The American Scholar: The Rekindled Affair

French newspaper sketch of Alfred Dreyfus in prison, 1895 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1896, Count Robert de Montesquiou, a first-rate dandy and second-rate poet, opened a letter sent by a friend. In a hurried tone, the friend made a point of explaining his silence in response to the remarks made by Montesquiou the day before. Although he does not describe the remarks, it is clear that they concerned Jews and Judaism. “If I am Catholic like my brother and my father, observes Montesquiou’s friend, my mother, on the other hand, is Jewish. You understand that this is a strong enough reason to abstain from this kind of discussion.

The letter’s author was Marcel Proust. Not yet the author of In Search of Lost TimeProust was rather a bit lost himself: an esthete and asthmatic in his twenties who, unsure of his vocation, spent his days writing essays for literary journals and his evenings polishing good words in literary salons. There was certainly no financial pressure to settle on a profession. His father, Antoine Proust, was a wildly successful and highly respected medical researcher. His mother, Jeanne Weil, came from a wealthy family of Jewish industrialists.

Jeanne refused to convert by marrying Antoine. Although her two sons, Marcel and Robert, were raised in the Catholic faith, Mrs. Proust, although not practicing, remained Jewish. By the end of the century, however, prominent figures in France were challenging the very possibility of being both French and Jewish. A powerful wave of anti-Semitism had risen in France, posing an existential threat not only to the republic’s Jewish community, but to the republic itself. A century has passed since Proust’s death in 1922, and 125 years have passed since his birth in 1871, and yet this period is not very different from ours in many important respects.


On October 15, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a member of the staff of the high command of the French army, received the order to report to the Ministry of War. Arriving there, the unsuspecting Dreyfus is accused of treason. The basis of the accusation was the infamous slip, a sheet of paper covered with French military plans, found by a French housekeeper in the rubbish bin of the German military attache. The hand that wrote the slip, investigators believed, belonged to none other than Dreyfus. Any doubts they might have had were dispelled by the fact that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer in the High Command.

Found guilty of treason by a military tribunal, Dreyfus, disoriented, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a malarious rock off the coast of French Guiana. His sentencing was followed by a terrifying ritual of public humiliation. Entering the courtyard of the Military School, Dreyfus stands at attention while a dense crowd bursts into cries of “Death to Judas” and “Jewish traitor!” As an officer preceded to smash Dreyfus’s sword – broken and soldered with tin the previous night to make the gesture seem effortless – on the knee and rip off his badge, Drefyus insisted on his innocence.

Two years later, as Dreyfus languished in solitary confinement, forgotten by almost everyone but his family and friends, this appalling miscarriage of justice escalated into what became known as “The Affair”. Early in 1896, Colonel Georges Picquart, the new head of military intelligence, discovered that another missive about French military plans had ended up in the dustbin of the German embassy. Moreover, the handwriting on this newly intercepted document, which matched that of the bordereau, also matched the handwriting of Ferdinand Esterhazy, a dissolute and indebted officer of dubious character.

Like most of his fellow officers, Picquart was anti-Semitic. But he was also attached to the truth. When his commanding general asked him why he cared that “that Jew stayed on Devil’s Island”, Picquart blurted out: “Because he’s innocent!” When his response landed him a sudden transfer to a desert outpost in Tunisia, Picquart swore he would “not lay this secret in my grave” – ​​he told his story in late 1896 to his friend and lawyer, Louis Leblois.

Leblois quickly decided to share his information with Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, a powerful politician renowned for his probity and patriotism. At the end of 1897, finally overcoming his caution as well as his reluctance to, in his own words, “juify” the affair, Scheurer-Kestner revealed Picquart’s discoveries in the Parisian newspaper Time. The open letter sends a shock wave through Paris, carrying as far as the study of Émile Zola.

Indeed, it was not until Zola, France’s most respected or, for conservatives, most reviled writer, entered the fray that the affair became the Affair. Dreyfus’ fate inflamed both patriotic outrage and Zola’s artistic excitement. This story, he wrote to his wife, represented not only a “appalling miscarriage of justice”, but also a “gripping tragedy”. Who better to say than the author of the remarkable series of Rougon-Macquart novels? (Or, indeed, what better time to tell the story now that he had finished the 20-book epic?)

During the last weeks of 1897 he published a series of editorials in Le Figaro— the same newspaper that would carry the gossipy chronicles of Proust all paris— affirming the innocence of Dreyfus. Zola’s call for a new trial has deepened the national divide between two violently opposing camps. On the one hand, the Dreyfusards who defend reason and believe that the identity of France is defined by the abstract principles of equality and freedom. On the other, the anti-Dreyfusards who deify unreason, convinced that the identity of France is rooted in the earth and the dead— the soil and the generations of the dead buried therein. For the former, objective facts attest to the innocence of Dreyfus; for the latter, subjective convictions confirm Dreyfus’ guilt.

