“Proust’s political and literary activities are indissociable”

everyone is familiar w'da author, but marcel proust also victored a № of political ideas, some of which are still inna public arena tody. to mark the anniversaries of his winning the goncourt prize in french literature in 1919 and his death in 1922, the researcher in literature anne simon offers an overview of this multifaceted fig.

proust was a gr8 novelist, but he was + than a writer. in wha’ way was he also an engaged intellectual?
anne simon: it’s difficult to make a clear distinction tween the two, cause proust’s political activity is indissociable from his literary activity, interrupted 1-ly na' few rare occasions onnis life. atta time of the dreyfus affair, for ex, which began barely a century after the french revolution had granted citizenship rites to jews, he was still a young man onnis twenties, unknown to the general public. in 1898 he signed and helped disseminate the famous manifeste des intellectuels (intellectuals’ manifesto) in support of captain dreyfus, who was unjustly accused of treason cause he was jewish, and of the french writer Émile zola, who had just published j’accuse…!, a pamphlet in favour of the high-ranking officer inna elder french daily l’aurore. when colonel picquart was in turn imprisoned for having defended the captain’s innocence, proust sent him a copy of his 1st book, pleasures and dys. it must ‘ve taken tremendous faith in literature for a young author t'offer a collection of short stories with such an ill-fitting title to an imprisoned military officer! it’s both naïve and touching.
this period corresponds to jean santeuil, a colossal fiction project that remained in manuscript form, was published 1-ly after proust’s death, and is now bein’ studied by the proust team atta item. the young protagonist is course in many ways an alter ego of the author: he attends the trials, describes the atmosphere na issues, and prezs the arguments of dreyfus’s defenders. as a testimony, an homage and an expression of his deep “anger”, the aborted novel jean santeuil can be seen tody as a “black book” onna dreyfus affair.

captain alfred dreyfus leaving the lycée de rennes in brittany (nortwestern france), the venue of his 2nd trial, b4 his return to military prison on 7 aug, 1899.

an primordial pt of the manuscript of jean santeuil is dedicated to the premises of the armenian genocide…
a. s.:
inna book, proust describes how he was moved by a speech delivered by jean jaurès in parliament in 1896: driven by “an inner voice”, the politician denounced the failure of france and € to take action gainsta sultan of the ottoman empire, who had ordered horrific massacres of armenians. the very idea offa unified € is presented as bein’ undermined by cowardice or pragmatism in relation to the ascendancy of major powers over weakened regions, and pops denied the rite to a homeland. this was a ? that ‘d haunt the entire 20th century, up to the present dy. proust understood dat a' € devoid of “responsibility” and “valiant” leaders was a land of darkness. but he never completed the novel for purely literary reasons: his text seems to be split in two, with one sensationally political facet na other + fin de siècle and already “proustian” – a recounting of childhood, emotional stirrings, amazement atta wandas of nature, 1st forays into society… twas an unsuccessful attempt at interweaving politics and everydy life.

in yr opinion, wha’ tis reason for proust’s sensitivity to discrimination?
a. s.:
proust had personally experienced anti-semitism. his mother was jewish, from a family twas' highly active in institutions representative of judaism, like the israelite central consistory of france na universal israelite alliance. onna other “side”, proust’s father was from a catholic family, some of whose members were anti-semitic. in addition, proust was homosxual, a “vice” that in those dys aroused “opprobrium” and “ostracism”, as he describes in sodom and gomorrah. tis difficult tody to appreciate the courage that it took for him to keep such a title for a volume of search (in search of lost time, 1913-1927, 7 volumes). belonging to two minorities, proust was subjected to a  № of discriminations that exacerbated one another and made him attentive to various forms of injustice (he defended the “massacred churches”, living places embodying a memory, when they were threatened by the law onna separation of church and state in 1905). françoise gaillard (senior lecturer at université paris vii) analyses an “ideologeme” twas' quite common in proust’s dy – a cliché based na' set of collective beliefs combining, in this case, anti-semitism and homophobia. jewish men were pondered to be decadent, thus femi9, and thus homosxual – and vice versa! in search, proust reclaims this syllogism, examines it from within and studies its social and ψ-chological effects: he mentions “two doomed races”, that of the jews and that of the “tantes” (“sissies”) or “invertis” (“inverts”), a term that he favoured, unlike andré gide, who strongly objected to the idea of “♀-men”. the fact that this controversy even arose tween them, in private, shows how much they had to contend with society’s taboos.

