Friday, 31 May 2019

On the Jewishness of Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Chapter 3: “The Jews and Society"), Hannah Arendt calls attention to Marcel Proust’s perception of his own Jewish heritage.

“When Marcel Proust, himself half Jewish and in emergencies ready to identify himself as a Jew, set out to search for "things past,” he actually wrote what one of his admiring critics has called an apologia pro vita sua. The life of this greatest writer of twentieth-century 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. Throughout the Remembrance of Things Past, the individual and his reconsiderations belong to society, even when he retires into the mute and uncommunicative solitude in which Proust himself finally disappeared when he had decided to write his work. There his inner life, which insisted on transforming all worldly happenings into inner experience, became like a mirror in whose reflection truth might appear. The contemplator of inner experience resembles the onlooker in society insofar as neither has an immediate approach to life but perceives reality only if it is reflected. Proust, born on the fringe of society, but still rightfully belonging to it though an outsider, enlarged this inner experience until it included the whole range of aspects as they appeared to and were reflected by all members of society.”

There is a famous passage in Remembrance of Things Past in which Proust draws a comparison between two persecuted minorities—Jewish and sexual. Arendt takes note of this passage in her book:

“There is no better witness, indeed, of this period when society had emancipated itself completely from public concerns, and when politics itself was becoming a part of social life. The victory of bourgeois values over the citizen's sense of responsibility meant the decomposition of political issues into their dazzling, fascinating reflections in society. It must be added that Proust himself was a true exponent of this society, for he was involved in both of its most fashionable "vices," which he, "the greatest witness of dejudaized Judaism" interconnected in the "darkest comparison which ever has been made on behalf of Western Judaism": the "vice" of Jewishness and the "vice" of homosexuality, and which in their reflection and individual reconsideration became very much alike indeed.”

Taking into account the description of Jews in Proust’s novels, Arendt talks about the Jewish assimilation into society. She notes that while the Jews were supportive of the bourgeois revolution and they played an important role in financial and industrial growth as well as in politics, journalism, and the military, Jewish integration in society was primarily an upper-class phenomenon. But this does not mean that these well-to-do members were “cleansed of their Jewishness.” She is of the view that Judaism was reduced to a difference, to a strangeness, even to an object of psychic or moral curiosity. By relinquishing Judaism as a religious sign, Jewishness came to be identified with closed clans. She mentions Proust’s quote on Hamlet. Here’s an excerpt:

“Proust's "innate disposition" is nothing but this personal, private obsession, which was so greatly justified by a society where success and failure depended upon the fact of Jewish birth. Proust mistook it for "racial predestination," because he saw and depicted only its social aspect and individual reconsiderations. And it is true that to the recording onlooker the behavior of the Jewish clique showed the same obsession as the behavior patterns followed by inverts. Both felt either superior or inferior, but in any case proudly different from other normal beings; both believed their difference to be a natural fact acquired by birth; both were constantly justifying, not what they did, but what they were; and both, finally, always wavered between such apologetic attitudes and sudden, provocative claims that they were an elite. As though their social position were forever frozen by nature, neither could move from one clique into another. The need to belong existed in other members of society too—"the question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong" "—but not to the same extent. A society disintegrating into cliques and no longer tolerating outsiders, Jews or inverts, as individuals but because of the special circumstances of their admission, looked like the embodiment of this clannishness.”

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