Not for the last time in history, in short, alternate versions of reality clashed. This epistemological and ethical divide manifested itself when Zola, furious at the acquittal of Esterhazy by a military tribunal, published “J’accuse” in the newspaper Dawn on January 13, 1898. In the cadence of the Bible and with the wrath of one of his prophets, Zola indicted a long list of military and political figures for sentencing an innocent man to life imprisonment while setting the guilty free. Its purpose, he concluded, was “to accelerate the explosion of truth and justice.”

“Explosion” was an understatement. Zola’s insistence that “the truth is on the march, and nothing will stop– “The truth is on the march and nothing will stop it” – galvanized both sides. The Dreyfusards, inspired by his bravery in the name of truth, called him a hero; the anti-Dreyfusards, indignant at his effrontery towards the army, demanded his head. Within days, thousands of anti-Dreyfusards, led by the thugs of the Anti-Semitic League, chanting “Down with Zola” and “Death to the Jews”, fought the police and ransacked businesses in the Jewish quarter of the Marais.

Rather than take to the streets, the Dreyfusards followed Zola’s lead and addressed the press by issuing a series of manifestos. Just a day later Dawn published “J’Accuse”, the newspaper published the “Pétition des Intellectuels”, which echoed Zola’s call for a new trial. Word intellectual was new to most readers, as were the names of most of the intellectuals who signed the manifesto, including that of Marcel Proust.


“I was the first Dreyfusard”, Proust would boast later in life. His claim is thin on substance – based on nothing more than having persuaded the writer Anatole France to sign the petition – but heavy on meaning. The Affair was a seismic event not only for France – the nation, not the novelist – but also for Proust. Benjamin Taylor, a recent biographer of Proust, notes that the writer became a Dreyfusard when Scheurer-Kestner’s letter was published. But, adds Taylor, it was not because Proust felt Jewish. Instead, he “considered himself for what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother.” It is Proust’s indignation at this “flagrant denial of justice” which alone explains his Dreyfusard conversion.

This statement makes a lot of sense, but does it make sense of the man or his time? Doubts arise from two remarkable events framing Proustian anniversaries this year: the publication of Antoine Compagnon’s book, Marcel Proust on the Jewish side (The Jewish side of Marcel Proust) and an exhibition “Marcel Proust. On the mother’s side” (Marcel Proust: The Mother’s Side), at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. (Compagon served as an advisor for the exhibition.) Both reveal a side of Proust reflected, in In Search of Lost Time, by the narrator’s mocking parenthesis, about the Jews of society, “who believe themselves freed from their race”.

As readers of Proust’s epic know, such is not the case with its tragic hero, Charles Swann. In an astonishing elegy for the dying Swann, who observes that the Dreyfus Affair has, despite his intellectual and cultural refinement, made him a Jew, and not a Frenchman, in the eyes of his Gentile peers, the narrator writes: race whose vital energy, resistance to death, seem to share its individual limbs. Struck individually by their own [traumas]as he is stricken with persecution, they continue indefinitely to struggle against terrible agonies which can be prolonged beyond all possible limits.

Like Swann, Proust never escaped – or indeed sought to escape – his Jewish heritage. Although he abandoned Catholicism as a teenager, his attachment to his mother’s religion remained strong. Proust attended several funerals of members of the Weil clan, most traumatizing of which was his mother’s service in 1905, where a rabbi delivered the kaddish. He evokes this heritage when he alludes to his own mortality in a haunting draft of a letter to his friend Daniel Halévy: “There is no one left, not even me, unable to get out of bed, to visit the small Jewish cemetery of the rue du Repos, where my grandfather, obeying a ritual he didn’t understand, placed a stone on the tomb of his parents every year.

Surprisingly, when In Search of Lost Time (and the life of its author) comes to an end, a young generation of French Jewish intellectuals lays a completely different stone in the work of Proust by claiming him as one of their own. During the interwar period, as both the Compagnon book and the museum exhibit reveal, influential literary figures such as Antoine Spire, who embraced Zionism, cited Proust’s epic as a reminder that French Jews could never become fully French. (Paradoxically, the events that followed during the German occupation of France, when more than 70,000 French and foreign Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps, both confirm and challenge Speyer’s warning .)

It is doubtful that Proust would have agreed with Spire’s assertion. Much less dubious is the idea, embodied by Proust, that being French does not mean that one can also be Jewish (or, for that matter, Muslim). The point for Proust – the point, perhaps, at Proust – is the importance of being fully open to the play of past and present in one’s life. And to continue to place stones even when we no longer know why the reason why.

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