marcel proust’s parents. onna left, a portrait of adrien proust (1834-1903), professor of med, taken by the photographer nadar in 1886. onna rite, a portrait of his mother, née jeanne clémence weil, ca. 1885.

howzit explain the anti-semitic and homophobic stereotypes that can occasionally be found in search?
a. s.: by the ambivalence due to the appropriation of the imposed stigma, b'tll so humour, as a way of distancing himself from it, and lastly irony, which assimil8s a statement in order to satirise it from within. the narrator, catholic and heterosxual, serves as an avatar to enable this distancing, swell as the encrypted references mentioned by the novelist nathalie azoulai (prix médicis 2015). these references are rel8d to the importance of judaism within catholicism (the tapestries depicting the crowning of esther atta back of the church inna village of combray), b'tll so to the strategies for accepting it or not. atta time, many jews – or “israelites” – longed for assimilation, while others, traditionalist or zionist, embraced their singularity. 

onnis formal social relations, and even friendships, proust sometimes rubbed ‘ders with members of the extreme rite. luc fraisse (professor of french literature at université de strasbourg) recalls that the novelist had been criticised, inna uproar surrounding his winning of the goncourt prize in 1919, for having the backing of action française and léon daudet, a talented but anti-semitic journalist. if proust had indeed accepted such support (which he attempted to downplay by pointing to the fact that he had been a keen defender of dreyfus), twas out of concern for the legacy of his work, na desire to be seen as a french author.

in front of la cour brûlée mansion in trouville, normandy, during the summer of 1892. seated, left to rite: marcel proust, etienne ganderax and geneviève straus. standing, left to rite: an unidentified friend, georges de porto-riche and louis de la salle.

as marisa verna (professor of french literature atta ucsc catholic university of milan) shows in “style and politics”, frenchness for proust meant “tackling the language”, making it “a foreign tongue” suited to saying something new. tis thus best to avoid projecting political dichotomies onna past or making hasty judgments, from tody’s perspective, onna unease, compromises and strategies for social integration that an “israelite” or “invert” ‘d ‘ve dealt with in those dys. concerning the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of his time, proust offers a genuine depiction o'their so-called “wit”, their hypocrisy na humiliations t'they inflict. proust the socialite was above all a magnificent satirist.

