Marcel Proust’s Unpublished Manuscripts Address Jewish Themes with Surprising Frankness

While the celebrated French novelist Marcel Proust was baptized as an infant and raised a Catholic, his mother was born a Jew, he had much contact with his Jewish relatives, and numerous critics have commented on the Jewish themes and characters in his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past. But recently published drafts and notes for the novel, long thought to have been lost, show these themes in a different light. Mitchell Abidor points to one especially striking deviation: in the manuscripts, the anonymous narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is “Marcel,” his unnamed mother is “Jeanne” (the name of Proust’s actual mother) rather than simply “mother,” and so forth. And this reveals something deeper:

The characters’ actual names, which return us to their bearers, are a reminder of the great unspoken trait of the finished work: the Jewishness of one side of Marcel’s family. . . . The effacing of Marcel’s own Jewishness in the Narrator [of the final version] is one of the most striking characteristics of Proust’s work, in which the Dreyfus affair, Jewishness, and Jewish characters feature prominently.

The de-Judaization of the Narrator was not the product of family resentment. To the contrary, Proust adored his mother above all people in the world, and his bemused affection for his Jewish grandmother is obvious. Proust’s Jewish relatives were financially successful and at first they are not all anonymous.

In one telling passage, Proust explains a character’s behavior as a product of “the memory of the humiliations it is rare a Jew did not feel in his childhood, a kind of fear of being scorned, of being looked on poorly.”

In the early versions included here, as in his life, Proust’s Jewishness played a part in his public and private activities, in his friendships, and his family relations. But there was nothing straightforward about it in either case. Through the magic of fiction and transmogrification of characters, Proust’s own Jewishness was disappeared by disappearing that of his relatives. . . . The fictional Marcel obliterated any trace of the Jewish half of his background. . . . And yet the finished novel is a markedly Jewish book.

The early parts of [the novel] take place at the height of the Dreyfus affair, and even in the world of social snobbery in which the narrator spends his time, his companions’ position on the guilt or innocence of the captain serves to define them. Proust was a supporter of Dreyfus, and in one of the oddest moments of the period, he even signed a petition in support of Dreyfus, at the request of [the Gentile poet and essayist] Anatole France. But the Marcel Proust who defended Dreyfus was also a regular reader of only one newspaper, the royalist, anti-Dreyfusard, and anti-Semitic L’Action Française.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Alfred Dreyfus, Anti-Semitism, French Jewry, Literature, Marcel Proust

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus