The Tide Turns


The Dreyfus affair exposed the deep rift in French society between the secular and the religious, republican and royalist sentiments, the rule of law and adherence to loyalty and tradition. One lasting remnant of this division is the dueling presence of the Eiffel Tower (1889), symbolizing the modern break with tradition, and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1884), built to “expiate the crimes of the communards.” Proust uses the affair as a litmus test for a person’s decency. The most dramatic account is the conversion of the Prince de Guermantes, the most traditional of all the characters in the novel. The account of the conversion is related by Swann to Marcel. First, as nearly always when a person is called out as a Jew, he is described in the most physical terms.

But Swann belonged to that stout Jewish race, in whose vital energy, its resistance to death, its individual members seem to share. Stricken severally by their own diseases, as it is stricken itself by persecution, they continue indefinitely to struggle against terrible agonies which may be prolonged beyond every apparently possible limit, when already one can see only a prophet’s beard surmounted by a huge nose which dilates to inhale its last breath, before the hour strikes for the ritual prayers and the punctual procession of distant relatives begins, advancing with mechanical movements as upon an Assyrian frieze. (IV,141-142)

The Prince, although not obviously changing in his opinion of Jews, becomes increasingly aware that an injustice has been done to Dreyfus. Amid numerous interruptions from the party goers, as if to emphasize the gulf being traversed, Swann relates what the Prince had to say.

“‘Well, my dear Swann, about eighteen months ago, a conversation I had with General de Beauserfeuil made me suspect that, not an error, but grave illegalities, had been committed in the conduct of the trial….I don’t mind telling you that this idea of a possible illegality in the conduct of the trial was extremely painful to me, because I have always, as you know, worshipped the Army. I discussed the matter again with the General, and, alas, there could be no room for doubt. I need hardly tell you that, all this time, the idea that an innocent man might be undergoing the most infamous punishment had never even crossed my mind. But tormented by this idea of illegality, I began to study what I had always declined to read, and then the possibility, this time  not only of illegality but of the prisoner’s innocence, began to haunt me. I did not feel I could talk about it to the Princess.'”(IV,146-147)

His surprised to learn that someone he knows has reached the same conclusion, as he learned from his priest when he asks that a mass be said for Dreyfus.

“‘No, the abbé informed me’ (“I say me ,” Swann explained to me, “because it’s the Prince who is speaking, you understand?”), ‘for I have another mass that I’ve been asked to say for him tomorrow as well.–What, I said to him, is there another Catholic as well as myself who is convinced of his innocence?–It appears so.–But this other supporter’s conviction must be more recent than mine.–Maybe, but this other was asking me to say masses when you still believed Dreyfus guilty.–Ah, I can see that it’s no one in our world.–On the contrary!–Really, there are Dreyfusits among us, are there? You intrigue me; I should like to unbosom myself to this rare bird, if it is someone I know.–It is.–What is his name ?–The Princess de  Guermantes.'” (IV,150)

 

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