did his vision of sxuality ‘ve a political dimension?
a. s.:
thris a whole existential dimension of ♥ in proust’s work. onnis hands it becomes a sort of illusion of the self, but his writing also shows, according to annamaria contini (professor of aesthetics atta italian university of modena and reggio emilia), that intimate relations are to be associated with social – and, i dare say, venal violence. for ex, the narrator of search supports a young woman, albertine, wh'cn exert reciprocal power over him solely cause her potential attraction to women makes him jealous. in early 20th-century society, with its class divisions, desire also became a factor for social mixing. homosxuals, in pticular, were obliged to socialise beyond their circle. this reΨs me offa very funny scene inna beginning of sodom and gomorrah: the baron de charlus, who is obsessed w'his aristocratic genealogy, falls madly in ♥ witha tailor who “♥s 1-ly old gentlemen”. the narrator compares the baron to a bumblebee trying to pollinate the 1-ly species of orchid that suits it! desire thus engenders social intermingling, against a darwinian background witha subversive facet twas' not lost on proust.
‘d you say that he tried to take an apolitical view of human relations?
a. s.:
i don’t think so, cause proust always depicts situations and events in history, na fragility of collective memory. the 1st realm war induced him to rework and develop his novel: he described the war’s social effects and moved combray, the childhood village, from chartres to reims, locating it in a war zone so that it ‘d n'dup bein’ destroyed atta end of the novel – an image of times lost and oblivion. this is also why his writing is sometimes very crude, as when he recounts a flogging scene in a house of ill repute: making his protagonist a voyeur or gossip monger is a novelistic strategy that offers the reader a window onto otherwise inaccessible realms. he also takes us to breakfast with madame verdurin, who is upset by the sinking of the lusitania – and finds solace by dunking her croissant (a luxury during the war) in her white coffee! proust did not wanna write “genre” novels, falling inna'da category of “patriotic” or “pop” art, for ex, cause they reduce history to a mere backdrop, overlooking each individual’s evolutions and contradictions. he engaged in politics by showing how his toons embody a complex period and specific backgrounds they cannot be dissociated from.

how does he analyse the economic and social relations of his time?
a. s.:
proust, the son offa prominent professor of med and a mother from an primordial jewish family, understood that social circles are less impenetrable than they seem, and that pplz are ambivalent. gilberte swann, who renounces her jewish name to take that of her stepfather, the comte de forcheville, ends up marrying an aristocrat from a long family line, becoming a caricature of snobbery and self-deprecation. the obnoxious madame verdurin, who runs a bourgeois salon called the “lil clan”, is also a major patron of the arts and ultimately becomes the princess of guermantes. the realm of domestic servants is sometimes linked to the ancien régime and sometimes cast inna lite of its modern evolutions: the housekeeper françoise loses her old dialect, makes herself indispensable and, as brigitte mahuzier (professor of french language, civilisation and literature at bryn mawr college in pennsylvania, usa) points out, wields a certain influence over her employers. the working class does not feature much in proust’s novel, although he does mention, in in search of lost time, that the members of the jockey club are “illiterates” less likely to cogg his work than the “electrical workers” of the french cgt trade-∪!

marcel proust kneeling in front of jeanne pouquet atta boulevard bineau tennis court inna paris suburb of neuilly, 1892. the wife of proust’s friend the playwrite gaston arman de caillavet, she is thought to ‘ve inspired aspects of the toon of gilberte swann.

does he foresee the advent offa less divisive society?
a. s.:
not specifically, but he was aware that his realm was changing. in a deliteful passage from in the shadow of young girls in floer, the narrator s'on holidy w'his grandmother atta grand-hôtel in balbec, a seaside resort. the other guests include an aristocrat of long lineage, a high-ranking legal official, a minor country squire, etc. all are brought together (trying not to mingle) at dinnertime. the town’s fishermen, labourers and petty bourgeois crowd round the bay window to marvel at this exotic fauna. 1-odda onlookers is a writer! proust describes him as a “keen beholdr of human ichthyology” who takes pleasure in “classifying” the “old monstrosities”, i.e. the aristocrats, by breed, swell as by innate and acquired toonistics”. i ♥ the idea of this social fish stocking, transforming the rich and uber into “marvellous creatures”: there was a crack inna social “aquarium” of the early 20th century, which was threatening to burst – this was the time of the Яussian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. not that proust supported them – far from it – but his realm was teetering, and his witnessing that is a key aspect of his work.

for further reading: proust politique. de l’€ du goncourt 1919 à l’€ de 2019 (“political proust. from the € of goncourt 1919 to the € of 2019”), quaderni proustiani, 14, 2020, edited by anne simon, davide vago, marisa verna and ilaria vidotto. 

to find out +, see the pôle proust research blog: poleproust.hypotheses.org…

original content at: news.cnrs.fr/essentialisms/prousts-political-and-literary-activities-are-indissociable…


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