The Case, the Salon, the Invert, the Intellectual

Note:  This post to my Yahoo group was written in the first week of September, 2001 –  before the attack of 9/11.  I live less than 1 mile from what was the Twin Towers.  From my windows on the 16th Floor, I could see the whole scene dead on and smell and breathe the plume.  My group sent messages and even called.  I could barely receive calls and could not call out at all. ****************************************************

September 21, 2001

Dear Group, I am so sad to see this flurry of “unsubscribers” right now.   The list is, for me, a haven of civilization, a barricade against dumbing down, vulgarity, ugliness, barbarism and thought control.   I’m so with Murray who wrote: “I find solace in all the histories and novels that I read. I know that the human spirit will not be defeated.” Before the attack, I was drafting a post.  Here it is in embryonic form – too long and  repetitive – I hope not impossible.  I submit it to be a voice against unsubscribing.  Your responses will help me clean it up. Goodbye.  I just now looked at an update on the news.  I’m scared … but carrying on.   I send you all the best.  Thank you for your messages and phone calls.



The Case, the Salon, the Invert, the Intellectual

The Search is not only a Bildungsroman, a Kunstlerroman, an ironic novel, a novel about {recovery of lost time, the fluidity and perspectival nature of truth, multiplicity of selves, external world refracted in inner vision etc. etc.}  The Search is also a social epic which captures at the highest level of art the convulsions and transformations of fin-de-siècle France, recording, for example, inclusions and exclusions within salon society depending on which side they marched in the Dreyfus Affair (“The Case”).   But so many pooh-pooh the importance of historical detail – if not entire context.  Why? I suspect (… and I’m probably in hot water here) that the reason for the underplay is lassitude (uhhhh –  laziness?) It’s more fun to deal with the universals of Truth, Beauty, Eros, Human Nature;  more fun to stay within inner vision and sensual metaphor than to do the boring work of reading history and social background.  I know this because I am guilty.  But, I don’t buy that the details of the political landscape are beside the point; that the only valid job is to extract the lasting “universals.”  Proust himself was an advocate of particulars; his social kaleidoscope cannot be understood without the actual, non-abstract historical and political context.

Carol wrote: “The glittering social groups portrayed in The Search were simply normal, everyday acquaintances to the Narrator and he was equally fascinated by other sections of society (e.g. servants) so the setting of the work is just the happenings of everyday life.”

Malcolm wrote:  “… I wouldn’t worry too much about the fine detail of the Dreyfus affair. If you know the main details, that’s enough (Captain Dreyfus, Jewish officer in French Army wrongly accused of treason, a grossly unfair court-martial, senior officers prepared to commit perjury, found guilty, sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, then exonerated a couple of years later when Esterhazy, the real traitor, was discovered). It is interesting in the way in which the case split French society.”

I have a different view.  The fine details do matter – Peter pointed out that Nabokov wanted his students to “caress the details.” … not to mention that that’s where the devil is.

Glittering society was unique in its social transformations in the early third Republic (1870-1940), marked singularly by, but not restricted to, the Dreyfus Affair.  Inclusions and exclusions spiked noticeably. The dramatic changes in salon composition are meticulously tracked by Proust with respect to class, blood, wealth and artistic or intellectual stature.  Independent of The Search, I learned that salon society is recognized as an institution which both registered and effected social change; it was both mirror and agency.   One theory (Hannah Arendt) goes further to say that the degree of inclusion or exclusion of Jews and homosexuals inside the salons is an index to the stability or instability outside; or an index to just how well society coped with its perennial disease – boredom.  In Origins of Totalitarianism, there is a chapter on the Dreyfus Affair preceded by several pages on Proust.

The life of this greatest writer of 20th C France was spent exclusively in society; all events appeared to him as they are reflected in society and reconsidered by the individual, so that reflections and reconsiderations constitute the specific reality and texture of Proust’s world … his inner life … became like a mirror in whose reflection truth might appear … there is no better witness of this period when society had emancipated itself completely from public concerns, and when politics itself was becoming part of social life.

We see M traveling up through the salons (Mme Villeparisis–> Duchesse Guermantes–>Princess Guermantes –>and more); Verdurin, the vulgar rich lady is honing hers.  Odette, the unlettered courtesan,  builds one.  The well established aristocratic salons are dramatically reconfiguring.

