In the midst of a long essay on the French poet Paul Valéry and his 1917 masterpiece La Jeune Parque (“Young Fate”), Paul Berman addresses his subject’s politics and attitude toward the Jews. Valéry, living through the Dreyfus Affair, the growth of French anti-Semitism after World War I, and then the Holocaust, couldn’t be ambivalent about the Jew’s fate:
The poetic and artistic rebellions of the 1890s fed sometimes into a right-wing cult of nationalism, militarism, and folk tradition, which led to “imbecile anti-Semitism,” in Emile Zola’s phrase, which meant hostility to Captain Dreyfus, the victim of a military frame-up. Not everybody succumbed to the right-wing temptations. [Valéry’s older friend Stéphane] Mallarmé—the master-thinker, [poet, and critic]—was intelligent enough to line up with Dreyfus’s defenders. The then-young [writer André] Gide likewise managed to resist the right-wing fervor, even if his own thinking on Jewish matters was reliably close to imbecile.
But Valéry in the 1890s was not so clever. Maybe he was fond of military heroes. He wrote an awestruck sonnet about Julius Caesar. . . . And he came out against Dreyfus. He contributed money to a fund for the widow of Dreyfus’s fiercest enemy of all, the colonel who had forged the crucial document in the frame-up. And yet, . . . by 1899 or thereabouts, when he was in his late twenties, Valéry had already begun to work up a new set of ideas for himself, which he presented many years later in the series of essays that he liked to call “quasi-political.” The essays added up to a rebuke of the extreme right, and a rebuttal. . . .
As for the Jewish question, this never seems to have grabbed his attention—at least, not in anything I have read. Among the writers of his generation in France, the only one to write intelligently and sympathetically about the Jews and their situation in Europe was Charles Péguy, the Catholic—a smaller poet, with a bigger heart. Still, the Jewish question was not something Valéry could escape for long, if only because of personal circumstances.
Henri Bergson, the [French Jewish] philosopher, died in 1941, during the first year of the German occupation, and, because Bergson was one of his friends, it fell to Valéry to deliver the eulogy at the Académie Française. He saluted the philosopher as a “very high, very pure, very superior figure of a thinking man,” “the last great name in the history of European intelligence”—which displayed, on Valéry’s part, a generous spirit, and a mood of bitterness. But the bitter and generous phrases also displayed a touch of bravery. “The last great name in the history of European intelligence” was, after all, a Jewish name, even if German military vehicles were roaming the French roads. Thus it was that Valéry, who began his political life on the wrong side of the Dreyfus affair, spoke out nobly, in the final period of his life, on the right side of the Nazi occupation. Defiance was one of his gifts.
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