Monday, September 3, 2007

Thibaudet, Bell, Proust -- Anti-Semitism

So: I’ve been working towards a paper on Clive Bell’s Proust book. Clive Bell, especially later in his life, was objectionable elitist. Proust has, especially at the beginning, a light tone of genteel anti-Semitism. Marcel Proust is, for instance, an “exquisitely civilized Jew,” no doubt praise, but still we wince to read it today. These qualities, and the likelihood that Bell read Thibaudet, make the two treatments of Proust interesting to compare.

I’ve been reading the Nouvelle Revue Française memorial issue on Proust (Tome XX, 1923, no 1.). It is, taken as a whole text, fascinating, and deserves some study in its own right. Possibly I’ll write something about it here when I’m done. I have just now finished Albert Thibaudet’s contribution, which is called “Marcel Proust et la tradition française.” Bell must have read this little essay. First of all, Thibaudet claims that there are corners—“ces jardins secrets”—of every national literature into which foreigners simply cannot penetrate. Of course there are also very cosmopolitan gardens as well, into which greenhouse he puts Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. Bell mentions this book as well, echoing Thibaudet’s vocabulary, in the opening pages of Proust. He mentions it as part of a list of other books, possibly as great as the Recherche, “even Jean Christophe—which the French have put in the corner quite as much because it was written by a Protestant and a pacifist [note, in passing, that Clive Bell is himself both those things] as because it is written in a woefully undistinguished manner” (7-8). (As I copy out that quote, I notice the was/is written tense shift—because authorship is past, but the writing itself is always in the present).

For Thibaudet, though, the Recherche is clearly especially French, somehow unavailable to foreigners. Bell’s name (along with a clutch of other Bloomsberries) appears later in the volume appended to an awkwardly written “Hommage d’un groupe d’écrivains anglais” (248-9), which itself strongly suggests some of the themes Bell will later work on his own. Probably in reference to this, or at least this sort of activity, Thibaudet says, “de consiencieux Anglais ont fondé pour l’étudier une société Marcel Proust. Que le ‘monde’ français ait pu se faire aimer et admirer d’un Marcel Proust, cela doit bien étonner un romancier anglais. Cela ‘étonnera moins s’il cherche le fil qui relie Proust à une tradition authentique” (133).

This authentic ‘tradition française’ in terms of which Thibaudet wants to situate Proust is, first, Saint-Simon, the diarist of the court of Louis XIV, and then, Montaigne. Again, Bell will follow Thibaudet. The comparison with Saint-Simon is instructive, “Proust comme Saint-Simon est de ces écrivains qui, ne voyant et ne sentant pas simple [qui n’a rien à voir avec la simplicité], ser refuseraient comme à une trahison à écrire simple. Il faut que chaque phrase conserve la complesité, l’épaisseur, l’intensité émotionnelle ou la joie descriptive, qui étaient au principe des pensées et des images” (135). Compare that to Bell’s “Proust wanted to speak his mind, and his was a mind not easily spoken” (21). Bell’s idea, that style is, or should be, radically determined by process of thought even to the point of rupturing the surface of ‘good writing’ (characteristic, I think, of Bloomsbury), is also Thibaudet’s, who says, describing Proust’s writing: “Un tel style est vraiment consubstantiel à la chose pensante et vivante. Trop consubstantiel pour être clair et correct, dira-t-on. Et le fait est qu’il tient plutôt à la main et au corps de l’écrivain, qu’à la pointe délié de la plume” (136).

The conclusion, the ‘punt,’ of Thibaudet’s little contribution is fascinating. It is, I think, probably an example of some of the best that liberalism had to offer in the 1920s. Thibaudet has been describing Proust’s affinities to Montaigne, an interesting comparison because Proust writes very much about and from his own memory, while Montaigne is famously bad at remembering, and confined entirely to the present of his own writing. Thibaudet, having just called established the dynamism, the process-orientation, of this writing, pauses, and says, “On aura reconnu dans ces dernières ligns des expressions bergsoniennes, et elles nous amènent à des vues suggestives que j’introduis avec quelque réserve” (138). Before quoting, at length, the next paragraph, I wanted to pause and note the hesitance, almost trepidation, which marks Thibaudet’s plunge out of pure stylistic analysis, and into blood.