I’m not saying that The Search’s main aspect is social epic or historical reportage, but I believe that we grossly underrate Proust’s astonishing achievement in this area.  It’s not that he “reduced” his book to particularities (in a “Naturalist” way) by sinking it into actual time and place and thereby squandering universality – a requirement for literary survival.  He was not a Naturalist … but neither was a he a Symbolist (to name-drop some extremes.)  His genius and magic in capturing the social transformation and realignments with their attendant abstract issues of Truth and Justice is that he records, without turning into a bloodless historian, note-taker or without blasting (and numbing) us with discursive polemic (as in Magic Mountain, my view.)  Taking the time to acquaint oneself with the social and political picture of the third Republic will be amply rewarded.   This is the time that the “Citoyen” became “Bourgeois”; divisions were redefined from sharp class and blood lines {clergy, military, royalty, nobility} to something different (more “democratic”?)  BTW, the movie “Grand Illusion” is an excellent adjunct to the issue of social realignments.

When the Case breaks open, the fury, longevity and most of all its scope can be understand only against history.  The Case, catalytically, propelled forces of change already well brewing.  And, as it emerged from the historical past, it augured the horrible future.  Here’s a smattering that I’ve picked up in some cursory background reading.

The military enclave is world unto itself – its position is a holdover from earlier times – it is straining to hold on to its independence.  The clergy is clutching at its waning power (look up a huge fight there on the education front – parochial vs public).  The rising bourgeoisie is accumulating mountains of money and frothing at the bit to break into the bastions of birth and privilege – while the aristocrat members are closing rank at the Jockey club against these arrivistes banging on its doors.   And, there is the smarting defeat in the recent Franco Prussian War with some groups yearning for revenge and action.  Don’t forget the Panama scandal, that crooked deal which cast a net over suborned Government people as well as huge numbers of ordinary bourgeois who personally lost money – that scandal where two Jewish-German scumbags played a heavy role.  (One, before he committed suicide, gave over to the vicious anti-Semite Drumont, the long list names of government members on the take or otherwise implicated.  They quaked in their boots every morning waiting to see if their names would appear in Drumont’s newspaper.  And appear they DID.)  Reference to these events permeate the work.  Understanding these references to the Panama scandal, L’Aurore, revisionism, the anti-semitic “leagues”, Picquart vs. Henry etc. etc. deepens the reading just as much as the abstract discussions of Altruism vs Egoism and the varieties of inverts.  I suggest for background reading, you wet a toe in the ocean of writing about the era and particularly of Dreyfus (but you don’t have to drown yourself.)

Here is a tiny sample of quotes showing the turning social kaleidoscope jolted by the Case.

Duchesse de Guermantes: “…I do think it perfectly intolerable that just because they’re supposed to be right-thinking and don’t deal with Jewish tradesmen, or have ‘Down with the Jews’ written on their sunshades, we should have a swarm of Durands and Dubois and so forth, women we should never have known but for this business ….” (Vol II GW p245)

Charlus: “All this Dreyfus business …has only one drawback.  It destroys society by the influx of Mr and Mrs Beasts … which I find even in the houses of my own cousins, because they belong to the Patriotic League, the Anti-Jewish League, or some such league, as if a political opinion entitled one to a social qualification.” (Vol II GW p300)

Swann, reporting to M. what the Prince de Guermantes said: “Well, my dear Swann, about eighteen months ago, a conversation I had with General de Beauserfeuil made me suspect that, not an error, but grave illegalities, had been committed in the conduct of the trial.’ ” (Vol II CP, page 731)

PS While reading for background, I learned that the entire notion of “the intellectual” is attributed categorically to the Dreyfus Affair.  The day after Zola’s “J’Accuse” was published (Jan. 13, 1898) in Clemenceau’s newspaper (L’Aurore), a petition of protest was published there – soon called the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.”  Among its signatories was Marcel Proust.  When Zola emerged from his role as prophet and became priest, he galvanized the academicians, writers, journalists to come forward en masse in protest – not so much against anti-semitism as against the lies and the corruption; he believed, unlike Norpois (the instrumentalist, the creature of diplomacy), that Truth and Justice are inextricably linked – and, therefore, Truth had come to light.  I have read, but can’t now find the source, that Proust was a prime mover in the very process of drafting this courageous petition.  An  article in New York Review of Books (Sept. 20, 2001) called “Intellectuals and Tyrants: the Lure of Syracuse” by Mark Lilla refers to the birth of “the intellectual” within the Affair.

Manifesto of the Intellectuals.  L'Aurore, January 14, 1898

Manifesto of the Intellectuals. L’Aurore, January 14, 1898

PSS.  I seem to remember that Françoise makes a remark that I now can’t find, for the life of me.  Something like “intellectual, intellectual … that’s all I hear about.”  Speak, Memory!  I would be grateful to know if she does say that.



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