Not Summarizing But Fetishizing Proust, Research Time, 31/10/2013

Continuing through The Origins of Totalitarianism, I find Hannah Arendt’s account of the Dreyfus Affair brilliant and gripping. This was a social, military, and political scandal that rocked France to its foundations, and destabilized it for decades. Arendt makes a good case that the culture of the Vichy regime was basically a reiteration of the anti-Dreyfusards from the 1890s. There were rumours, which I largely believe, that Emile Zola, the famous French novelist who advocated for Dreyfus’ freedom, was murdered for his outspoken support of the Jewish captain. Arendt uses the Dreyfus Affair to describe a culture of ubiquitous and ugly anti-Semitism in French civil society.

Quick version of the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Albert Dreyfus was accused and convicted of treason, selling military secrets to the German army, on evidence later learned to be falsified. He was sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. Despite the unveiling of all the evidence against Dreyfus as forgeries, the French military continued to hold him in Devil’s Island for years, maintaining their belief in his guilt (even as another French officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, admitted that he spied for Germany two years after the initial conviction). 

What I find most curious about Arendt’s account of the Dreyfus Affair is the way she sets the scene. Her exploration of the upper class salon culture of Paris shows how this scene fetishized the Jews as the Affair ran its popular course. The attempts of Jews to climb social pyramids in France through involvement with Faubourg Saint-Germain salon culture and through the French military officer corps were what led the Catholic Church in France to make anti-Semitism a political principle for the first time. 

She describes the attitude of French aristocrats to the Jews as a fascinated fetish. Everyone of the Faubourg Saint-Germain was, to some degree, anti-Semitic. But they welcomed Jewish people into their social circles throughout the decade of the Dreyfus Affair’s prominence because it became sexily dangerous to do so. Jewishness was seen in Faubourg culture as a vice, a kind of legal criminality. Engagement with vice is cool.

Attempting to map In Search of Lost Time to
Proust's own life is one of the more intricate
and useless puzzles in modern literature.
But the major source material to understand the culture of Faubourg Saint-Germain circles was the work of Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s novel is a mutation of his own autobiography, that of a young social climber who ingratiates himself with the Parisian aristocracy, watching the rise and fall of notable people within that society, including himself. Because In Search of Lost Time was so autobiographical and so intensely detailed in its depiction of the social scene and the characters of those within it, Arendt could take Proust’s fiction for the mutated memoir that it was. 

Jews (such as the dignified Swann) and homosexuals (the effete nobleman Baron de Charlus and his Jewish lover the violinist Bloch), despite still being seen as dangerous, no longer had to hide their identities, because the viciousness which the aristocracy perceived in them was fashionable, sexy, cool. The meticulous detail with which Proust rendered the world in which he grew up and lived made In Search of Lost Time a historical document in addition to an innovative work of fiction, a reworking of the epic, and a politically radical artwork in its frank treatment of homosexuality, particularly the translucent closet where gay noblemen lived in Faubourg culture. 

Because his work was so multifaceted, the careful, comprehensive, and scholarly Arendt could use Proust to depict a historical time and place with which she had no personal experience. Given the social and psychological detail with which Proust draws his characters and their relationships, I’d go so far as to say that she was right to do it. At its best, fiction can comprehend reality better than reality. 

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