Proust’s Ethics


Hindus evaluates Proust’s ethics through a study of the Dreyfus case and how he has each of his characters react to the case. He begins with the author himself by recounting an anecdote provided by his good friend, Léon Daudet, a prominent anti-Semite.

At the very height of the political conflict in 1901, in other words in the midst of the Dreyfus Case, Proust conceived the idea of giving a dinner party with sixty guests of various shades of opinion. Every piece of china was liable to be smashed. I sat next to a charming young person, looking like a portrait by Nattier or Largillière, , who, I afterwards learned, was the daughter of a prominent Jewish banker. Anatole France presided at the next table. The bitterest of enemies ate their chaud-froid within two yards of each other, for the currents of understanding and benevolence in Marcel flowed about the guests and enveloped them in coils. For the space of two hours, the greatest imaginable good-will reigned among the warriors. I doubt if anyone except Proust could have accomplished that feat. As I was complimenting the host on his achievement, he replied modestly: “But, monsieur, really, monsieur, it all depends on the first reaction to each other of the different characters.” I gathered that he realized the danger of his experiment and was pleased to see it succeed.” (218)

Proust, an ardent Dreyfusard, was no ideologue, a trait that allowed him to judge clearly the moral foundations of both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard. First, the ultra-assimilated Swann:

Something very deep within him is touched, though Proust emphasizes that it is not his sense of justice. From the extreme of not being conscious of any anti-Semitism at all in society, he goes to the opposite extreme of seeing it everywhere. He makes the blanket generalization to the narrator that the whole Faubourg Saint-Germain is against Dreyfus, because it is and always has been completely anti-Semitic, and he says this in spite of the most signal exceptions (such as that of the Prince de Guermantes…) which obtrude themselves on his notice. Now in making such a false generalization, Swann, in the eyes of Proust and of his reader, is acting no differently from an anti-Semite like Charlus, who says that all Jews are for Dreyfus because they always stick together and are a separate and alien nation in the midst of France. It is Charlus, we remember, who announces the precious discovery that Dreyfus couldn’t have committed treason, as he was charged with  doing, because it was Judea that was really his nation; towards France, he was guilty at most of a “breach of hospitality.”

Proust, as he reveals on many occasions in his book, believed almost mystically in the importance of heredity, and in Swann he seems to discover a belated return to his Hebraic ancestors. Swann is punished for the long suppression of the truth about himself by the heart-rending discovery that some of his best friends in life have been anti-Semites all the while. Even Odette, Swann’s wife, is an anti-Dreyfusard and owes her rise into society principally, it  seems, to this qualification, for she lacks any other. (226-227)

The Duc de Guermantes:

Each man went along with his crowd–he was either liberal or reactionary, Catholic or anticlerical–and few were brave or adequate enough morally to make  a deliberate effort to judge the facts for themselves and to adhere strictly to their independent findings. The worst example of conformity represented in the book is that of the most brutal character who can be found in its pages, the Duc de Guermentes…The Duc is automatically against Dreyfus, because he feels that that is what his position in society requires of him. He does not investigate the issues, he does not hesitate for a moment, he has no sensitivity to the question of justice….The final irony about him, such as only Proust seems capable of inventing, is that eventually, he too becomes a Dreyfusard! Not because of the promptings of conscience, but because, at a well-known watering places to which he had gone for his health, he met three noble ladies, who were all Dreyfusards. This coincidence convinces him, by the irrefutable arguments of both social rank and sex, that Dreyfusism, which he had previously regarded as an opinion held jointly by Jews and the riff raff of society, is in reality not merely a respectable opinion but even a smart one! (228)

The Prince de Guermantes:

The Prince de Guermantes, on the other hand, is one who neither makes up his mind by the expectations of his social class, nor perversely moves against it. It does not occur to him that certain views in such a matter are or are not smart…There is an ironic note ending the Prince’s story too. He has concealed his views…even from his family, from his own wife, only to discover by accident eventually that she, too, being evidently a match for her husband, had been subscribing secretly to L’Aurore, the Dreyfusard paper, and had been afraid to worry him by sharing her convictions with him! So we see Proust weaving his ethical commentary together with strands of ironic humor, all of which seems to have one purpose–to reveal the existence of conscientious people and of conscienceless ones, to show the sharp contrast of the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the sensitive and the insensitive. (229-230)

Bloch:

When it comes to such a mean, graceless, and unprincipled character as Bloch, the reader feels sure that the agreement of his views with the truth is entirely accidental. The Case simply presents to him an opportunity to better his intellectual fortunes, to reverse the whole social order perhaps. The last thing in the world that Bloch is concerned with is that which is most troublesome to the conscientious Prince de Guermantes–namely, the personal fate of Dreyfus and the human sufferings of his family. Proust shows us in the Dreyfus Case and later on in the war how social misfortunes are the lucky harvest seasons of the selfish and unscrupulous. (232-233)

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