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The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

March 3, 2011 26 comments

Le côté de Guermantes, by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. Translated as The Guermantes Way, third volume of In Search of Lost Time 

When Proust started mentioning the Dreyfus Affair in The Guermantes Way, I put aside the novel to go and search about it on Wikipedia. It turns out there are 30 pages that give a good overlook on the affair. I had a vague idea of it and I remembered how it divided families the first time I had read Proust but I wasn’t aware of how much it had moved lines in politics at the time. There is no point for me to clumsily sum up what is already written on Wikipedia. So here is how Wikipedia sums up the Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus affair (French: l’affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. 

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.  

Word of the military court’s framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread largely due to J’accuse, a vehement public open letter in a Paris newspaper by writer Émile Zola, in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards[2]), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clémenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.   

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

As I pointed out in my posts on A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, the Narrator depicts the rampant anti-Semitism strongly rooted in the French society. Without this and the defeat of 1870 against the Germans, it is not sure this affair would have gone so far. Two things made of Alfred Dreyfus a perfect scape-goat as he was Alsatian, the part of France annexed to Germany after the 1870 war and Jewish. He was a candidate for treason.

In The Guermantes Way, The Dreyfus Affair is in all the conversations, when the Narrator visits Saint Loup at Doncières, when he has lunch with Robert and his lover Rachel, when he calls on Mme de Villeparisis, when he meets Swann at the Guermantes. At the time, Zola is on trial and Dreyfus is still held on the Devil’s Island, which means that the novel takes place in 1898. 

The general expectations would be that the aristocracy and the military were anti-Dreyfusards and the Jews and liberal people were Dreyfusard. But the lines aren’t so clear and families are torn apart. Here are the opinions of several characters we often encounter in In Search of Lost Time:

Dreyfusard

Anti-Dreyfusards

The NarratorThe Narrator’s grand-motherRobert de Saint Loup

Swann

Bloch

Rachel

BourgeoisBourgeoisAristocrat

Jew

Jew

Jew

The Narrator’s fatherPrince de GuermantesDuc de Guermantes

Mme Swann

BourgeoisAristocratAristocrat

Married to a Jew

 The Duchesse de Guermantes does not express clearly her opinion and would rather sidetrack her interlocutor by a joke.

“In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent,” the Duchess broke in, “he hasn’t done much to prove it. What idiotic, raving letters he writes from that island. I don’t know whether M. Esterhazy is any better, but he does shew some skill in his choice of words, a different tone altogether. That can’t be very pleasant for the supporters of M. Dreyfus. What a pity for them there’s no way of exchanging innocents.”

 Shallow as she is, she complains about the impacts of the Affair on her social life:

“I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago. It used to be so nice there. Nowadays one finds all the people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid, on the pretext that they’re against Dreyfus, and others of whom you have no idea who they can be.”

It is fascinating for us to see how it moved the lines between the people one could be acquainted with and in all the social classes. For example, Mme Sazerat, a relative of the Narrator’s family from Combray, doesn’t greet the Narrator’s father any more as he is anti-Dreyfusard. When relating the incident, the Narrator reveals the opinions in his own family. 

“Mme. Sazerat, alone of her kind at Combray, was a Dreyfusard. My father, a friend of M. Méline, was convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. He had flatly refused to listen to some of his colleagues who had asked him to sign a petition demanding a fresh trial. He never spoke to me for a week, after learning that I had chosen to take a different line. His opinions were well known. He came near to being looked upon as a Nationalist. As for my grandmother, in whom alone of the family a generous doubt was likely to be kindled, whenever anyone spoke to her of the possible innocence of Dreyfus, she gave a shake of her head, the meaning of which we did not at the time understand, but which was like the gesture of a person who has been interrupted while thinking of more serious things. My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence. Finally my grandfather, who adored the Army (albeit his duties with the National Guard had been the bugbear of his riper years), could never, at Combray, see a regiment go by the garden railings without baring his head as the colonel and the colours passed.”

Robert de Saint Loup is Dreyfusard, which is a difficult position to hold, both as an aristocrat and a soldier. The Duc de Guermantes says about him:  “I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” At Doncières, his friends disapprove of him but really like him and thus:

When the conversation became general, they avoided any reference to Dreyfus for fear of offending Saint-Loup. The following week, however, two of his friends were remarking what a curious thing it was that, living in so military an atmosphere, he was so keen a Dreyfusard, almost an anti-militarist.

 Swann, whose intelligence was abundantly described in the first volume, is a fierce Dreyfusard. It clouds his thinking:

“Dreyfusism had brought to Swann an extraordinary simplicity of mind and had imparted to his way of looking at things an impulsiveness, an inconsistency more noticeable even than had been the similar effects of his marriage to Odette; this new loss of caste would have been better described as a recasting, and was entirely to his credit, since it made him return to the ways in which his forebears had trodden and from which he had turned aside to mix with the aristocracy.”

His wife is anti-Dreyfusard, to make her acquaintances forget she married a Jew. People were judged according to the side they supported. Here is Saint Loup, trying to convince the Narrator that his cousin Poictiers is worth knowing:

“I don’t go so far as to say she’s a Dreyfusard, you must remember the sort of people she lives among; still, she did say to me: ‘If he is innocent, how ghastly for him to be shut up on the Devil’s Isle.’ You see what I mean, don’t you?

Her opinion about the Dreyfus affair is put forward to depict her temper. Isn’t that incredible? Once again, Proust doesn’t hide the anti-Semitism:

“Yes, the Prince de Guermantes,” I said, “it is true, I’ve heard that he was anti-Semitic.” “Oh, that fellow! I wasn’t even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds.”

Frightening anecdotes, aren’t they?  

The Dreyfus Affair had extraordinary consequences on the French society. Zola’s intervention and the people who supported him created the concept of the “Intellectuel”. The Intellectuel is a humanist, liberal and acting as a political conscience. Their role is to rise against injustice or wake people’s consciousness. After Zola, there will be Camus, for example. It also enforced the press as the fourth power. Here is Wikipedia again on the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair: 

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras’s Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants.

 Antisemitism and birth of Zionism

The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl’s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism. In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”

Honestly, I didn’t get any of this the first time I read The Guermantes Way. I didn’t quote everything; it would have been too long. I strongly recommend reading a bit about the Dreyfus Affair before reading The Guermantes Way, or the reader will not fully understand the conversation in the salon at Mme de Villeparisis. I think Proust’s take on the Affair and his testimony of how it affected the society is precious. In Search of Lost Time is often seen as essentially a beautiful description of feelings, an analysis of the fleetingness of life and worldly meetings. We should not forget it is also a way to understand the politics and the society of that time.

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