismayed that some had read Le côté de Guermantes as anti-Dreyfus, he promises, in a letter of 1920, that Sodome et Gomorrhe will be "entirely Dreyfusard and corrective." Proust will later describe the Affair as his only incursion into politics, but comments like this show that it shadowed his whole life as a writer. In the wonderful phrase of Malcolm Bowie, Dreyfus was Proust's "great experimental laboratory." The portrayal of the Affair in À la recherche, as it infiltrates the life of the salons, will be a central part of the next chapter. Here, as I examine the complex exchange between politics and writing, as well as a form of political ethics we might do well to revive today, it is Jean Santeuil that gives us the key—Dreyfus in the raw, before the Affair is finessed by Proust into the "kaleidoscope" of Parisian social life. (In À la recherche, it is Bloch rather than the narrator who attends the trial.) Jean Santeuil offers a vision of justice, and the endless fight to secure it, that will be the constant theme of this early book.


Excerpted from Proust among the Nations by JACQUELINE ROSE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

 Jacqueline Rose is professor English at Queen Mary, University of London. She is the author of many books, including The Last Resistance, The Question of Zion, and Albertine: A Novel.

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