Ces analogies entre Proust et Montaigne, leur singulier mobilisme à tous deux, ne seraient-elles pas en liaison avec un autre genre de parenté? Il est certain que la mère de Montaigne, une Lopez, était juive. Montaigne, voilà le seul de nos grands écrivains chez qui soit présent le sang juif. On connaît l’hérédité analogue de Marcel Proust. Et telle est également l’hérédité mixte de grand philosophe que je viens de nommer...[mentions other examples]...Je songe à cette mobilité, à cette inquiétude d’Israël, à ces tentes dont Bossuet, dans le Serment sur l’Unité de l’Eglise, fait le symbole du peuple de Dieu...l’Odyssée, a cristallisé, lui-même, comme l’a montré Bérard, autour de doublets gréco-sémitiques. Un Montaigne, un Proust, un Bergson, installent dans notre complexe et riche univers littéraire ce qu’on pourrait appeler le doublet frano-sémitique, comme il y a des doublets littéraires franco-anglais, franco-allemand, franco-italian, comme la France elle-même est un doublet du Nord et du Midi. Mais ne prenons cela que de biais, et, nous aussi, en une mobilité qui n’appuie pas. La tradition française à laquelle nous devons rattacher un Marcel Proust, c’est une tradition vivante, imprévisible, singulière, une tradition en mouvement irréguliere, en ligne serpentine, en tours et en retours, qui, comme une phrase même, comme une page de Proust, dépasse toujours sa matière précise par son élasticité intérieure et par la profusion de son débordement” (138-139).

So this little chunk of text, which I’ve edited down a bit, first postulates a link between heredity and style—but as is typical of humanist racial discourse, there is a great deal of ambiguity about the exact mechanism of transmission of these stylistic traits. Clearly, style is here an expression of the functioning of the writer’s mind, we might now say personality, or perhaps character. Style of writing is closely linked to style of thought. (But also, in the quote from pg 136, it is close to the writer’s body). This style of thought is linked to blood, which is a way of saying what, exactly? Historical experience is tied up in this (the tents of Israel—simple metaphor, or is this the content of the claim? To what register, we might ask, does this image belong?)

Thibaudet then mentions the Odyssey, which everyone agrees is a foundation of ‘our’ civilization, and which, according to the French hellenist (Victor?) Bérard, is a greco-semitic ‘doublet.’ From this point on, we have a theory of hybridization circa 1920. (We might notice that, as generous as he is with his doublets, they all start ‘franco-...’). This hybridization takes place strictly between national-linguistic groups, which makes it sound, I think, more obsolete than it is. This vision of mixing blood (understood to mean national, in the mystic sense, tradition) is profoundly progressive. The French tradition is living and vibrant, elastic and always overflowing its boundaries—this is a result of all the mixing, especially the Jewish blood.

This sort of talk is reprehensible for what seem to me obvious reasons. The Nazis (or even, Thibaudet’s contemporary and the object of one of his studies, Charles Maurras) have only to say exactly the same thing as Thibaudet—and they are able to use it to justify doctrines of racial purity. The logic is, I think, exactly the same as in the argument about the Jews as a modernizing force in the economy of Europe. ‘Progressive’ historians, a number of them Jewish, re-wrote the history of European capitalism with Jewish bankers in the staring role, from the middle ages on. Everyone loves capitalism, right? But as politics radicalize, especially, I think it must be said, with the rise of radical socialist ‘scientific’ re-valuation of bourgeois society and its capitalist/industrialist underpinnings, the very narrative which had been understood to praise ‘the Jews’ (I introduce quotes now, because the category becomes problematic) is widely available to damn them. All this is what was discussed at Julie Mell’s IHS session, but grows out of many sources. I don’t think Arendt puts it quite this way, but it is in her spirit.

So Thibaudet is, in literature, doing the same kind of thing that liberal, philosemitic historians did. His discourse is inside the same frame as Maurras’s, even as they disagree. Where does Bell stand in relation to this? Probably not far off.

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